Setting Up PostgreSQL Failover and Failback, the Right Way!

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Setting Up PostgreSQL Failover and Failback, the Right Way!


This blog was written to help beginners understand and set up server replication in PostgreSQL using failover and failback. Much of the information found online about this topic, while detailed, is out of date. Many changes have been made to how failover and failback are configured in recent versions of PostgreSQL. In this blog, I want to not only go over the steps on how to set up failover and failback but also the common pitfalls that may arise. Let’s start first with a brief definition of these recovery methods we will be using.


A failover operation is when either some unplanned error or planned maintenance occurs, we switch our main server over to the replica. This is typically done with a tool like pg_ctl promote. The main server is taken down and an up-to-date replica takes over as the new master. This allows for more availability in the case of failure of maintenance of the server. Once done the old main severe can be promoted back.


A failback operation is when we copy required data from a source to a target database to resume mirroring. This is to ensure both databases are synchronized so that mirroring can continue. This is typically issued after a Failover operation to restart mirroring in either direction, usually using a tool like pg_rewind.

Getting Started

For this tutorial, we will assume that you have PostgreSQL installed and know how to set up physical replication with streaming. All of these steps were performed using PostgreSQL 16 (development version) on Ubuntu 22.10. We use $HOME/pg/ as our working folder with $HOME/pg/data, $HOME/pg/rep and $HOME/pg/archive as our primary data, replica data and archive directory respectively.


Throughout this blog we will make reference to different stages of the primary and replica server. Due to the dynamic nature of the topic we are discussing this can get quite confusing as primary servers change to replicas and then back again. To remedy this I will briefly summarize the different names of the server states I use.

  • Primary/Main Server: This is the server that we begin with, the replica is made of this server. Later on, it is referred to as the “old main/primary” or “new replica/secondary/standby” server but it is still the same server.
  • Replica/Secondary/Standby Server: This server is the second one made, used to replicate the primary server. Later on, it is referred to as the “new main/primary” or “old replica/secondary/standby” server.

Using Failover and Failback to Restore a Database

Start off by creating a primary server. Before starting your primary server, add the following to your primary server’s postgresql.conf:

archive_mode = on
wal_level = hot_standby
max_wal_senders = 10
hot_standby = on
wal_log_hints = on
archive_command = 'cp %p $HOME/pg/archive/%f'
restore_command = 'cp $HOME/pg/archive/%f %p'

Once this is done continue with setting up the replication server like usual.

If you followed the replica server setup correctly then it should be in sync with the primary. Once this is confirmed, promote this standby server to become the main server.

$ pg_ctl promote -D $HOME/pg/rep
waiting for server to promote.... done
server promoted

Failover In Action

This is the Failover part of the process as the replica is now acting as the primary server. If our main database is corrupted or crashed, we can use our replica to ensure as little downtime as possible. But just because we set this replica as the main doesn’t mean our old main server isn’t still receiving requests. This is a real issue that can cause problems later on, so let’s add some data to simulate this happening so we can see how to fix it.

postgres=# insert into t1 values (7,8);
postgres=# select * from t1;
 a | b 
 1 | 2
 3 | 4
 5 | 6
 7 | 8
(4 rows)

Checking the new main server hasn’t been altered:

postgres=# select * from t1;
 a | b 
 1 | 2
 3 | 4
 5 | 6
(3 rows)

So we can see the servers are now out of sync. PostgreSQL often says that their “timelines” have “diverged”. Let’s shutdown the old main server:

$ pg_ctl -D $HOME/pg/data stop
waiting for server to shut down.... done
server stopped

Then we need to update the old main server’s postgresql.conf file:

recovery_target_timeline = 'latest'
primary_conninfo = 'user=postgres host=localhost port=5433'
primary_slot_name = 'main'
port = 5432

The slot “main” does not exist yet, so we will create it in the new main server:

$ psql -d postgres -U postgres -c "select * from pg_create_physical_replication_slot('main');" -p 5433
 slot_name | lsn 
 main      | 
(1 row)

$ psql -d postgres -U postgres -p 5433 -c "select * from pg_replication_slots;" -x
-[ RECORD 1 ]-------+---------
slot_name           | main
plugin              | 
slot_type           | physical
datoid              | 
database            | 
temporary           | f
active              | f
active_pid          | 
xmin                | 
catalog_xmin        | 
restart_lsn         | 
confirmed_flush_lsn | 
wal_status          | 
safe_wal_size       | 
two_phase           | f

Also, don’t forget that our old main is the new standby so we have to create a dummy standby.signal file.

$ touch $HOME/pg/data/standby.signal

Now let’s try and start up the old main server:

$ pg_ctl -D $HOME/pg/data start
waiting for server to start....2023-04-03 11:43:00.115 PDT [69830] LOG:  starting PostgreSQL 16devel on x86_64-pc-linux-gnu, compiled by gcc (Ubuntu 12.2.0-3ubuntu1) 12.2.0, 64-bit
2023-04-03 11:43:00.115 PDT [69830] LOG:  listening on IPv4 address "", port 5432
2023-04-03 11:43:00.116 PDT [69830] LOG:  listening on Unix socket "/tmp/.s.PGSQL.5432"
2023-04-03 11:43:00.118 PDT [69833] LOG:  database system was shut down in recovery at 2023-04-03 11:42:38 PDT
cp: cannot stat '/home/tristen/pg/archive/00000002.history': No such file or directory
cp: cannot stat '/home/tristen/pg/archive/00000003.history': No such file or directory
2023-04-03 11:43:00.120 PDT [69833] LOG:  entering standby mode
cp: cannot stat '/home/tristen/pg/archive/00000002.history': No such file or directory
cp: cannot stat '/home/tristen/pg/archive/000000020000000000000003': No such file or directory
cp: cannot stat '/home/tristen/pg/archive/000000010000000000000003': No such file or directory
2023-04-03 11:43:00.122 PDT [69833] FATAL:  requested timeline 2 is not a child of this server's history
2023-04-03 11:43:00.122 PDT [69833] DETAIL:  Latest checkpoint is at 0/3000508 on timeline 1, but in the history of the requested timeline, the server forked off from that timeline at 0/30002E0.
2023-04-03 11:43:00.123 PDT [69830] LOG:  startup process (PID 69833) exited with exit code 1
2023-04-03 11:43:00.123 PDT [69830] LOG:  aborting startup due to startup process failure
2023-04-03 11:43:00.123 PDT [69830] LOG:  database system is shut down
 stopped waiting
pg_ctl: could not start server
Examine the log output.

Uh-oh, looks like our server can’t start! Pay close attention to this line in particular:

2023-04-03 11:43:00.122 PDT [69833] FATAL:  requested timeline 2 is not a child of this server's history

Failback In Action

This indicates that our old main server cannot start as a replica of the new main because they are out of sync. How do we get them back into sync? This is where the Failback portion comes in! First, we have to ensure that our archive is restored. We can either rely on our restore_command or do it manually like so:

cp -n $HOME/pg/archive/* $HOME/pg/data/pg_wal/

pg_rewind will not work unless we have the correct archives restored. Once that is done, we can rewind, restoring our old main to its original condition. Be careful, as this will delete any data on the old main after it diverged and also copy over the postgres.conf file of the new main. So if you have specific ports or configs you want to use remember to change them after issuing pg_rewind.

$ pg_rewind --target-pgdata=data --source-server="port=5433 user=postgres dbname=postgres"
pg_rewind: servers diverged at WAL location 0/3000000 on timeline 1
pg_rewind: rewinding from last common checkpoint at 0/2000060 on timeline 1
pg_rewind: Done!

We’ll also add the following to our postgresql.conf because it was overwritten by the new main:

primary_slot_name = 'main'
recovery_target_timeline = 'latest'
primary_conninfo = 'user=postgres host=localhost port=5433 sslmode=prefer sslcompression=0 gssencmode=disable target_session_attrs=any'
port = 5432

And to

primary_conninfo = 'user=postgres host=localhost port=5433 sslmode=prefer sslcompression=0 gssencmode=disable target_session_attrs=any'
port = 5432

Now we should be able to start the old main server:

$ pg_ctl -D $HOME/pg/data -l data.log start
waiting for server to start.... done
server started

Once started, let’s check to make sure its contents are actually rolled back:

$ psql -d postgres -c "select * from t1;"
 a | b 
 1 | 2
 3 | 4
 5 | 6
(3 rows)

As we can see the tuple (7,8) that was inserted after the replica was promoted is no longer in the table. Therefore, our database was successfully rolled back.

Now our old main server is in sync with the new main server and can be used as a replica. If your old main server is not syncing with the new main server this could be due to in our old main server’s data directory. This file overwrites what we placed into postgresql.conf with some defaults, so either delete this file or append the correct primary_conninfo and port number to it.

Restoring the Old Main Server

Now let’s say we want to restore our old main server (the current replica) to be the main server of the cluster (as it was originally). If we don’t write any data to our current main server after we promote the replica, then this is simple as we won’t need pg_rewind.

So first, stop the new main server:

$ pg_ctl -D $HOME/pg/rep stop

Then promote the new replica:

$ pg_ctl -D $HOME/pg/data promote

Don’t forget to add the standby.signal dummy file to the original replica:

$ touch $HOME/pg/rep/standby.signal

Now, let’s start up the replica:

$ pg_ctl -D $HOME/pg/rep -l rep.log start

We should see the following line somewhere in our logfile to let us know that this replica server has started in standby mode:

2023-04-04 14:30:04.532 PDT [48562] LOG:  entering standby mode

But before we can use the replica server we have to update our replica slots. Specifically, we need to create a replica slot on our old main serve and drop the existing “main” replica slot on the old replica server.

$ psql -U postgres -c "select * from pg_create_physical_replication_slot('replica');" -p 5432
$ psql -U postgres -c "select * from pg_drop_replication_slot('main');" -p 5433

Now we should see any values inserted into our original primary database be replicated in the original replica server, just like they were before!

$ psql -d postgres -c "insert into t1 values (0,0);" -p 5432
$ psql -d postgres -c "select * from t1;" -p 5433
 a | b  
 1 |  2
 3 |  4
 5 |  6
 9 | 10
 0 |  0
(5 rows)

And that’s it! We’ve successfully recovered our original database by first falling back to a replica, restoring the primary, turning the primary into a replica for the server that replaced it, then restoring the primary to its original state.


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