What is pgvector and How Can It Help You?

November 03, 2023

There are a thousand ways (likely more) you can accelerate Postgres workloads. It all comes down to the way you store data, query data, how big your data is and how often you run those queries. In this blog post we’ll explore how pgvector can help with AI-based workloads in Postgres, making your database vector operations faster and more efficient.

pgvector: Storing and querying vectors in Postgres

pgvector is a PostgreSQL extension that allows you to store, query and index vectors.

Postgres does not yet have native vector capabilities (as of Postgres 16) and pgvector is designed to fill this gap. You can store your vector data alongside the rest of your data in Postgres and do vector similarity search while still utilizing all the great features Postgres provides.

Who needs vector similarity search?

When working with high-dimensional data, especially in applications like recommendation engines, image search and natural language processing, vector similarity search is a critical capability. Many AI applications involve finding similar items or recommendations based on user behavior or content similarity. pgvector can perform vector similarity searches efficiently, making it suitable for recommendation systems, content-based filtering, and similarity-based AI tasks.

The pgvector extension integrates seamlessly with Postgres – allowing users to leverage its capabilities within their existing database infrastructure. This simplifies the deployment and management of AI applications, as there's no need for separate data stores or complex data transfer processes.

What is a vector exactly?

In short, vectors are just lists of numbers. If you ever took a linear algebra course, this is the time to reap the benefits as similarity search is doing a bunch of vector operations after all!

In geometry a vector represents a coordinate in an n-dimensional space, where n is the number of dimensions. In the image below there is a two dimensional vector (n=2). In machine learning, we use high dimensional vectors and it is not as easy to imagine those as the simple vector shown below.

Image source: https://media5.datahacker.rs/2020/03/Picture36-1-768x712.jpg

Time for an example:

In this example we will store a few documents, generate vector embeddings and store them in Postgres. We will index the embeddings data and run a similarity query on our embeddings.

Here’s the code for the example we’re discussing here:



  • PostgreSQL installed (pgvector supports PostgreSQL 11+)
  • pgvector extension installed (see installation notes)
  • OpenAPI account and have some credit balance (uses less than $1).

Once pgvector is installed you can enable it in your Postgres database by creating the extension:

postgres=# Create extension vector;

Step 1: Create a table for documents

Let’s create a simple table to store documents. Each row in this table represents a document and we store the title and the content of the document.

Create documents table:

CREATE TABLE documents (
    id int PRIMARY KEY,
    title text NOT NULL,
    content TEXT NOT NULL

For each document we store, we will generate an embedding and here we create a document_embeddings table to store those. You can see the embedding vector has a size of 1536, that’s because the OpenAI model we are using has 1536 dimensions.

-- Create document_embeddings table
CREATE TABLE document_embeddings (
    id int PRIMARY KEY,
    embedding vector(1536) NOT NULL

Let’s index our data using the HNSW index.

CREATE INDEX document_embeddings_embedding_idx ON document_embeddings USING hnsw (embedding vector_l2_ops);

I will be talking about indexing in vector databases in my next blog post, so I won’t go too much into detail here but we know HNSW has better query performance than IVFFlat. 

Also for IVFFlat index, it is recommended to create the index after the table has some data but HNSW index there is no training step like IVFFlat, so the index can be created without any data in the table. You might have noticed that I created the index before inserting data into the table following the suggestion.

Now we can insert some sample data into the table. For this example, I chose Postgres extensions and their short descriptions.

-- Insert documents into documents table
INSERT INTO documents VALUES ('1', 'pgvector', 'pgvector is a PostgreSQL extension that provides support for vector similarity search and nearest neighbor search in SQL.');
INSERT INTO documents VALUES ('2', 'pg_similarity', 'pg_similarity is a PostgreSQL extension that provides similarity and distance operators for vector columns.');
INSERT INTO documents VALUES ('3', 'pg_trgm', 'pg_trgm is a PostgreSQL extension that provides functions and operators for determining the similarity of alphanumeric text based on trigram matching.');
INSERT INTO documents VALUES ('4', 'pg_prewarm', 'pg_prewarm is a PostgreSQL extension that provides functions for prewarming relation data into the PostgreSQL buffer cache.');

Step 2: Generate Embeddings

Now that we have our documents stored, we will use an embedding model to convert our documents into embeddings.

Image source: https://cdn.openai.com/new-and-improved-embedding-model/draft-20221214a/vectors-1.svg

But first, let’s talk about embeddings. I like the definition from OpenAI docs the best, because it’s simple and on-point: 

“An embedding is a vector (list) of floating point numbers. The distance between two vectors measures their relatedness. Small distances suggest high relatedness and large distances suggest low relatedness.”

So, if we are to compare how related two documents are semantically, we would then have to transform those documents into embeddings and run similarity searches on them.

For this example, I used OpenAI API and Python. There is a choice of API providers and you can use these APIs from the language of your choice. For its simplicity and due to my prior experience with it, I picked OpenAI API and Python is my preferred language.The embedding model used in the example is the “text-embedding-ada-002” which is going to work well for our use case as it is cheap and simple to use. You may need to evaluate different models depending on your specific use case when using this in real-world applications.

Let’s start. For the Python code below, you will need to obtain your OpenAI API key, and fill out the connection string to connect to your Postgres database.

# Python code to preprocess and embed documents
import openai
import psycopg2

# Load OpenAI API key
openai.api_key = "sk-..." #YOUR OWN API KEY

# Pick the embedding model
model_id = "text-embedding-ada-002"

# Connect to PostgreSQL database
conn = psycopg2.connect(database="postgres", user="gulcin.jelinek", host="localhost", port="5432")

# Fetch documents from the database
cur = conn.cursor()
cur.execute("SELECT id, content FROM documents")
documents = cur.fetchall()

# Process and store embeddings in the database
for doc_id, doc_content in documents:
    embedding = openai.Embedding.create(input=doc_content, model=model_id)['data'][0]['embedding']
    cur.execute("INSERT INTO document_embeddings (id, embedding) VALUES (%s, %s);", (doc_id, embedding))

# Commit and close the database connection

This code simply fetches document contents from the database and uses OpenAI API to generate embeddings and stores them back in the database. This is fine for our tiny database, but in a real world scenario you would want to use batching on existing data and possibly some kind of event trigger or change streaming to keep the vectors up to date as the database changes.

Step 3: Querying Embeddings

Now that we have stored embeddings in the database, we can query them using pgvector. The code below shows how you can perform a similarity search to find documents similar to a given query document.

# Python code to preprocess and embed documents
import psycopg2

# Connect to PostgreSQL database
conn = psycopg2.connect(database="postgres", user="gulcin.jelinek", host="localhost", port="5432")

cur = conn.cursor()
# Fetch extensions that are similar to pgvector based on their descriptions
query = """
WITH pgv AS (
    SELECT embedding
      FROM document_embeddings JOIN documents USING (id)
     WHERE title = 'pgvector'
SELECT title, content
  FROM document_embeddings
  JOIN documents USING (id)
 WHERE embedding <-> (SELECT embedding FROM pgv) < 0.5;"""

# Fetch results
results = cur.fetchall()

# Print results in a nice format
for doc_title, doc_content in results:
    print(f"Document title: {doc_title}")
    print(f"Document text: {doc_content}")

The query first fetches embeddings vector for the document titled “pgvector” and then uses the similarity search to get documents with similar content. Note the `<->` operator, that’s where all the pgvector magic happens. It’s how we get similarity between two vectors using our HNSW index. The `0.5` is a similarity threshold that is going to be highly dependent on the use-case and requires fine tuning in real-world applications.

Time for results

When we run our query script on the data we imported, we see that similarity search found two documents similar to pgvector, one of them being the pgvector itself.

❯ python3 query.py
Document title: pgvector
Document text: pgvector is a PostgreSQL extension that provides support for vector similarity search and nearest neighbor search in SQL.

Document title: pg_similarity
Document text: pg_similarity is a PostgreSQL extension that provides similarity and distance operators for vector columns.

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BigAnimal is EDB’s managed Postgres service that allows you to run Postgres on all major cloud platforms. Now, you can enable pgvector on your databases and start experimenting! 

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