Using PostgreSQL's Hstore with Rails


Recently I implemented a piece of functionality that used PostgreSQL’s hstore data type in a Rails application and I’d like to share how we did it including some improvements you can make to use data stored as an hstore easier.

hstore is PostgreSQL data type similar to integer, date and text, but unlike these atomic data types hstore stores key/value pairs within a single PostgreSQL value.

Hashes/dictionaries are the most used data structure in computer science and programming so having them as a data type in a database is massively powerful with many use cases, e.g. dynamic columns.

Rails can actually already do this by adding a text field to a table and calling serialize like so:

class MyModel < ActiveRecord::Base
  serialize :field, Hash

The problem with this is that a field stored and serialized in this manner will not support indexing and lookups will be very slow. hstore on the other hand does support indexing.


Using hstore with rails today

Any Rails version < v4.0/master does not support hstore out of the box. Thankfully there’s a gem: activerecord-postgres-hstore that provides support. See the project’s README on GitHub for installation instructions.


Creating an entity

I’m going to create a person model that has a preferences field stored as an hstore.

rails g model Person name:string preferences:hstore

rake db:migrate

CREATE INDEX people_gin_preferences ON people USING GIN(preferences);

Storage and retrieval

Now we have our Person entity and we can use it with @travis.preferences["key"] like so, serialization/deserialization is handled for us:

require 'test_helper'

class PersonTest < ActiveSupport::TestCase
  def setup
    @travis = Person.create :name => "Travis Jeffery", :preferences => {"private?" => true, "location" => "Toronto, Ontario"}

  test "accessing preferences" do
    assert_equal true, @travis.preferences["private?"]
    assert_equal "Toronto, Ontario", @travis.preferences["location"]

Improving the api

This API is not very nice and has bad encapsulation, how much cooler would it be to be able to just use @travis.private? or @travis.location? Here’s how:

class Person < ActiveRecord::Base
  def method_missing(id, *args, &block)
    if preferences.has_key?(id.to_s)


PG::Error: ERROR: type "hstore" does not exist

Schema load/dump

One problem you may run into is when you try to rake db:test:prepare is that Rails will not be able to load the schema properly since it doesn’t support hstore yet, to fix this you can either dump to sql by uncommenting or adding to your application configuration in config/application.rb:

config.active_record.schema_format = :sql

Or make similar changes to what’s in master right now in a config/initializer or something and then delete that initializer when you upgrade to 4.0.

Add hstore to your template database

Another issue is that when you ran the migration to create the hstore data type to your database, it was only added to the database for your current environment.

This will be okay for development and production, but if you drop your test database and create it again you won’t have the hstore data type, so to fix this create the hstore data type on your template1 database:

psql -f PATH/hstore.sql -d template1

You can find this hstore.sql find usually within PostgreSQL’s contrib folder on your system.

Using hstore with rails in the future

Full support for hstore is in Rails master and will likely be in Rails v4.0. So if you’re on master you shouldn’t don’t need to worry about any these issues other than making sure your database does actually have the hstore data type. I would recommend improving the API and encapsulation as I’ve done above too.

It’s an exciting time to be PostgreSQL and Rails developer!

Further reading:

  • PostgreSQL’s reference documentation on hstore
  • More on PostgreSQL’s template databases and how creating a database in PostgreSQL works here.