Actually Understanding Timezones in PostgreSQL

By Chris Clark, 08/12/2016, in Code & tutorials

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Timezones are the worst. We should all just live in UTC, reasonable sunset hours be damned. And learning about timezone implementation details is incredibly boring and esoteric1, so most developers are not inclined to figure out what the hell is actually going on until they really need to. Like me, yesterday, when my slightly-imprecise understanding of how PostgreSQL handles timezones ended with a nervous breakdown at my desk, and the marketing department looking very concerned.

My query results seemed impossible! Down was up, up was down, Pacific Time suddenly had no meaning, and I imagined a bunch of National Time Service officials in Greenwhich sniggering at me.

But it turns out all is indeed right with the world, everything makes sense, and I totally know what's going on, now. Follow along (you just need the ability to run SQL on PostgreSQL) and join me in the basking glow of timezone comprehension.

If you make it all the way through, I promise you'll know enough to puzzle out any Postgres timezone question you may have - with the exception of my mystery question at the end, which is totally insane and inexplicable.

Easy Sample Data

To start, let's make a test table. Easy.

CREATE TABLE test
(
    ts_naked timestamp without time zone,
    ts_tz timestamp with time zone
);

One tz-unaware timestamp field, and one that knows about timezones. We'll unpack what "knows about timezones" means shortly.

And I'll also assume you have a PostgreSQL server, with a default of UTC time, via the timezone parameter into postgresql.conf being set like this: timezone = 'UTC'.

Insertin' Stuff

Let the fun begin! Let's first insert some data:

INSERT INTO
    test (ts_naked, ts_tz)
VALUES
    (TIMESTAMP '2016-08-12 10:22:31.949271-07',
    TIMESTAMP WITH TIME ZONE '2016-08-12 10:22:31.949271-07',);

Note that both of the inserted values have a -07 at the end, indicating a -7 hour offset from UTC, which, given that I'm writing this in California (normally a -08 offset), in August, means that daylight savings time is in effect, thus changing my local UTC offset by an hour, to UTC-07. Phew. Ok. We're doing great.

But wait a minute! I just inserted an offset time zone into BOTH my 'naked' timestamp field (that doesn't know about timezones) and the tz-aware field. So what happens when I get the data back out?

#=> SELECT * FROM test;
          ts_naked          |             ts_tz
----------------------------+-------------------------------
 2016-08-12 10:22:31.949271 | 2016-08-12 17:22:31.949271+00

Hm, ok. So basically the naked timezone just took the inserted timestamp at face value and wrote it on in. It completely ignored the -07 at the end. And yep, that makes sense. The PostgreSQL docs confirm it:

PostgreSQL never examines the content of a literal string before determining its type, and therefore will treat both of the above as timestamp without time zone. To ensure that a literal is treated as timestamp with time zone, give it the correct explicit type:

It's not enough to provide the -07 at the end, you need to actually say TIMESTAMP WITH TIME ZONE. But also note that postgres did not save the timezone information for the tz-aware field; this is a really important distinction. Postgres TIMESTAMP WITH TIME ZONE fields do not actually store any TZ info, they just expect TZ info to be present when the fields are written to. Under the covers, Postgres converts it to UTC and internally says "yep, great, I am confident that I am storing this timestamp, normalized to UTC". With that confidence, Postgres can now perform any timezone conversion you'd like. But there's no way to ever retrieve the fact that I originally sent down a timestamp with a UTC-07 offset; that information is gone forever.

Readin' Stuff

Right, so we have data, let's get it back out and see what happens.

First, let's deal with our stupid ts_naked field. It's pretty easy to understand. When we wrote to it, it interpreted the timestamp as literal, and basically just burned it straight into the database. So, no surprise, bad shit happens when you try to use it with timezones:

#=> select ts_naked AT TIME ZONE 'America/Los_Angeles' from test;
           timezone
-------------------------------
 2016-08-12 17:22:31.949271+00

#=> select ts_naked AT TIME ZONE 'UTC' from test;
           timezone
-------------------------------
 2016-08-12 10:22:31.949271+00

Yeah...that's pretty wacky. Postgres has no idea wtf time you actually stored, so it just treats it as whatever the current server timezone is (UTC in our case, from setting timezone in the postgresql.conf file), applies the offsets you requested, and kinda throws up its hands and gives up by returning a timestamp without an offset (as indicated by the +00). So that's not very useful. Don't use timestamps without time zones in PostgreSQL. There, easy.

It's also worth noting at this point that Postgres will let you apply AT TIME ZONE conversions to date fields. I think this is nuts and Postgres should at least throw up a warning, as it's very weird to request a date at a specific timezone and get a totally different date. Thursday August 18th is Thursday August 18th in every time zone; but instead Postgres will sneakily cast it to a datetime, assume midnight, do the TZ conversion, and return a datetime. Check it out:

#=> SELECT ('July 1, 2015'::date AT TIME ZONE 'America/Los_Angeles')::date;
  timezone
------------
 2015-06-30

I mean...come on.

Ok, enough with things you shouldn't do, let's focus on the interesting one. It behaves like you'd hope...for now.

#=> select ts_tz AT TIME ZONE 'UTC' from test;
          timezone
----------------------------
 2016-08-12 17:22:31.949271


#=> select ts_tz AT TIME ZONE 'America/Los_Angeles' from test;
          timezone
----------------------------
 2016-08-12 10:22:31.949271

Great. We can select our data, and request it in any time zone we want, and nothing weird happens. Although...there is one surprise. Note that we actually did not get any timezone information back from these queries; there's not offset at the end of the timestamps. Postgres returned a TIMESTAMP WITHOUT TIME ZONE!

By requesting the data in a particular timezone, Postgres says "you know the offset, since you just asked for it, so I don't need to give it you". There's no offset specified at the end of the timestamp. I don't particularly like this; we're returning ambiguous information over the wire that we might want later on. Let's try something else.

Recall that a plain-old query will in fact give us a TZ-aware timestamp, in the server time:

#=> select ts_tz from test;
             ts_tz
-------------------------------
 2016-08-12 17:22:31.949271+00

But check this out!

#=> SET timezone='America/Los_Angeles';
#=> select ts_tz from test;
             ts_tz
-------------------------------
 2016-08-12 10:22:31.949271-07

Whaaaaaa??! It turns out that every Postgres session has its own time zone. Whoa. The 'timezone' setting that we specified in the postgresql.conf file actually just provides a default timezone value to every session, nothing more than that.

And this is where it's easy to get very surprised. For instance, when Django connects to Postgres, it 'ensures timezone' and slaps the application time zone onto the psycopg2 connection so you get back timestamps in the same timezone you put them in (assuming you are inserting local times).

That's clever, but can lead to incredibly confusion if you are trying to compare results from the same database, but via 2 different connections, which are set to two different time zones. You can always check the current session TZ via SELECT current_setting('TIMEZONE'); or show timezone;.

Isn't this fun??

Offsettin' Stuff

For extra confusion, Postgres will happily let you do this:

#=> select ts_tz AT TIME ZONE 'PST' from test;
         timezone
----------------------------
 2016-08-12 09:22:31.949271

Which may not look confusing, but I promise it is because 'PST' is not actually a timezone! And I can prove it. Postgres keeps a list of all the timezones it knows in a view called pg_timezone_names:

#=> select count(*) from pg_timezone_names;
count
-------
 1204

Holy smokes that's a lot of timezones! Over 1200 of these:

#=> select * from pg_timezone_names order by random() limit 10;
         name         | abbrev | utc_offset | is_dst
----------------------+--------+------------+--------
 Kwajalein            | MHT    | 12:00:00   | f
 posix/W-SU           | MSK    | 03:00:00   | f
 posix/Europe/Vaduz   | CEST   | 02:00:00   | t
 posix/Pacific/Niue   | NUT    | -11:00:00  | f
 Asia/Ashkhabad       | TMT    | 05:00:00   | f
 posix/Australia/LHI  | LHST   | 10:30:00   | f
 posix/Pacific/Tarawa | GILT   | 12:00:00   | f
 posix/America/Adak   | HDT    | -09:00:00  | t
 America/Vancouver    | PDT    | -07:00:00  | t
 Asia/Hovd            | HOVST  | 08:00:00   | t

And not a PST among them:

#=> select * from pg_timezone_names where name='PST';
name | abbrev | utc_offset | is_dst
------+--------+------------+--------
(0 rows)

But it is this other thing, called an 'abbreviation':

#=> select * from pg_timezone_names where abbrev='PST';
          name          | abbrev | utc_offset | is_dst
------------------------+--------+------------+--------
 Pacific/Pitcairn       | PST    | -08:00:00  | f
 posix/Pacific/Pitcairn | PST    | -08:00:00  | f
 posix/SystemV/PST8     | PST    | -08:00:00  | f
 SystemV/PST8           | PST    | -08:00:00  | f

So all of those time zones are the same, and can be abbreviated 'PST'. Note that our friend America/Los_Angeles does not appear here because it takes daylight savings time into account, whereas PST does not and is a true UTC-08 offset.

Most of time this doesn't matter, but it can definitely bite you. For instance (in fact, the issue that motivated this entire post), I wrote a bunch of queries that reported on the number of customer membership renewals each month. These queries all did AT TIME ZONE 'PST' conversions. Our membership renewal process runs at 11:00pm, nightly. We're setting up a new BI tool, and I set the session time zone to Pacific/Los_Angeles, not thinking too hard about it. Well, guess what? For seven months out of the year, that time zone and PST differ by an hour. And 11pm is within 1 hour of midnight. So all of these renewals were suddenly and inexplicably shifted forward by one day.

Recap

That's pretty much it! To recap:

  1. Use only TIMESTAMP WITH TIME ZONE fields.
  2. Remember that Postgres doesn't store time zones; it just normalizes tz-aware timestamps to UTC.
  3. Know what time zone your session is using. It might be set deep in your application code, or in a config file, or in an env var. For your own sanity, make sure all connections to a given database use the same session time zone.
  4. Rely on your session's time zone when possible, rather than using AT TIME ZONE operators in your queries.
  5. Don't ever use AT TIME ZONE transformations on date fields. Only on datetime fields, if at all.
  6. Be aware that offsets and time zones are not the same. Most of the time it doesn't matter, until it suddenly does.

If you want to know even more, I do actually recommend section 8.5.3 of the PostgreSQL documentation. As far as database server technical docs goes, it's pretty entertaining. And if that isn't a strong enough endorsement, then maybe I can tempt you with some gleaned trivia: One reason PostgreSQL does not recommend using simple TIME WITH TIME ZONE (e.g. a time with no date component) is because Moscow's MSK offset means UTC+3 in certain years, and UTC+4 in other years.

Oof.

A Final Mystery

I really do feel like I understand how Postgres handles timezones, and it's all pretty sensible once you know how it works. Except for one lingering mystery. Check this out:

#=> select * from pg_timezone_names where utc_offset='-08:00:00' and is_dst=false;
          name          | abbrev | utc_offset | is_dst
------------------------+--------+------------+--------
 Etc/GMT+8              | GMT+8  | -08:00:00  | f
 Pacific/Pitcairn       | PST    | -08:00:00  | f
 posix/Etc/GMT+8        | GMT+8  | -08:00:00  | f
 posix/Pacific/Pitcairn | PST    | -08:00:00  | f
 posix/SystemV/PST8     | PST    | -08:00:00  | f
 SystemV/PST8           | PST    | -08:00:00  | f

Look at those two extra timezones! Look at their names and abbreviations! They are UTC-08 offsets, but named GMT+8?? GMT and UTC are the same thing! Google could literally not be more categorical about this fact:

google-says-so

But apparently Postgres thinks they are opposites. Or something. If anyone can explain this in the comments, I'd really appreciate it. Thanks!

edit Mystery solved! A very careful reading of section 8.5.3 reveals the secret:

Another issue to keep in mind is that in POSIX time zone names, positive offsets are used for locations west of Greenwich. Everywhere else, PostgreSQL follows the ISO-8601 convention that positive timezone offsets are east of Greenwich.

That is unfortunate.

Footnotes

1: Don't believe me? The actual Postgres time zone documentation opens with this confidence-inspiring passage:

Time zones, and time-zone conventions, are influenced by political decisions, not just earth geometry. Time zones around the world became somewhat standardized during the 1900s, but continue to be prone to arbitrary changes

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