October 11, 2017

Instant ADD COLUMN for InnoDB

MariaDB Server 10.3.2 alpha was released this week. For InnoDB, the new features coming in MariaDB Server 10.3 include CREATE SEQUENCE which is a logical continuation of the Persistent AUTO_INCREMENT that appeared in MariaDB Server 10.2.

Perhaps one of the most important InnoDB changes coming in MariaDB Server 10.3 is Instant ADD COLUMN for InnoDB tables. The design was brainstormed in April by engineers from MariaDB Corporation, Alibaba and Tencent. A prototype was developed by Vin Chen (陈福荣) from the Tencent Game DBA Team.

What is so special about this? Normally, adding a column to a table requires the full table to be rebuilt. The complexity of the operation is proportional to the size of the table, or O(n·m) where n is the number of rows in the table and m is the number of indexes. Sure, with my online ALTER TABLE for InnoDB tables in MySQL 5.6 and MariaDB Server 10.0, you would be able to modify the table while it is being rebuilt, but it would significantly increase the I/O and memory consumption and cause a replication lag. With instant ADD COLUMN, all that is needed is an O(log n) operation to insert a special hidden record into the table, and an update of the data dictionary. For a large table, instead of taking several hours, the operation would be completed in the blink of an eye. The ADD COLUMN operation is only slightly more expensive than a regular INSERT, due to locking constraints.

In the past, some developers may have implemented a kind of instant add column in the application by encoding multiple columns in a single TEXT or BLOB column. MariaDB Dynamic Columns was an early example of that. A more recent example is JSON and related string manipulation functions.

Adding real columns has the following advantages over encoding columns into a single expandable column:

  • Efficient storage in a native binary format
  • Data type safety
  • Indexes can be built natively
  • Constraints are available: UNIQUE, CHECK, FOREIGN KEY
  • DEFAULT values can be specified
  • Triggers can be written more easily

With instant ADD COLUMN, you can enjoy all the benefits of structured storage without the drawback of having to rebuild the table.

Instant ADD COLUMN is available for both old and new InnoDB tables. Basically you can just upgrade from MySQL 5.x or MariaDB and start adding columns instantly.


Instant ADD COLUMN only applies when the added columns appear last in the table. The place specifier LAST is the default. If AFTER col is specified, then col must be the last column, or the operation will require the table to be rebuilt.

If the table contains a hidden FTS_DOC_ID column due to FULLTEXT INDEX, then instant ADD COLUMN will not be possible.

If the table becomes empty (either via TRUNCATE or DELETE), the table will be converted to the old non-instant format.

Naturally, the operation is crash-safe. If the server is killed while instant ADD COLUMN was executing, the operation will be rolled back. If it was the very first instant ADD COLUMN operation, the table will be restored to the old non-instant format.

InnoDB data files after instant ADD COLUMN cannot be imported to older versions of MariaDB or MySQL. Any table-rebuilding operation such as ALTER TABLE…FORCE will convert the table to the old format.

For technical reasons, instant ADD COLUMN is not available for ROW_FORMAT=COMPRESSED, which is one of the formats that I created before MySQL 5.5.

A simple example of instant ADD COLUMN

INSERT INTO t(id,u) VALUES(1,1),(2,2),(3,3);
(d DATETIME DEFAULT current_timestamp(),
 t TEXT CHARSET utf8 DEFAULT 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog');
SELECT id,u,d,ST_AsText(p),t FROM t;

SELECT variable_value FROM information_schema.global_status
WHERE variable_name = 'innodb_instant_alter_column';

The above example illustrates that when the added columns are declared NOT NULL, a DEFAULT value must be available, either implied by the data type or set explicitly by the user. The expression need not be constant, but it must not refer to the columns of the table, such as DEFAULT u+1 (a MariaDB extension). The DEFAULT current_timestamp() would be evaluated at the time of the ALTER TABLE and apply to each row, like it does for non-instant ALTER TABLE. If a subsequent ALTER TABLE changes the DEFAULT value for subsequent INSERT, the values of the columns in existing records will naturally be unaffected.

You can download MariaDB Server 10.3.2 here. Note that MariaDB Server 10.3.2 is an alpha release. Please do not use it in production, but feel free to test it.

For now, ALTER TABLE…DROP COLUMN will require the table to be rebuilt. We are proud of the exciting contributions from the robust MariaDB community. Stay tuned for new improvements coming to MariaDB!

About Marko Mäkelä

Marko joined MariaDB in 2016. He has been developing InnoDB internals since 2003 when he joined Innobase Oy after completing his doctoral thesis on model checking concurrent and distributed systems.

Read all posts by Marko Mäkelä