Write-Ahead Logging (WAL) is a standard approach to transaction logging. Its detailed description may be found in most (if not all) books about transaction processing. Briefly, WAL's central concept is that changes to data files (where tables and indexes reside) must be written only after those changes have been logged, that is, when log records have been flushed to permanent storage. If we follow this procedure, we do not need to flush data pages to disk on every transaction commit, because we know that in the event of a crash we will be able to recover the database using the log: any changes that have not been applied to the data pages will first be redone from the log records (this is roll-forward recovery, also known as REDO) and then changes made by uncommitted transactions will be removed from the data pages (roll-backward recovery, UNDO).
The first obvious benefit of using WAL is a
significantly reduced number of disk writes, since only the log
file needs to be flushed to disk at the time of transaction
commit; in multiuser environments, commits of many transactions
may be accomplished with a single
the log file. Furthermore, the log file is written sequentially,
and so the cost of syncing the log is much less than the cost of
flushing the data pages.
The next benefit is consistency of the data pages. The truth is that, before WAL, PostgreSQL was never able to guarantee consistency in the case of a crash. Before WAL, any crash during writing could result in:
index rows pointing to nonexistent table rows
index rows lost in split operations
totally corrupted table or index page content, because of partially written data pages
Problems with indexes (problems 1 and 2) could possibly have been
fixed by additional
fsync() calls, but it is
not obvious how to handle the last case without
WAL; WAL saves the entire data
page content in the log if that is required to ensure page
consistency for after-crash recovery.