John Pauler

MySQL and PostgreSQL are both leading database technologies built on a foundation of SQL: Structured Query Language. SQL forms the basis of how to create, access, update, and otherwise interact with data stored in a relational database. While MySQL has been the most popular platform for many years, PostgreSQL is another major contender. Many database administrators and developers will know both technologies, which are much more similar than they are different. You can learn more about the history of SQL and how the various “flavors” came to be by watching this brief video:

Depending on what you’re trying to create, the data you’re trying to manage, and your own background as a programmer or analyst, you may find one language preferable over the other. But in terms of popularity and marketability, both are widely used, with MySQL maintaining the advantage here. Compared to PostgreSQL, MySQL has the largest market share and, therefore, the most job opportunities.

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Here’s what you need to know about MySQL vs. PostgreSQL — the differences, benefits, and disadvantages — as well as some basic information about SQL and database platforms.

What is SQL? Learning standard SQL syntax

Both MySQL and PostgreSQL are implementations of SQL. Syntactically, they are almost identical. I often tell students the syntax is roughly 95% similar, with minor differences. Despite this, many consider PostgreSQL to be a more advanced database than MySQL — while MySQL is easier, has a lower barrier to entry, and greater levels of adoption.

Notably, PostgreSQL supports partial, bitmap, and expression indexes. It also provides for table inheritance and materialized views. PostgreSQL is an object-based relational database rather than just a relational database, and many of its advanced features relate to this. However, many developers and analysts will never need these advanced features.

That being said, the SQL used in MySQL and PostgreSQL will be nearly identical in terms of syntax. That means that anyone learning SQL will be able to use both products — it’s merely a question of what features and customizations are available to them. Someone who is trying to create data, query data, or delete data from either platform will be writing the exact same queries in most cases, with minor variations in syntax being the exception and not the rule. For example, the “Big 6” of SQL will be exactly the same across both MySQL and PostgreSQL, as well as other syntax languages: 

Many developers and analysts use MySQL first because it does have a lower barrier to entry and is very intuitive. There is nothing stopping developers from then moving onto PostgreSQL if they find themselves in need of those features. In fact, almost all of the concepts and query syntax learned in MySQL will be transferable to PostgreSQL or any of the other SQL platforms if you end up switching later on, like I did when changing employers. Advanced data types, such as arrays, hstore, and user-defined types, may be important for some developers — but may be entirely non-essential for others.

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It is important to remember that both MySQL and PostgreSQL are SQL products — with all the advantages and drawbacks this engenders. Both will be vulnerable to SQL injection, a common hacking technique. Both will use the same general syntax, protocols, and best practices. Having a non-standard form of database management can protect from SQL injection (which involves trying to run SQL statements in an unanticipated fashion through an application), but that may not be enough of a reason to choose an alternative SQL product.

The differences between MySQL and PostgreSQL

PostgreSQL first launched in 1996, and MySQL debuted in 1995. While similar in age, MySQL has been more popular for a significant amount of time. This is due to its accessibility as well as its status as an open-source solution; PostgreSQL only became open-source later.

For the most part, the advantages of PostgreSQL are its greater control and customization of data sets, support for many languages, advanced security features, geo-tagging support, and superior resource management and load balancing. PostgreSQL is also known to be more standards-compliant. These are important features for large, enterprise-grade applications and proprietary software. But it’s not necessary for most situations — just areas in which data warehousing and data integrity are particularly important. 

In MySQL’s corner, the advantages are being fast, easy, and reliable. MySQL has an extensive amount of documentation and a very large community. It can be used for small and large applications alike and is extremely scalable. Learning MySQL makes for an easy entry point to SQL, and means that someone can move onto PostgreSQL or other SQL variations easily in the future. MySQL is well-supported by many programming languages and particularly popular with web applications.

Right now, developers build 15.04 percent of their web applications on MySQL, and 5.2 percent on PostgreSQL, making MySQL about three times more popular. Popularity matters for a few reasons, including the availability of documentation, career options, and third-party support.

Object-relational databases vs. relational databases

PostgreSQL is an object-relational database, whereas MySQL is a purely relational database. An object-relational database has object support — it is object-oriented in much the same way an object-oriented language is. Thus, PostgreSQL supports advanced features such as inheritance while MySQL does not. 

While MySQL doesn’t support inheritance, not every web application requires it. Furthermore, there are ways to model inheritance or support inheritance through code rather than directly through the database. Developers who want to work through MySQL with object-relational functionality and inheritance will need to program this in, but it still can be done — it just isn’t inherent with the platform.

Apart from inheritance, the object-oriented approach and some advanced security features, the majority of how PostgreSQL interacts with data is identical to MySQL. Both PostgreSQL and MySQL will work essentially the same, using a SQL server and client along with modules for language support. Many developers and analysts would almost never notice any difference between the two platforms. 

Developing new web applications with MySQL or PostgreSQL

At the end of the day, most developers and analysts will support getting a project finished rather than getting it perfect. MySQL is easier to use and generally quicker to finish a project. Comparatively, new developers and analysts may find PostgreSQL’s learning curve too steep. PostgreSQL support may also not be as robust or active compared to the MySQL database community.

MySQL can be easily installed either as a standalone product or as a stack, such as the LAMP stack. As of late, most web hosting packages come with MySQL databases included, which you can also get through platforms such as phpMyAdmin.

With PostgreSQL, it’s more likely that you would need to run a virtual server and install PostgreSQL yourself, or you might need to set up a development machine. MySQL has the advantage here in terms of accessibility for new developers and analysts.

That’s not to say that PostgreSQL can’t be the ideal solution for a given application, especially resource-intensive applications that may benefit from greater levels of security and superior load balancing. But MySQL does tend to be more accessible because it is more available.

In addition to the platform itself, you will also need to consider what third-party applications and integrations you need for your infrastructure. For instance, you may already be developing an application that has some reliance or dependencies on MySQL technology. This is often more likely than PostgreSQL because MySQL is so popular within the open-source development community.

Of course, you should also note that MySQL and PostgreSQL aren’t the only two solutions. Today, many Windows servers also come with Microsoft SQL, which has been catching up significantly in market share over the past decade. Still, for most developers (especially startups and solo developers), MySQL will be the most popular choice. Microsoft SQL is proprietary and therefore more expensive. You can use MySQL for free.

Hosting your own database servers

In addition to paying for shared hosting, developers can also use Virtual Private Servers (VPS) or dedicated servers to run their SQL installations. Through a VPS or dedicated server, you’ll be able to control every element of your installation and your configuration. You can install the operating system, SQL platform, and compilers you need. A VPS or dedicated server is by far the more advanced option, but it’s also an excellent way to maintain complete control.

When you have more freedom with your servers, you can also make different choices for your back-end database and operating systems. While most hosting services come with MySQL, you might be more interested in Microsoft SQL or PostgreSQL. 

In addition to a VPS or dedicated server, developers can also work on their own machines rather than going through a hosting service at all, but this generally isn’t a long-term solution.

For beginners, using MySQL through a hosting service is usually more advantageous. Under managed hosting services, MySQL will automatically update for you, which will improve your security. And your hosting service will have balanced your technology, software, and hardware to provide better protection and performance. Further, it’s simpler; hosts have automated services designed to perform a significant amount of management for you.

If you have a hosting package, you should make sure that MySQL or PostgreSQL will work with the resources allotted. If they don’t have the minimum server requirements or the right technology, your installation may not work. 

The advantage of hosting your own services or taking control over your hosting is that you have greater levels of flexibility and control. But the disadvantage is that it will take more time, and you won’t be able to automate as many of the services that could keep your server safe from potential intrusion.

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Working with open-source projects in MySQL and PostgreSQL

Originally, only MySQL was open-source. But today, even Microsoft has started to embrace open-source solutions. PostgreSQL became open-source within the last decade. Open-source technologies have a lot of advantages: They have broader communities, are more transparent, and are often better secured. With an open-source solution, the source code is available for everyone to look at and improve upon.

Open-source technology is free, which means businesses can use MySQL and PostgreSQL for development without having to pay. That doesn’t, however, mean that there aren’t paid hosting services or paid options. Open-source technology often has far more third-party applications, modules, modifications, and utilities because developers can freely develop for it.

MySQL is a leading database engine in no small part because it has been a leading open-source solution for a very long time. MySQL also has several security elements and redundancy options to protect data, even under a physical crash. Meanwhile, PostgreSQL has many advanced, enterprise-grade features still under an open-source structure.

If you’re trying to choose between open-source platforms, you should first research support options for each database design. Both MySQL and PostgreSQL have thriving communities, but it’s undoubtedly true that there is more documentation and activity within the MySQL community. You may also want to look at the tools available for MySQL or PostgreSQL and the paid services available for either.

Otherwise, developing for open-source applications does not have to be very different. You simply need to ensure that the technology you’re using is compatible with an open-source licensing model.

MySQL and PostgreSQL compared to proprietary SQL databases

Not all leading database solutions are open-source. MySQL and PostgreSQL are leading open-source database solutions, while Microsoft SQL and OracleDB are both proprietary database solutions. There are advantages to using either.

While Microsoft SQL and OracleDB may not be as affordable as MySQL or PostgreSQL, they generally come with superior levels of support when you pay for the proprietary solution. In general, proprietary SQL databases will be more suited to enterprise-grade applications, while MySQL will be better for smaller projects or those with budget considerations.

MySQL is most often known as the back-end solution for WordPress sites. For these types of applications, it’s more than suitable — even for complex queries or many niche data types.

Compared to MySQL and PostgreSQL, proprietary SQL platforms may have more features, more flexibility, and greater levels of reliability. While they may not have the extensive online documentation that open-source solutions have, they will usually have 24/7 available technical support. They are built to be secure, balance heavy loads, and deploy resources as needed.

For nearly any small to mid-sized application, either MySQL or PostgreSQL should be suitable. But for those looking at extensive resource usage or building enterprise-level applications, Oracle or Microsoft SQL may be superior, especially in the long run.

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Asynchronous data calls for SQL

Popular for both websites and networking projects (and, particularly, web applications), asynchronous calls let your database run queries without waiting for the previous query to finish. You can apply Asynchronous data calls to many types of code, including website code and SQL queries. PostgreSQL handles asynchronous database calls, and consequently, can be essential for high-traffic sites that need to manage a significant amount of load. 

Asynchronous calls are beneficial when you have several queries on one of your web pages that don’t depend on the others. This means that the query runs for one part of the page, and other queries can also run without waiting for the first to finish. The result is that your web pages can display data as the data set is returned without loading when it completes all of the queries. It’s not only a faster data query technique, but it’s also better for your website viewers. In the old days, you would likely see a blank page while all queries loaded. Today, you’ll start to see data right away.

That being said, there are ways to support asynchronous calls (also known as async) within MySQL. There are a number of async libraries available, but this may take some additional work to implement. 

Learning MySQL or PostgreSQL

Whether you’re interested in learning MySQL or PostgreSQL, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the two are extremely similar, and your skills will be transferable from one platform to the other. One of the fastest ways to learn is through an online course, boot camp, or workshop. SQL’s intuitive syntax makes it one of the least intimidating languages to learn, and allows it to serve as an excellent introduction to programming as a whole. Personally, I never studied computer science in school and was able to teach myself SQL and make it a cornerstone of my career. If I can do it, so can you! You can see how easy and intuitive the SQL syntax is by checking out this quick video on table creation: 

For analysts, learning SQL can go a long way toward making you marketable and increasing the value you can deliver to any organization. Almost any large company will be storing large amounts of data in a relational database and will need competent SQL analysts to help extract data and analyze it to steer business decisions. 

For developers implementing web applications that interface with SQL databases, you will also need to be well-versed in PHP, JavaScript, or a similar web-based language. Those who are implementing desktop applications may need to know Java or some variant of C. This language will control how calls are made to the database to introduce, access, and change the information.

Once someone learns one of the SQL variants, they can likely successfully transition to any SQL-based platform. Whether the platform is PostgreSQL, Microsoft SQL, or some other SQL platform, the SQL syntax itself should be the same. However, developers may also need to learn the different ways of interfacing with that platform if they change languages, such as going from PHP to C++.

Conclusion

SQL remains one of the most popular and flexible languages today. Not only is it fast and intuitive to learn, but it’s also a dynamic way of managing, controlling, and analyzing data. Learning SQL is something anyone can do, and it will help secure job opportunities and increase the value one can provide an organization.

When it comes to SQL, you have a choice regarding the technology you use. You can use MySQL, Microsoft SQL, PostgreSQL, or any of the other top SQL platforms. Just remember, they are more similar than they are different, and the skills you learn on one platform will transfer well to each of the others. MySQL has long been considered one of the most flexible and accessible options; it’s easy to use, well-supported, and open-source.

For experienced developers designing complex, large-scale applications, you may want to think long and hard about the feature sets of the various platforms and select the one that best suits your needs. 

For new developers and analysts looking to learn SQL, don’t overthink it. Focus on accessibility and just start learning. MySQL is a great option for beginners. It is a popular language, with free tools, great documentation, and a large community. For those who want to integrate database management into their web applications, or learn how to analyze data in relational databases, few technologies are better.

Page Last Updated: June 2021