PostgreSQL has a really interesting and powerful construct called SELECT DISTINCT ON. No, this is not a typical DISTINCT. This is different. It is perfect when you have groups of data that are similar and want to pull a single record out of each group, based on a specific ordering.

Let’s take a an example of some log data. You have a log table that stores the url of a request and the request_duration, which is how long it took to process the request for that URL. It also contains a timestamp column. If you wanted to answer the question “what is the most recent duration for each unique URL?” you might end up with a query that looks something like this:

SELECT l.url, l.request_duration
FROM log l
INNER JOIN (
  SELECT url, MAX(timestamp) as max_timestamp
  FROM log
  GROUP BY url
) last_by_url ON l.url = last_by_url.url AND l.timestamp = last_by_url.max_timestamp;

That INNER JOIN with a subquery is used to determine the last timestamp for each URL. Then, the outer query is pulling from the log table and using the results of that subquery to limit the results to only the last requests by URL. There are several ways this could be done as well including using a WHERE IN clause (assuming there is a single identifier that could be used), a LATERAL join or a WINDOW function. These approaches work but all of them require some type of 2 step query where the first step is identifying the target row and the second step is actually pulling that target row. This isn’t terriby complex SQL but it can become a bit cumbersome.

Let’s think about a regular SELECT DISTINCT clause for a moment. When you use a SELECT DISTINCT clause, you are discarding duplicate rows and only retaining a single one. But, the one that is kept is identical to the rest. What if you could tell DISTINCT to only consider some fields for distinction and then which row you want to pull from this group of mostly similar but slightly varying rows? This is what SELECT DISTINCT ON does.

With DISTINCT ON, You tell PostgreSQL to return a single row for each distinct group defined by the ON clause. Which row in that group is returned is specified with the ORDER BY clause.

Back to our log example. To acomplish what we did above with SELECT DISTINCT ON, it looks like this:

SELECT DISTINCT ON (url) url, request_duration
FROM logs
ORDER BY timestamp DESC

That’s it! We’re telling PostgreSQL to “put the logs into groups unique by url (ON (url)), sort each of these groups by most recent (ORDER BY timestamp DESC) and then return fields for the first record in each of these groups (url, request_duration).