Abe Voelker's blog Programming stuff, mainly

Generating YouTube-like IDs in Postgres using PL/V8 and Hashids

8 minute read


Update: There is a brand-new Postgres Hashids extension that you should use if possible instead of this PL/V8 solution! However, this solution may still be valuable if you are using AWS RDS, which doesn’t currently support the Hashids extension.

Recently on a Rails project, I ran into an issue where I wanted to expose a resource (lets say it was a product) in a RESTful route, but I also didn’t want the URLs to be easily guessable. In other words, following Rails conventions my standard “show” actions would be URLs like https://example.com/products/1, https://example.com/products/2, https://example.com/products/3, which are trivially guessable since we’re exposing the database’s auto-incrementing integer primary key as the resource ID. To prevent people from writing a super simple script that could scrape my whole product catalog, it would be nice if we could make the URLs not trivially guessable while still remaining publicly-accessable for people who know them.

One approach that some people advocate is simply using UUIDs, but I think URLs like https://example.com/products/3bc95fb9-f0c1-4af8-989e-6ea8467879d3 simply look nasty, particularly when you get into nested sub-resources with their own UUIDs tacked on. It’s something I don’t want to subject my users’ eyes to or have potentially affect SEO / page rank due to the extraneous length.1


A nice compromise here is using a library called Hashids, which can take an integer input (e.g. our primary keys), and a salt, and obfuscate2 them into YouTube-like, short, non-guessable IDs like these: https://example.com/products/NV, https://example.com/products/6m, https://example.com/products/yD.

The Hashids project links to many implementations and documentation in various languages, including Ruby. Since my project is using Rails, a simple solution would be to add an after_create callback to my model to set an attribute using the Ruby library:

# == Schema Information
# Table name: products
#  id              :integer  not null, primary key
#  title           :string
#  hashid          :string
# Indexes
#  index_products_on_hashid  (hashid)

class Product < ActiveRecord::Base
  after_create :save_hashid


  def save_hashid
    unless self.hashid
      h = Hashids.new(ENV["HASHID_SALT"], ENV["HASHID_MIN_LENGTH"].to_i)
      self.update!(hashid: h.encode(self.id))

This works! However there are at least two drawbacks:

  1. Creating a Product requires two round-trips to the database: an INSERT to create the record with a NULL value in the hashid column, then an UPDATE after Rails gets the value of the integer id column and can calculate the Hashid value, and update the record with it. This should be safe in terms of not leaving half-baked products records with NULL hashid values out there, since Rails runs after_create callbacks in the same transaction that creates the record, but it’s not good performance-wise.
  2. Somewhat related to the first drawback, the schema for this table is not optimal as the hashid column should really have a NOT NULL constraint with a UNIQUE index. But using Rails callbacks forces it to be this way. It would be much more preferable if we could lean on the database to enforce referential integrity; at my job we’ve seen plenty of instances of bad data getting into loose schemas that Should Never Happen™ from the application’s point of view.

If only there were a way for Postgres to populate that column instead…

Executing JavaScript in Postgres using PL/V8

Luckily there is a way to do this using a Postgres extension that embeds the V8 JavaScript engine in Postgres called PL/V8!3

On Ubuntu, installing PL/V8 is as easy as doing sudo apt-get install postgresql-9.6-plv8 (substitute 9.6 with whatever Postgres version you have installed) and restarting the database cluster with sudo service postgres restart. Then, open a SQL prompt on the database you want to enable it for, and execute CREATE EXTENSION plv8;. Now you can write JavaScript functions in the database!

The first step is writing a function to load the Hashids library:

(The above is simply the source for hashids.min.js wrapped in an immediately-executed anonymous function).

After executing that DDL to create the function, execute this SQL to run it:

SELECT load_hashids();

And now, the Hashids constant is ready for use in any JavaScript code inside PL/V8 functions for the remainder of the SQL session (each session gets its own global JS runtime context). We can now do a quick test of the Hashids library inside Postgres:

  var h = new Hashids('foo');

You should see NOTICE: 1yR in the output, confirming it works!

As mentioned, this constant will only live as long as the SQL session. A new connection will require rerunning SELECT load_hashids(); to make it available again. Luckily, PL/V8 comes with support for a postgresql.conf configuration value we can use to load a custom PL/V8 function when the runtime is initialized. Simply add this to to postgresql.conf:

plv8.start_proc = 'load_hashids'

And now that is all handled for us!

An example usage

Now let’s put it all together with an example that fixes my issue with products. First, let’s make a helper SQL function to generate Hashids that we’ll be able to call from other SQL functions (like triggers):

CREATE FUNCTION gen_hashid(salt TEXT, min_length BIGINT, key BIGINT) RETURNS TEXT AS $$
    var h = new Hashids(salt, min_length);
    return h.encode(key);

This can be tested like so:

SELECT gen_hashid('foo', 5, 123);

Which should output 61yR6.

Next, here’s a little mockup of a products schema that uses a pre-insert trigger to automatically generate Hashids:

Now let’s test it out by inserting some test records:

INSERT INTO products (title) VALUES ('foo');
INSERT INTO products (title) VALUES ('foo');
INSERT INTO products (title) VALUES ('bar');
INSERT INTO products (title) VALUES ('baz');

And now let’s see what SELECT * FROM products returns:

 id | title | hashid 
  1 | foo   | WmX
  2 | foo   | 4zq
  3 | bar   | eJk
  4 | baz   | eEp
(4 rows)

Works beautifully! My problem is solved.

Note that in this example I hardcoded the salt and minimum length values in the products_pre_insert() function definition, but in reality one would probably want to create a table to store salt values as there should be a different salt value for each table that uses Hashids, and also salts should not be re-used between test environments and production.


1 I’m not saying it would necessarily affect SEO today, but SEO tends to trickle down from what Google et al consider to be human-friendly, which I don’t think excessively long machine-readable IDs are. I certainly think URLs that scroll way past the address bar with seemingly-random gibberish discourage people who share URLs via address bar copy and paste.

2 Although hash is in the name, the project makes clear it’s not a true cryptographic hash function (and thus not secure). But for my purposes, it’s exactly what I needed to discourage casual scraping while maintaining a certain level of user-friendliness that a very secure solution (UUIDs, real crypto hash functions) wouldn’t allow.

3 There are other Postgres extensions that add support for other languages, like PL/Python, but PL/V8 is a “trusted” Postgres language, while PL/Python is “untrusted.” Trusted languages are safer as they come with certain protections on what actions they can perform - untrusted languages can do anything that the database administrator can do! This is probably why AWS RDS supports PL/V8 but doesn’t support PL/Python.