Database Backups 101: What is Point in Time Recovery?

Sarojini Devi Nagappan


Point-in-Time Recovery (PITR) allows a database administrator to restore or recover a set of data from a backup from a particular time in the past, using a tool or a system. Once PITR starts logging a database, the administrator can then restore the database backup from a respective time. PITR is also considered an additional method of data protection, as it safeguards loss of important information.

What is a Point-in-Time (PIT) Snapshot?

The set of data logged by PITR is known as the Point-in-Time (PIT) snapshot. A point-in-time snapshot is a copy of data, files, or databases at a point in time. PIT is useful if there is a need to recover and restore data from a specific time or the last recent PIT snapshot.

PIT snapshots are usually ready only and can be kept updated either by mapping a recent snapshot with the earlier copy or only copy data that has been changed will be copied again.

What is Database Point-In-Time Recovery (PITR)?

PITR is important when someone has accidentally deleted a table or records in a database or if something has gone wrong which has corrupted the existing database. The fastest solution to this would be to retrieve the transaction logs and recover the database from the last “known good” point. PITR is done differently for individual databases.

PITR in PostgreSQL Using Timelines

PITR for PostgreSQL requires backing up live database files and archiving the Write Ahead Log (WAL) files. A WAL file logs any transactions like updates, deletes, and creation did to the database. If you want to restore the state of a database to a point in time, the WAL file segment can be used.

However, once you have used it and the WAL has the latest changes, then to roll back again to the earlier changes before PITR would not be possible. To avoid this, the series of WAL files created after the PITR should be isolated from the original database.

PostgreSQL solves this problem using timelines. After every successful recovery, a timeline is created to store the series of WAL records created after the recovery. These WAL segments have a unique timeline ID to make sure there is no override of previous WAL data. This is useful especially when you are not very sure which archive to use and allows you to test and see which point-in-time data is the best for recovery.

PostgreSQL also maintains a timeline history where it keeps a file to track which timeline is branched and when. These small text files are also archived together with the WAL files segment and come in handy when you need to pick the right WAL from an archive.

PITR in MongoDB Using Oplog

MongoDB has all the recent database modification transactions logged in an oplog file. MongoDB uses replica sets (primary, secondaries) to distribute data for data recovery purposes. Any operations done on the primary set will log the transactions on the primary oplog.

The secondary replica sets copies and applies these operations and all replica sets maintain a copy of oplog as a way to maintain the current state of the database. A point to note is Oplog does not serve a backup as it will overwrite the oldest data once it’s full.

To restore mongodb at point-in-time, you need to have a full backup of the database and the right oplog dump, and this can be done using a Mongorestore tool, which is the tool used to restore logical backups created by Mongodump.

PITR in MySQL Using Binary Log

Like the other two databases, MySQL also uses a log to record the operations done to the database. PITR uses the set of incremental backups of binary log files after a full backup operation.

To restore the binary log, you need to know the name and location of the current binary log. PITR for MySQL can be done using event time or event position. To use the event time option, you need to specify the ‘start date and time’, and ‘end date and time’ options for mysqlbinlog.

This is a good option if you need to restore the table and data from a specific time and date. PITR using event position is done by specifying the log positions instead of date and time. This method is precise, as it allows you to rollback accurately, especially if many transactions were done at the time of damage.

For this option, you can use mysqlbinlog to get the log positions and pass in the time range of the unwanted transaction. This will create a text file with the SQL statements during the damage and retrieve the log positions of the SQL statement causing the damage. Restore the last backup, and then use the log positions to process the binary log.


PITR is another method for data protection and a quick recovery plan for the recovery process during a disaster. The prerequisite for PITR would be the backup process needs to have a log enabled to have all database transactions recorded.

Based on the summary of the three databases mentioned above, two components are important for Point-in-Time Recovery; one being the base backup and the other is the transactions logged in the log files. The log files help to either restore a good transaction or eliminate bad ones like accidentally deleting a table or updates done to a large amount of data via SQL statements.

Point-in-Time Recovery has some disadvantages like the database will be unavailable during the recovery process and if the base backups are located elsewhere it is going to be a time-consuming process to restore all data files together with the transaction logs. However, PITR can bring the database back in time with minimal loss of data.

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