Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Validating Time Zones in PostgreSQL

I recently needed to validate that a value stored in a TEXTcolumn was a valid time zone identifier. Why? Because I was using its value inside the database to convert timestamp columns from UTC to a valid zone. So I set about writing a function I could use in a constraint.

It turns out that PostgreSQL has a pretty nice view that lists all of the time zones that it recognizes. It’s called pg_timezone_names:

try=# select * from pg_timezone_names limit 5;
        name        | abbrev | utc_offset | is_dst 
--------------------+--------+------------+--------
 Africa/Abidjan     | GMT    | 00:00:00   | f
 Africa/Accra       | GMT    | 00:00:00   | f
 Africa/Addis_Ababa | EAT    | 03:00:00   | f
 Africa/Algiers     | CET    | 01:00:00   | f
 Africa/Asmara      | EAT    | 03:00:00   | f
(5 rows)

Cool. So all I had to do was to look up the value in this view. My first stab at creating a time zone validation function therefore looked like this:

CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION is_timezone( tz TEXT ) RETURNS BOOLEAN as $$
DECLARE
    bool BOOLEAN;
BEGIN
    SELECT TRUE INTO bool
    FROM pg_timezone_names
    WHERE LOWER(name) = LOWER(tz)
        OR LOWER(abbrev) = LOWER(tz);
    RETURN FOUND;
END;
$$ language plpgsql STABLE;

This should pretty well cover anything that PostgreSQL considers valid. So does it work? You bet:

sandy_development=# \timing
Timing is on.
sandy_development=# select is_timezone('America/Los_Angeles');
 is_timezone 
-------------
 t
(1 row)

Time: 457.096 ms
sandy_development=# select is_timezone('Foo/Bar');
 is_timezone 
-------------
 f
(1 row)

Time: 472.752 ms

Perfect! Well, except for just one thing: performance is abysmal. A half second per shot? Not very useful for constraints. And since pg_timezone_names is a view (and, under that, a function), I can’t create indexes.

But then I did something dangerous: I started thinking. I realized that I needed this function when our app started getting errors like this:

try=# select now() at time zone 'Foo/Bar';
ERROR:  time zone "Foo/Bar" not recognized

So the underlying C code throws an error when a time zone is invalid. What if I could just trap the error? Well, PL/pgSQL conveniently has exception handling, so I could do just that. But there was only one problem. PL/pgSQL’s exception handling syntax requires that you specify an error condition. Here’s what the documentation has:

EXCEPTION
    WHEN condition [ OR condition ... ] THEN
        handler_statements
    [ WHEN condition [ OR condition ... ] THEN
            handler_statements
        ... ]
END;

Conditions are error codes. But which one corresponds to the invalid time zone error? I tried a few, but couldn’t figure out which one. (Anyone know now to map errors you see in psql to the error codes listed in Appendix A? Let me know!) But really, my function just needed to do one thing. Couldn’t I just trap any old error?

A careful re-read of the PL/pgSQL documentation reveals that, yes, you can. Use the condition “OTHERS,” and you can catch almost anything. With this information in hand, I quickly wrote:

CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION is_timezone( tz TEXT ) RETURNS BOOLEAN as $$
DECLARE
    date TIMESTAMPTZ;
BEGIN
    date := now() AT TIME ZONE tz;
    RETURN TRUE;
EXCEPTION WHEN OTHERS THEN
    RETURN FALSE;
END;
$$ language plpgsql STABLE;

And how well does this one work?

sandy_development=# select is_timezone('America/Los_Angeles');
 is_timezone 
-------------
 t
(1 row)

Time: 3.009 ms
sandy_development=# select is_timezone('Foo/Bar');
 is_timezone 
-------------
 f
(1 row)

Time: 1.224 ms

Yes, I’ll take 1-3 ms over 400-500 ms any day! I might even create a domain for this and be done with it:

CREATE DOMAIN timezone AS TEXT
CHECK ( is_timezone( value ) );

Enjoy!

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