Optimizing Django query performance is critical for building performant web applications. Django provides many tools and methods for optimizing database queries in its Database access optimization documentation. In this blog post, we will explore a collection of additional and essential tips I’ve compiled over the years to help you pinpoint and resolve your inefficient Django queries.

Kill Long-Running Queries with a Statement Timeout

PostgreSQL supports a statement_timeout parameter that allows you to set a maximum time limit per query. This is useful for preventing long-running queries from tying up precious resources and slowing down your application. My team at PixieBrix experienced an incident where a few long-running queries resulted in a full database outage. Setting a statement timeout in your Django settings can help prevent this from happening.

    "default": {
        "OPTIONS": {
            "options": "-c statement_timeout=30s",

Now any query that takes longer than 30 seconds will be terminated.

from django.db import connection

with connection.cursor() as cursor:
    cursor.execute("select pg_sleep(31)")
# django.db.utils.OperationalError: canceling statement due to statement timeout

A few notes:

  • Per the documentation, if log_min_error_statement is set to ERROR (which is the default), the statement that timed out will also be logged as a query_canceled error (code 57014). You should use these logs to identify slow queries.
  • PostgreSQL supports setting a database-wide statement timeout, but the docs don’t recommend it because it can cause problems with long-running maintenance tasks, such as backups. Instead, it is recommended to set the statement timeout on a per-connection basis as shown above.
  • MySQL appears to support a similar max_execution_time parameter, but I haven’t tested it.
  • Statement timeouts may differ across servers. For example, you probably want to set a higher statement timeout on your celery workers than on your web servers. You can do this by conditionally setting the statement timeout:
# https://stackoverflow.com/a/50843002/6611672
IN_CELERY_WORKER = sys.argv and sys.argv[0].endswith("celery") and "worker" in sys.argv


Sanity check query counts in units tests with assertNumQueries

When writing unit tests, it’s important to ensure that your code is making the expected number of queries. Django provides a convenient method called assertNumQueries that allows you to assert the number of queries made by your code.

class MyTestCase(TestCase)
    def test_something(self):
        with self.assertNumQueries(5)
            # code that makes 5 expected queries

If you’re using pytest-django, then you can use django_assert_num_queries to achieve the same functionality.

Catch N+1 queries with nplusone

An N+1 query is a common performance issue that occurs when your code makes more database queries than it should. The nplusone package detects these bad queries in your code. It works by raising an NPlusOneError where a single query is executed repeatedly in a loop. Read more about it in a previous blog post.

While nplusone is an indispensable tool I use in all of my Django projects, it is important to note that the package is orphaned and does not catch all violations. For example, I’ve noticed it doesn’t work with .only() or .defer().

for user in User.objects.defer("email"):
    # This should raise an NPlusOneError but it doesn't
    email = user.email

Because of these shortcomings, it is important to use other optimization techniques alongside nplusone.

Catch N+1 queries with django-zen-queries

The django-zen-queries package allows you to control which parts of your code are permitted to run queries. It includes a queries_disabled() context manager / decorator that raises a QueriesDisabledError exception when a query is executed inside it. You can use it to prevent unnecessary queries on prefetched objects, or to ensure that queries are only called when they are needed. I use it to fill in the gaps where nplusone falls short.

For example, as outlined in the previous section, nplusone won’t catch the following N+1 query, but django-zen-queries will.

from zen_queries import fetch, queries_disabled

# The fetch function forces evaluation of the queryset, which is
# necessary before entering the queries_disabled context
qs = fetch(User.objects.defer("email"))

with queries_disabled():
    for user in qs:
        # Raises a QueriesDisabledError exception
        email = user.email

Fix N+1 queries by avoiding new queries on prefetched objects

The Django ORM lacks the inherent ability to distinguish when it should retrieve data directly from the database versus utilizing data stored in memory due to prior retrieval. When dealing with prefetched objects, the data should always be in memory, assuming the initial fetch acquires all required data. To ensure Django uses in-memory data and avoids extraneous queries, you can use standard Python with Django’s all() method rather than specific Django queryset methods.

For instance, consider the following code:

for user in User.objects.prefetch_related("groups"):
    # BAD: N+1 query
    first_group = user.groups.first()

    # GOOD: Does not make a new query
    first_group = user.groups.all()[0]

qs.first() makes a new query to the database, whereas qs.all()[0] does not.

Here are some more examples:

Always executes a queryDoes not execute a query if data was prefetched
qs.values_list("x", flat=True)[obj.x for obj in qs.all()]
qs.values("x")[{"x": obj.x} for obj in qs.all()]
qs.order_by("x", "y")sorted(qs.all(), lambda obj: (obj.x, obj.y))
qs.filter(x=1)[obj for obj in qs.all() if obj.x == 1]
qs.exclude(x=1)[obj for obj in qs.all() if obj.x != 1]

Note, the nplusone package should catch all of these N+1 violations so be sure to use it. Also, see this post for optimizing your prefetch queries.

Prevent fetching large, unused fields with defer()

Some fields, such as JSONField and TextField, require expensive processing to load into to a Python object. This consumes a lot of memory and slows down queries, especially when dealing with querysets containing a few thousand instances or more. You can use defer() to prevent fetching these fields and improve query performance.

class Book(models.Model):
    title = models.CharField(max_length=255)
    content = models.TextField()
    pub_date = models.DateField()
    notes = models.JSONField()

books = Book.objects.defer("content", "notes")

Alternatively, you can use the only() method to explicitly specify the fields you want to include in the query result.

books = Book.objects.only("title", "pub_date")

However, in situations where you want to exclude specific large fields, using defer() often results in more concise and efficient code.

Avoid using distinct() on large fields

The distinct() method eliminates duplicate objects from a queryset by comparing all values across the result set. When applied to large fields, such as JSONField and TextField, the database needs to perform expensive comparisons, which can lead to slower query execution times. At PixieBrix, a single bad distinct() query executed at only tens of calls per minute proved detrimental, resulting in a complete database outage.

To mitigate this issue, you can limit the scope of distinct() by applying it to a subset of fields. The best option is employ the previous tip and use defer() to exclude large fields from the result set entirely:

Book.objects.filter(<filter-that-generates-duplicates>).defer("content", "notes").distinct()

If you need the large fields and you’re on PostgreSQL, you can pass positional arguments to specify the fields to which the DISTINCT should apply via distinct(*fields). This tells the database to only compare the designated fields. Ideally you should pass the primary key field, but any unique field will work.


May your slow queries be easy to uncover and optimize.