Implementing cursor-based pagination

5 minute read

Pagination is ubiquitous while working with web applications. Although it is simple enough with limit and offset queries. Performance becomes a problem once you hit a certain scale.


Kaminari is a very popular and an awesome pagination library in the ruby world. It is very simple to use and integrate it into your project.

But as soon as your project starts to get some traction and reaches some amount of scale, you will start to notice certain issues.

For example, the kaminari default setup will run at least two queries,

  1. select * from table limit x offset y
  2. select count(*) from table

The second query is needed to know the total number of records to display the links. But once your table has enough records, after a certain point, you will notice the count query takes more time than the first pagination query.

Kaminari provides a way to handle the issue in here. Awesome!

Once your project becomes even more popular. And you have 100s of pages on your web app. You will notice a clear drop in response time when browsing further back.

This is an awesome blog post by Markus Winand explaining the issues of using offset and why we should consider moving to cursor-based pagination, once we hit the scale. There is also a slide deck.

Unfortunately, Kaminari does not have a solution for this, at this moment.

The Solution

It turns out solving this problem is not that difficult. It can be done in less than 100 lines of code gist.


First, let us talk about ordering. Normally, a table’s primary key is set to field id which is a bigint column, set to autoincrement. With an autoincrement primary key, ordering can be done on the field itself.

select * from records
where id < cursor_id
order by id desc
limit 10;

But this will not work if you are using a truly unique UUID field (uuid_generate_v4) as your primary key. I am not going to talk about the benefits of using UUID in this blog, there are well-established points on both the pros and cons.

With UUID, we will need a different field to do the ordering. I would say using a timestamp field like created_at is a good choice.

select * from records
where created_at < cursor_created_at
order by created_at desc
limit 10;

Well, using a timestamp field is still not a full-proof solution.

Postgres timestamp fields allow up to 6 fraction digits in seconds field. This roughly means the timestamp is accurate up to microseconds. If you have multiple records created at the same time, up to the same microsecond, this becomes a problem. Although the chances of this happening are pretty slim, still it can happen.

To fully solve this problem, we can use a secondary id field, we can set it to autoincrement/create a sequence. And use that field for ordering. We can only use the integer field for an autoincrement sequence. Even if we set it to bigint there is a possibility, we might run out of numbers to allocate. In that case, we can create id_v1, id_v2 and so on..

Ok, enough of HLD system design talk, let us get back to the problem at hand. For this article, I will just use created_at for ordering.

API Interface

First, we will define our design/interface. We will be building this for a backend API. And we will need to make our API dead-simple so that integrating with a UI is trivial.

Through our API we will send a JSON block,

  "records": [
  "next_url": "/api/records?cursor_created_at={timestamp}&&direction=next",
  "prev_url": "/api/records?cursor_created_at={timestamp}&&direction=prev"

When using cursor-based pagination, we will need primarily 2 sets of values, which should be passed on as URL parameters,

  1. direction (This can have only two values prev and next.)
  2. cursor_created_at (Which will be used for ordering.)

Seek (limit + 1)

Once we receive an api request, we can expect it to have URL params direction and cursor_created_at.

For the first request though, to grab the first 10 records, we won’t need the URL params. First request /api/records will result in a sql query,

select * from records
order by created_at desc
limit 11

Notice I am fetching 1 extra row from the db. This is useful to create the next/prev url. If the sql query returns (limit + 1) records, that means we have more records available.

Going Forward and Backward

With sql query offset, going back is easy. When using cursor-based pagination, it is slightly more complicated. Let us see the code first, then we can dig deep

def paginated_records
  paginated_records = records
                        .order(created_at: order_direction)
                        .limit(limit + 1)

  seek = (paginated_records.size > limit)
  paginated_records.pop if seek == true
  paginated_records.reverse! if params[:direction] == "prev"

def order_direction
  return :asc if params[:direction] == 'prev'


def pagination_window
  return if params[:cursor_created_at].blank?

  if params[:direction] == "prev"

Let us say we have 6 records. Which were created between 1pm to 6pm, each an hour apart.

[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

We will set the page limit to 2. And we want to show the latest created record at the top of the page. First page should be [6, 5], if we want to go to next page, we should see [4, 3]

Once we get a request next direction=next&&cursor_created_at=5, the request will get converted to a sql query, like

select * from records
where created_at < 5
order by created_at desc
limit 2

And it should return records

[4, 3]

We will click next page again, we should reach [2, 1], from here if we want to go to prev page, we should see [4, 3].

We get a request direction=prev&&cursor_created_at=2, notice we will need to modify the order.

select * from records
where created_at > 2
order by created_at asc
limit 2

Will return

[3, 4]

When going prev we will need to reverse the fetched records one more time. To get the desired result. Hence the line

paginated_records.reverse! if params[:direction] == "prev"

Pagination URLs

We will need to provide next_url and prev_url for the frontend to consume.

Fetching limit + 1 is particularly helpful, when creating prev/next urls.

def pagination_url(direction:)
  return "" if seek == false && direction == params[:direction]
  return "" if params[:cursor_created_at].blank? && direction == "prev" # first page

  cursor = direction == "prev" ?  paginated_records.first : paginated_records.last

  uri = URI(url)
  params = Hash[URI.decode_www_form(uri.query || "")]
             .merge("cursor_created_at" => cursor.created_at.iso8601(6), # PG default is 6
                    "direction" => direction)
  uri.query = URI.encode_www_form(params)

All right, thats all I hade to share.

The full code is available here.

All you will need to do is drop the file in app/lib/pagination.rb. And you should be able to include the module in a controller. I will also try to create a small gem around this.

Until next time! :heart: