The maximum number of connections a PostgreSQL can accept is configured using max_connections. When attempting to connect to a server already at full capacity, logically the server complains:
$ psql psql: FATAL: sorry, too many clients already
It is possible to define connection policies, for example at database level with CREATE DATABASE or ALTER DATABASE, and even have superuser-only connection slots using superuser_reserved_connections, so as a superuser has a reserved space to be able to perform some activities even with a server full.
When creating a connection for replication purposes, the connection is spawned under a special status with the context of a WAL sender which is in charge of the communication, and speaks the replication protocol, so as it is possible to do replication, to take base backups, etc. A lot of those tasks are important for availability. One problem however is that this connection uses a shared memory slot which is part of max_connections. Hence, it is possible to get into a case where an application bloats the connections, and it becomes impossible to connect with a replication connection. This can be rather bad for availability, because this could prevent the creation of a new standby after a failover for example.
One way to counter that is to connect to the server for base backups and standbys with a superuser role. Still this is not completely right either as by design there can be replication roles, which allow a role to connect to a server in replication mode, without being a superuser. In this context, this is where the following commit of Postgres 12 becomes handy:
commit: ea92368cd1da1e290f9ab8efb7f60cb7598fc310 author: Michael Paquier <email@example.com> date: Tue, 12 Feb 2019 10:07:56 +0900 Move max_wal_senders out of max_connections for connection slot handling Since its introduction, max_wal_senders is counted as part of max_connections when it comes to define how many connection slots can be used for replication connections with a WAL sender context. This can lead to confusion for some users, as it could be possible to block a base backup or replication from happening because other backend sessions are already taken for other purposes by an application, and superuser-only connection slots are not a correct solution to handle that case. This commit makes max_wal_senders independent of max_connections for its handling of PGPROC entries in ProcGlobal, meaning that connection slots for WAL senders are handled using their own free queue, like autovacuum workers and bgworkers. One compatibility issue that this change creates is that a standby now requires to have a value of max_wal_senders at least equal to its primary. So, if a standby created enforces the value of max_wal_senders to be lower than that, then this could break failovers. Normally this should not be an issue though, as any settings of a standby are inherited from its primary as postgresql.conf gets normally copied as part of a base backup, so parameters would be consistent. Author: Alexander Kukushkin Reviewed-by: Kyotaro Horiguchi, Petr Jelínek, Masahiko Sawada, Oleksii Kliukin Discussion: https://postgr.es/m/CAFh8B=nBzHQeYAu0b8fjK-AF1X4+_p6GRtwG+cCgs6Vci2uRuQ@mail.gmail.com
The commit message explains that rather well (hopefully, guess who wrote it!), and allows system administrators to have connection slots reserved for replication roles so that the previous set of issues described in this post does not cause problems. In consequence, Postgres 12 is able to fully separate application-related connections and connections aimed at being used for base backups and replication, removing the need to use a connection slot reserved for superusers for this purpose. Note that this applies as well to logical replication as the publication-side uses a connection in replication mode. As the maximum number of replication connections is controlled in shared memory with max_wal_senders, the implementation is just reusing this parameter to control the number of connection slots available, so the conclusion around the proposed patch was that there is no need for a new, different configuration parameter
One thing to note is that this has a cost in the shape of a potential backward breakage as the standby needs to have max_wal_senders set to a higher value than its primary, or it will complain at startup, which is something that already happens for other parameters at recovery like max_connections. So if you use a failover solution which enforced max_wal_senders to a lower value than the origin, things could break. Normally this should not be an issue though, as the value of the parameter gets inherited in the initial base backup of the primary instance.