An in depth DBA's guide to migrating a MySQL database from the `utf8` to the `utf8mb4` charset

March 25, 2019 -
Tags: databases, mysql, sysadmin

We’re in the process of upgrading our MySQL databases from v5.7 to v8.0; since one of the differences in v8.0 is that the default encoding changed from utf8 to utf8mb4, and we had the conversion in plan anyway, we anticipated it and performed it as preliminary step for the upgrade.

This post describes in depth the overall experience, including tooling and pitfalls, and related subjects.



utf8mb4 is the MySQL encoding that fully covers the UTF-8 standard. Up to MySQL 5.7, the default encoding is utf8; the name is somewhat misleading, as this is a variant with a maximum width of 3 bytes.

Although there’s no practical purpose nowadays in using 3-bytes rather than 4-bytes UTF-8, this choice was originally made for performance reasons.

From a practical perspective, not all the applications will benefit from the extra byte of width, whose most common use cases include emojis and mathematical letters, however, conforming to standards is a routine task in software engineering.

Since utf8mb4 is a superset of utf8, the conversion is relatively painless, however, it’s crucial to be aware of the implications of the procedure.

Migration plan: overview and considerations

It’s impossible to make a general plan, due to the different requirements of any use case; high traffic applications may for example require that no locking should be involved (ie. no ALTER TABLE), while low traffic/size applications may just do with a few ALTER TABLEs.

However, I’ll trace a granular set of steps that should cover the vast majority of the cases; GitHub’s gh-ost is used, therefore, there’s no table locking during the data conversion step.

The setup is assumed to be single-master; there are generally sophisticated multi-master strategies for schema updates, however, they are outside the scope of this article.

The only migration constraint set is that until the end of the migration, the user should not allow 4-byte characters into the database; this gives the certainty that any implicit conversion performed before the end of the migration will succeed.

Users can certainly lift this constraint, however, they must thoroughly analyze the application data flows, in order to be 100% sure that utf8mb4 strings including 4-byte characters won’t mingle with utf8 strings, as this will cause errors.


MySQL 8.0 changed the utf8mb4 default collation from utf8mb4_general_ci to utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci (for details, see here and here).

This has a very significant impact - if the utf8 update if performed on a MySQL 5.7 server, without specifying the collation, and then the server is upgraded to v8.0, the collation of all the data structures will not match the default.
Of course, in such case it’s possible to leave the system as is, however, it won’t be the standard (and the settings will need to be set accordingly, in order to ensure that new tables/columns will be created with the intended collation).

It’s crucial to be aware of this, because most of the online information about the utf8 conversion has been written when MySQL 8.0 was not released yet, so it holds the outdated assumption that the default utf8mb4 collation is utf8mb4_general_ci.

In the following sections, I’ll point out which configuration parameters are required, when performing the conversion on a 5.7 server.

Free step: connection configuration

The character set [from now on abbreviated as charset] and collation of a given string or database object (ultimately, a column), and the operation performed, are determined by one or more settings/properties at different levels:

  1. connection (set by the database client, which in turn can be set by the application framework) settings;
  2. database server settings;
  3. trigger settings;
  4. database -> table -> column properties;

For example:

  • when creating a database, the charset is defaulted to the one set in the database server configuration,
  • when creating a trigger, the connection will determine the charset,

and so on.

Additionally, MySQL server attempts to use a compatible combination charset+collation for incompatible charsets, overriding the configuration/settings.

In order to view the connection and database server settings, we can use this handy query:

SHOW VARIABLES WHERE Variable_name RLIKE '^(character_set|collation)_' AND Variable_name NOT RLIKE '_(database|filesystem|system)$';

some settings are skipped, as they’re unrelated or deprecated.

This is a table of the relevant entries:

Setting New value Notes Server setting Client setting
character_set_client utf8mb4 data sent by the client  
character_set_connection utf8mb4 server converts client data into this charset for processing  
collation_connection utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci server uses this collation for processing  
character_set_results utf8mb4 data and metadata sent by the server  
character_set_server utf8mb4 default (and fallback) charset for objects  
collation_server utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci default (and fallback) collation for objects  

Server settings are defined at the server level, and as such, they’re typically set in the server configuration file - this is required if we’re operating on MySQL 5.7 (since it uses utf8 by default).

Client settings are specified by the client on connection; typically, they’re set via the SET NAMES <charset> [COLLATE <collation>] statement.
This command is invoked when the encoding/collation are configured by the application framework; in the case of Rails, the parameters are in database.yml:

# Typical structure
  encoding: utf8mb4
  collation: utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci
  # ...

In Django, we add the following to

# Typical structure
  'default': {
    'OPTIONS': {'charset': 'utf8mb4'},
    # ...

The changes above will cause the following statement to be issued on the first connection:

SET NAMES utf8mb4 COLLATE utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci # Rails also sets other variables here.

Based on a brief look at the source code, there is no collation option in Django, so the COLLATE utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci won’t be specified in the SQL statement.

This step can be performed at the beginning or the end of the migration; the reason is explained in the next subsection.

How do charset settings affect database operations?

During the migration, with either utf8 or utf8mb4 connection settings, we’ll find data belonging to the other charset. Is this a problem?

First, an introduction to the the charset/collation settings is required.

Over the course of a database connection, the data (flow) is processed in several steps:

  • client data sent: it’s assumed to be in the format defined by character_set_client
  • server processing: converted to the format defined by character_set_connection (and compared using the collation_connection)
  • server results: sent in the format defined by character_set_results

All the above settings (unless explicitly set) are set automatically, according to the character_set_client settings, so we can really think of all of them as a single entity.

So, the core question is: for client data in a given format (utf8 or utf8mb4), will processing (comparison or storage) always succeed?

Fortunately, in our context, the answer is always yes.

When it comes to storage, the matter is pretty simple; MySQL will take care of “converting” the format. We’re safe here because by using 3-byte characters, we can convert without any problem from and to the other charset.

However, in this context, strings manipulation is not only about storage - comparison is the other aspect to consider. It’s time to introduce the concept of collation and the related rules.

Strings are compared according to a “collation”, which defines how the data is sorted and compared. Each charset has a default collation, which in MySQL is the case-insensitive one (utf8_general_ci and utf8mb4_general_ci/utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci).

Now, when collating strings of mixed type, will the operation succeed? The answer is… no, but yes!

The reason for the no is that, unlike storage, we can’t use a collation for two different charsets. However, MySQL comes to the rescue.

MySQL has a set of coercibility rules, which determine which collation to use in a given operation (or if an error should be raised).

The rules are quite a few, however, they’re consistently defined, so they’re easy to understand.

We’ll see a few relevant examples, where we’ll also introduce a few interesting SQL clauses:

  • we define a default collation for a column;
  • we use an “introducer” on a string literal;
  • we override the default collation of a string literal.

First example:

  utf8col CHAR(1) CHARACTER SET utf8 COLLATE utf8_bin
SELECT _utf8'ä' `utf8col`;

SELECT utf8col < _utf8mb4'🍕' COLLATE utf8mb4_bin `result` FROM test_table;
# +--------+
# | result |
# +--------+
# |      1 |
# +--------+

The relevant rules are:

  1. An explicit COLLATE clause has a coercibility of 0 (not coercible at all)
  2. The collation of a column or a stored routine parameter or local variable has a coercibility of 2

which rule the collation as utf8mb4_bin. Shouldn’t the utf8col value fail, due to being an utf8 value, which is not handled by the winning collation?

No! MySQL will automatically convert the value, making it compatible. This is equivalent to:

SELECT _utf8mb4'ä' < _utf8mb4'🍕' COLLATE utf8mb4_bin `result` FROM test_table;

Second example:

SET NAMES utf8mb4;

  utf8col CHAR(1) CHARACTER SET utf8 COLLATE utf8_bin
SELECT _utf8'ä' `utf8col`;

SELECT utf8col < 'ë' `result` FROM test_table;
# +--------+
# | result |
# +--------+
# |      1 |
# +--------+

The relevant rules are:

  1. The collation of a column or a stored routine parameter or local variable has a coercibility of 2
  2. The collation of a literal has a coercibility of 4

The collation will be utf8_bin. Since ë can be converted, there’s no problem.

Equivalent statement:

SELECT _utf8'ä' COLLATE utf8_bin < _utf8mb4'ë' `result` FROM test_table;

Final example:

  utf8col CHAR(1) CHARACTER SET utf8 COLLATE utf8_bin
SELECT _utf8'ä' `utf8col`;

SELECT utf8col < _utf8mb4'🍕' `result` FROM test_table;
ERROR 1267 (HY000): Illegal mix of collations (utf8_bin,IMPLICIT) and (utf8mb4_0900_ai_ci,COERCIBLE) for operation '<'

Error! What happened here?

The relevant rules and chosen collation are the same as the previous example, however, in this case, the pizza emoji (🍕) can’t be converted to utf8, therefore, the operation fails.

The conclusion is that as long as we use utf8 characters only during the migration, we’ll have no problem, as the only relevant case is the second example.

Step 2: Preparing the the ALTER statements

In this step we’ll prepare all the ALTER statements that will change the schema/table metadata, and the data.

The operations are performed on a development database with the same structure as production.

First, we convert the database default charset (both production and development):

ALTER SCHEMA production_schema CHARACTER SET=utf8mb4;

data is not changed - only the metadata.

Then, we convert all the table charset to utf8mb4:

mysqldump "$updating_schema" |
  perl -ne 'print "ALTER TABLE $1 CHARACTER SET utf8mb4;\n" if /CREATE TABLE (.*) /' |
  mysql "$updating_schema"

again, data is not changed. This operation will cause all the columns that don’t match the new charset (supposedly, all the existing character columns), to show the former (utf8) charset in their definition:

# before (simplified)

CREATE TABLE mytable (
  intcol INT,
  strcol CHAR(1),
  strcol2 CHAR(1)

# after

  intcol INT,
  strcol CHAR(1) CHARACTER SET utf8,
  strcol2 CHAR(1) CHARACTER SET utf8

This allows us to write a straight conversion command:

mysqldump --no-data --skip-triggers "$updating_schema" |
  egrep '^CREATE TABLE|CHARACTER SET utf8\b' |
  perl -0777 -pe 's/(CREATE TABLE [^\n]+ \(\n)+CREATE/CREATE/g' | # remove tables without entries
  perl -0777 -pe 's/,?\n(CREATE|$)/;\n$1/g'  |                    # change comma of each last column def to semicolon (or add it)
  perl -pe 's/(CHARACTER SET utf8\b)/$1mb4/' |                    # change charset
  perl -pe 's/  `/  MODIFY `/' |                                  # add `MODIFY`
  perl -pe 's/^CREATE TABLE (.*) \(/ALTER TABLE $1/'              # convert `CREATE TABLE ... (` to `ALTER TABLE`

The output will consist of all the required ALTER TABLES, for example:

ALTER TABLE `mytable`
  MODIFY `strcol` char(1) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 DEFAULT NULL,
  MODIFY `strcol2` char(1) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 DEFAULT NULL;

Issue: Column/index size limits

A database engine needs to know the maximum length of the stored data, in this case, text, because the data structures are subject to limits.

In relation to the utf8 migration, the two related limits are:

  • the maximum length of a character column;
  • the number of prefix characters stored in an index.

In practice, something that may happen is that a table defined as such:

CREATE TABLE mytable (
  longcol varchar(21844) CHARACTER SET utf8

will cause an error when converting to utf8mb4:

ALTER TABLE mytable MODIFY longcol varchar(21844) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4;
ERROR 1074 (42000): Column length too big for column 'longcol' (max = 16383); use BLOB or TEXT instead

because of MySQL restriction of 65535 (2^16 - 1) bytes on the combined size of all the columns:

  • utf8: 21844 * 3 = 65532
  • utf8mb4: 21844 * 4 = 87376 # too much
  • utf8mb4: 16383 * 4 = 65532

The same limit applies to index prefixes, although in this case there are two limits, 767 and 3072, depending on the row format and the long prefix option.

The restriction specifications can be found in the MySQL manual.

If reducing the column width is not an option, the column will need to be converted to a TEXT data type.

Note that using very long character columns should be carefully evaluated. Advanced DBAs know the implications, however it’s worth mentioning that in relation to the topic of internal temporary tables, character columns larger than 512 characters cause on-disk tables to be used; large object columns (BLOB/TEXT) don’t have this problem from version 8.0.3 onwards (see MySQL manual).
Therefore, large object columns are suitable for a larger amount of use cases than they were in the past.

Issue: Triggers/Functions

Triggers and functions also require review.

Since they are executed outside the context of a connection, they carry their charset settings:

# [...]
# character_set_client: utf8
# collation_connection: utf8_general_ci
#   Database Collation: utf8_general_ci

On one hand, those properties can be executed at any point of the migration, as they act exactly as described in the connection configurations section.

On the other hand, we need to take care of explicit COLLATE clauses involving columns being converted, if present.

Suppose we have this statement:

  SET @column_updated := OLD.strcol <=> NEW.strcol COLLATE utf8_bin;

If we migrate the column to utf8, as soon as the ALTER TABLE completes, any operation associated to the trigger (eg. INSERT) will always fail, because the utf8_bin collation is not compatible with the new utf8mb4 charset.

The solution is fairly simple - the trigger needs to be dropped before the ALTER TABLE, and recreated after. This of course, can be a serious challenge for high-traffic websites.

Issue: Joins between columns with heterogeneous charsets

Inevitably, some tables will be converted before others; even assuming parallel conversion, it’s not possible (without locking) to synchronize the end of the conversion of a set of given tables.

This creates a problem for a specific case: JOINs between columns of heterogeneous charsets - in practice, between a utf8 column and an utf8mb4 one.

In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem in itself. Let’s see what MySQL does in this case; let’s create a couple of tables:

CREATE TABLE utf8_table (
  mb3col CHAR(1) CHARACTER SET utf8,
  KEY `mb3idx` (mb3col)

INSERT INTO utf8_table
VALUES ('a'), ('b'), ('c'), ('d'), ('e'), ('f'), ('g'), ('h'), ('i'), ('j'), ('k'), ('l'), ('m'),
       ('n'), ('o'), ('p'), ('q'), ('r'), ('s'), ('t'), ('u'), ('v'), ('w'), ('x'), ('y'), ('z');

CREATE TABLE utf8mb4_table (
  mb4col CHAR(1) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4,
  KEY `mb4idx` (mb4col)

INSERT INTO utf8mb4_table
VALUES ('a'), ('b'), ('c'), ('d'), ('e'), ('f'), ('g'), ('h'), ('i'), ('j'), ('k'), ('l'), ('m'),
       ('n'), ('o'), ('p'), ('q'), ('r'), ('s'), ('t'), ('u'), ('v'), ('w'), ('x'), ('y'), ('z'),

First, let’s see what happen for simple index scans.

EXPLAIN SELECT COUNT(*) FROM utf8mb4_table WHERE mb4col = _utf8'n';
# +----+-------------+---------------+------------+------+---------------+--------+---------+-------+------+----------+-------------+
# | id | select_type | table         | partitions | type | possible_keys | key    | key_len | ref   | rows | filtered | Extra       |
# +----+-------------+---------------+------------+------+---------------+--------+---------+-------+------+----------+-------------+
# |  1 | SIMPLE      | utf8mb4_table | NULL       | ref  | mb4idx        | mb4idx | 5       | const |    1 |   100.00 | Using index |
# +----+-------------+---------------+------------+------+---------------+--------+---------+-------+------+----------+-------------+

# [...]
# Message: /* select#1 */ select count(0) AS `COUNT(*)` from `db`.`utf8mb4_table` where (`db`.`utf8mb4_table`.`mb4col` = 'n')

Interestingly, it seems that MySQL converts the data before it reaches the optimizer; this is valuable knowledge, because with the current constraint(s), we can rely on the indexes as much as before the migration start.

What happens with JOINs?

EXPLAIN SELECT COUNT(*) FROM utf8_table JOIN utf8mb4_table ON mb3col = mb4col;
# +----+-------------+---------------+------------+-------+---------------+--------+---------+------+------+----------+--------------------------+
# | id | select_type | table         | partitions | type  | possible_keys | key    | key_len | ref  | rows | filtered | Extra                    |
# +----+-------------+---------------+------------+-------+---------------+--------+---------+------+------+----------+--------------------------+
# |  1 | SIMPLE      | utf8_table    | NULL       | index | NULL          | mb3idx | 4       | NULL |   26 |   100.00 | Using index              |
# |  1 | SIMPLE      | utf8mb4_table | NULL       | ref   | mb4idx        | mb4idx | 5       | func |    1 |   100.00 | Using where; Using index |
# +----+-------------+---------------+------------+-------+---------------+--------+---------+------+------+----------+--------------------------+

What’s func?

# Message: /* select#1 */ select count(0) AS `COUNT(*)` from `db`.`utf8_table` join `db`.`utf8mb4_table` where (convert(`db`.`utf8_table`.`mb3col` using utf8mb4) = `db`.`utf8mb4_table`.`mb4col`)

Very interesting; we see what MySQL does in this case: it iterates utf8_table.mb3col (specifically, it iterates the index mb3idx), and for each value, it converts it to utf8mb4, so that it can be sought it in the utf8mb4_table.mb4idx index.

Note that this is a simple case; more complex JOINs in the app should still be carefully reviewed.

Step 3: Altering the schema and tables

Now we can proceed to alter the production schema.

The schema encoding can be changed without any worry, as it’s not a locking operation (up to v5.7, database properties are stored in a separate file, db.opt).

The table changes are the “big deal”: we need to perform them without locking, and with an awareness of the implications.

In order to avoid table locking, we use gh-ost, which is easy to use and well-documented.

Generally speaking, each ALTER TABLE of the list generated in the previous step must be converted to a gh-ost command and executed.

For example, this DDL statement:

ALTER TABLE `mytable`
  MODIFY `strcol` char(1) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 DEFAULT NULL,
  MODIFY `strcol2` char(1) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 DEFAULT NULL;

needs to be performed as [simplified form]:

gh-ost --database="$production_schema" --table="mytable" --alter="
  CHARACTER SET utf8mb4,
  MODIFY `strcol` char(1) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 DEFAULT NULL,
  MODIFY `strcol2` char(1) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 DEFAULT NULL

This is a fairly simple procedure. Don’t forget to run ANALYZE TABLE on each table after it’s been rebuilt.

The problem that some users will have is triggers; gh-ost doesn’t support tables with triggers, so an alternative procedure needs to be applied by high-traffic websites using this functionality.


Little gotchas to be aware of!

Other schemas

Don’t forget to convert the other schemas as well!

In particular, if you’re on AWS, the schema tmp will need to be converted. Forgetting to do so may cause errors if this database is used for temporary data operations that involve the main production database.


It’s crucial to always run an ANALYZE TABLE for each table rebuilt. Gh-ost builds tables via successive insert, and it’s good (MySQL) DBA practice to:

run ANALYZE TABLE after loading substantial data into an InnoDB table, or creating a new index for one

See the MySQL manual for more informations.

Don’t rush the DROP TABLE

Gh-ost doesn’t delete the old table after replacing it - it only renames it. Be very careful when deleting it; a straight DROP TABLE may flood the server with I/O.

Internally, we have a script for dropping large tables that first drops the indexes one by one, then deletes the records in chunks, and only at the end drops the (now empty) table.

Notes about Mathias Bynens’ post on the same subject

There’s a popular post about the same subject, by a V8 developer (Mathias Bynens).

A couple of concepts are worth considering:

# For each table
REPAIR TABLE table_name;
OPTIMIZE TABLE table_name;

From this, it can be deduced that the author uses MyISAM, as InnoDB doesn’t support REPAIR TABLE (see the MySQL manual).

make sure to repair and optimize all databases and tables […] ran into some weird bugs where UPDATE statements didn’t have any effect, even though no errors were thrown

this is very likely a bug, and based on the previous point, it may be MyISAM related (or related to ALTER TABLE). MyISAM has been essentially abandoned for a long time, and we’ve experienced buggy behaviors as well (although not in the context of charsets), so it wouldn’t be a surprise; the post is also very old (2012).

We’re entirely on InnoDB, and we didn’t experience any issue when changing the charset via ALTER TABLE (small tables in our model have been done this way). It’s also worth considering that gh-ost alters tables by creating an empty table and slowly filling it, which is different from issuing an ALTER TABLE.

If somebody still wanted to do a rebuild of the table, note that OPTIMIZE TABLE performs a full rebuild followed by ANALYZE TABLE, so it’s not required to run the latter statement separately.


Considering that migrating a database to utf8mb4 implies literally rebuilding the entire database’s data, it’s been a ride with relatively few bumps.

The core issue is handling JOINs between columns being migrated; it may not be a trivial matter, but it’s possible to get deterministic behavior with a thorough analysis.

Projects planning to move to MySQL 8.0 are encouraged to perform this step ahead, to shift as many possible changes related to the upgrade ahead of the upgrade itself.

All in all, migrating to utf8mb4 is a very significant change, but knowing where to look at, it’s possible to perform it smoothly.


¹ Very likely, partial indexes are a fit solution to this problem, but they’re not supported by MySQL.