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An Atomic Rant

Brush Up Your Resume

You are probably not handling atomic operations properly in your app, and probably have some nasty lurking race conditions. The worst part is these will get worse as your user count increases, are difficult to reproduce, and usually happen to your most critical pieces of code. (And no, your rspec tests can't catch them either.)

Let's assume you're writing an app to enable students to enroll in courses. You need to ensure that no more than 30 students can sign up for a given course. In your enrollment code, you have something like this:

@course = Course.find(1)
if @course.num_students < 30
  @course.course_students.create!(:student_id => 101)
  @course.num_students += 1
  @course.save!
else
  # course is full
end

You're screwed. You now have 32 people in your 30 person class, and you have no idea what happened.

“Well no duh,” you're saying, “even the ActiveRecord docs mention locking, so I'll just use that.”

@course = Course.find(1, :lock => true)
if @course.num_students < 30
  # ...

Nice try, but now you've introduced other issues. Any other piece of code in your entire app that needs to update anything about the course - maybe the course name, or start date, or location - is now serialized. If you need high concurrency, you're still screwed.

You think, “ah-ha, the problem is having a separate counter!”

@course = Course.find(1)
if @course.course_students.count < 30
  @course.course_students.create!(:student_id => 101)
else
  # course is full
end

Nope. Still screwed.

The Root Down

It's worth understanding the root issue, and how to address it.

Race conditions arise from the difference in time between evaluating and altering a value. In our example, we fetched the record, then checked the value, then changed it. The more lines of code between those operations, and the higher your user count, the bigger the window of opportunity for other clients to get the data in an inconsistent state.

Sometimes race conditions don't matter in practice, since often a user is only operating their own data. This has a race condition, but is probably ok:

@post = Post.create(:user_id => @user.id, :title => "Whattup", ...)
@user.total_posts += 1  # update my post count

But this would be problematic:

@post = Post.create(:user_id => @user.id, :title => "Whattup", ...)
@blog.total_posts += 1  # update post count across all users

As multiple users could be adding posts concurrently.

In a traditional RDBMS, you can increment counters atomically (but not return them) by firing off an update statement that self-references the column:

update users set total_posts = total_posts + 1 where id = 372

You may have seen ActiveRecord’s increment_counter class method, which wraps this functionality. But outside of being cumbersome, this has the side effect that your object is no longer in sync with the DB, so you get other issues:

Blog.increment_counter :total_posts, @blog.id
if @blog.total_posts == 1000
  # the 1000th poster - award them a gold star!

The DB says 1000, but your @blog object still says 999, and the right person doesn't get their gold star. Sad faces all around.

A Better Way

Bottom line: Any operation that could alter a value must return that value in the same operation for it to be atomic. If you do a separate get then set, or set then get, you're open to a race condition. There are very few systems that support an “increment and return” type operation, and Redis is one of them (Oracle sequences are another).

When you think of the specific things that you need to ensure, many of these will reduce to numeric operations:

  • Ensuring there are no more than 30 students in a course

  • Getting more than 2 but less than 6 people in a game

  • Keeping a chat room to a max of 50 people

  • Correctly recording the total number of blog posts

  • Only allowing one piece of code to reorder a large dataset at a time

All except the last one can be implemented with counters. The last one will need a carefully placed lock.

The best way I've found to balance atomicity and concurrency is, for each value, actually create two counters:

  • A counter you base logic on (eg, slots_taken)

  • A counter users see (eg, current_students)

The reason you want two counters is you'll need to change the value of the logic counter first, before checking it, to address any race conditions. This means the value can get wonky momentarily (eg, there could be 32 slots_taken for a 30-person course). This doesn't affect its function - indeed, it's part of what makes it work - but does mean you don't want to display it.

So, taking our Course example:

class Course < ActiveRecord::Base
  include Redis::Atoms

  counter :slots_taken
  counter :current_students
end

Then:

@course = Course.find(1)
@course.slots_taken.increment do |val|
  if val <= @course.max_students
    @course.course_students.create!(:student_id => 101)
    @course.current_students.increment
  end
end

Race-condition free. And, with the separate current_students counter, your views get consistent information about the course, since it will only be incremented on success. There is still a race condition where current_students could be less than the real number of CourseStudent records, but since you'll be displaying these values in a view (after that block completes) you shouldn't see this manifest in real-world usage.

Now you can sleep soundly, without fear of getting fired at 3am via an angry phone call from your boss. (At least, not about this…)

Author

Copyright © 2009 Nate Wiger. All Rights Reserved. Rant released under Creative Commons.

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