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SPTM - Shared Persistent Transactional Memory

Simple storage for lisp data, allowing distributed participants (processes) to interact via shared in-memory data structure.

Based on ideas of in-memory persistence and optimistic concurrency control. Operates via transaction log stored on Amazon Web Services (S3 and SimpleDB).

Informal Description of the Ideas

In-Memory Persistence

This idea is also known as Prevalence (there is also Common Lisp library cl-prevalence).

All persistent data modifications are expressed as named functions with parameters. For example

   (add-user database :id 1 :name "anton")
   (add-order database :id 117 :user 1 :book "AIMA" :count 1)
   (delete-user database :id 1)

Here database is some datastructure where you store the information, and add-user, add-order, delete-user are your functions which modify the database.

To make the modifications persistent they are executed in transactions

   (execute-transaction database 'add-user (list :id 1 :name "anton"))
   (execute-transaction database 'add-order (list :id 117 :user 1 :book "AIMA" :count 1))
   (execute-transaction database 'delete-user (list :id 1))

The execute-transaction first applies the specified function to arguments, thus modifying the database, and then records the function name and all the arguments, except for the database argument, to a transaction log. In cl-prevalence transaction log is a file on local file system.

When application process is restarted after a crash or normal termination, it reads the transaction log and executes the functions specified there. In result all the database modifications are repeated, so the application sees its in-memory database persistent across restarts.

Besides the transaction log, a complete snapshot of database can be stored. Therefore the full procedure of restoring the in-memory database state when application is restarted is to read the snapshot if present, and then execute the transactions recorded in the log after the snapshot was made.

To make this working, all these functions have database as their first parameter, and all other parameters must be serializable.

The functions must be ready to receive arguments deserialized from log/snapshot, therefore we typically want to pass some string/numeric IDs as arguments, not whole object references. For example add-order accepts user ID as the parameter, but not a user object. Otherwise we might end up dealing with many copies of the same user object, duplicated by deserialization.

In contrast to cl-prevalence, in SPTM the transaction log and snapshots are stored online and may be used by several processes to share data.

For example cl-test-grid agents on different machines collect test results and publish them by recording add-test-run transaction to the online log. Then cl-test-grid admin executes all these transactions on his machine and so receives the data collected.

Concurrency Control

In cl-prevalence transactions in different application threads may be serialized using global lock aquired by the execute-transaction function, effectively serializing the transactions (which remains fast, as appending to a file is a very quick operation).

But in SPTM the transactions are executed in different processes running on different machines over Internet. How to synchronize them?

Here we use ideas from optimistic concurrency approach in Clojure's software transactional memory.

It has similarities with Prevalence - the data modifications are expressed as functions with parameters. But the functions are pure: they compute new version of data, instead of modifying the data destructively; also the functions do not perform any IO.

After the function has computed new version of data, an attempt to commit the transaction is performed (in Clojure this means storing new data value in a Ref; in SPTM this means adding a transaction record to the transaction log).

If during the commit attempt it is determined that another transaction(s) has commited since our transaction has started, the value computed by the function is discarded, the data is updated to reflect the changes made by concurrent (remote in case of SPTM) transactions, and our transaction is restarted again - execute the function and try to commit.

This protocol guarantees that everyone replaying the transaction log executes the functions on exactly the same data as the process which recorded this transaction to the log.

Data consistency checks are implemented in transaction functions. For example, withdraw-from-bank-account function should check that the account has enough funds, and signal a condition otherwise. If a concurrent transaction has spent all the funds, our transation signlas the condition, and user receives notification. Thus only consistent modifications of database are comitted to the transaction log.

Note also, that not all transactions require synchronization. For example add-test-run transaction in cl-test-grid: we just need to add test run results, this operation is not tied by any consistency constraint with other data in the database, so we can just freely record it. The sptm:record-transaction function provides this possibility.


So, we retrieve function names from transaction log and call these functions.

If the log is writable by untrusted parties, we can protect ourselves with a transaction-checker - a predicate on the function name. SPTM API accepts such a predicate as a parameter and uses it to verify that transactions refer only allowed functions before executing the transactions.


Please see example.lisp.

API and the Source Code

  • versioned-data.lisp - start here. Defines a two-slot class versioned-data which can annotate arbitrary data with a fixnum version. Also defines a protocol (set of generic functions) for transaction log. Then, based on the transaction log protocol defines the main functions to operate on versioned-data via transaction log: roll-forward, execute-transaction, record-transaction.
  • aws-transaction-log.lisp - implements the transaction log protocol using Amazon Web Services: S3 and SimpleDB.
  • replica.lisp - convenience class replica, combines transaction log, versioned-data and a local snapshot of the versioned-data, stored in a file.
  • amazon-simple-db.lisp - private tools to work with Amazon SimpleDB.
  • package.lisp - lists all the public API functions.

Storage Space at Amazon

You may use the demonstrational S3 bucket and SimpleDB domain as shown in the example.lisp. Many independent transaction logs may be stored on the same storage - just give every transaction log different name. The function sptm-example::make-demo-transaction-log demonstrates how to do this.

Please don't store too many data on this storage. Also the storage owner reserves right to delete the data at any time.

If you want to use your own storage, here are the steps:

  • Create an S3 bucket. This may be done via Amazon WS console.
  • Create a SimpleDB domain. Note, Amazon doesn't like dashes in S3 domain names, so use "yourdomain", but not "your-domain". The following call may be used to create a domain on desired SimpleDB endpoint host:
       (sptm::create-simpledb-domain "yourdomain"
           '(:credentials ("YOUR-ACCESS-KEY-ID" "YOUR-SECRET-ACCESS-KEY") :host "sdb.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com"))
  • [Optional] If you provide access to the log to 3rd parties, you may want to provide this access via separate user account created in Amazon Identity Manager (so called IAM users). That way you may quickly revoke access, and limit the access by these bucket and domain only.

    This separate user account must be granted the following permissions:

    • S3 bucket: PutObject, GetObject, DeleteObject;
    • SimpleDB domain: PutAttributes, GetAttributes, DeleteAttributes, Select.

    The resulting security policy for this user will look similar to this:

       "Statement": [
           "Sid": "Stmt1355322322649",
           "Action": [
           "Effect": "Allow",
           "Resource": [
           "Sid": "Stmt1355322452686",
           "Action": [
           "Effect": "Allow",
           "Resource": [

Further Notes and Restrictions

System Time on Your Machine

Amazon Web Services require each request to be annotated with a timestamp. If the timestamp is different by more than 15 minutes form system time of Amazon server, the request is rejected - http://docs.amazonwebservices.com/AmazonS3/latest/dev/RESTAuthentication.html#RESTAuthenticationTimeStamp. Therefore your machine must have correct system time to use SPTM.

Initial DB Content

If database is some kind of collection or map where the data is stored by transactions, the first question is how to create the empty database (empty map or collection).

Possible approach is to have the very first transaction to be a function returning this fresh database.

Another option is to write your application so, that versioned-data with version 0, which is created before executing any transactions, is always created with data slot initialized to a fresh database. All the further transactions can expect the database to be initialized. This little trick is used in example.lisp.

The Default Serialization is via cl:write / cl:read.

The default serialization of the transactions and snapshots stored online, and of the replica local snapshots is via cl:write / cl:read (with cl:*read-eval* bound to nil of course). To use different serialization it is necessary to customize the code, by overriding methods of certain generic functions.

Clojure Has Many Refs, SPTM Operates on a Single Big Database.

Using many independent Ref objects allows Clojure to reduce interference between transactions - transactions operating on different Refs are not conflicting and no retries are necessary for them, they are just commited freely.

For cl-test-grid the SPTM approach of a single database is enough.