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Re: incoherent view of serializable transactions

From: "Kevin Grittner" <Kevin(dot)Grittner(at)wicourts(dot)gov>
To: "Peter Eisentraut" <peter_e(at)gmx(dot)net>
Cc: "Heikki Linnakangas" <heikki(dot)linnakangas(at)enterprisedb(dot)com>,"Gregory Stark" <stark(at)enterprisedb(dot)com>,"Emmanuel Cecchet" <manu(at)frogthinker(dot)org>,<pgsql-hackers(at)postgresql(dot)org>,"Tom Lane" <tgl(at)sss(dot)pgh(dot)pa(dot)us>
Subject: Re: incoherent view of serializable transactions
Date: 2009-01-22 03:00:16
Message-ID: (view raw, whole thread or download thread mbox)
Lists: pgsql-hackers
Here's a shot at a more radical revision, to try to address concerns
raised over my failure in the previous (very minimal) suggested patch
to address PostgreSQL behavior close to where the spec's behavior is
described, and my dragging in of language directly from the spec in a
confusing context.  I'd appreciate any corrections or suggestions
before I massage it into sgml.
Also, I don't know if I should leave it with the one example or
whether there should be more.  I could leave in the old example,
although the popular example of reversing updates (one transaction
updates all card rows to 'face-up' where they are 'face-down' and vice
versa) seems easier to understand.  One or both of these?  Other
Also, I tried using SELECT FOR SHARE and SELECT FOR HOLD as the
complete solution or instead of one of the table locks, but was able
to generate anomalies in all such cases.  If someone has a less
extreme technique for blocking the anomalies in the receipt example
(even when the SELECT of the deposit date for a receipt is in a
separate statement earlier in the transaction), please let me know, so
that I can include it.
If time permits I might take a stab at expanding the section on data
consistency checks at the application level; however, that seems less
urgent than correcting the obsolescent discussions of the SQL standard
and describing some of the anomalies not covered by a discussion of
consistency checks.
13.2. Transaction Isolation
The SQL standard defines four levels of transaction isolation in terms
of three phenomena that must be prevented between concurrent
transactions, with additional constraints on Serializable
transactions. These undesirable phenomena are: 
dirty read 
A transaction reads data written by a concurrent uncommitted
nonrepeatable read 
A transaction re-reads data it has previously read and finds that data
has been modified by another transaction (that committed since the
initial read). 
phantom read 
A transaction re-executes a query returning a set of rows that satisfy
a search condition and finds that the set of rows satisfying the
condition has changed due to another recently-committed transaction.
The four transaction isolation levels and the corresponding behaviors
are described in Table 13-1.
Table 13-1. SQL Transaction Isolation Levels
<table here>
The standard also requires that serializable transactions behave as
though they were run one at a time, even though their execution may
actually overlap. Since the phenomena described above relate to the
visibility of the effects of concurrent transactions, and each
serializable transaction must behave as though it were run in its
entirety either before or after every other transaction, none of the
above phenomena can occur within a serializable transaction.
In practice there is another popular transaction isolation level, not
mentioned in the standard, generally known as Snapshot isolation
level.  A transaction executed at this transaction isolation level
sees a consistent view of the data; changes made by other transactions
are not visible to it.  Because of this, none of the phenomena
described above are possible.  Additionally, when concurrent
transactions running at this level attempt to modify the same data,
the update conflict causes causes transaction rollback to prevent many
forms of update anomalies.  Still, data may be viewed or stored in a
state which is not consistent with any serial execution of
transactions run at this level, so although it is more strict than
required for Repeatable Read, it does not meet the standard's
definition of the Serializable transaction isolation level.
In PostgreSQL you can request any of the four standard transaction
isolation levels, but internally there are only two distinct isolation
levels, which correspond to the levels Read Committed and Snapshot.
When you select the level Read Uncommitted you really get Read
Committed, and when you select Repeatable Read or Serializable you
really get Snapshot.  Since the standard does not provide for the
Snapshot isolation level, PostgreSQL reports it as Serializable.  The
behavior of the available isolation levels is detailed in the
following subsections. 
To set the transaction isolation level of a transaction, use the
command SET TRANSACTION. or specify the desired transaction isolation
13.2.1. Read Committed Isolation Level
13.2.2. Snapshot Isolation Level
The Snapshot level (reported as Serializable) provides the strictest
transaction isolation available in PostgreSQL. This level approximates
serial transaction execution, as if transactions had been executed one
after another, serially, rather than concurrently. However,
applications using this level must be prepared to retry transactions
due to serialization failures.
When a transaction is on the this level, a SELECT query sees only data
committed before the transaction began; it never sees either
uncommitted data or changes committed during transaction execution by
concurrent transactions. (However, the SELECT does see the effects of
previous updates executed within its own transaction, even though they
are not yet committed.) This is different from Read Committed in that
the SELECT sees a snapshot as of the start of the transaction, not as
of the start of the current query within the transaction. Thus,
successive SELECT commands within a single transaction always see the
same data.
behave the same as SELECT in terms of searching for target rows: they
will only find target rows that were committed as of the transaction
start time. However, such a target row might have already been updated
(or deleted or locked) by another concurrent transaction by the time
it is found. In this case, the transaction will wait for the first
updating transaction to commit or roll back (if it is still in
progress). If the first updater rolls back, then its effects are
negated and the transaction can proceed with updating the originally
found row. But if the first updater commits (and actually updated or
deleted the row, not just locked it) then the transaction will be
rolled back with the message
ERROR:  could not serialize access due to concurrent update
because a snapshot transaction cannot modify or lock rows changed by
other transactions after the transaction began.
When the application receives this error message, it should abort the
current transaction and then retry the whole transaction from the
beginning. The second time through, the transaction sees the
previously-committed change as part of its initial view of the
database, so there is no logical conflict in using the new version of
the row as the starting point for the new transaction's update.
Note that only updating transactions might need to be retried;
read-only transactions will never have serialization conflicts.
The Snapshot mode provides a rigorous guarantee that each transaction
sees and modifies an unchanging view of the database. However, the
application has to be prepared to retry transactions when concurrent
updates make it impossible to update the original snapshot. Since the
cost of redoing complex transactions might be significant, this mode
is recommended only when updating transactions contain logic
sufficiently complex that they might give wrong answers in Read
Committed mode. Most commonly, Snapshot mode is necessary when a
transaction executes several successive commands that must see
identical views of the database. PostgreSQL Serializable Isolation versus True
With true serializability, any database transaction which can be shown
to be correct and safe if run by itself is automatically safe when run
in any mix of serializable transactions.  PostgreSQL's MVCC framework,
snapshot isolation, and limited automatic row-level locking permit a
greater degree of concurrency than some other databases; however, even
when the transaction isolation level is set to serializable,
serialization anomalies can occur in some situations. When it is
important to prevent these anomalies, explicit row-level or
table-level locking can be used at the expense of reduced concurrency.
Since PostgreSQL protects a Serializable transaction against changes
in the view of the data, and uses locks to prevent modification of
data which is being modified by a concurrent transaction, the
anomalies can only occur when a transaction reads data which is
modified by a concurrent transaction, and uses that as the basis for
database modifications which are read by a concurrent transaction.
Data consistency checks at the application level have a problem with
this in general, and are addressed in section 13.4.  Some examples of
other types of anomalies follow, with suggestions on how to use
explicit locking to prevent the anomalies where needed.
Consider a system which records receipts, each of which must go into a
daily deposit. There is a control table with one row containing the
current deposit date for receipts. Each transaction which is inserting
a receipt selects the deposit date from the control table within its
transaction, and uses it for the receipt's deposit date. Somewhere
mid-afternoon the control table's date is updated, all subsequent
receipts should fall into the new day, and a report is run listing the
receipts for the day and giving the deposit total.  Serializable
transaction isolation mode is requested for every transaction
If all transactions involved were truly serializable, any successful
SELECT of receipts for a date prior to the deposit date of the control
table (as shown by a SELECT in the same transaction) would see the
complete, final set of receipts for the completed deposit date.  To
preserve this view of the data, one or more transactions might need to
block until the commit or rollback of other transactions, and one or
more transaction might need to be rolled back and run again from the
Under the PostgreSQL implementation there is no blocking and no chance
of rollbacks; however, there can be a window of time during which a
SELECT can return an incomplete list of receipts for a date which
appears to be closed, even if Serializable mode is requested for all
transactions modifying and viewing data. This window of time runs from
the commit of the transaction which updated the control table until
the commit of any pending transactions which are inserting receipts
and which obtained a snapshot before the update of the control table. 
A database transaction, even if declared Serializable, which selects
the sum of the receipts for the closed date and saves it into a daily
deposit table, will persist an inaccurate value if run during this
same window of time.
Alarming as this might sound, if the transactions which insert
receipts commit very quickly after the snapshot is obtained, this
anomaly might never appear in a real-life system.  If the risk is
acceptable, or can be controlled by external means, such as delaying
the run of the daily receipt report for a few seconds after the update
of the control table, no further action is required.  It is up to the
software developer to recognize where the risk is unacceptable and to
decide on a technique to control each known conflict.
To prevent the anomaly described above, transactions which insert
receipts and transactions which advance the deposit date must both
acquire a common lock as their first step.  This lock could be
acquired on either the control table or the receipt table.

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