Data and Information

Errors in Database Systems, Eventual Consistency, and the CAP Theorem

MIT Adjunct Professor Michael Stonebraker

Recently, there has been considerable renewed interest in the CAP theorem [1] for database management system (DBMS) applications that span multiple processing sites. In brief, this theorem states that there are three interesting properties that could be desired by DBMS applications:

C: Consistency. The goal is to allow multisite transactions to have the familiar all-or-nothing semantics, commonly supported by commercial DBMSs. In addition, when replicas are supported, one would want the replicas to always have consistent states.

A: Availability. The goal is to support a DBMS that is always up. In other words, when a failure occurs, the system should keep going, switching over to a replica, if required. This feature was popularized by Tandem Computers more than 20 years ago.

P: Partition-tolerance. If there is a network failure that splits the processing nodes into two groups that cannot talk to each other, then the goal would be to allow processing to continue in both subgroups.

The CAP theorem is a negative result that says you cannot simultaneously achieve all three goals in the presence of errors. Hence, you must pick one objective to give up.

In the NoSQL community, this theorem has been used as the justification for giving up consistency. Since most NoSQL systems typically disallow transactions that cross a node boundary, then consistency applies only to replicas. Therefore, the CAP theorem is used to justify giving up consistent replicas, replacing this goal with “eventual consistency.” With this relaxed notion, one only guarantees that all replicas will converge to the same state eventually, i.e., when network connectivity has been re-established and enough subsequent time has elapsed for replica cleanup. The justification for giving up C is so that the A and P can be preserved.

The purpose of this blog post is to assert that the above analysis is suspect, and that recovery from errors has more dimensions to consider. We assume a typical hardware model of a collection of local processing and storage nodes assembled into a cluster using LAN networking. The clusters, in turn, are wired together using WAN networking.

Let’s start with a discussion of what causes errors in databases. The following is at least a partial list:

1) Application errors. The application performed one or more incorrect updates. Generally, this is not discovered for minutes to hours thereafter. The database must be backed up to a point before the offending transaction(s), and subsequent activity redone.

2) Repeatable DBMS errors. The DBMS crashed at a processing node. Executing the same transaction on a processing node with a replica will cause the backup to crash. These errors have been termed Bohr bugs. [2]

3) Unrepeatable DBMS errors. The database crashed, but a replica is likely to be ok. These are often caused by weird corner cases dealing with asynchronous operations, and have been termed Heisenbugs [2]

4) Operating system errors. The OS crashed at a node, generating the “blue screen of death.”

5) A hardware failure in a local cluster. These include memory failures, disk failures, etc. Generally, these cause a “panic stop” by the OS or the DBMS. However, sometimes these failures appear as Heisenbugs.

6) A network partition in a local cluster. The LAN failed and the nodes can no longer all communicate with each other.

7) A disaster. The local cluster is wiped out by a flood, earthquake, etc. The cluster no longer exists.

8) A network failure in the WAN connecting clusters together. The WAN failed and clusters can no longer all communicate with each other.

First, note that errors 1 and 2 will cause problems with any high availability scheme. In these two scenarios, there is no way to keep going; i.e., availability is impossible to achieve. Also, replica consistency is meaningless; the current DBMS state is simply wrong. Error 7 will only be recoverable if a local transaction is only committed after the assurance that the transaction has been received by another WAN-connected cluster. Few application builders are willing to accept this kind of latency. Hence, eventual consistency cannot be guaranteed, because a transaction may be completely lost if a disaster occurs at a local cluster before the transaction has been successfully forwarded elsewhere. Put differently, the application designer chooses to suffer data loss when a rare event (such as a disaster) occurs, because the performance penalty for avoiding it is too high.

As such, errors 1, 2, and 7 are examples of cases for which the CAP theorem simply does not apply. Any real system must be prepared to deal with recovery in these cases. The CAP theorem cannot be appealed to for guidance.

Let us now turn to cases where the CAP theorem might apply. Consider error 6 where a LAN partitions. In my experience, this is exceedingly rare, especially if one replicates the LAN (as Tandem did). Considering local failures (3, 4, 5, and 6), the overwhelming majority cause a single node to fail, which is a degenerate case of a network partition that is easily survived by lots of algorithms. Hence, in my opinion, one is much better off giving up P rather than sacrificing C. (In a LAN environment, I think one should choose CA rather than AP). Newer SQL OLTP systems (e.g., VoltDB and NimbusDB) appear to do exactly this.

Next, consider error 8, a partition in a WAN network. There is enough redundancy engineered into today’s WANs that a partition is quite rare. My experience is that local failures and application errors are way more likely. Moreover, the most likely WAN failure is to separate a small portion of the network from the majority. In this case, the majority can continue with straightforward algorithms, and only the small portion must block. Hence, it seems unwise to give up consistency all the time in exchange for availability of a small subset of the nodes in a fairly rare scenario.

Lastly, consider a slowdown either in the OS, the DBMS, or the network manager. This may be caused by skew in load, buffer pool issues, or innumerable other reasons. The only decision one can make in these scenarios is to “fail” the offending component; i.e., turn the slow response time into a failure of one of the cases mentioned earlier. In my opinion, this is almost always a bad thing to do. One simply pushes the problem somewhere else and adds a noticeable processing load to deal with the subsequent recovery. Also, such problems invariably occur under a heavy load–dealing with this by subtracting hardware is going in the wrong direction.

Obviously, one should write software that can deal with load spikes without failing; for example, by shedding load or operating in a degraded mode. Also, good monitoring software will help identify such problems early, since the real solution is to add more capacity. Lastly, self-reconfiguring software that can absorb additional resources quickly is obviously a good idea.

In summary, one should not throw out the C so quickly, since there are real error scenarios where CAP does not apply and it seems like a bad tradeoff in many of the other situations.

[1] Eric Brewer, “Towards Robust Distributed Systems,”

72 1024×768 Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE

[2] Jim Gray, “Why Do Computers Stop and What Can be Done About It,” Tandem Computers Technical Report 85.7, Cupertino, Ca., 1985.

Disclosure: In addition to being an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michael Stonebraker is associated with four startups that are either producers or consumers of database technology.

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More