The Slippery Concept of a Transaction

Almost all relational databases today, and some nonrelational databases, support transactions. Most of them follow the style that was introduced in 1975 by IBM System R, the first SQL database [1, 2, 3]. Although some implementation details have changed, the general idea has remained virtually the same for 40 years: the transaction support in MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle, SQL Server, etc., is uncannily similar to that of System R.

In the late 2000s, nonrelational (NoSQL) databases started gaining popularity. They aimed to improve upon the relational status quo by offering a choice of new data models (see Chapter 2), and by including replication (Chapter 5) and partitioning (Chapter 6) by default. Transactions were the main casualty of this movement: many of this new generation of databases abandoned transactions entirely, or redefined the word to describe a much weaker set of guarantees than had previously been understood [4].

With the hype around this new crop of distributed databases, there emerged a popular belief that transactions were the antithesis of scalability, and that any large-scale system would have to abandon transactions in order to maintain good performance and high availability [5, 6]. On the other hand, transactional guarantees are sometimes presented by database vendors as an essential requirement for “serious applications” with “valuable data.” Both viewpoints are pure hyperbole.

The truth is not that simple: like every other technical design choice, transactions have advantages and limitations. In order to understand those trade-offs, let’s go into the details of the guarantees that transactions can provide—both in normal operation and in various extreme (but realistic) circumstances.

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