Ordering and Causality

There are several reasons why ordering keeps coming up, and one of the reasons is that it helps preserve causality. We have already seen several examples over the course of this book where causality has been important:

• In “Consistent Prefix Reads” on page 165 (Figure 5-5) we saw an example where the observer of a conversation saw first the answer to a question, and then the question being answered. This is confusing because it violates our intuition of cause and effect: if a question is answered, then clearly the question had to be there first, because the person giving the answer must have seen the question (assuming they are not psychic and cannot see into the future). We say that there is a causal dependency between the question and the answer.

  • • A similar pattern appeared in Figure 5-9, where we looked at the replication between three leaders and noticed that some writes could “overtake” others due to network delays. From the perspective of one of the replicas it would look as though there was an update to a row that did not exist. Causality here means that a row must first be created before it can be updated.
  • • In “Detecting Concurrent Writes” on page 184 we observed that if you have two operations A and B, there are three possibilities: either A happened before B, or B happened before A, or A and B are concurrent. This happened before relationship is another expression of causality: if A happened before B, that means B might have known about A, or built upon A, or depended on A. If A and B are concurrent, there is no causal link between them; in other words, we are sure that neither knew about the other.
  • • In the context of snapshot isolation for transactions (“Snapshot Isolation and Repeatable Read” on page 237), we said that a transaction reads from a consistent snapshot. But what does “consistent” mean in this context? It means consistent with causality: if the snapshot contains an answer, it must also contain the question being answered [48]. Observing the entire database at a single point in time makes it consistent with causality: the effects of all operations that happened causally before that point in time are visible, but no operations that happened causally afterward can be seen. Read skew (non-repeatable reads, as illustrated in Figure 7-6) means reading data in a state that violates causality.
  • • Our examples of write skew between transactions (see “Write Skew and Phantoms” on page 246) also demonstrated causal dependencies: in Figure 7-8, Alice was allowed to go off call because the transaction thought that Bob was still on call, and vice versa. In this case, the action of going off call is causally dependent on the observation of who is currently on call. Serializable snapshot isolation (see “Serializable Snapshot Isolation (SSI)” on page 261) detects write skew by tracking the causal dependencies between transactions.
  • • In the example of Alice and Bob watching football (Figure 9-1), the fact that Bob got a stale result from the server after hearing Alice exclaim the result is a causality violation: Alice’s exclamation is causally dependent on the announcement of the score, so Bob should also be able to see the score after hearing Alice. The same pattern appeared again in “Cross-channel timing dependencies” on page 331 in the guise of an image resizing service.

Causality imposes an ordering on events: cause comes before effect; a message is sent before that message is received; the question comes before the answer. And, like in real life, one thing leads to another: one node reads some data and then writes something as a result, another node reads the thing that was written and writes something else in turn, and so on. These chains of causally dependent operations define the causal order in the system—i.e., what happened before what.

If a system obeys the ordering imposed by causality, we say that it is causally consistent. For example, snapshot isolation provides causal consistency: when you read from the database, and you see some piece of data, then you must also be able to see any data that causally precedes it (assuming it has not been deleted in the meantime).

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