Keeping Systems in Sync

As we have seen throughout this book, there is no single system that can satisfy all data storage, querying, and processing needs. In practice, most nontrivial applications need to combine several different technologies in order to satisfy their requirements: for example, using an OLTP database to serve user requests, a cache to speed up common requests, a full-text index to handle search queries, and a data warehouse for analytics. Each of these has its own copy of the data, stored in its own representation that is optimized for its own purposes.

As the same or related data appears in several different places, they need to be kept in sync with one another: if an item is updated in the database, it also needs to be updated in the cache, search indexes, and data warehouse. With data warehouses this synchronization is usually performed by ETL processes (see “Data Warehousing” on page 91), often by taking a full copy of a database, transforming it, and bulk-loading it into the data warehouse—in other words, a batch process. Similarly, we saw in “The Output of Batch Workflows” on page 411 how search indexes, recommendation systems, and other derived data systems might be created using batch processes.

If periodic full database dumps are too slow, an alternative that is sometimes used is dual writes, in which the application code explicitly writes to each of the systems when data changes: for example, first writing to the database, then updating the search index, then invalidating the cache entries (or even performing those writes concurrently).

However, dual writes have some serious problems, one of which is a race condition illustrated in Figure 11-4. In this example, two clients concurrently want to update an item X: client 1 wants to set the value to A, and client 2 wants to set it to B. Both clients first write the new value to the database, then write it to the search index. Due to unlucky timing, the requests are interleaved: the database first sees the write from client 1 setting the value to A, then the write from client 2 setting the value to B, so the final value in the database is B. The search index first sees the write from client 2, then client 1, so the final value in the search index is A. The two systems are now permanently inconsistent with each other, even though no error occurred.

In the database, X is first set to A and then to B, while at the search index the writes arrive in the opposite order

Figure 11-4. In the database, X is first set to A and then to B, while at the search index the writes arrive in the opposite order.

Unless you have some additional concurrency detection mechanism, such as the version vectors we discussed in “Detecting Concurrent Writes” on page 184, you will not even notice that concurrent writes occurred—one value will simply silently overwrite another value.

Another problem with dual writes is that one of the writes may fail while the other succeeds. This is a fault-tolerance problem rather than a concurrency problem, but it also has the effect of the two systems becoming inconsistent with each other. Ensuring that they either both succeed or both fail is a case of the atomic commit problem, which is expensive to solve (see “Atomic Commit and Two-Phase Commit (2PC)” on page 354).

If you only have one replicated database with a single leader, then that leader determines the order of writes, so the state machine replication approach works among replicas of the database. However, in Figure 11-4 there isn’t a single leader: the database may have a leader and the search index may have a leader, but neither follows the other, and so conflicts can occur (see “Multi-Leader Replication” on page 168).

The situation would be better if there really was only one leader—for example, the database—and if we could make the search index a follower of the database. But is this possible in practice?

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