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Implementing read committed

Read committed is a very popular isolation level. It is the default setting in Oracle 11g, PostgreSQL, SQL Server 2012, MemSQL, and many other databases [8].

Most commonly, databases prevent dirty writes by using row-level locks: when a transaction wants to modify a particular object (row or document), it must first acquire a lock on that object. It must then hold that lock until the transaction is committed or aborted. Only one transaction can hold the lock for any given object; if another transaction wants to write to the same object, it must wait until the first transaction is committed or aborted before it can acquire the lock and continue. This locking is done automatically by databases in read committed mode (or stronger isolation levels).

How do we prevent dirty reads? One option would be to use the same lock, and to require any transaction that wants to read an object to briefly acquire the lock and then release it again immediately after reading. This would ensure that a read couldn’t happen while an object has a dirty, uncommitted value (because during that time the lock would be held by the transaction that has made the write).

However, the approach of requiring read locks does not work well in practice, because one long-running write transaction can force many read-only transactions to wait until the long-running transaction has completed. This harms the response time of read-only transactions and is bad for operability: a slowdown in one part of an application can have a knock-on effect in a completely different part of the application, due to waiting for locks.

For that reason, most databases[1] prevent dirty reads using the approach illustrated in Figure 7-4: for every object that is written, the database remembers both the old committed value and the new value set by the transaction that currently holds the write lock. While the transaction is ongoing, any other transactions that read the object are simply given the old value. Only when the new value is committed do transactions switch over to reading the new value.

  • [1] At the time of writing, the only mainstream databases that use locks for read committed isolation are IBMDB2 and Microsoft SQL Server in the read_committed_snapshot=off configuration [23, 36].
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