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Pessimistic versus optimistic concurrency control

Two-phase locking is a so-called pessimistic concurrency control mechanism: it is based on the principle that if anything might possibly go wrong (as indicated by a lock held by another transaction), it’s better to wait until the situation is safe again before doing anything. It is like mutual exclusion, which is used to protect data structures in multi-threaded programming.

Serial execution is, in a sense, pessimistic to the extreme: it is essentially equivalent to each transaction having an exclusive lock on the entire database (or one partition of the database) for the duration of the transaction. We compensate for the pessimism by making each transaction very fast to execute, so it only needs to hold the “lock” for a short time.

By contrast, serializable snapshot isolation is an optimistic concurrency control technique. Optimistic in this context means that instead of blocking if something potentially dangerous happens, transactions continue anyway, in the hope that everything will turn out all right. When a transaction wants to commit, the database checks whether anything bad happened (i.e., whether isolation was violated); if so, the trans?action is aborted and has to be retried. Only transactions that executed serializably are allowed to commit.

Optimistic concurrency control is an old idea [52], and its advantages and disadvantages have been debated for a long time [53]. It performs badly if there is high contention (many transactions trying to access the same objects), as this leads to a high proportion of transactions needing to abort. If the system is already close to its maximum throughput, the additional transaction load from retried transactions can make performance worse.

However, if there is enough spare capacity, and if contention between transactions is not too high, optimistic concurrency control techniques tend to perform better than pessimistic ones. Contention can be reduced with commutative atomic operations: for example, if several transactions concurrently want to increment a counter, it doesn’t matter in which order the increments are applied (as long as the counter isn’t read in the same transaction), so the concurrent increments can all be applied without conflicting.

As the name suggests, SSI is based on snapshot isolation—that is, all reads within a transaction are made from a consistent snapshot of the database (see “Snapshot Isolation and Repeatable Read” on page 237). This is the main difference compared to earlier optimistic concurrency control techniques. On top of snapshot isolation, SSI adds an algorithm for detecting serialization conflicts among writes and determining which transactions to abort.

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