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Detecting stale MVCC reads

Recall that snapshot isolation is usually implemented by multi-version concurrency control (MVCC; see Figure 7-10). When a transaction reads from a consistent snapshot in an MVCC database, it ignores writes that were made by any other transactions that hadn’t yet committed at the time when the snapshot was taken. In Figure 7-10, transaction 43 sees Alice as having on_call = true, because transaction 42 (which modified Alice’s on-call status) is uncommitted. However, by the time transaction 43 wants to commit, transaction 42 has already committed. This means that the write that was ignored when reading from the consistent snapshot has now taken effect, and transaction 43’s premise is no longer true.

Detecting when a transaction reads outdated values from an MVCC snapshot

Figure 7-10. Detecting when a transaction reads outdated values from an MVCC snapshot.

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In order to prevent this anomaly, the database needs to track when a transaction ignores another transaction’s writes due to MVCC visibility rules. When the transaction wants to commit, the database checks whether any of the ignored writes have now been committed. If so, the transaction must be aborted.

Why wait until committing? Why not abort transaction 43 immediately when the stale read is detected? Well, if transaction 43 was a read-only transaction, it wouldn’t need to be aborted, because there is no risk of write skew. At the time when transaction 43 makes its read, the database doesn’t yet know whether that transaction is going to later perform a write. Moreover, transaction 42 may yet abort or may still be uncommitted at the time when transaction 43 is committed, and so the read may turn out not to have been stale after all. By avoiding unnecessary aborts, SSI preserves snapshot isolation’s support for long-running reads from a consistent snapshot.

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