How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the RDBMS

19 Mar 2015

I’ve been working with relational database technologies on and off for a big part of my tech career but over the last few years I’ve had the fortune (some may say the misfortune …) to be able to use a few of them in some depth. I’m currently involved in a heavy evaluation of RDBMS products (including Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, PostgreSQL and MySQL/MariaDB) as part of a standardization initiative, and I’m getting to learn a lot about all of them (their differences, commonalities and nuances). However, as of this writing, the one that I know best is Microsoft SQL Server (MS SQL).

Cognitive Friction

One thing that I’ve noticed as I’ve got up the learning curve with MS SQL, and helped others get up that same curve, is that there are some cognitive frustrations that experienced developers inevitably suffer when they first start working with SQL and relational engines.  Developers naturally want to control the algorithm that is used to access data and perform a calculation, but that’s precisely what you DO NOT do when you write a SQL query. SQL is a declarative language, as opposed to an imperative one, and it’s the query optimizer in the RDBMS that actually “writes” the code to really execute the query. I have spent many an hour staring at execution plans and thinking to myself “Why is the fracking optimizer choosing to do it that way as opposed to the way that I want it to be done?”. There comes a point where you just have to let go and trust that the optimizer knows what it’s doing. This is when you also start to develop an appreciation of the difference between a good cost-based optimizer and a poor one. You also appreciate the critical importance of creating the appropriate constructs in your database (e.g. indexes, foreign keys, up-to-date statistics) to give the optimizer as much information as you can on which to base its decisions.

Transactions and the ACID Properties

Another cognitive hurdle is that of concurrency.  An RDBMS is generally a multi-user system and has to manage and coordinate access to data across multiple client connection at varying granularities.  It’s all part and parcel of ensuring that the database engine can support its ACID promise.  Remember that one?  Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation and Durability.

At the heart of this is the concept of a transaction. As Wikipedia says so well, a transaction symbolizes a unit of work performed within a database management system (DBMS) against a database, and treated in a coherent and reliable way independent of other transactions. They provide an “all-or-nothing” proposition, stating that each work-unit must either complete in its entirety or have no effect whatsoever. Further, the system must isolate each transaction from other transactions, results must conform to existing constraints in the database and transactions that complete successfully must get written to durable storage. Transactions are one of the key mechanisms through which a DBMS ensures that it meets its ACID contract. And speaking of that contract …


The atomicity property requires that each transaction be “all-or-nothing”; if one part of the transaction fails, the entire transaction fails, and the database state is left unchanged. An atomic system must guarantee atomicity in each and every situation including power failures, errors and crashes. To the outside world, a committed transaction appears (by its effects on the database) to be indivisible (“atomic”) and an aborted transaction does not happen.


The consistency property ensures that any transaction will bring the database from one valid state to another. Any data written to the database must be valid according to all defined rules, including constraints, cascades, triggers and any combination thereof. This does not guarantee correctness of the transaction in all ways the application programmer might have wanted (that is the responsibility of application-level code) but merely that any programming errors cannot result in the violation of any defined rules in the database.


The isolation property ensures that the concurrent execution of transactions results in a system state that would be obtained if transactions were executed serially, i.e. one after the other. Providing isolation is the main goal of concurrency control. More on this below.


The durability property requires that once a transaction has been committed, it will remain so, even in the event of power loss, crashes or errors. To defend against power loss, transactions (or their effects) must be recorded in non-volatile memory.

Cognitive Friction Revisited

“So that’s all fine and dandy Alan, thanks for the background, but what has that got to do with this other cognitive hurdle that you say developers have to get over?  What’s the thing that they need to let go of?” - Ed.

Why, I’m glad you asked. It’s locking, or rather their control (or lack of control) over it. Any developer with experience of multi-threaded programming will look at an RDBMS and automatically think that data will need to be locked to ensure transaction isolation. However they will quickly realize that they never explicitly issue locks on things themselves. As with writing the actual query execution plan, this is the job of the database engine as opposed to the job of the database developer. This lack of direct control can freak out many an individual, especially when they see queries blocking each other and potentially even getting into deadlocks. Just recently I saw one, very experienced, C++ developer throw his hands up and claim that a database was “broken” because it was experiencing frequent query deadlocks. He wanted to “take control” of its locking but could not. It was not until I helped him to debug why his queries were deadlocking, and educated him about transaction isolation levels (see below), that he finally calmed down.

This is another example of the need to “let go” and trust that the database engine will ultimately do the right thing, as long as you embrace declarative programming and specify the sort of isolation level that you require for a given query. That’s the real trick; knowing that you can control the required isolation level for a transaction, or set of transactions, and understanding what those isolation levels mean. It’s more declarative programming again.

Transaction Isolation Levels

MS SQL supports four transaction isolation levels by default with a fifth one (Snapshot) being available if a database-level setting is on. There’s also another database-level setting that controls the behavior of the Read Committed transaction isolation level. More on this in due course. Full details of the available levels can be found on MSDN but a quick description follows.

Read Uncommitted

Transactions running at this level can read rows that have been modified by other transactions but not yet committed. They also do not issue shared locks to prevent other transactions from modifying data read by the current transaction. Such transactions are also not blocked by exclusive locks that would prevent the current transaction from reading rows that have been modified but not committed by other transactions. When this option is set, it is possible to read uncommitted modifications (you can get “dirty reads”). Values in the data can be changed and rows can appear or disappear in the data set before the end of the transaction.

This is the least restrictive of the isolation levels and is not typically used unless application developers specifically do not need consistency in their data model.

Read Committed

Transactions running at this level cannot read data that has been modified but not committed by other transactions, thus preventing “dirty reads”. However, data can be changed by other transactions between individual statements within the current transaction, resulting in non-repeatable reads (a row returned from a previous query has a different value when queried again) or phantom data (different rows come back from a repeat evaluation of the same query).

This is the default transaction isolation level. Unless a different level is specified (via the SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL command) then this is the level that will be used. The mechanism by which MS SQL achieves the semantics of this isolation level depends on the value of the database-level setting READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT. If that setting is off (the default) then the semantics are implemented via locking (reads will take out shared locks on objects and will block writers but not other readers). However, if the setting is on then MS SQL will use a row versioning scheme in order to allow transactions to see a snapshot of the state of committed data as of the start of each statement. Shared locks will no longer be taken by read statements in the transaction and so other transactions, that need exclusive locks, will not be blocked and their modifications will be accommodated via the row versioning scheme.

Note that the life of the data snapshot is just for the statement. The next statement in a multi-statement transaction will see a new snapshot (as of the start of that statement), and so data committed by other transactions will be visible within the current transaction. Non-repeatable reads and phantom data are still possible.

Repeatable Read

Transactions running at this level cannot read data that has been modified but not yet committed by other transactions; and also, no other transactions can modify data that has been read by the current transaction until the current transaction completes. This is achieved via locking. Shared locks are placed on all data read by each statement in the transaction and are held until the transaction completes. This prevents other transactions from modifying any rows that have been read by the current transaction.

Note that although other transactions can’t modify (update or delete) rows that match the search conditions of statements issued by the current transaction (i.e. the non-repeatable reads problem is avoided), they can insert new rows that would match those search conditions. This means that phantom data is still possible if the current transaction were to re-run statements.

Because shared locks are held to the end of a transaction instead of being released at the end of each statement, concurrency is lower than the default READ COMMITTED isolation level. It’s a trade off. If you need the data isolation guarantees of this level then you have to use it, but there will be more blocking of other transactions.


In transactions running at this level: statements cannot read data that has been modified but not yet committed by other transactions, no other transactions can modify data that has been read by the current transaction until the current transaction completes, and other transactions cannot insert new rows with key values that would fall in the range of keys read by any statements in the current transaction; until the current transaction completes.

This is achieved via yet more aggressive locking. Range locks are placed on the range of key values that match the search conditions of each statement executed in the transaction. This blocks other transactions from updating or inserting any rows that would qualify for any of the statements executed by the current transaction. Thus if any of the statements in a transaction are executed a second time, they will read the same set of rows.

This is the most restrictive of the isolation levels because it locks entire ranges of keys and holds the locks until the transaction completes. Again, it’s a trade off. Transaction concurrency is lowest when this level is in use but sometimes you just need the isolation guarantees.


As mentioned above, this level is not available by default but is enabled via a database-level setting (ALLOW_SNAPSHOT_ISOLATION). Similar to the implementation strategy for the READ COMMITTED isolation level (when the database-level READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT setting is on), MS SQL uses row versioning to facilitate snapshots of committed data and avoid shared locks. Different semantics to READ COMMITTED are provided though.

Any statement in a transaction running at this level will read the state of committed data that existed at the start of the transaction. Data modifications made by other transactions after the start of the current transaction are not visible to any statements executing in the current transaction. So effectively, the data snapshot lives for the life of the transaction as opposed to just one statement. Note however that the transaction can view changes made by itself. For example, if the transaction performs an UPDATE on a table and then issues a SELECT statement against the same table, the modified data will be visible.

Reads will not take out shared locks (as with the READ COMMITTED level when the READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT setting is on) and so other transactions that want to write data will not be blocked. Also though, transactions writing data do not block other SNAPSHOT level transactions from reading data.

Snapshot Disambiguation

One of the things that I see people confusing a lot when they start using MS SQL is the difference between the READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT setting and the SNAPSHOT transaction isolation level. People tend to think that READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT is, itself, another transaction isolation level just like SNAPSHOT. It is not. It is a database setting that “changes the implementation strategy” of the existing READ COMMITTED transaction isolation level. If someone says that they are running a transaction as READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT or using the READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT isolation level then that is wrong, and the speaker should be corrected.

Executing a transaction under the READ COMMITTED isolation level is a statement (this is declarative programming remember) of the sort of isolation that you require for your transaction. The semantics of that isolation are as described above. By default MS SQL will achieve these semantics via the use of shared locks on the objects that each statement in your transaction is reading; and those shared locks will cause other transactions that want to write to the same object, to block since they will request exclusive locks on those objects. However, if the database-level READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT setting is on, then MS SQL will achieve the required semantics via row-versioning and no shared locks will be taken. This will result in no contention with transactions that need to write data and is generally considered a GoodThing™.

Turning on the READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT database-level setting is a significant step. It will cause MS SQL to physically change the way that it stores data pages on disk, since it will now store “versions” of rows. Additional information has to be added to every row that is written to a data page under a row-versioned scheme and the old versions of the rows will be stored in tempdb as opposed to the regular data pages. Your database will grow in size and will be more reliant on tempdb. The degree to which this is the case will depend on the pattern of access from your clients.

Turning on this setting can, in some edge cases, lead to a change in the behavior of transactions running under the READ COMMITTED isolation level. An example of such an edge case can be found here. Now, there’s nothing wrong with turning on READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT, in fact I think that it should typically be used. There’s no risk of inconsistent behavior among running transactions when it is on, but there is a risk of a behavior change from when it is on to when it is off, or vice versa. If you determine that your database would benefit from row-versioning for the READ COMMITTED isolation level then turn it on early in the life of the database and then leave it on. If your database has been in place for years, and many client applications may have queries in place that use READ COMMITTED (which they will since it’s the default) then be careful since there is a risk, however small, that those clients will see a behavior change.

Optimism in Locking

We have been talking about row-versioning for a bit but let’s come back to locking. Locking is essential in order for an RDBMS to support a transaction’s requested isolation semantics when writes are involved, but that locking can either be done in a pessimistic or an optimistic way.

Under a “Pessimistic Locking” scheme an object (row, page, table, …) is locked immediately when a write lock is requested, while in an “Optimistic Locking” scheme it is only locked when the changes made to that record are updated. With pessimistic locking a write transaction will always succeed but under optimistic locking there’s a chance that another transaction might have written to the record first. When the first transaction then tries to commit it’s change MS SQL will detect the data inconsistency and cause the transaction to fail.

So, optimistic locking leads to the potential for write transactions to fail, and client applications will need to catch such failures and re-try, where it’s likely that the write will then succeed. Optimistic locking will provide for less blocking between transactions though and thus will allow client load against the database to scale better. It’s a trade off. I like to think that it’s one that is well worth it though, as long as you can coordinate the necessary logic changes with client applications. As with the READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT option above, if you plan to use SNAPSHOT isolation early in the life of a database, before client applications become accustomed to the behavior, then it’s easier to deploy.

You can read up on all the nuances of how to enable the READ_COMMITTED_SNAPSHOT and ALLOW_SNAPSHOT_ISOLATION settings here.

SQL Injection