Coherence Data Guarantees for Data Reads – Basic Terminology

When integrating Coherence into applications, each application has its own set of requirements with respect to data integrity guarantees. Developers often describe these requirements using expressions like “avoiding dirty reads” or “making sure that updates are transactional”, but we often find that even in a small group of people, there may be a wide range of opinions as to what these terms mean. This may simply be due to a lack of familiarity, but given that Coherence sits at an intersection of several (mostly) unrelated fields, it may be a matter of conflicting vocabularies (e.g. “consistency” is similar but different in transaction processing versus multi-threaded programming).

Since almost all data read consistency issues are related to the concept of concurrency, it is helpful to start with a definition of that, or rather what it means for two operations to be concurrent. Rather than implying that they occur “at the same time”, concurrency is a slightly weaker statement — it simply means that it can’t be proven that one event precedes (or follows) the other. As an example, in a Coherence application, if two client members mutate two different cache entries sitting on two different cache servers at roughly the same time, it is likely that one update will precede the other by a significant amount of time (say 0.1ms). However, since there is no guarantee that all four members have their clocks perfectly synchronized, and there is no way to precisely measure the time it takes to send a given message between any two members (that have differing clocks), we consider these to be concurrent operations since we can not (easily) prove otherwise.

So this leads to a question that we hear quite frequently: “Are the contents of the near cache always synchronized with the underlying distributed cache?”. It’s easy to see that if an update on a cache server results in a message being sent to each near cache, and then that near cache being updated that there is a window where the contents are different. However, this is irrelevant, since even if the application reads directly from the distributed cache, another thread update the cache before the read is returned to the application.

Even if no other member modifies a cache entry prior to the local near cache entry being updated (and subsequently read), the purpose of reading a cache entry is to do something with the result, usually either displaying for consumption by a human, or by updating the entry based on the current state of the entry. In the former case, it’s clear that if the data is updated faster than a human can perceive, then there is no problem (and in many cases this can be relaxed even further). For the latter case, the application must assume that the value might potentially be updated before it has a chance to update it. This almost aways the case with read-only caches, and the solution is the traditional optimistic transaction pattern, which requires the application to explicitly state what assumptions it made about the old value of the cache entry. If the application doesn’t want to bother stating those assumptions, it is free to lock the cache entry prior to reading it, ensuring that no other threads will mutate the entry, a pessimistic approach.

The optimistic approach relies on what is sometimes called a “fuzzy read”. In other words, the application assumes that the read should be correct, but it also acknowledges that it might not be. (I use the qualifier “sometimes” because in some writings, “fuzzy read” indicates the situation where the application actually sees an original value and then later sees an updated value within the same transaction — however, both definitions are roughly equivalent from an application design perspective). If the read is not correct it is called a “stale read”. Going back to the definition of concurrency, it may seem difficult to precisely define a stale read, but the practical way of detecting a stale read is that is will cause the encompassing transaction to roll back if it tries to update that value.

The pessimistic approach relies on a “coherent read”, a guarantee that the value returned is not only the same as the primary copy of that value, but also that it will remain that way. In most cases this can be used interchangeably with “repeatable read” (though that term has additional implications when used in the context of a database system).

In none of cases above is it possible for the application to perform a “dirty read”. A dirty read occurs when the application reads a piece of data that was never committed. In practice the only way this can occur is with multi-phase updates such as transactions, where a value may be temporarily update but then withdrawn when a transaction is rolled back. If another thread sees that value prior to the rollback, it is a dirty read. If an application uses optimistic transactions, dirty reads will merely result in a lack of forward progress (this is actually one of the main risks of dirty reads — they can be chained and potentially cause cascading rollbacks).

The concepts of dirty reads, fuzzy reads, stale reads and coherent reads are able to describe the vast majority of requirements that we see in the field. However, the important thing is to define the terms used to define requirements. A quick web search for each of the terms in this article will show multiple meanings, so I’ve selected what are generally the most common variations, but it never hurts to state each definition explicitly if they are critical to the success of a project (many applications have sufficiently loose requirements that precise terminology can be avoided).

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