What is eventually consistent and will it work for you?

aws dynamodb

In the tech world we’re fond of inventing all sorts of technical terms, that are admittedly kind of confusing.

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I was attending an excellent talk recently called Data at Scale, part of the Database Month series that Eric Benari hosts. In it Mark Uhrmacher presented some phenomenal solutions which worked for flash site ideeli. It allowed them to support their incredible business model, where 15% of traffic would happen in 15 minutes everyday. As he called it a “self-imposed denial of service attack”. Interesting analogy.

What occurred to me though, is that a lot of companies and startups struggle to understand which database solutions will work for them, and what the strengths and weaknesses of each are, and further what tradeoffs they’ll grapple with.

One concept that we hear a lot is “eventually consistent”. Many of the new NoSQL databases achieve their speed & availability this way. But what’s it all about?

Let’s change a smartphone contact

I’m sure you have a smartphone in your pocket, and for demonstration sake I’ll use the iphone configured with iCloud.

Let’s go ahead and dial up your *OWN* contact card. Click “Edit” and go ahead and change something. Let’s change your title to “rock star”. Now click “Done”. We’ll wait a minute. Now go to your desktop and open up Contacts. Scroll through to your contact and verify that the Title field now shows “rock star”.

How does all this happen? When you click the “Done” button, the iphone sends changes up to iCloud. iCloud then lets your laptop know a change has happened and those then sync up.

Now let’s run through the same exercise, but change it in two places. We’ll change the smartphone contact to “Founder” and the desktop Contacts record title to “Consultant”. Wait a little bit and you’ll notice they will both eventually show “Consultant”.

Also: Why a killer title can make or break your content efforts

How long were laptop & phone out of sync?

As you probably noticed, the iCloud seems to lean in favor of the desktop client. It’s not clear to me what rules it uses here, nor does it seem to be configurable. Nevertheless eventually both the desktop and smartphone with have the same contact card for you. Quite a feat of magic!

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Handling collisions

There is only one *YOU* and presumably your digital rolodex reflects that too. You have one and only one contact card. Or do you? As far as these digital tools are concerned there are actually THREE! One on your desktop, one in iCloud and one on your phone. Each time you change in any of those places, it syncs *UP* to iCloud and then down to the other devices.

Collisions happen if you make changes in two places. Imagine if you’re a road warrior and your laptop was offline for some days, or your smartphone for that matter. In those cases that syncing would happen much later, and collisions more likely.

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In the high frequency world of online databases

With online databases, all of this becomes vastly more complex. Web based applications may have 100,000 simultaneous users. Some may be coming from IMEA while others the Americas. It gets pretty darn complex when you have databases in each of those regions.

We deploy applications this way, so one datacenter, say the East Coast region one version, can fail, but all the others still operate. They can still change data, read and write, without being impacted by the New York outage.

Once that datacenter is restored, the databases will then sync up and reconcile missing data.

Also: Why a killer title can make or break your content efforts

MariaDB and Amazon RDS read replicas

MySQL and it’s variants of MariaDB, Percona and Amazon RDS can do something like this with read-replicas. The read-only copies of the database are asynchronous and take time to catch up to changes. You can have the read-only copies in different regions.

This improves availability for browsing your application, but not for making changes. In other words MySQL can use this method to scale reads but not writes. That’s why I recommend your applications also support a browse only mode which means availability won’t be impacted if your authoritative master dies.

Although you can try to do the same for writes by sharding your MySQL instances, this starts to get very messy very fast. Imagine backing up 10 shards, 10x the complexity, and even more when you want to go and do a restore.

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Amazon’s Dynamo DB

Amazon’s DynamoDB is a technology based around the original Dynamo whitepaper which attempts to solve a whole class of problems by easing eventually consistent constraints.

What you get is more availability, it’s hard for the whole cluster to go down. That’s great for applications because they can continue to operate if one or more nodes fails. It also scales writes, which is a sort of holy grail in the database world as it’s typically hard to do.

But remember all this comes at a cost. Traditionally scaling writes is hard to do because all changes are kept in one place. You maintain a single authoritative master. If you want to imagine why this matters, think back to our smartphone example. We changed our contact card on our phone and our desktop at the same time. One of those two changes won the battle. But that’s a case where we’re not overly concerned.

If you imagine a bank doing the same thing, and you wire $1000 via phone and desktop, you can quickly see that there is a whole class of applications that won’t be happy with eventually consistent. Your web application may be one of those. Or it may not. Consider carefully before you go with Amazon RDS or DynamoDB as your datastore.

Read: Why startups need more than great developers to achieve scalability

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  • jjstiff

    Try mongodb?

  • http://www.iheavy.com/blog/ Sean Hull

    Thx for the suggestion jj. I’m a fan. Working on some articles about Mongo as we speak.

  • http://www.iheavy.com/blog/ Sean Hull

    Hello- I am reaching out as I saw your recent blog post mentioning Amazon Web Services’ DynamoDB. http://www.iheavy.com/2013/11/05/eventually-consistent-will-work/ We noticed in the blog that you note that DynamoDB supports “eventual consistency” but does not mention that DynamoDB also supports “strong consistency.” Would you be able to add to the blog to clarify that we also support strong consistency so that the picture is complete.

    Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can help to further clarify in any way.

    Thanks,
    Kerri

    Kerri Catallozzi
    PR Manager | Amazon Web Services
    kerricat@amazon.com
    206-765-3428