Transaction guidelines

This document gives a few examples of the usage of database transactions in application code.

For further reference, check PostgreSQL documentation about transactions.

Database decomposition and sharding

The Pods Group plans to split the main GitLab database and move some of the database tables to other database servers.

We start decomposing the ci_*-related database tables first. To maintain the current application development experience, we add tooling and static analyzers to the codebase to ensure correct data access and data modification methods. By using the correct form for defining database transactions, we can save significant refactoring work in the future.

The transaction block

The ActiveRecord library provides a convenient way to group database statements into a transaction:

issue = Issue.find(10)
project = issue.project

ApplicationRecord.transaction do
  issue.update!(title: 'updated title')
  project.update!(last_update_at: Time.now)
end

This transaction involves two database tables. In case of an error, each UPDATE statement rolls back to the previous consistent state.

note
Avoid referencing the ActiveRecord::Base class and use ApplicationRecord instead.

Transaction and database locks

When a transaction block is opened, the database tries to acquire the necessary locks on the resources. The type of locks depend on the actual database statements.

Consider a concurrent update scenario where the following code is executed at the same time from two different processes:

issue = Issue.find(10)
project = issue.project

ApplicationRecord.transaction do
  issue.update!(title: 'updated title')
  project.update!(last_update_at: Time.now)
end

The database tries to acquire the FOR UPDATE lock for the referenced issue and project records. In our case, we have two competing transactions for these locks, and only one of them successfully acquires them. The other transaction has to wait in the lock queue until the first transaction finishes. The execution of the second transaction is blocked at this point.

Transaction speed

To prevent lock contention and maintain stable application performance, the transaction block should finish as fast as possible. When a transaction acquires locks, it holds on to them until the transaction finishes.

Apart from application performance, long-running transactions can also affect application upgrade processes by blocking database migrations.

Dangerous example: third-party API calls

Consider the following example:

member = Member.find(5)

Member.transaction do
  member.update!(notification_email_sent: true)

  member.send_notification_email
end

Here, we ensure that the notification_email_sent column is updated only when the send_notification_email method succeeds. The send_notification_email method executes a network request to an email sending service. If the underlying infrastructure does not specify timeouts or the network call takes too long time, the database transaction stays open.

Ideally, a transaction should only contain database statements.

Avoid doing in a transaction block:

  • External network requests such as:
    • Triggering Sidekiq jobs.
    • Sending emails.
    • HTTP API calls.
    • Running database statements using a different connection.
  • File system operations.
  • Long, CPU intensive computation.
  • Calling sleep(n).

Explicit model referencing

If a transaction modifies records from the same database table, we advise to use the Model.transaction block:

build_1 = Ci::Build.find(1)
build_2 = Ci::Build.find(2)

Ci::Build.transaction do
  build_1.touch
  build_2.touch
end

The transaction above uses the same database connection for the transaction as the models in the transaction block. In a multi-database environment the following example is dangerous:

# `ci_builds` table is located on another database
class Ci::Build < CiDatabase
end

build_1 = Ci::Build.find(1)
build_2 = Ci::Build.find(2)

ApplicationRecord.transaction do
  build_1.touch
  build_2.touch
end

The ApplicationRecord class uses a different database connection than the Ci::Build records. The two statements in the transaction block are not part of the transaction and are rolled back in case something goes wrong. They act as 3rd part calls.