Mike Stonebraker published an excellent blog posting yesterday at the CACM site: Errors in Database Systems, Eventual Consistency, and the CAP Theorem. In this article, Mike challenges the application of Eric Brewer’s CAP Theorem by the NoSQL database community. Many of the high-scale NoSQL system implementers have argued that the CAP theorem forces them to go with an eventual consistent model.

Mike challenges this assertion pointing that some common database errors are not avoided by eventual consistency and CAP really doesn’t apply in these cases. If you have an application error, administrative error, or database implementation bug that losses data, then it is simply gone unless you have an offline copy. This, by the way, is why I’m a big fan of deferred delete. This is a technique where deleted items are marked as deleted but not garbage collected until some days or preferably weeks later. Deferred delete is not full protection but it has saves my butt more than once and I’m a believer. See On Designing and Deploying Internet-Scale Services for more detail.

CAP and the application of eventual consistency doesn’t directly protect us against application or database implementation errors. And, in the case of a large scale disaster where the cluster is lost entirely, again, neither eventual consistency nor CAP offer a solution. Mike also notes that network partitions are fairly rare. I could quibble a bit on this one. Network partitions should be rare but net gear continues to cause more issues than it should. Networking configuration errors, black holes, dropped packets, and brownouts, remain a popular discussion point in post mortems industry-wide. I see this improving over the next 5 years but we have a long way to go. In Networking: the Last Bastion of Mainframe Computing, I argue that net gear is still operating on the mainframe business model: large, vertically integrated and expensive equipment, deployed in pairs. When it comes to redundancy at scale, 2 is a poor choice.

Mike’s article questions whether eventual consistency is really the right answer for these workloads. I made some similar points in “I love eventual consistency but…” In that posting, I argued that many applications are much easier to implement with full consistency and full consistency can be practically implemented at high scale. In fact, Amazon SimpleDB recently announced support for full consistency. Apps needed full consistency are now easier to write and, where only eventual consistency is needed, its available as well.

Don’t throw full consistency out too early. For many applications, it is both affordable and helps reduce application implementation errors.


Thanks to Deepak Singh for pointing me to this article.

James Hamilton

e: jrh@mvdirona.com

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