Concurrency control is one area where databases differentiate themselves. It is an area that sets a database apart from a file system and that sets databases apart from each other. As a programmer, it is vital that your database application works correctly under concurrent access conditions, and yet this is something people fail to test time and time again. Techniques that work well if everything happens consecutively do not work so well when everyone does them simultaneously. If you don't have a good grasp of how your particular database implements concurrency control mechanisms, then you will:

  • Corrupt the integrity of your data.
  • Run slower than you should with a small number of users.
  • Decrease your ability to scale to a large number of users.

Notice I don't say, 'you might...' or 'you run the risk of...' but rather that invariably you will do these things. You will do these things without even realizing it. Without correct concurrency control, you will corrupt the integrity of your database because something that works in isolation will not work as you expect in a multi-user situation. You will run slower than you should because you'll end up waiting for data. You'll lose your ability to scale because of locking and contention issues. As the queues to access a resource get longer, the wait gets longer and longer. An analogy here would be a backup at a tollbooth. If cars arrive in an orderly, predictable fashion, one after the other, we never have a backup. If many cars arrive simultaneously, queues start to form. Furthermore, the waiting time does not increase in line with the number of cars at the booth. After a certain point we are spending considerable additional time 'managing' the people that are waiting in line, as well as servicing them (in the database, we would talk about context switching).

Concurrency issues are the hardest to track down — the problem is similar to debugging a multi-threaded program. The program may work fine in the controlled, artificial environment of the debugger but crashes horribly in the 'real world'. For example, under 'race conditions' you find that two threads can end up modifying the same data structure simultaneously. These kinds of bugs are terribly hard to track down and fix. If you only test your application in isolation and then deploy it to dozens of concurrent users, you are likely to be (painfully) exposed to an undetected concurrency issue. Over the next two sections, I'll relate two small examples of how the lack of understanding concurrency control can ruin your data or inhibit performance and scalability.

Implementing Locking

The database uses locks to ensure that, at most, one transaction is modifying a given piece of data at any given time. Basically, they are the mechanism that allows for concurrency — without some locking model to prevent concurrent updates to the same row, for example, multi-user access would not be possible in a database. However, if overused or used improperly, locks can actually inhibit concurrency. If you or the database itself locks data unnecessarily, then fewer people will be able to concurrently perform operations. Thus, understanding what locking is and how it works in your database is vital if you are to develop a scalable, correct application.

What is also vital is that you understand that each database implements locking differently. Some have page-level locking, others row level; some implementations escalate locks from row- level to page-level, some do not; some use read locks, others do not; some implement serializable transactions via locking and others via read-consistent views of data (no locks). These small differences can balloon into huge performance issues or downright bugs in your application if you do not understand how they work.

The following points sum up Oracle's locking policy:

  • Oracle locks data at the row level on modification only. There is no lock escalation to a block or table level, ever.
  • Oracle never locks data just to read it. There are no locks placed on rows of data by simple reads.
  • A writer of data does not block a reader of data. Let me repeat — reads are not blocked by writes. This is fundamentally different from almost every other database, where reads are blocked by writes.
  • A writer of data is blocked only when another writer of data has already locked the row it was going after. A reader of data never blocks a writer of data.

These facts must be taken into consideration when developing your application and you must also realize that this policy is unique to Oracle. A developer who does not understand how his or her database handles concurrency will certainly encounter data integrity issues (this is particularly common when a developer moves from another database to Oracle, or vice versa, and neglects to take the differing concurrency mechanisms into account in their application.

One of the side-effects of Oracle's 'non-blocking' approach is that if you actually want to ensure that no more than one user has access to a row at once, then you, the developer, need to do a little work yourself. Consider the following example. A developer was demonstrating to me a resource-scheduling program (for conference rooms, projectors, etc.) that he had just developed and was in the process of deploying. The application implemented a business rule to prevent the allocation of a resource to more than one person, for any given period of time. That is, the application contained code that specifically checked that no other user had previously allocated the time slot (as least the developer thought it did). This code queried the schedules table and, if no rows existed that overlapped that time slot, inserted the new row. So, the developer was basically concerned with two tables:

create table resources ( resource_name varchar2(25) primary key, ... );
create table schedules( resource_name varchar2(25) references resources,
    start_time    date,
    end_time      date );

And, before making, say, a room reservation, the application would query:

select count(*)
  from schedules
where resource_name = :room_name
  and (start_time between :new_start_time and :new_end_time
      end_time between :new_start_time and :new_end_time)

It looked simple and bullet-proof (to the developer anyway); if the count came back zero, the room was yours. If it came back non-zero, you could not reserve it for that period. Once I knew what his logic was, I set up a very simple test to show him the error that would occur when the application went live. An error that would be incredibly hard to track down and diagnose after the fact — one would be convinced it must be a database bug.