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May 9, 2017 • 7 min read

Transactional Semantics in Theory and Practice

In the previous installment, we implemented a simple transaction manager, but we didn’t really say what it means to run code as a transaction, which features are considered transactional and which aren’t.

In this blog post, we’re first going to examine the theoretical priciples of transactional semantics, and afterwards look at how to put them into practice.

Why Bother?

It’s certainly fair to ask why we should bother.

Image a software program of your choice. If we take a step backwards from the actual code, we can describe the software as a state machine.

As the name implies, the state machine is always in a state. What the state consists of depends on the software. For example, a chess game might be in a state where it waits for the player’s next move. While it does this, it doesn’t change. At the software level, think of state as a combination of the values of all data structures.

Now something happens. Maybe the user pressed a key, or a hardware sensor fired, or a new packet arrived on the network. Our state machine responds according to which state it is in. When it does so, it performs a specific action and moves into a new state. This movement from one state to the next while performing an action in between is called a transition.

In a real-world program, the action is implemented by software. When the state is in data structures, the action is in algorithms.

When the software is in a specific state, a specific input triggers a specific action, which transitions the software into a new state. Normally all states should be well-defined and transitions should always move the state machine from one well-defined state to another well-defined state.

So far, so good. But back in the real world, not all state can handle all input; and if it can, the associated action can be faulty. When this happens, the state machine goes from a well-defined state into an undefined state. What happens next is not specified.

We call this a software bug.

If we could implement our transition such that it detects incorrect input or internal problems automatically, and has the option of going back to the old, well-defined state; we’d be able to rule-out a large number of incorrect transitions into undefined states.

This is were the transaction concept comes in handy.

The ACID Properties

Transactional semantics are defined by four properties, which the transaction manager guarantees to its transactions. Those are called the ACID properties, from their initial letters. If you had at least a minimal exposure to database theory, you have already seen them before.

The ACID properties are

Let’s go through them one by one. Consistency directly follows from our previous discussion of states and transations, so let’s start with this.

Consistency describes a requirement to move from one well-defined state to another. For example, the HTML documents of a website refer to each other via hyper links. If one of the document’s files gets renamed, the consistency constraints could require that all links in all documents refering to the renamed file should be updated to the new filename.

What is considered well-defined depends on the software at hand; therefore guarantee-ing consistency always requires some help from the application. The transaction system can only help with implementing this. In our example, if the rename-and-update transaction simple ignores some of the HTML documents for an update, the result is probably inconsistent.

To guarantee consistency, it’s obvious that we have to guarantee atomicity as well. Atomicity specifies that we either do all of the operations contained in a transaction, or none. That’s something, the transaction system can help a lot with. In the example with the HTML documents, the transaction system would ensure that all documents are updated, or, if updating is not possible, revert to the old state before the rename.

So far we’ve only considered a single transaction. Now let’s add another, concurent transaction into the mix. This brings us to isolation. The isolation requirement specifies that the effects of a transaction shall not interfere with the effects of another, concurrent transaction.

To give an example of isolation, if both of our transactions rename filenames of HTML documents and update the references, they should not overwrite each others changes. In most cases the cumulative effect of both transactions should look as if the transactions had been executed one-after-the-other.1

Finally, we have durability. Durability, also known as persistence, specifies that effects of a transaction persist, once the transaction committed the effects. A later transaction will always see these changes and not a previous state missing them. For our HTML example this means that once a document has been successfully renamed, a later transaction will not see the old filename.

Durability is often not achievable by the transactional system alone. It requires an environment that ensures certain constaints. For example, if an HTML document gets renamed and suddenly the disk drive fails, the rename can get lost. The environment must apply sophisticated back-up and replication strategies to avoid this.

Putting Theory into Practice

The ACID properties are most of all requirements, but not practical solutions. This is the job of the transaction manager.

The transaction manager provides the transactions with a number of operations. For each operation it implements two features. These are

Who really cares about handling all errors correctly? Handling means detecting every error and always being able to move back into a previous consistent state. The latter is called recovery.

Common sense says that error handling is the worst part of each software. Errors are hard to test for and rarely happen. The error handling is therefore the code that gets executed the least. Recovery is often complicated as it requires significant effort to being able to back in state. In traditional software, this is almost impossible.

Transaction managers implement all logic required to detect every possible error for each of its operations, and contain the logic for going back into a previous state; therefore recovering from the detected error.

This provides a significant benefit over traditional approaches where application logic and error handling are written side by side. Because the transaction manager implements error handling once, all transactions automatically employ it. Therefore all transactional application logic automatically employs it as well. This gives us the atomicity and consistency requirements from the ACID properties.

With a good transaction manager, all the error handling that’s left for the application is the pathological cases, when the software reaches hardware limits or sees hardware failure. Even in these cases, error detection is still provided by the transaction manager and the application at least gets a chance of reporting the error to an administrator and shutting down safely.

Concurrency control describes the logic that controls resource access and protects resources against concurrent access from multiple transactions. A resource can be any data structure that transactions might want to use, maybe a file or shared memory.

There’s a lot to concurrency control, but you can think of it as locking. Locking happens to be the most common implementation.

Controlling resource access gives us the atomicity, consistency and isolation requirements of the ACID properties. Without concurrency control, transactions would constantly overwrite each others effects and operate on inconsistent, half-committed state changes made by other transactions.


There was quite of theory on this blog post. We first

We can make these transitions far less error prone by guarantee-ing the properties of

This is called a transaction. A transaction manager helps with implementing these guarantees by providing

Next time, we’ll get back to simpletm, our toy transaction manager. If you’re interested in a complete transaction manager, take a look at picotm.


  1. This one-after-the-other requirement is called serializability. We’ll examine this in a later post. 

Post by: Thomas Zimmermann

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