Consistency is Consistently Undervalued

Micro-services and non-ACID databases have been trendy over the last few years due mainly to their success at large companies like Google. I’m not going to tell you not to use them, but I am going to try to explain one of the things you should understand well before you do.

One of the most important things you lose in both cases are ACID transactions. Transactions have been around so long and are so mundane that I think many developers have forgotten why they are so useful.

Example: User Profiles

We have a constraint: one user must have one profile. Our application code assumes that there cannot be users without a profile or profiles without a user. If this doesn’t hold then our data is in an inconsistent state and our application can fail.

With transactions you can create them both together like in this pseudo-Python:

# Either a user and profile are created together, or nothing is created
with atomic_transaction():
    user = User.create(user_data)
    Profile.create(user, profile_data)

No problem!

Atomicity (The ‘A’ in ACID) ensures that our constraint is always in force. The user and profile will either be created together, or in the case of failure, neither will be.

Isolation (The ‘I’ in ACID) ensures that any other threads or processes querying the database will never see a user without its corresponding profile.

Additionally, with the use of foreign keys we can also ensure that when we delete or edit a profile or user, that there is a valid reference after every transaction. This is ACID consistency (note: not CAP consistency).

Losing ACID

It is not uncommon to have a separate service for user login functionality, especially if you want to have the same login information for multiple applications. Let’s say you make the decision to split users and profiles in to two services. Now we lose our ACID guarantees. What does this mean?

user = user_service.create(user_data)
profile_service.create(user, profile_data)

The first problem is this is no longer atomic. If the profile service fails, you will have a user with no profile.

Let’s make a naive attempt at fixing this by deleting the user if the profile service fails:

user = user_service.create(user_data)
    profile_service.create(user, profile_data)
    # profile_service has failed, so roll back user creation.

Seems reasonable, but there are at least two failure cases that can lead to inconsistency:

user = user_service.create(user_data)

# <--- Failure at this point means a user with no profile

    profile_service.create(user, profile_data)
    # <--- Failure of user_service here means a user with no profile

First, if your program completely fails after the user_service call (somebody pulled the power cord), your data will be in an inconsistent state. Secondly, if your user_service fails on the delete, your data will also be in an inconsistent state.

Another strategy might be to attempt to access a user’s profile, and create one if it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, even if your services are 100% reliable this is not isolated. In a concurrent system other threads and processes can see the system in an inconsistent state:

user = user_service.create(user_data)

# <--- A process or thread executing at this point will
#      see the user but not the profile, and maybe try to
#      create a new one, leaving us with two profiles.

profile_service.create(user, profile_data)

Yet another issue is editing or deleting users or profiles. We no longer have our foreign key constraint enforced, so now it’s possible for a profile to refer to a user ID that no longer exists, or has been changed in one service but not the other.

Even if you try to compensate for this, for example with a periodic task that cleans up dangling profiles, there will be at least some time where your data is inconsistent.


As we can see, compensating for the loss of ACID is not an easy task.

You may be able to think of other strategies not covered here, but these kinds of workarounds in the application layer are not going to work short of recreating a half-working, buggy version of a distributed ACID database. Distributed data is a fundamentally difficult problem, and you should not take it on without understanding the complexity you are introducing.

If you decide to use micro-services or NoSQL databases, do your homework!

Further Reading

Errata and Feedback

On Hacker News vidarh holds the opinion that consistency is overvalued. I’d like to emphasise that I’m not against using non-ACID or distributed systems as long as the resulting problems are well understood. I’d also like to say that if you have the option, using an ACID database is usually the solution easiest to get correct.

Thorsten Möller mentions (via email) that it is important to understand isolation, the ‘I’ of ACID. Even ACID databases do not always fully enforce isolation in their default configuration. Check out the PostgreSQL documentation for more information on isolation levels.

On 16 July 2017, I significantly reworked the article to be more precise and concise.