Distributed Transactions in Vitess


With Vitess’ introduction of sharding, which allows for the creation of cross-shard indexes, distributed transactions become unavoidable for certain workloads. Currently, Vitess only supports best-effort distributed transactions. Therefore, it’s possible that a distributed commit will only complete partially, leaving data in an inconsistent state.

At this point, 2 Phase Commit (2PC) is the only known protocol that allows you to give atomic guarantees for distributed transactions. For this protocol to work, a database must be able to support the “prepare” contract. However, not all databases provide such support. In addition, some of the engines that do support it either do it incorrectly or inefficiently. (Specifically, the pre-5.7 MySQL XA protocol works incorrectly for replication, and is therefore not usable.)

The question has been asked: Is it possible to build a Prepare protocol on top of a database that does not support it? The answer is—Yes, for an engine like MySQL. The explanation follows.

2PC in very few words

If nothing ever failed, 2PC would not be needed. You could just open transactions with databases as needed, and commit them all at the end. However, there are failure modes in the system that cause one of the following things to happen:

  1. A database aborts a transaction for internal reasons.
  2. A database refuses to commit because of lock conflicts.
  3. A database crashes and loses an uncommitted transaction.

2PC introduced the prepare protocol to defend against the above three. A database that acknowledges a prepare must give you the following guarantees:

  1. It will not abort a transaction unless requested.
  2. It will never refuse a commit.
  3. If the database crashes, it will reinstate the transaction to its prepared state upon recovery.

With the above guarantees, a transaction manager asks all participants to prepare. If any of them fails, then the decision is to rollback. If they all succeed, then we have the guarantee that commits will never be refused, and the decision to commit can be made. Once a commit (or rollback) decision is made, it’s final. If a database crashes after a prepare, the recovery process will reinstate the prepared transaction. At this point, the transaction manager can resolve the transaction according to the final decision.

2PC itself has failure modes. The most significant issues are related to the transaction manager crashing, or the ability for various parts of the system to agree on the commit/rollback decision. These issues are somewhat orthogonal to the focus of this document, and they will be covered in the upcoming design doc, or possibly in a different blog post.

MySQL transactions

MySQL transactions have an interesting property: If all statements have executed successfully, then a commit almost never fails. There are a few configurations where this is not true, so they should be avoided:

  1. Group replication: This is a new 5.7 feature. If this is turned on, then a commit can fail due to locking conflicts.
  2. Semi-sync with a commit timeout: If configured this way, MySQL could fail your commit if it doesn’t receive a semi-sync packet within the timeout. To make 2PC reliable, it’s recommended that semi-sync be configured with no timeout. This way, if acks are not received on time, the entire database will lock up and will be treated as crashed. In the case of Vitess, the system will initiate a failover to a healthier replica. Of course, the new master will not have the original transaction, but we’ll rely on a different mechanism for reinstatement, which is explained in the next section.

Because a commit can’t fail, MySQL will never rollback your transaction unless it’s requested.

The above behavior basically tells us that MySQL transactions are in a constant pseudo-prepared state. They satisfy properties 1 and 2 of the prepared state, but not the third.

Redo logs in the database

Now, all we have to do is figure out a way to get back to the prepared state when a database crashes. In order to achieve this, the traffic will have to be sent through a proxy.

  • The proxy will maintain a list of statements that are sent in a transaction. When a ‘prepare’ is requested, the list will be saved to a redo_log table. This will be done in a separate transaction while the original transaction is still open. If this operation fails, then the prepare is treated as failed.
  • Let’s say that a database crashes after some transactions are prepared, and we’re performing a recovery. After the database part of the recovery, the proxy scans the redo log for prepared transactions, and replays each of those in independent connections. These should not fail because of the serializability of transactions. Once this is done, we have fulfilled the third requirement of the “prepare” contract. After this step, the proxy can start accepting normal traffic. At this time, the transaction managers can reconnect to the proxy to conclude the prepared transactions.

Coincidentally, Vitess already has the necessary proxy in VTTablet. (How convenient.)

In Vitess, the usual way to recover a failed master is to failover to a replica by designating it as the new master. A tool like Orchestrator will do this reliably almost all the time. Various levels of semi-sync settings further improve these guarantees. In other words, the same effect of reinstating prepared transactions can also be achieved if we used the failover workflow instead of a traditional recover.


Vitess allows you to tune MySQL to suit your durability requirements. If you’re very paranoid about data loss, you can tune-up the semi-sync variable to have almost the same reliability level as Paxos, using MySQL 5.7’s version of “lossless” semi-sync will further strengthen this. However, these could be overkill. Typically, requiring a single semi-sync ack for any version of MySQL is likely sufficient. In the rare case of a transaction loss, the 2PC mechanism should be able to detect and alert you, and manual intervention can be used to perform repairs. These failure modes will be covered in the detailed design doc.

Coupling this with fast failure detection and automatic master failover also gives you high availability. This basically means that a node is unlikely to lose your committed data, and will also be resurrected very quickly if it crashes or experiences a network partition.


The proposed prepare mechanism effectively extends the durability and availability guarantee of a single database (or shard), and makes it work equally reliably for distributed transactions that span multiple shards.

Loose ends

The purpose of this blog post is to show that it’s possible for Vitess to support atomic distributed transactions. There are still many details to cover:

  • Generating globally unique transaction IDs to avoid number conflicts
  • Isolation levels
  • Reliably storing commit/abort decisions
  • Transaction manager failures
  • Database and network failure scenarios
  • Optimizations

These issues will be addressed in a detailed design doc under vitess.io very soon.

Sugu is the CTO at PlanetScale Data. He is also the lead developer and community leader of the Vitess open source project which he co-created at Youtube in 2010. Vitess has helped multiple companies scale MySQL massively. Prior to Vitess, he worked on various scaling and infrastructure projects at YouTube and at PayPal. Sugu is passionate about distributed systems and consensus algorithms. He publishes his ideas about these topics on his blog at http://ssougou.blogspot.com.


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