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BDR: Weakly coupled multi-master replication

When considering multi-master clustering or replication (with BDR or another technology) it is important to understand what's involved, and that not all multi-master systems are equal.
Note: You don't have to use BDR for multi-master. It's quite reasonable to write to only one node, using BDR like an improved read-replica system. It's also possible to make sure that any given table/schema is only written to on one particular node, so no conflicts can arise. You still have to consider replication lag, but no more or less than with normal hot standbys. It only gets complicated when your application writes to the same tables on multiple nodes at once. If you need to do that, keep reading.
Some multi-master systems are tightly-coupled; these tend to make all nodes appear to be part of the same virtual database to outside clients, complete with cross-node locking, transaction isolation, etc. They also often - but not always - use shared storage, where each node connects to the same underlying database files over a SAN or similar. This makes life easier for application developers who're used to working with stand-alone or single-master databases because they can do everything just like they did before. Like with anything there's a price, though: a tightly coupled multi-master system does not scale out very well, especially for writes, and isn't very tolerant of latency, node outages, or network partitions.
Other systems are loosely-coupled. They don't attempt to appear like a single seamless virtual database, and applications can see some differences depending on which node they are connected to. Most loosely coupled systems don't share storage; instead each node has a copy of the whole database or a subset of it locally. If they store only a subset of the data they may support routing queries to the correct node, or they may expect the application to determine which node to find data on. There is generally no global lock manager or transaction manager, so transactions on one node aren't affected by locks taken on other nodes. Many loosely coupled systems are asynchronous and eventually consistent (see: Concepts) so changes on one node aren't immediately visible on all other nodes at the same time. This can make application development more difficult, but in exchange makes the system very tolerant of latency between nodes, temporary network partitions or node outages, etc, and makes scale-out more efficient.
BDR is a loosely coupled shared-nothing multi-master design.
This is a broad and overly simplified characterisation of replication, but it's enough to explain why applications that use BDR for multi-master writes need to be aware of the anomalies that can be introduced by asynchronous multi-master replication. It should also help illustrate that applications get some significant benefits in exchange:
  • Applications using BDR are free to write to any node so long as they are careful to prevent or cope with conflicts.
  • There is no complex election of a new master if a node goes down or network problems arise. There is no wait for failover. Each node is always a master and always directly writeable.
  • The application can be geographically distributed so that the app and is close to the data and the user for better performance and availability. Reads can be satisfied locally.
  • Applications can be partition-tolerant: the application can keep keep working even if it loses communication with some or all other nodes, then re-sync automatically when connectivity is restored. Loss of a critical VPN tunnel or WAN won't bring the entire store or satellite office to a halt.
With the advantages come challenges.
Because BDR replicates asynchronously, not all nodes have the same view of the data at any given instant. On a single node it is guaranteed that committed transactions' changes become visible immediately to newly started transactions (or in READ COMMITTED mode, statements). This isn't true in BDR - if you COMMIT a transaction that changes a row on one node, then SELECT that row on another node, you may well still get the old value. Applications must therefore be designed to be tolerant of stale data or to be "sticky" to a node, where they prefer read data from the same node they write it to. This is also true of applications using PostgreSQL's physical replication feature unless it is used in synchronous mode with only one replica, so it's a challenge that's far from unique to BDR.
Locking operations are not replicated to other nodes. If you lock a row or table in one node the other nodes have no idea it is locked elsewhere. Applications that rely on row or table locking for correctness will only work correctly if all their writes and locked reads occur on a single node. Applications might rely on locking explicitly via LOCK TABLE or SELECT ... FOR UPDATE / SHARE, but most applications rely on it implicitly via UPDATE and DELETE row-locking, so the absence of explicit locking does not mean an app is automatically multi-master safe.
Because of asynchronous replication and the lack of global locking, it is possible for transactions on different nodes to perform actions that could not happen if both transactions ran on a single node. These are called conflicts and are discussed in detail separately; see Multi-master conflictsBDR can resolve conflicts using a simple last-update-wins strategy or using user-defined conflict handlers. Either way the application design needs to consider that conflicts may occur, and where possible minimise them. Naïive applications that ignore the the possibility of conflicts when writing to multiple masters may suffer from lost-updates and other undesirable data anomalies.
BDR provides some tools to help make application design easier. The most important is Global sequences, which provide a BDR-group-wide generator of unique values for use in synthetic keys. Others are discussed in the Multi-master conflicts section.


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