After having a look how MySQL handles transactions physically, let’s have a look at what is going on from a logical point of view.

We are using a test table called demo with an id and a counter field, both integer. In it we have 10 counters, all set to 0.

CREATE TABLE `demo` (
  `id` bigint unsigned NOT NULL AUTO_INCREMENT,
  `counter` int NOT NULL DEFAULT '0',
  UNIQUE KEY `id` (`id`)
)
INSERT INTO `demo` VALUES (1,0);
INSERT INTO `demo` VALUES (2,0);
...
INSERT INTO `demo` VALUES (10,0);

In one session, we start a transaction and modify a counter value. We do not commit anything.

Session1> start transaction read write;
Session1> update demo set counter = 10 where id = 3;

Isolation

In a second session, we check the data and notice a few things:

Session2> select * from demo;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  1 |       0 |
|  2 |       0 |
|  3 |       0 |
|  4 |       0 |
...
  • We do not see the uncommitted changes to row id=3 from Session1.
  • We do not have to wait - the uncommitted change on the row id=3 does not stall us in any way.

From the previous article we know that MySQL took the older version of the row and moved it to the Undo Log. It has to do that in order to still have the data around should we decide to ROLLBACK. The new version of the row in the actual tablespace contains a pointer to the older version of the Row in the Undo Log.

When looking at the row we see this older version, so something made the database read the current values of the rows 1, 2, 4, and so on from the tablespace, but for the row id=3 sent us to the Undo Log.

This is also a good thing, because we do not have to wait.

Transaction Isolation Level Read Uncommitted

This is what MVCC - Multiversion Concurrency Control does: It uses the old versions of the row to present us a consistent view of the data, depending on the TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL. This is a thing we can change:

Session2> set transaction isolation level read uncommitted;
Session2> select * from demo;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  1 |       0 |
|  2 |       0 |
|  3 |      10 |
|  4 |       0 |

So once we SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL READ UNCOMMITTED, we get to see the value 10 written by Session1, despite the fact that it never has been committed. In fact, if we would ROLLBACK, logically it would never have been there - but still Session2 saw it.

At TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL READ UNCOMMITTED we are reading stuff directly from the tablespace file. This can contain data that is not yet committed, and due to ROLLBACK never will be - mere phantasies. The Undo Log is never consulted.

Transaction Isolation Level Read Committed

If we SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL READ COMMITTED with the transaction hanging in Session1 as before , we get to see the counter at row id=3 as before, at 0.

Session2> set transaction isolation level read committed;
Session2> select * from demo;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  1 |       0 |
|  2 |       0 |
|  3 |       0 |
|  4 |       0 |

That is, at this isolation level we will only see data that has been comitted.

At TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL READ COMMITTED we are reading stuff from the tablespace file, unless there is an ongoing transaction for a row. In that case, the reader will consult the Undo Log one level deep and show us the previous, committed version of the data. We never get to see ephemeral data that can be rolled back.

Now, let’s commit that change, and check:

Session1> commit;
Session2> set transaction isolation level read committed;
Session2> select * from demo where id = 3;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  3 |      10 |
+----+---------+

In fact, if we incremented the counter in Session1, we also would see that in Session2:

Session1> start transaction read write;
Session1> update demo set counter = counter + 1;
Session1> commit;
Session2> set transaction isolation level read committed;
Session2> select * from demo where id = 3;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  3 |      11 |
+----+---------+

At TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL READ COMMITTED, if we read the same row twice, we can see it changing.

Transaction Isolation Level Repeatable Read

The default transaction isolation level in MySQL is SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL REPEATABLE READ. If you never change anything, this is what you get.

If in Session1 we were to run, this time with autocommit and not inside an explicit transaction:

Session1> UPDATE demo SET counter=counter+1;
Session1> UPDATE demo SET counter=counter+1;
Session1> UPDATE demo SET counter=counter+1;
Session1> UPDATE demo SET counter=counter+1;

and in Session2 checked repeatedly, we would see the counter increment, as before:

Session2> select * from demo where id =3;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  3 |      12 |
+----+---------+

Session2> select * from demo where id =3;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  3 |      13 |
+----+---------+

But, and that is new, we now get to use read only transactions in Session2. And that changes behavior:

Session2> start transaction read only;
Session2> select * from demo where id = 3;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  3 |      14 |
+----+---------+
Session2> select * from demo where id = 3;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  3 |      14 |
+----+---------+

Session2> commit;
Session2> select * from demo where id = 3;
+----+---------+
| id | counter |
+----+---------+
|  3 |      16 |
+----+---------+

As soon as we START TRANSACTION READ ONLY, in this isolation level, we get a consistent read view. In practice that means that our session is frozen in time and will no longer see changes to this or any other table that have been made after we started the transaction.

At TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL REPEATABLE READ we are reading stuff from the tablespace, unless it has been changed after we started our transaction. In that case, the reader will consult the Undo Log multiple levels deep, in order to present us the newest version of the row that is older than our read-only transaction.

As soon as we drop our read-only transaction with commit (nothing changed, so nothing is actually committed) our world jumps forward in time to the present, skipping any intermediate steps.

Repeatable Read and Long Running Transactions

Starting a transaction at the default isolation level will force the Undo Log Purge Thread to stop at the position of our read view. Undo Log entries will no longer be purged, filling up and growing the Undo Log. Reads and Index Lookups become more complicated and slower, slowing down the overall performance of the database.

It is a good idea to not have long running transactions.

Maintenance Operations such as running mysqldump --single transaction mydatabase to make a logical backup achieve a consistent backup my maintaining a consistent read view by starting a long running transaction. As the dump of a large database can take some time, it is a good idea to do this at a point in time where the database is not so busy. Specifically where the write activity is low. Otherwise the incoming writes will blow up your Undo Log by the size of the data load, and make everything slow.

While in theory these two operations - a data load and a backup - can happen concurrently and should not interfere, nothing is for free and the implementation of consistent read views will function better if you do not work against it.

The Undo Log will not shrink, but will be freed internally and re-used, should that space ever be needed. But you will end up, depending on your version of MySQL, with a very large ibdata1 file or very large Undo Log segment files.

Reading Data without Locks

It is also worthwhile to note that all the data reads we have seen so far are free from locking: There are no stalls or lock-waits that can happen in these scenarios.

The fact that we have to be able to roll back makes it necessary to make a copy of a row before we modify it and keep it around.

The fact that most transactions successfully commit and not roll back suggests that we would do well by putting the new version of the row into place properly and move the old version to a temporary storage, the Undo Log, before we throw it away by the way of the Purge Thread. Thay way we keep the tablespace clean and free from outdated, stale versions of rows.

Looking at all active transactions in the system we can easily determine the lowest, oldest transaction number in the system. By definition nothing else can ever reference any row version even oler than that, so these versions are fair game for the Purge Thread.

By linking old versions of a row, we get a thread from the current version of the row into the (still visible) past of that row as a linked list.

By choosing a transaction isolation level at will, per connection, each connection can at any point in time choose to read the current, the most recently committed or the newest version of the row older than its own (read-only) transaction.

By committing, a read-only transaction gives up its version of the past, retiring an older transaction, allowing the Purge Thread to move on and free Undo Log space.

At no point in time a read operation is ever stalled by a writer and forced to wait. There are no write-locks ever stalling a reader. These two operations are completely independent.

For writers, this is quite different, and for good reason.