Scaling Postgres with Read Replicas & Using WAL to Counter Stale Reads

A common technique when running applications powered by relational databases like Postgres, MySQL, and SQL Server is offloading read operations to readonly replicas 1, helping to distribute load between more nodes in the system by re-routing queries that don’t need to run on the primary. These databases are traditionally single master, so writes have to go to the primary that’s leading the cluster, but reads can go to any replica as long as it’s reasonably current.

Spreading load across more servers is good, and the pattern shows itself to be even more useful when considering that although write operations might be numerous, most of them have predictable performance – they’re often inserting, updating, or deleting just a single record. Reads on the other hand are often more elaborate, and by extension, more expensive.

Writes on the primary and reads on its replicas.

Even as part of a normal application’s workload (barring analytical queries that can be even more complex), we might join on two or three different tables in order to perform an eager load, or even just have to read out a few dozen rows to accurately render a response. A mature application might execute hundreds of queries to fulfill even a single request, and farming these out to replicas would yield huge benefits in reducing pressure on the primary.

A complication: stale reads

Running reads on replicas is a pretty good high-impact and low-effort win for scalability, but it’s not without its challenges. The technique introduces the possibility of stale reads that occur when an application reads from replica before that replica has received relevant updates that have been committed to the primary. A user might update some key details, and then go to view their changes and see stale data representing the pre-update state.

A stale read that went to a replica that hadn't yet applied changes from the primary.

Stale reads are a race condition. Modern databases operating over low latency connections can keep replicas trailing their primary very closely, and probably spend most of their time less than a second out of date. Even systems using read replicas without any techniques for mitigating stale reads will produce correct results most of the time.

But as software engineers interested in building bulletproof systems, “most of the time” isn’t good enough, and we can do better. Let’s take a look at a technique to make sure that stale reads never occur. We’ll use Postgres’s own understanding of its replication state and some in-application intelligence around connection management to accomplish it.

The Postgres WAL

First, we’re going to have to understand a little bit about how replication works in Postgres.

Postgres commits all changes to a WAL (write-ahead log) for durability reasons. Every change is written out as a new entry in the WAL and it acts the canonical reference as to whether any change in the system occurred – committed information is written to a data directory like you might expect, but is only considered visible to new transactions if the WAL confirms that it’s committed (see How Postgres makes transactions atomic for more on this subject).

Changes are written to the WAL one entry at a time and each one is assigned a LSN (log sequence number). Changes are batched in 16 MB WAL segments.

The WAL's role in replication

A Postgres database can dump a representation of its current state to a base backup which can be used to initialize replica. From there, the replica stays in lockstep with its primary by consuming changes in its emitted WAL. A base backup comes with a pointer to the current LSN so that when a replica starts to consume the WAL, it knows where to start.

A replica being initialized from base backup and consuming its primary's WAL.

There are a few ways for a replica to consume WAL. The first is “log shipping”: completed WAL segments (16 MB chunks of the WAL) are copied from primary to replicas and consumed as a single batch. This has the major advantage of efficiency (it’s fast to copy files around, and has negligible cost to the primary), but with a tradeoff of how closely any secondary can be following its primary – secondaries will be at least as behind as the current segment that’s still being written.

Another common configuration for consuming WAL is “streaming”, where WAL is emitted by the primary to replicas over an open connection. This has the advantage of secondaries being very current at the cost of some extra resource consumption.

Based on their respective aptitude’s for becoming primary at a moment’s notice, replicas consuming WAL with log shipping are also known as “warm standbys” while those using streaming are called “hot standbys”. Hot standbys are often seen in production setups because maintain state that closely matches their primary and make great targets to fail over to at a moment’s notice. The technique we’re going to discuss works better with streaming, but should yield at benefits with either method.

Routing reads based on replica WAL position

By routing read operations only to replicas that are caught up enough to run them accurately, we can eliminate stale reads. This necessitates an easy way of measuring how far behind a replica is, and the WAL’s LSN is perfect for this use.

When mutating a resource in the system we’ll store the last committed LSN for the entity making the request. Then, when we subsequently want to fulfill a read operation for that same entity, we’ll check which replicas have consumed to that point or beyond it, and randomly select one from the pool. If no replicas are sufficiently advanced (i.e. say a read operation is being run very closely after the initial write), we’ll fall back to the master. Stale reads become impossible regardless of the state of any given replica.

Routing read operations based on replica progress in the WAL.

The technique is inspired by GitLab’s article on scaling their database, where they refer to it as “sticky connections”. Their large Postgres installation is still unpartitioned, and using replicas for extra read capacity is key in managing its considerable load.

Scalable Rocket Rides

To build a working demo we’ll be returning to the same toy application that we used to show off an implementation for idempotency keys and the unified logRocket Rides. As a quick reminder, Rocket Rides is a Lyft-like app that lets its users get rides with pilots wearing jetpacks; a vast improvement over the everyday banality of a car.

Our new Scalable Rocket Rides demo has an api process that writes to a Postgres database. It’s configured with a number of read replicas that are configured with Postgres replication to receive changes from the primary. When performing a read, the api tries to route it to one of a random replica that’s sufficiently caught up to fulfill the operation for a particular user.

We’ll be using the Sequel gem, which can be configured with a primary and any number of read replicas. Replicas are assigned names like replica0, and operations are sent to them with the server(...) helper:

DB = Sequel.connect("postgres://localhost:5433/rocket-rides-scalale",
  servers: {
    replica0: { port: 5434 },
    replica1: { port: 5435 },
    replica2: { port: 5436 },
    ...
  }

# routes to primary
DB[:users].update(...)

# routes to replica0
DB[:users].server(:replica0).select(...)

A working version of all this code is available in the Scalable Rocket Rides repository. We’ll walk through the project with a number of extracted snippets, but if you prefer, you can download the code and follow along:

git clone https://github.com/brandur/rocket-rides-scalable.git

Bootstrapping a cluster

For demo purposes it’s useful to create a small locally-running cluster with a primary and some replicas. The project includes a small script to help with that. It initializes and starts a primary, and for a number of times equal to the NUM_REPLICAS environment variable performs a base backup and boots a replica with it

Postgres daemons are started as children of the script with Ruby’s Process.spawn and will all die when it’s stopped. The setup’s designed to be ephemeral and any data added to the primary is removed when the cluster bootstraps itself again on the script’s next run.

The Observer: tracking replication status

To save every api process from having to reach out and check on the replication status of every replica for itself, we’ll have a process called an observer that periodically refreshes the state of every replica and stores it to a Postgres table.

The table contains a common name for each replica (e.g. replica0) and a last_lsn field that stores a sequence number as Postgres’s native pg_lsn data type:

CREATE TABLE replica_statuses (
    id       BIGSERIAL    PRIMARY KEY,
    last_lsn PG_LSN       NOT NULL,
    name     VARCHAR(100) NOT NULL UNIQUE
);

Keep in mind that this status information could really go anywhere. If we have Redis available, we could put it in there for fast access, or have every api worker cache it in-process periodically for even faster access. Postgres is convenient, and as we’ll see momentarily, makes lookups quite elegant, but it’s not necessary.

The observer runs in a loop, and executes something like this on every iteration:

# exclude :default at the zero index
replica_names = DB.servers[1..-1]

last_lsns = replica_names.map do |name|
  DB.with_server(name) do
    DB[Sequel.lit(<<~eos)].first[:lsn]
      SELECT pg_last_wal_replay_lsn() AS lsn;
    eos
  end
end

insert_tuples = []
replica_names.each_with_index do |name, i|
  insert_tuples << { name: name.to_s, last_lsn: last_lsns[i] }
end

# update all replica statuses at once with upsert
DB[:replica_statuses].
  insert_conflict(target: :name,
    update: { last_lsn: Sequel[:excluded][:last_lsn] }).
  multi_insert(insert_tuples)

$stdout.puts "Updated replica LSNs: results=#{insert_tuples}"

A connection is made to every replica and pg_last_wal_replay_lsn() is used to see its current location in the WAL. When all statuses have been collected, Postgres upsert (INSERT INTO ... ON CONFLICT ...) is used to store the entire set to replica_statuses.

Saving minimum LSN

Knowing the status of our replicas is half of the implementation. The other half is knowing the minimum replication progress for every user that will give us the horizon beyond which stale reads are impossible. This is determined by saving the primary’s current LSN whenever the user makes a change in the system.

We’ll model this as a min_lsn field on our users relation (and again use the built-in pg_lsn data type):

CREATE TABLE users (
    id      BIGSERIAL    PRIMARY KEY,
    email   VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL UNIQUE,
    min_lsn PG_LSN
);

For any action that will later affect reads, we touch the user’s min_lsn by setting it to the value of the primary’s pg_current_wal_lsn(). This is performed in update_user_min_lsn in this simple implementation:

post "/rides" do
  user = authenticate_user(request)
  params = validate_params(request)

  DB.transaction(isolation: :serializable) do
    ride = Ride.create(
      distance: params["distance"],
      user_id: user.id,
    )
    update_user_min_lsn(user)

    [201, JSON.generate(serialize_ride(ride))]
  end
end

def update_user_min_lsn(user)
  User.
    where(id: user.id).
    update(Sequel.lit("min_lsn = pg_current_wal_lsn()"))
end

Selecting an eligible replica

Now that replication status and minimum WAL progress for every user is being tracked, api processes need a way to select an eligible replica candidate for read operations. Here’s an implementation that does just that:

def select_replica(user)
  # If the user's `min_lsn` is `NULL` then they haven't performed an operation
  # yet, and we don't yet know if we can use a replica yet. Default to the
  # primary.
  return :default if user.min_lsn.nil?

  # exclude :default at the zero index
  replica_names = DB.servers[1..-1].map { |name| name.to_s }

  res = DB[Sequel.lit(<<~eos), replica_names, user.min_lsn]
    SELECT name
    FROM replica_statuses
    WHERE name IN ?
      AND pg_wal_lsn_diff(last_lsn, ?) >= 0;
  eos

  # If no candidates are caught up enough, then go to the primary.
  return :default if res.nil? || res.empty?

  # Return a random replica name from amongst the candidates.
  candidate_names = res.map { |res| res[:name].to_sym }
  candidate_names.sample
end

pg_wal_lsn_diff() returns the difference between two pg_lsn values, and we use it to compare the stored status of each replica in replica_statuses to the min_lsn value of the current user (>= 0 means that the replica is ahead of the user’s minimum). We take the name of a random replica from the returned set. If the set was empty, then no replica is advanced enough for our purposes, so we fall back to the primary.

Here’s select_replica in action on an API endpoint:

get "/rides/:id" do |id|
  user = authenticate_user(request)

  name = select_replica(user)
  $stdout.puts "Reading ride #{id} from server '#{name}'"

  ride = Ride.server(name).first(id: id)
  if ride.nil?
    halt 404, JSON.generate(wrap_error(
      Messages.error_not_found(object: "ride", id: id)
    ))
  end

  [200, JSON.generate(serialize_ride(ride))]
end

And that’s it! The repository also comes with a simulator that creates a new ride and then immediately tries to read it. Running the constellation of programs will show that most of the time these reads will be served from a replica, but occasionally from the primary (default in Sequel) as replication falls behind or the observer hasn’t performed its work loop in a while:

$ forego start | grep 'Reading ride'
api.1       | Reading ride 96 from server 'replica0'
api.1       | Reading ride 97 from server 'replica0'
api.1       | Reading ride 98 from server 'replica0'
api.1       | Reading ride 99 from server 'replica1'
api.1       | Reading ride 100 from server 'replica4'
api.1       | Reading ride 101 from server 'replica2'
api.1       | Reading ride 102 from server 'replica0'
api.1       | Reading ride 103 from server 'default'
api.1       | Reading ride 104 from server 'default'
api.1       | Reading ride 105 from server 'replica2'

Should I do this?

Maybe. The implementation’s major downside is that each user’s min_lsn needs to be updated every time an action that affects read results is performed. If you squint just a little bit, you’ll notice that this looks a lot like cache invalidation – a technique infamous for working well until it doesn’t. In a more complex codebase save hooks and update triggers can be useful in helping to ensure correctness, but given enough lines of code and enough people working on it, perfect correctness can be frustratingly elusive.

Projects that produce only moderate database load (the majority of all projects) shouldn’t bother, and keep their implementations simple by running everything against the primary. Projects that need infinitely scalable storage (i.e. disk usage is expected to grow well beyond what a single node can handle) should probably look into a more elaborate partitioning scheme (like Citus).

There is a sweet spot of projects that can keep their storage within a single node, but still want to scale out on computation. For this sort of use moving reads to replicas can be quite beneficial because it greatly expands the runway for scalability while also avoiding the considerable overhead and operational complexity of partitioning.

1 A note on terminology: I use the word “replica” to refer to a server that’s tracking changes on a “primary” (A.K.A. “leader”, “master”). Common synonyms for a replica include “standby”, “slave”, and “secondary”, but I’ll stick to “replica” for consistency.

Scaling Postgres with Read Replicas & Using WAL to Counter Stale Reads was published on November 17, 2017 from Osaka.

Find me on Twitter at @brandur.

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