Optimistic locking

Implementing optimistic locking to handle access concurrently to the same database records.

This section describes how to implement optimistic locking in applications. Optimistic locking is a portable solution to control simultaneous modification of the same record by multiple users.

Traditional IBM® Informix® applications use a cursor declared with SELECT FOR UPDATE to set a lock on the row to be edited by the user. This is called pessimistic locking. The SELECT FOR UPDATE cursor is executed before the interactive part of the code, as described in here:

  1. When the end user chooses to modify a record, the program declares and opens a cursor with a SELECT FOR UPDATE. At this point, an SQL error might be raised if the record is already locked by another process. Otherwise, the lock is acquired and user can modify the record.
  2. The user edits the current record in the input form.
  3. The user validates the dialog.
  4. The UPDATE SQL instruction is executed.
  5. The transaction is committed or the SELECT FOR UPDATE cursor is closed. The lock is released.

If the IBM Informix database was created with transaction logging, you must either start a transaction or define the SELECT FOR UPDATE cursor WITH HOLD option.

Unfortunately, this is not a portable solution. The lock wait mode should preferably be WAIT for portability reasons. Pessimistic locking is based on a NOT WAIT mode to return control to the program if a record is already locked by another process. Therefore, following the portable concurrency model, the pessimistic locking mechanisms must be replaced by the optimistic locking technique.

Basically, instead of locking the row before the user starts to modify the record data, the optimistic locking technique makes a copy of the current values (i.e. before modification values (BVM)), allows the user to edit the record, and when it's time to write data into the database, checks if the BMVs still correspond to the current values in the database:

  1. A SELECT is executed to fill the record variable used by the interactive instruction for modifications.
  2. The record variable is copied into a backup record to keep Before Modification Values.
  3. The user enters modifications in the input form; this updates the values in the modification record.
  4. The user validates the dialog.
  5. A transaction is started with BEGIN WORK.
  6. Declare a cursor with a SELECT FOR UPDATE, to select the row to be updated.
  7. Open the SELECT FOR UPDATE cursor and fetch the row into the temporary record.
  8. If sqlca.sqlcode==NOTFOUND, the row has been deleted by another process, and the transaction can stop with ROLLBACK WORK.
  9. If the row is found, the program compares the temporary record values with the backup record values with the (rec1.*==rec2.*) notation.
  10. If these values have changed, the row has been modified by another user. At this stage, you can let the end user choose to ignore the changes done by another user and continue with the next step, or stop the transaction with ROLLBACK WORK and show a message indicating that the row cannot be updated because it would overwrite changes done by another user.
  11. If the values in the database have not changed, the UPDATE statement is executed to save the changes done by the current user.
  12. The transaction is committed with a COMMIT WORK.

To compare 2 records (with NULL checking), simply write:

IF new_record.* != bmv_record.* THEN
   LET values_have_changed = TRUE

The optimistic locking technique can be implemented with a unique SQL instruction: an UPDATE can compare the column values to the BMVs directly (UPDATE ... WHERE kcol = kvar AND col1 = bmv.var1 AND ...). But, this is not possible when BMVs can be NULL. The database engine always evaluates conditional expressions such as "col=NULL" to FALSE. Therefore, you must use "col IS NULL" when the BMV is NULL. This means dynamic SQL statement generation based on the DMV values. Additionally, to use the same number of SQL parameters (? markers), you would have to use "col=?" when the BMV is not null and "col IS NULL and ? IS NULL" when the BMV is null. Unfortunately, the expression " ? IS [NOT] NULL " is not supported by all database servers.

If you are designing a new database application from scratch, you can also use the row versioning method. Each table of the database must have a column that identifies the current version of the row. The column can be a simple INTEGER (to hold a row version number) or it can be a timestamp (DATETIME YEAR TO FRACTION(5) for example). To guarantee that the version or timestamp column is updated each time the row is updated, it is recommended that you implement a trigger to increment the version or set the timestamp when an UPDATE statement is issued. If this is in place, you just need to check that the row version or timestamp has not changed since the user modifications started, instead of testing all field of the BMV record. If you are only using one specific database type, you may check if the server supports a versioning column natively. For example, IBM Informix IDS 11.50.xC1 introduced the ALTER TABLE ... ADD VERCOLS option to get a version + checksum column to a table, you can then query the table with the ifx_insert_checksum and ifx_row_version columns.