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Denis Stebunov
Denis Stebunov

Posted on • Originally published at teamplify.com

Migrating a production database without any downtime

In this episode, we'll cover the basic principles of zero-downtime database migrations and provide quick recipes for the most common scenarios.

How does a deployment process work?

Let's take a look at a simplified deployment process for a typical web application. Most applications these days rely on load balancing and container orchestration:

A typical web app

What happens when we need to deploy a new version of an application? The deployment process replaces app instances one by one. It excludes them from the cluster first, replaces app instances with newer versions, and then puts them back in the cluster:

A typical deployment process

As shown in the animation above, the application version 2 gradually replaces previous version 1 without any service interruption for end users.

This is all well and good, but what if application v2 requires some changes in the database? Unlike application instances, the database is a shared stateful resource, so we cannot simply clone it and use the same technique that we used for application instances. The only viable solution for upgrading the database is to modify it in place. At what point in time should we modify the database?

Since the application version 2 requires an upgraded DB version 2 to work correctly, the database must be upgraded before putting any instance of application v2 into production. Therefore, a deployment process that includes a database upgrade should look like this:

Deployment process with a DB upgrade

How to run the DB migration script

Please note that how you run a DB migration script matters. For example, it might be tempting to make it part of the application startup, like this:

<run-db-migrations> && <launch-the-app>
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The idea behind such an arrangement is that the first application instance being launched will run the DB migrations, and for the other instances the script will be a no-op since the DB is already upgraded.

Please DON'T DO THIS.

First, since we're launching multiple application instances in parallel on our cluster, the DB migration script must handle parallel executions correctly. Depending on the DB migration framework you're using, and how the script is written, it may or may not do so. A migration has three main states β€” not started, in progress, finished. The script must detect that another migration is already in progress and wait. If it doesn't wait, it may cause crashes or even corrupted data.

Second β€” even if DB migration scripts handle parallel executions correctly, there's an issue with retries. It is important that the DB migration script gets executed once and only once, and if it fails, the whole deployment process must be stopped and rolled back. For example, if the migration fails due to a timeout on a long heavy SQL operation, you don't want to retry it again and again automatically. The reasonable solution would be to roll back immediately after the first failure, investigate, fix the migration script, and only then try again.

This is why the DB migration script is launched from a CI/CD server in the animation above. But it doesn't necessarily have to be done in that way. For example, it could be a one-time Kubernetes task that is launched as a part of a deployment process or something like that. Just remember the main principle β€” launch it only once, and if it fails β€” roll back immediately.

What can cause downtime during database migration?

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Backward incompatibility. As shown above, a deployment process isn't instant, and at some point, the database is already upgraded, but older application instances are still running in production. If the newer database version is incompatible with the previous application version, it may cause errors and crashes in production until older application instances are fully replaced with newer ones.

  2. Heavy DB operations. A database migration may include some heavy operations, which lead to increased DB server load or prolonged database locks. As a result, it may slow down the application or make it unresponsive during the DB upgrade.

Now, let's look at the most common cases related to the backward incompatibility problem. We'll also briefly talk about heavy DB operations at the end of this post.

Example 1: downtime caused by a new column

Let's say we're building a new feature β€” user avatars. After registration, every user will get a randomly generated avatar with an option to upload their own. To implement this, we need to add the avatar column to the Users table:

Adding a table column

How can we upgrade the database from v1 to v2 in this case? Our database migration script should include the following operations:

  1. Add the avatar field to the Users table, nullable;
  2. Update all existing records in the Users table, generate random avatars;
  3. Make the avatar field non-nullable.

And in the application code, we need to implement the following functionality:

  1. Generate random avatars for new users;
  2. Show user avatars where appropriate;
  3. Provide an option for users to upload their custom avatars.

What will happen if we just naively push all of the above into production? As we mentioned before, the database migration script will run first. Then the application instances will be gradually replaced with their newer versions. At some point in time, the previous application version, which doesn't know anything about the avatar field yet, will be running against the upgraded DB version, which already has that new field.

It will effectively lead to broken user registrations since application v1 will try to insert new records into the Users table without any value provided for the avatar field, which is non-nullable. Of course, the problem will fix itself after some time when all v1 application instances are replaced with v2. However, since we're talking about "zero-downtime deployments," this is not good enough for us. Let's see how we can deploy this new feature without any downtime.

Solution

The trick is to split the feature deployment into multiple phases and deploy them one by one, waiting for each phase to deploy completely before moving to the next one. In this particular case, we need two phases:

Phase 1

  • DB migration script:

    • Add the avatar field to the Users table, nullable
  • New app features:

    • Generate random avatars for all new users under the hood

The database migration script only adds a new nullable field and therefore doesn't cause any issues with new records inserted by the previous app version. Then the updated application version is deployed, and the new field becomes populated for all new records.

Phase 2

  • DB migration script:

    • Generate random avatars for all existing users with empty avatars;
    • Make the avatar field non-nullable
  • New app features:

    • All remaining "avatar" features β€” show user avatars where appropriate, provide an option to upload their own avatar, etc.

The database migration script updates existing user records by populating all empty avatar values. After that, it makes the avatar field non-nullable. Even if new registrations happen during the deployment, there will be no blank values in this field since the app version that we deployed on Phase 1 already generates avatars for all new users. Therefore, we can safely enforce the "non-null" constraint and deploy all the remaining avatar features.

Example 2: downtime caused by a column removal

Let's say that the "User avatars" feature we described in the previous example didn't meet our expectations. It wasn't popular enough, so we decided to roll it back. There will be no more user avatars, so we want to remove all application functionality related to it and also remove the avatar column from the DB:

Removing a table column

As with the previous example, if we just naively push everything to production, including the DB migration script, it will cause downtime.

The application will be severely broken during the deployment. As we discussed above, the DB migration script will run first. Immediately after its execution, there will be a time when the previous application version is still running in production, but the avatar column no longer exists, so all functionality related to it will be broken. How could we avoid this?

Solution

Use the same technique as with the previous example β€” split the deployment into two phases:

Phase 1

  • DB migration script:

    • Make the avatar column nullable
  • New app features:

    • Remove all of the functionality related to avatars. Remove all mentions of the avatar column from the app code

Making the column nullable doesn't break the older application version that is still running in production and relies on the avatar column. At the same time, it allows us to deploy a new application version that won't use this column in any way.

Phase 2

  • DB migration script:

    • Drop the avatar column
  • New app features:

    • None

After Phase 1 is deployed, there are no more mentions of the avatar column anywhere in the application code, so we can safely drop it.

Example 3: renaming a column or changing its data type

Let's say we'd like to upgrade the avatars feature that we described in example 1. Instead of storing file names, we'd like to store full avatar URLs so that we can support avatars hosted on different domains. Full URLs are noticeably longer, so we need to extend the maximum length of the avatar column. Also, we need to convert existing data to the new format by transforming file names into full URLs. Lastly, it is a good idea to rename the column from avatar to avatar_url to better reflect its new purpose:

Replacing a table column

In this case, the data migration script includes:

  1. Changing the column data type, varchar(100) -> varchar(2000);
  2. Converting existing data from the old format (file names) to the new one β€” full URLs;
  3. Renaming the column, avatar -> avatar_url.

And in the application code, we need to:

  1. Save the data in the new format;
  2. Read the data in the new format and process it accordingly.

If we simply push such a change to production, it will cause downtime.

The application will be severely broken during the deployment. As we discussed above, the DB migration script will run first. During its execution and for some time after its execution the previous application version will still run in production. The first part of the script only extends the maximum length of the stored data. Such an operation alone wouldn't cause any downtime. However, the data transformation applied in the next step will cause incorrect avatar handling since the previous application version still relies on the old format. And the last step, which renames the column, will cause application crashes, including broken user registrations. The previous application version won't be able to read or write the data because the column name changed. The application will remain broken until its new version is fully deployed. How can we avoid this?

Solution

Use the same technique as with the previous examples β€” split the migration into phases. This case is more complicated β€” we need four phases:

Phase 1

  • DB migration script:

    • Add the new avatar_url column, nullable;
    • Don't change the existing avatar column yet.
  • New app features:

    • Start writing data to both the old avatar column and the new avatar_url column in their corresponding formats;
    • Don't change the read logic yet β€” still read from the old avatar column.

First, the DB migration script only adds a new nullable field, so no downtime. The application starts writing data to both fields, preparing for the next phase.

Phase 2

  • DB migration script:

    • Populate all empty values in the avatar_url column with values from the avatar column, while converting the data into the new format (file names to full URLs);
    • Make the avatar_url column non-nullable;
  • New app features:

    • Switch the reading logic to the new avatar_url column;
    • Continue writing data to both avatar and avatar_url columns for now.

The DB migration script populates the data in the new column by converting file names stored in the old column to full URLs stored in the new column. Then, it enforces the non-null constraint on the new field. It shouldn't cause any problems since the app was already populating avatar_url for all new records. The application version deployed in this phase switches to reading the data from the new avatar_url field. It still writes the data to both old and new fields, to ensure backward compatibility with the app version deployed on Phase 1.

Phase 3

  • DB migration script:

    • Make the avatar column nullable
  • New app features:

    • Stop writing data for the avatar column and remove all mentions of it from the code

The DB migration script makes the avatar field nullable, so that the application can stop writing data for it.

Phase 4

  • DB migration script:

    • Drop the old avatar column from the Users table
  • New app features:

    • None

After Phase 3 finishes deploying, we can remove the old column from the DB. No application changes are required in this phase since the application was already upgraded in the previous phases.

A generic approach to maintaining backward DB compatibility

As you can see, all three solutions above use the same technique β€” split the deployment of a new feature into two or more phases to avoid any downtime during deployment. Of course, these three examples don't cover all possible DB migration cases, but they should help you understand the main idea. If you get the idea and know how your deployment script works, you can develop solutions for other cases yourself.

Deployment process with a DB upgrade

Quick recap:

  • During the deployment, the data migration script runs first;
  • After that, there will be a brief period when older application instances are running against a newer, upgraded version of the DB. This is a potentially risky moment when downtime caused by broken backward compatibility might happen;
  • You can avoid this downtime by splitting your deployment into multiple phases if necessary. Split it in such a way that the previous application version, which is still running in production, is always compatible with the newer database version that you're going to deploy;
  • The examples above illustrate how exactly you can plan your deployment phases to avoid downtime caused by broken backward compatibility.

Heavy DB operations

Another common reason for downtime during the DB upgrade is that some modifications performed by the database migration script can cause a heavy load on the database or lead to prolonged locks on some tables, causing application slowness or downtime.

As a rule of thumb, problems could emerge when modifying tables that store a lot of data. The creation of new tables is fast, deletion is also fast, and modifications of small tables usually don't cause any issues. But if you're going to modify a large table, e.g., add or remove columns or change their data type, create or modify indexes or constraints, it could be slow, sometimes painfully slow. What could we do?

Tip #1: Use a modern DB engine. Databases are constantly evolving. For example, one of the most requested features in the MySQL community was the ability to do fast DDL operations that won't require a full table rewrite. MySQL v8.0 introduced noticeable improvements, including instant adding of new columns if certain conditions are met. Another example β€” in Postgres versions 10 or earlier, adding new columns with a default value caused a full table rewrite, which was fixed in Postgres v11. It doesn't mean that the DDL performance is already a solved problem of course, but upgrading to a newer DB server version could potentially make your life easier.

Tip #2: When modifying a large table, check what happens under the hood. In many cases, you can reduce the risk of downtime by using a slightly different set of operations that will be easier for the database server to process. Here're some useful links:

Tip #3: Make upgrades when the service has the least amount of traffic. If an upgrade touches a large table, consider doing it during a period of low activity. It could be beneficial in two ways. First, the DB server will be less loaded and therefore could potentially complete the upgrade faster. Second, even despite careful preparation, such upgrades can be risky. It could be hard to fully test how the upgrade will work under the production load. Therefore, it makes sense to reduce the blast radius if downtime happens. During periods of low activity, the impact will be lower due to fewer users being online.

Tip #4: Consider slow-running migrations. Some tables can be so large that the traditional migration way is simply not a viable option for them. In such cases, you can consider embedding the data migration code right into your application, or use a special utility like GitHub's online schema migration for MySQL. A slow-running migration can work in production for days or even weeks. It gradually converts the data by small chunks, so you can carefully balance the load on the database while making sure that it doesn't cause slowness or downtime.

Conclusion

While zero-downtime database migration requires some effort, it's not that complex. The two main reasons for downtime are:

  1. Failure to maintain backward compatibility;
  2. Heavy DB operations.

To solve the backward compatibility problem, you may need to deploy a new feature in multiple phases instead of pushing everything into production at once. This article covers the three most common scenarios in detail and provides generic guidelines on how to avoid downtime in other cases.

The heavy DB operations section above briefly covers the second problem and provides some links for further reading.

I hope this article may help you avoid some downtime in your project. Less downtime enables more frequent deployments, and therefore makes development faster. Happy migrations!

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