Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Heuristic exceptions

A transaction is finished either with commit or rollback. But have you considered that the third transaction outcome is <<unspecified>>? This third type of outcome may occur when the participant does not follow the coordinator's orders and makes a decision on the contrary. Then the outcome of the whole transaction could be inconsistent. Some participants could follow the coordinator guidelines to commit while the disobedient participant rolls-back. In such a case, the coordinator cannot report back to the application that "the work was successfully finished". From the perspective of the outside observer, the consistency is damaged. The coordinator itself cannot do much more. It followed the rules of the protocol but the participants disobeyed. Such transaction can only be marked with <<unspecified>> result — which is known as heuristic outcome.
The resolution of that outcome requires a third-party intervention. Saying differently somebody has to go and verify the state of data and make corrections.

XA specification

In scope of this article we talk about the two phase commit protocol and how the XA specification uses it.
XA specification takes the two-phase commit, the abstractly defined consensus protocol, and carries it down to the ground of implementation. It defines rules for communication amongst parties, prescribes state model and assesses outcomes, exceptions etc.
Where the 2PC talks about coordinator and participants the XA specification define a model where the coordinator is represented by a transaction manager (TM), the participant is modelled as the resource manager (RM) and the employer of them is an application program which talks to both of them.
The transaction manager drives a global transaction which enlists resource managers as participants responsible for part of work. For the work managed by RM is used term transaction branch. The resource manager is represented normally by a Java code that implements the JTA API while it uses some internal mechanism to call the underlying data resource. The resource manager could be represented by a JDBC driver and then underlying resource could be the PostgreSQL database running in some distinct datacenter.

JTA Specification

The Java Transaction API is a projection of XA specification to the language of Java. In general, it's a high-level API that strives to provide a comprehensible tool for handling transactional code based on the XA specification.

Several purposes of JTA

The JTA is meant to be used first by an application developer. In terms of XA specification, it would be the application program. Here we have the UserTransaction interface. It gives the chance to begin and commit the transaction. In terms of XA specification, it's a representation of the global transaction. In a newer version (from version 1.2) JTA defines the annotations like Transactional That gives the user chance to control the application scope declaratively. As you can notice neither with the UserTransaction nor with he @Transactional annotation you can't do much more than to define where the transaction begins and where it ends. How to put a participant into the transaction? That limited capability is because developer is anticipated running the application in a managed environment. It could be for example Java EE application server or a different container.

The container is a second consumer of the JTA API. JTA gives the entry point to the world of transaction management. The container uses the interface TransactionManager — which provides ability of managing transaction scope but also gives access to the Transaction object itself. Transaction is used to enlist the resource (the participant) to the global transaction. As the resource for enlistment is used the XAResource interface in JTA. The XAResource is managed by the transaction manager and is operated by the resource manager. Then container may arrange Synchronizations are callbacks called at the start and the end of the 2PC processing (used e.g. by JPA).

The third perspective where JTA participates in is communication with resource managers. The API defines the class XAResource (represents a participant resource to be enlisted to the global transaction), XAException (represents an error state defined in the XA specification) and Xid. The Xid represents an identifer which is unique for each transaction branch and consists of two parts — first an unique identifier of the global transaction and second an unique identifier of the resource manager. If you want to see how the transaction manager uses these classes to communicate with the resource manager take a look at the example from documentation of SQL Server.

Note:If you study the JTA API by looking into the javadoc and strolling the package summary then you can wonder about some other classes which were not mentioned here. Part of the javax.transaction package are interfaces used exclusively by JTS (transaction services running with ORB). That's mitigated by the fact the Java SE 11 removed support of ORB and those classes were removed from JDK as well.
Plus the JTA classses are now (from Java SE 11) split over Java SE and Java EE bundles as the package javax.transaction.xa is solely part of the Java SE while javax.transaction belongs to the Jakarta EE API.

Type of failures

Now when we have talked the model let's see the failure states. First, it's needed to realize that a failure in the application does not mean failure from the protocol perspective. If there is trouble in the application code or a network is transiently not available such occurrences can lead to rollback. It's a failure from the perspective of the application but for the transaction manager the rollback is just another valid state to shift to.
Even if the whole transaction manager crashes (e.g. the underlying JVM is killed) the system still should maintain data consistency and the transaction is recovered when the transaction manager (or rather recovery manager) comes back to life.

What's the trouble for the protocol is an unexpected behaviour of the resource manager (or the backed resource). We can track basically two incident types. A heuristic outcome where the resource deliberately decides to process some action (which is different from transaction manager decision). Or a heuristic outcome caused by a bug in the code (either of the transaction manager or the resource manager).

Let's discuss some examples for these types.
The deliberate decision could be a situation where the transaction manager calls the prepare on the database. The database confirms the prepare — it promises to finish the transaction branch with commit. But unfortunately the transaction manager crashes and nobody comes to restart it for a long time. The database decides that it's pretty long time to hold resources and delaying other transactions to proceed. Thus it decides to commit the work. The processing in the database may continue from that time. But later the transaction manager is restarted and it tries to commit all other branches belonging to the global transaction (let's say e.g. a JMS broker). That resource responds with an error and the transaction manager decides to rollback the whole global transaction. Now it accesses the database with the request for the rollback. But the database already committed its branch — the heuristic outcome just occurred.

An example for the bug in the code could be the PostgreSQL database driver. The driver was returning a wrong error code in case of intermittent connection failure. The XA specification defines that in such case the XAException should be thrown and it has to carry one of the following error codes — either the XAException.XAER_RMFAIL or the XAException.XA_RETRY. But the JDBC driver was returning XAException.XAER_RMERR. Such error code means that an irrecoverable error occurred. It makes the transaction manager think there is no way of automatic recovery and it switches the state of such transaction to heuristic immediately.

Heuristic exceptions

As the last part of this article we take a look on the heuristic outcomes of the transaction. The heuristics is represented with an exception being thrown. The exception reports the reason of the failure. It does so with error code or with type of class.

There are two main types of exception classes. First type is the XAException. This one is part of the communication contract between the transaction manager and the resource manager. It should not happen for the application code to obtain this type of exception. But for sure you can observe the XAException in the container log. It shows that there happened an error during transaction processing.

The second type is represented with multiple classes named Heuristic*Exception. These are exceptions that application code works with. They are thrown from the UserTransaction methods and they are checked.

Heuristic outcome with XAResource

The XAException reports reason of failure with the use of error codes. XA specification defines the meaning. It depends on the context in which it's used. For example the code XAException.XA_RETRY could be used for reporting error from commit with meaning to retry the commit action. But on the other hand it's not permitted to be used as an error code for the one-phase commit.

Then where are those heuristic states? Let's check what could happen when the transaction manager calls the XAResource calls of prepare, commit and rollback.
If the prepare is called then there is not many chances that heuristic occurs. At that time no promise from the resource is placed and the work can be easily roll-back or the worse timed-out. The only occurrence that can bring the system to the heuristic state is if the resource manager returns undefined code for this phase. But that is cause the most probably only by a bug in the implementation. Consult the XA specification which are those.
The more interesting are the commit and rollback calls. The commit and rollback are (or could be) called after the prepare. Heuristic exception means that the resource promised to commit (he acknowledge the prepare call) but it does not wait for transaction manager to command it for the next action and it finished the transaction branch on its own. The error codes are those with prefix XA_HEUR*. The decision on its own does not mean an error for the protocol in all cases.

Let's talk about rollback now. The global transaction was successfully prepared but the transaction manager decided at the end to roll-back it. It calls the rollback to the XAResource. The error XAException.XA_HEURRB announces that the resource manager decided to roll-back the transaction branch prior it was asked for it by the transaction manager. But as the transaction manager decided to go for the roll-back too the heuristic outcome followed the decision.
The XAException.XA_HEURCOM means that all work represented by the transaction branch was committed (at time the rollback is executed on the XAResource). That's bad from the data consistency as some other transaction branches could be already rolled-back.
To explain the meaning of the XAException.XA_HEURMIX it's needed to mention that the transaction branch could consist of several "local transactions". For example, PostgreSQL JDBC driver starts a database transaction to insert data to the database. Later (still in the scope of the same global transaction) it decides to update the data. It starts another database transaction. The transaction manager is clever enough to join those two database transactions which belong to the same database resource (controlled by the same resource manager) under the one transaction branch. It's good as it could reduce the communication overhead. So the XA_HEURMIX says that part of workload involved in the transaction branch was committed and the other part was rolled-back.
The XAException.XA_HEURHAZ says that the resource manager made a decision on its own but it's not capable to say what was the result of such an independent decision.

The most interesting part is the commit call. First it uses the XA_HEUR* exceptions in the same meaning as the rollback call and all what is said in the previous paragraph pays for the commit too. But up to that there are three new error codes. They do not contain word HEUR but in result they mean it. Those are XAER_RMERR which announces that an unspecified error happened during the currently executing commit call. But instead of committing the resource manager had just rolled-back the transaction branch. That means we are in the same state as with the XA_HEURRB The XAER_NOTA says that resource manager does not know anything about this transaction branch. That means the resource manager lost the notion about it and it either commits it or rolled-back it or it may do an arbitrary one in the future. That means we are in the same state as with the XA_HEURHAZ. The last one is the XAER_PROTO which says that the commit was called in a wrong context — for example it was called without the prepare being invoked before. This seems being similar to XAER_NOTA and thus have the same impact as the XA_HEURRB.

Heuristic outcome with the "application exceptions"

For the "application exceptions" it could be considered easier. The heuristic exceptions can be thrown only from the commit call (see UserTransaction javadoc). The UserTransaction gives chance to finish the transaction with commit or roll-back.

The roll-back means that transaction branches should be aborted and all work discarded. When UserTransaction.rollback() is called the resource manager had not promised succesful outcome yet. The time the rollback is called is time when all transaction processing data is available only in memory. Thus resource manager has no chance to decide differently from transaction manager. If there is some trouble then other types of exceptions are thrown — like IllegalStateException or SystemException (see the UserTransaction javadoc).

It's different with the UserTransaction.commit. This call means that two-phase commit protocol is to be started and XAResource.prepare/commit/rollback calls are involved. The JTA uses the checked exceptions to inform the application to handle the trouble. The application checked exceptions are RollbackException,HeuristicMixedException,HeuristicRollbackException.

  • The RollbackException is not a heuristic exception (at least by name) but still. That exception informs that even the code asked for commit all work (in all transaction branches) was undone by the rollback.
  • The HeuristicMixedException means that some transaction branches were committed and others were rolled-back. This is exception thrown for example if during the commit phase of 2PC. One of the XAResource.commit calls returns XAException.XA_HEURRB (aka it was rolled-back) while the others were succesfully committed.
  • The HeuristicRollbackException has the same final outcome from the global transaction perspective as the RollbackException. It only emphasizes that the fact that the roll-back was deliberately chosen by all the resources prior to the commit was executed by the transaction manager. In comparison, the RollbackException means that the transaction manager was just trying to commit all resources but during the process of committing trouble occurred and all the work was rolled-back (all resources rolled-back). To be perfectly honest I'm not sure I can't see a real difference between these two.

As we've just talked about all exceptions defined at the UserTransaction.commit definition so we are done, right?
Oh wait, we are not!

There is one more exception defined in the javax.transaction package. It's the HeuristicCommitException. The HeuristicCommitException is not defined at the UserTransaction.commit as even all resources would idependently decide to commit the global transaction result is still just committed. Which is intended as UserTransaction.commit is called. Then what is the purpose of it then?
We need to look into the implementation. It's used at calls of commit and rollback at a subordinate transaction. The subordinate transaction is a transaction which is driven by a parent transaction. The parent transaction (named as top-level as well) manages the subordinate and decides the overall outcome.
When the subordinate transaction is commanded it reports the outcome back to the top-level one. It's a similar relation as the XAResource has to the global transaction. Because the subordinate transaction needs to report heuristic decisions back from the commit and rollback calls the HeuristicCommitException serves for cases when subordinate transaction decided to commit prior the top-level transaction commanded for a final action.

NOTE: Don't interchange the subordinate transaction for the nested transaction. If the nested transaction is aborted the upper transaction can continue in processing and it can finish with commit at the end (but if the top-level transaction rolls-back the nested transaction has to roll-back as well).
The subordinate transaction is a composite part of the top-level transaction. If the subordinate transaction aborts the top-level one aborts as well.


That's all. Hopefully, you understand a bit more on the meaning of the heuristic outcomes for the XA and JTA specifications. And for sure you won't be writing code like

try {
} catch (Throwable t) {
  // some strange error happened so we print it to the log