Transaction Concepts

  • concept
    A high-level overview of Distributed ACID Transactions with Couchbase.

    For a practical guide, see Using Couchbase Transactions.


    Couchbase Distributed ACID (atomic, consistent, isolated, and durable) Transactions allow applications to perform a series of database operations as a single unit — meaning operations are either committed together or all undone. Transactions are distributed and work across multiple documents, buckets, scopes, and collections, which can reside on multiple nodes.

    Transaction Mechanics

    def txn_logic(ctx):
        ctx.insert(collection, 'doc1', {'hello': 'world'})
        doc = ctx.get(collection, 'doc1')
        ctx.replace(doc, {'foo': 'bar'})

    A core idea of Couchbase transactions is that an application supplies the logic for the transaction inside a lambda, including any conditional logic required, and the transaction is then automatically committed. If a transient error occurs, such as a temporary conflict with another transaction, then the transaction will rollback what has been done so far and run the lambda again. The application does not have to do these retries and error handling itself.

    Each run of the lambda is called an attempt, inside an overall transaction.

    Active Transaction Record Entries

    The first mechanic is that each of these attempts adds an entry to a metadata document in the Couchbase cluster. These metadata documents:

    • Are named Active Transaction Records, or ATRs.

    • Are created and maintained automatically.

    • Begin with _txn:atr-.

    • Each contain entries for multiple attempts.

    • Are viewable, and should not be modified externally.

    Each such ATR entry stores some metadata and, crucially, whether the attempt has committed or not. In this way, the entry acts as the single point of truth for the transaction, which is essential for providing an 'atomic commit' during reads.

    Staged Mutations

    The second mechanic is that mutating a document inside a transaction, does not directly change the body of the document. Instead, the post-transaction version of the document is staged alongside the document (technically in its extended attributes (XATTRs)). In this way, all changes are invisible to all parts of Couchbase until the commit point is reached.

    These staged document changes effectively act as a lock against other transactions trying to modify the document, preventing write-write conflicts.


    There are safety mechanisms to ensure that leftover staged changes from a failed transaction cannot block live transactions indefinitely. These include an asynchronous cleanup process that is started with the first transaction, and scans for expired transactions created by any application, on the relevant collections.

    The cleanup process is detailed in the Cleanup page.


    Only once the lambda has successfully run to conclusion, will the attempt be committed. This updates the ATR entry, which is used as a signal by transactional actors to use the post-transaction version of a document from its XATTRs. Hence, updating the ATR entry is an 'atomic commit' switch for the transaction.

    After this commit point is reached, the individual documents will be committed (or "unstaged"). This provides an eventually consistent commit for non-transactional actors.


    If an exception is thrown, either by the application from the lambda, or by the transaction internally, then that attempt is rolled back. The transaction logic may or may not be retried, depending on the exception.

    If the transaction is not retried then it will throw an exception, and its message property can be used to inspect the details of the failure.

    The application can use this to signal why it triggered a rollback, as so:

        def txn_logic(ctx):
            customer = ctx.get(collection, "customer-name")
            if customer.content_as[dict]["balance"] < cost_of_item:
                raise InsufficientBalanceException()
            # else continue transaction
    except TransactionCommitAmbiguous:
        # This exception can only be thrown at the commit point, after the
        # BalanceInsufficient logic has been passed, so there is no need to
        # check the cause property here.
    except InsufficientBalanceException as e:
        raise InsufficientBalanceException("user had Insufficient balance", e)

    After a transaction is rolled back, it cannot be committed, no further operations are allowed on it, and the system will not try to automatically commit it at the end of the code block.

    Transaction Operations

    Couchbase transactions can be initiated programmatically through the SDK, or by using the Query service directly with BEGIN TRANSACTION. The latter is intended for those using Query via the REST API, or using the Couchbase UI, and it is strongly recommended that application writers instead use the SDK. This provides these benefits:

    • It automatically handles errors and retrying.

    • It allows key-value operations and queries to be freely mixed.

    • It takes care of issuing BEGIN TRANSACTION, END TRANSACTION, COMMIT and ROLLBACK automatically. These become an implementation detail, and you should not use these statements inside the lambda.

    The standard key-value operations are supported by the SDK: Insert, Get, Replace, Remove.

    Similarly, the majority of SQL++ (formerly N1QL) DML statements are permitted within a transaction.

    DDL statements such as CREATE INDEX, are not supported.

    Query Performance Advice

    This section is optional reading, and only for those looking to maximize transactions performance.

    After the first query statement in a transaction, subsequent Key-Value operations in the lambda are converted into SQL++ and executed by the Query service rather than the Key-Value data service. The operation will behave identically, and this implementation detail can largely be ignored, except for these two caveats:

    • These converted key-value operations are likely to be slightly slower, as the Query service is optimized for statements involving multiple documents. Those looking for the maximum possible performance are recommended to put key-value operations before the first query in the lambda, if possible.

    • Those using non-blocking mechanisms to achieve concurrency should be aware that the converted key-value operations are subject to the same parallelism restrictions mentioned above, e.g. they will not be executed in parallel by the Query service.

    Concurrency with Non-Transactional Writes

    Couchbase transactions require a degree of co-operation from an application. Specifically, the application should ensure that non-transactional writes are never done concurrently with transactional writes, on the same document.

    This requirement is to ensure that the strong key-value performance of Couchbase was not compromised. A key philosophy of Couchbase transactions is that you 'pay only for what you use'.

    If two such writes do conflict then the behaviour is undefined: either write may 'win', overwriting the other. This still applies if the non-transactional write is using CAS.

    Note this only applies to writes. Any non-transactional reads concurrent with transactions are fine, and are at a Read Committed level.