Distributed Transactions

Google Spanner

Paul Krzyzanowski

March 24, 2021

Goal: Design a huge-scale worldwide database that provides ACID semantics, read-free locking, and external consistency.


Brewer’s CAP theorem led to the popularity of an eventual consistency model rather than relying on transactional ACID semantics.

In this model, writes propagate through the system so that all replicated copies of data will eventually be consistent. Prior to the completion of all updates, processes may access old versions of the data if they are reading from a replica that has not been updated yet.

With ACID semantics, this would not happen since the transaction would grab a lock on all the replicas prior to updating them. Eventual consistency is the trade-off in designing a system that is both highly available and can survive partitioning.

The presence of network partitions is, in many environments, a rare event. By using an eventual consistency model, we choose to give up on “C” (consistency) in order to gain availability on the slim chance that the network becomes partitioned.

Given that partitions are rare in places such as Google data centers, which uses redundant networks both within and outside each center, it is not unreasonable to enforce a strong consistency model (which requires mutual exclusion via locks).

Partitioning will rarely affect the entire system but only a subset of computers. As such, it is possible to use a majority consensus algorithm, such as Paxos, to continue operations as long as the majority of replicas are functioning. Spanner takes advantage of an environment where partitions are rare and is willing to be partially unavailable in that rare event when a network becomes partitioned.

Experience with eventual consistency has taught us that it places a greater burden on the programmer. With an eventual consistency model, it is now up to the programmer to reconcile the possibility that some data that is being accessed may be stale while other data might be current. Bigtable, for example, was difficult to use in applications that required strong consistency. Custom code had to be written to coordinate locks for any changes that spanned multiple rows.

With Spanner, Google has built a transactional (ACID) database that spans many systems and widely distributed data centers. Spanner provides the user with a large-scale database that comprises multiple tables, with each table containing multiple rows and columns. The model is semi-relational: each table is restricted to having a single primary key. Unlike Bigtable, transactions can span multiple rows. Also unlike Bigtable, which provided eventually consistent replication, Spanner offers synchronous replication, ACID semantics, and lock-free reads.

Data storage

Spanner gives the user the the ability to manage multiple tables, each with rows and columns. Internally, the data is stored as a large keyspace that is sharded across multiple servers. Like Bigtable, each shard stores a group of consecutive of rows, called a tablet. This sharding is invisible to applications.

Tablets are replicated synchronously using Paxos. One of the replicas is elected to be a leader and runs a transaction manager. Any transactions that span multiple shards use the two-phase commit protocol. Replication is performed within a transaction and all replicas remain locked until replication is complete, ensuring a consistent view of the database.

Applications can specify geographic data placement and the amount of replication:

  • Proximity of data to users (impacts read latency)

  • Proximity of replicas to each other (impacts write latency)

  • Amount of replication (impacts availability and read performance)

Spanner was designed for a global scale and a database will span multiple data centers around the globe. In a data center, spanservers store tablets. A zonemaster periodically rebalances tablets across servers to balance load. The zonemaster does not participate in transactions.


Spanner provides transactions with ACID semantics. Transactions are serialized to satisfy the “I” (isolated) property and to create the illusion that one transaction happens after another. Strict two-phase locking coupled with two-phase commit is used to accomplish this.

Transactions can be distributed among multiple systems (which may span multiple datacenters). Each transaction is assigned a globally-meaningful timestamp and these timestamps reflect the serialization order of the transactions. Once a transaction has acquired all the locks it needs, it does its work and then picks a commit timestamp. Two-phase locking can reduce overall perfomance because other transactions may need to wait for locks to be released before they can access resources. Spanner uses separate read and write locks but even these can often block another transaction. A read lock will cause any writers to block and a write lock will cause any other writers or readers to block.

Spanner supports different concurrency control mechanisms based on the operations that take place. Read-write transactions employ pessimistic concurrency control, using strict two-phase locking. Read-only transactions are lock-free and use wound-wait concurrency control.

Spanner also supports lock-free snapshot reads. For this, spanner implements multiversion concurrency control by keeping old versions of data. A transaction reads data from a snapshot, an earlier point in time, without getting a lock. This is particularly useful for long-running transactions that read that many rows of the database. Any other ongoing transactions that modify that data will not affect the data that the long-running transaction reads since those will be later versions.

External consistency

Serialization (isolation, the I in ACID) simply requires that transactions behave as if they executed in some serial order. Spanner implements a stronger consistency model, external consistency, which means that the order of transactions reflects their true time order. Specifically, if a transaction T1 commits before a transaction T2 starts, based on physical (also called “wall clock”) time, then the serial ordering of commits should reflect that and T1 must get a smaller timestamp than T2. Spanner does this by using physical timestamps.

It is not possible to get a completely accurate real-world timestamp. Even if we had an accurate time source, there would be synchronization delays that would add a level of uncertainty. The problem is compounded by having the database span data centers around the globe. Spanner tries to minimize the uncertainty in getting a timestamp and make it explicit.

Each datacenter is equipped with one or more highly accurate time servers, called time masters (a combination of a GPS receivers and atomic clocks is used). The time master ensures that the uncertainty of a timestamp can be strongly bounded regardless of where a server resides. Each spanserver has access to a TrueTime API that provides a narrow time interval that contains the current time, ranging from TT.now().earliest up to TT.now().latest. The earliest time is guaranteed to be in the past and the latest is guaranteed to be a timestamp in the future when the function was called. These values would typically be only milliseconds apart. Spanner can now use these timestamps to ensure that transactions satisfy the demands of external consistency.

Implementing external consistency

The key to providing external consistency is to ensure that any data committed by the transaction will not be visible until after the transaction’s timestamp. This means that even other systems that have a different clock should still see a wall clock time that is later than the transaction’s timestamp. To do this, spanner waits out any uncertainty. Before a transaction commits, it acquires a commit timestamp:

t = TT.now().latest

This is the latest possible value of the true time across all servers in the system. It then makes sure that no locks will be released until that time is definitely in the past. This means waiting until the earliest possible current time on any system is greater than the transaction timestamp:

TT.now().earliest > t

This wait is called a commit wait and ensures that any newer transaction that grabs any of the same resources will definitely get a later timestamp.

Note that there is no issue if multiple transactions have the same timestamp. Timestamps are strictly used for versioning to ensure that we provide a consistent view of the database while supporting lock-free reads. Consider the case of a transaction that needs to read hundreds of millions of rows of data. Many transactions may modify the database since you start your work but the view of the database will be consistent since all data read will be no later than a specified timestamp.


By making timestamp uncertainty explicit, Spanner could implement a commit wait operation that can wait out the inaccuracy of a timestamp and provide external consistency along with full ACID semantics. Coupled with storing multiple versions of data, Spanner provides lock-free reads.

Spanner’s design was a conscious decision to not sacrifice the strong ACID semantics of a database. Programming without ACID requires a lot of extra thinking about the side effects of eventual consistency and careful programming if one wants to avoid it. Strict two-phase locking and a two-phase commit protocol are implemented within Spanner so programmers do not have to reinvent it.

Last modified April 7, 2021.
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