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Some Solutions to Old Problems
Dalton Calford shares his real-life solutions to some implementation problems

Introduction

Please don't look upon this as the only approach to all problems. I identify some common situations that you might face and show how we approached the solutions.

If, after reading this, a few of you come up with better ways to accomplish the same thing, SHARE THE IDEAS. We all benefit and your overall karma will be improved...
  1. Approaching 24 X 7 Service
  2. Hardware Configuration
  3. Server Configuration
  4. Methods for Backing up your Data
  5. Roll-Forward Logging in Detail
  6. Replication
  7. Reversing User Actions
  8. Advanced Techniques

1. Approaching 24 X 7 Service

1.1 Overview

Many people have seen the term '24x7' — a shorthand label for 'a requirement to keep database available at all times' — and think that the solution will be found on either the database software or the hardware platform. The truth is, no software or hardware vendor could create a package that would begin to approach the particular needs of any one installation. Vendors make tradeoffs in order to satisfy the largest target market. This means that a developer has to really analyse requirements and design the best solution for his own installation.

The first question a developer needs to ask is this: are the tools at hand versatile enough to create a solution that can handle all the identified requirements?

Because of a design approach that was radical at the time, InterBase is extremely well suited to a 24x7 configuration, as long as the developer understands the server and the tools available.

With a proper database design, anyone can create a 24x7 system, regardless of the hardware, operating system or even the server software.

As for the hardware design issue, failures will occur even with the most expensive systems money can buy.

1.2 Our Assumptions

Our decisions about the basic design approach and coding were based on these assumptions:
  1. Hardware is cheap and is getting cheaper all the time.
  2. Time is precious and expensive. You want to be able to fix a problem in the least possible time.
  3. Pay now or Pay later. It is my philosophy that time spent up front is time saved later. If you fail to design it right the first time, you will end up doing three times the work when faced with the problems of your poorly thought-out design.
  4. Everything Fails. No matter how well you plan, you will have problems. If this isn't self-explanatory, do a MAN or INFO lookup on 'Murphy' and 'entropy'.
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2. Hardware Configuration

This is a very high level view of the hardware configuration to give you ideas on how to set a system up with the sort of reliability we are addressing here.

2.1 CPU(s)

If you are on a Superserver configuration, the current InterBase design will not help you to benefit from using multiple CPUs. That is not due to the operating system, as has been supposed by some people. It stems from design decisions made to optimize the multi-threading version of InterBase on single CPU servers. The design does not scale well to multiple CPUs. The new API was written mainly to support the threading model.

Do not waste your money on a SMP system if you want to use the Superserver version. If you need a lot of processing power, classic is the way to go. Personally, I have had no need for the new services provided by the Superserver model and I definitely prefer the classic version. I use multi-processor systems extensively and will not upgrade to any Superserver version that does not fully support multiple CPUs.

2.2 MEMORY

The Classic and Superserver configurations each use memory differently:
  • SuperServer has a shared memory cache, very good for conserving memory. It loads the metadata with the first connection to the database.
  • With Classic, every connection starts a new instance of the program on the server. The program loads, then the metadata loads. This makes Classic slower on the initial connection than Superserver.
If you have enough memory and a good configuration, you will not notice the speed difference. Here are the numbers I use for best performance:
  • 50 Mb are allocated for a RAM disk and isc_config is configured to use it for the first temp area. The physical temp drive is allocated once the RAM drive is full.
  • 150 Mb are allocated for OS and other miscellaneous items (less for Linux, more for NT)
  • 15 Mb are allocated per process for Superserver, 30 Mb per process for Classic.

That means I would use 500 Mb for a system optimized for speed to service 20 connections (150 for OS, 50 for RAMDISK, 300 for Super Server) or 800 Mb for Classic.

You can use less than this. I have seen connections use as little as 10 Mb and as much as 50 Mb each under the classic configuration, but, with 30 Mb set aside for each connection, the server can handle short term high loads without a noticable effect. The whole reason for this design is to allow for extra capability when another member of the system fails.

2.3 DRIVES

The entire concept here is that you can lose one entire system or its support equipment without your clients realizing what has happened.

People often do not take into consideration the physical properties of the drives they use. They buy an extremely fast drive and put everything (OS, SWAP, TEMP and DATA) all on the one drive. The drive-thrashing alone will slow down almost everything you do.

It is better to buy multiple cheaper drives and separate them for specific uses.

The next thing to think about is how those drives connect to your computer.

Simple IDE drives can transfer a lot of data and they can be extremely fast. They can also take up to 20% of your CPU's processing power because the IDE interface is totally controlled by the CPU.

SCSI drives are extremely good but, remember, the SCSI bus operates at the speed of its slowest member. If you go out and spend 80% of your budget on high-end controllers and extremely fast drives, then put in a tape drive on the same SCSI channel, you will make the entire unit operate as if it was designed in the 1980's.

The best configuration I found is a mixed system.

I put in two IDE drives on the first IDE channel. I fit them into hot-swap bays (around 16 bucks at your local corner computer store). I use these drives as my boot/OS drives.

The concept is that if I misconfigure the OS in any way, I can quickly shut down or swap the drives and restart in as little time as possible. This saves you when a faulty service pack or kernel update goes wrong.

With NT it is difficult to copy configurations to a second drive but there is software (I use a package called Ghost) that will allow you to copy an NT boot drive onto a second drive. With Linux you can simply copy the files you need.

I put the CDROM onto the second IDE channel and leave it at that.

Next, I approach the SCSI configuration.

You can get a motherboard with onboard SCSI controllers, usually split into two channels. One channel will handle the older 50-pin connectors (such as CDROM or TAPE units usually have) while the other channel handles an ultra-wide fast connector.

If your motherboard does not have an onboard controller, pick up a controller, with or without onboard cache ram. The maximum RAM I would have on a controller like this is 32 Mb. This controller would host your SWAP and TEMP areas (preferably on separate channels, desirable but not essential).

Now to your data.
I prefer a RAID configuration. I refuse to use software-based raid. Why? Often, problem situations are due to bugs in the OS. It does not make sense to make your data's safety net depend on the very item that may be crashing around your ears.

I like to use an intelligent SCSI controller with multiple channels. I limit my configuration to three drives per channel. I try to use a controller that has at least three channels and a hardware cache that is expandable to at least 256 Mb.

With this, you can create three RAIDs, each consisting of three drives, and separate each drive onto its own channel. You can even go so far as to have multiple controllers, each with the same configuration.

If you have your database on one drive controller and its shadow on another, you effectively have a situation where you could lose 60% of your drives, including one drive controller, and still not have any downtime for your clients.

[I will post the CPU cases and hot swap bays we use in another posting.]

A tape backup device, while valuable, does not match having a second system that can be replicated to.

If you are doing direct replication, I suggest having two network cards in each machine. If replication is between two machines, you can use a null Ethernet cable to connect the to servers while you connect to your internal network via the other network cable.

If you are using multiple servers, use a dedicated Etherswitch for the servers and a second concentrator for the client connection. You need to be good at setting up your routing, but this will increase your operational/replication speed. If one concentrator or switch dies, the servers can still communicate with each other and with the client.

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3. Server Configuration

In case you wonder what changes I have made to the IB Server's cache buffers, etc., the truth is that, except for bumping up to an 8096 default page size, I make absolutely no changes to the basic configuration of IB.

Here is what I do.
  • I put the operating system on one drive.
  • I place the swap space on another physical drive (not just a different partition on the same drive)
  • I place the temp space on another drive
  • I place the data onto a drive or series of drives that have no other purpose.
  • I create a RAM disk, setting up my isc_config file to use the RAM disk first as my primary temp space.
  • If I am using Linux, I create another RAM disk, large enough to hold the complete InterBase program.
I use a Bash script to copy the InterBase software onto this RAM disk. I link that RAM disk back so that inetd will spawn the version from the RAM disk instead of the version from the hard drive. This is still under test so I do not have hard numbers on the actual performance gains.
  • I fully populate the database but here is what I do to improve speed:
Create the database, either from scratch or from backup
Create a temporary table and fill it with random data until all the files that comprise the gdb are filled.
Then drop the temporary table and sweep the database. This gets rid of file fragmentation and the server no longer needs to ask the OS for disk space when it is inserting new records.

This gives a very significant speed improvement.

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4. Methods for Backing Up Your Data

Consider these backup methods:
  • Standard Backup — takes a snapshot of the database from when the backup began.
  • Shadow Style Backup — takes a snapshot of the database from when the backup finishes.
  • Roll-Forward LogsDifferential Backup — allows you to take any backup, and apply all the changes needed to make it current. You can extend this technique for remote replication — for this I will show examples and problems to watch for.
4.1 GBAK

I have a database that is extremely large but I only want to backup certain tables because most of my database is static. (Problem: you can't do a 'partial GBAK'.)

OR

I have a database that only has small amounts of changed data and I want to be able to perform incremental backups with fixed time points. (Problem: GBAK can't do incremental backups.)

OR

My backup takes so long that from the time I start the backup to the time my restore is finished, a few (hours/weeks/months) has passed. The backup is totally useless because of the differences between it and the original database...

OR

[INSERT GBAK COMPLAINT OF CHOICE]

Gbak is one of the biggest sources of complaints that I have seen from users of large databases. I remember that one of my first discussions with Markus Kemper (InterBase support) was about a database that took days to backup and restore.

4.2 HOW GBAK WORKS

Lets look at GBAK, what is it, why is it, why was it designed that way?

Gbak is an end-user program. It is no different from the program you are writing in [insert language of choice] to connect to InterBase. It is very simple in concept.

Gbak looks for the on-disk version of the database. It reads the system tables (RDB$XXX tables) according to that version. It then writes that information out to a file stream. Next, it outputs the data that is in the database out to the same file stream.

You have all sorts of choices (including a few that use the undocumented API of IB, such as not performing garbage collection) but, overall, you can take Jason Wharton's IB Objects and write your own gbak with any options you like. I've done so, for a previous client. The biggest trick is to understand the order of extraction/insertion of objects and data.

4.3 ALTERNATIVES TO GBAK

4.3.1 'Quick Backup'

Gbak was written so that it can run while other users are connected to the database. If you want a quick backup, shut down the IB server, and perform an OS-level backup.

4.3.2 Use a Shadow

You can also create a shadow database, shut down the IB server, rename the first file of the shadow, restart IB, and connect to the server. The log will complain about the shadow not being there but IB will just assume the shadow disk failed and proceed with the login.

Next, drop the shadow definition or create a new one. You can then connect to the newly renamed shadow file with gfix and make it a stand-alone GDB file.

This allows you to have the least downtime (less than a minute to shut down IB, rename the file and restart IB, even doing it in a batch file on NT). It lets you bypass gbak entirely and have a snapshot of IB that can be backed up to tape or copied to another disk using good old OS-based tools.

4.3.3 Use Roll-Forward Logs

If even a minute of downtime is too long, there is the Roll-Forward Logs method.

I remember a discussion on the mers lists about six months ago, with some people complaining about the lack of roll-forward logs and others stating that roll-forward logs were of no use. I will state that roll-forward logs are not just extremely useful, they have saved me many times over the past few years.

What is a roll-forward log?

It is a complete log of all changes (insert/update/delete) made within the database. It can work in many different ways. I will describe the thought process we went through and the mistakes we made, so that you can understand the decisions we made and why.

Our first mistake — External Tables

Our first action was to have a series of triggers on each table of the database (in position 0, with no other triggers at the same position) that inserted the previous values into an external 'shadow' table. (Wait for it, I know all the red flags are up, but like I said, I am explaining the process, not the final product yet).

External tables hold text values extremely well, but when you are holding date and numeric values, sometimes the casting is no good. Don't even begin to ask about blob or arrays. We could have worked around that problem with a little work. The most important hurdle of that approach is that EXTERNAL TABLES ARE OUTSIDE TRANSACTION CONTROL.

For those of you who do not know, the transaction is the database programmer's best friend in the whole world. Any occurrence in IB is done within a transaction — it is the nature of the beast. If you are using the BDE with Autocommit and you insert one record at a time, each insert is a single InterBase transaction.

This has multiple effects. Say you insert into a table which has an insert trigger which inserts rows into another table. If you rollback your work, the original insert is rolled back and the new rows in the other affected table are rolled back as well.

If your roll-forward log is an external table, it is outside the transaction context. You will have a list of changes in your log, even though those changes were reversed out and so do not exist in your main database.

This is the problem of using UDF's to record your log. After the UDF has written your changes to the external file, there is no way to notify the UDF if a rollback occurs.

After creating a whole series of these tables to shadow each table in our database, we found them far too complex to maintain.

Logging WITHIN the database

The only way to safely maintain a log was to have it within the database. So how would we create the log? We looked at different methods.
  • The first method was to have a table that held a very large char field that we could populate with an SQL statement to reproduce the insert, update or delete action that took place. It would have handled most datatypes, but blob and array data were still out of the question.
  • The second method was to have two tables, a master/detail that looked something like this:
MASTER table Fields
SURROGATE_KEY = Unique key value, generated.
TABLE_NAME = Name of the table the action took place on
ACTION_TYPE = (I)nsert; (U)pdate;(D)elete
KEY_LINK = This is a text field that held the text
of the where clause, e.g. 'WHERE PK_FIELD1= VAL1 AND PK_FIELD2=VAL2'
TIME_STAMP = To get the order of operations. This value was generated by the trigger inserting these records.
This approach meant that, if the table in question had multiple fields making up its primary key, the record could be properly found.
CHILD table Fields
LINK_KEY = Linking record from the MASTER table
using SURROGATE_KEY
FIELD_NAME = Name of the field in question
VAL_VARCHAR
VAL_NUMBER
VAL_DATE
VAL_BLOB
etc.

So for every change to the database, we would have a record inserted into the MASTER and a record was inserted into the child table for every column changed.
 
We were doing quite well with the second method, but found that we needed to use some custom values, domains, etc. That necessitated constantly adding to the field types to be saved, so we needed to be constantly changing the metadata of a table that may currently be in use.

As well, it necessitated changing all sorts of stored procedures that read these tables.

What we ended up with

We ended up with a separate table for each primary domain/datatype. That also made it very easy to perform the upgrade to version 6, where there were new datatypes. Although we are not currently running on v.6, the upgrade testing has been performed.

4.3.4 Using 'Bots' to Extract the Logged Changes

Now that all the changes were logged, we needed some way to extract them from the database. I resorted to my favorite tool, the IBOT.

'Bot' is short for 'robot' — a automated process that has very limited, pre-programmed responses to limited input. A InterBase bot is one that is totally controlled by database events and values kept in tables inside the core gdbs.

It works just like a regular client and can be set up on any machine with net or local access to the gdbs it maintains or is maintained by.

My BOTS (Or IBOTS for InterBase bots) assist in the maintenance of the system. I will come back to what the bots are and what they do for you later in this document. I am currently working with a friend to produce a standard bot template that is easily modified so that everyone out there can quickly use and/or customize their own bots and get them up and working quickly.

4.3.5 Our Multi-Server, Multi-File Database

To fully explain a few things, I need to show that my concept of a database spans many servers and gdb files.

I have a type of file that I refer to as a core file. It has all of the users' data. There can be many core files and they are replicated amongst themselves. They can sit on the same network or on different networks, as long as some type of update method is applied. That might even be applying roll-forward logs that have arrived in the mail.

Of all the core files, one is designated as the primary file. It has the task of conflict resolution between the different core files. The only difference between the primary file and the rest is a setting in the Variables table.

If the primary file fails, another core file can be upgraded to become the primary core file when necessary.

I have another type of file known as the historical files. They can sit on any machine on the network, on a machine that is appropriate to the amount of use they get. If they are only accessed by a single person once a month, don't bother buying a Sun server to host them...

This type may or may not be applicable to every developer's needs — if the data lends itself to breakpoints or static tables that do not relate to the newer tables, the key may be to separate this data into a subset of a core file.

A third type of file is the roll-forward logs. I set up the logs so that they represent a week of time and are sized to fit easily on a CD. In the next section, I will go into the details of our roll-forward logging concept and how we implemented it.

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5. Roll-Forward Logging

5.1 Roll-Forward Concepts and Implementation

What use is Roll-Forward?

Databases are designed to hold large amounts of data that are shared at the same time by a large group of people. As rarely as possible, the database has to be shut down to allow the system administrator to make a proper external backup of the data.

If the database is not shut down when a backup is made, at best the backup is corrupt, at worst, you have damaged your database. This happens when the backup process (either a third-party tool or the COPY command) does not understand that only portions of the file are locked and that they may be in a transitional state during the copy process (the file is changing as the copy is taking place).

InterBase provides a backup utility called GBAK. Instead of physically copying the file, it links into the database as a user and queries all the information about the database. It writes this information into another file (or directly onto tape) in such a way that it can be physically copied or moved. All this is within transaction control, so you get a perfect snapshot of the database when the transaction began.

The problem is, what do you do when your backup routine takes a long time? Or when your backup regimen is once a day or even once a week? A file corruption could have you lose hours or even days of work.

Once you restore your database, all the changes done since the snapshot have to be re-entered. Just retracing those changes is time-consuming. It would be great if every change to the database since the last snapshot backup was in an SQL script that you could run to bring the database up to date.

Roll-Forward is about easily rebuilding a series of actions by applying a single, user-editable process.

InterBase currently has no inherent method of doing this. It had this functionality in the days before Superserver but it got broke and was deemed too hard to fix. That does not mean it can not be done. Triggers can be used on a table to create a series of SQL statements that echo actions which have just occurred. For example, you can have an After Insert trigger on a table to insert values into a series of special tables that store the changes. You can do the same with an After Update or After Delete trigger.

A safe way to implement a roll-forward system with InterBase is to create an IBOT that works on a timer. At every [preset] interval of time, the IBOT queries the table to see all the newly-committed changes and writes them out to another database (preferably on another machine) that exists specifically to hold the logs. When those writes are committed, the IBOT removes the entries from the original database.

This is handled nicely by using Jason Wharton's multi-database transaction components (or by going to the API directly). This way, the deletes occur only if the data are properly transferred to the target database.

With proper timestamp values, you can take a backup, query the roll-forward database(s) and apply the changes that have occurred from the point the backup transaction occured.

The log makes it easy to isolate where a user has made a mistake, roll the log forward to that point, remove the users actions and continue the log as if the user never performed the data-damaging action in the first place.

This is only one way of reversing a user's actions — more on this later.

5.2 Implementing Roll-Forward Using Daemons and Bots

I must begin to explain the different tools that go into the system to make it work well. We developed several tools to make the system work well. You can get away with shortcuts, but every tool I am describing here was built to solve a problem that confronted us.

We have multiple machines, each with its own IP address, each with a unique path to a particular database.

At any time, a server can be taken down for maintenance, or a new file made active by a backup/restore routine that has now become ready. It is very difficult to hard-code this information into a BDE alias or IB_Connection style component.

Consider, too, that the client machines that are connecting to the various gdbs may be on a remote site, hours away from someone who can make any changes to its configuration.

5.2.1 DAEMONS

The Net came up with tool to solve a similar problem. A DNS server will take a name lookup query and return its IP address. Since we need more than a simple IP address, we just extend the model a little and customize it to our needs.

In our network's DNS server, we add a few entries that give multiple IP addresses to a single web name. Let's call the web name GDBCONTROL.MYDOMAIN.COM and say it has a series of IP addresses (192.168.10.2 .....192.168.10.6) corresponding to the machines on our network that will be running our new extended DNS server — our GDBCONTROL daemon.

When a client machine wants to connect to the system, it first does a DNS lookup for 'GDBCONTROL.MYDOMAIN.COM' and then sends a specially formatted UDP packet to the returned address (and to a predetermined port). If there is no response within a specified time period, another DNS lookup occurs for 'GDBCONTROL.MYDOMAIN.COM'. If you configured your DNS correctly, the DNS server will be rotating through all the IPs you gave for that domain name and the client machine will eventually have contact with one of the GDBCONTROL daemons.

This allows you to add GDBCONTROL daemons to the system as needed or have them drop from the loop without your end users (or automated bots) really caring.

The GDBCONTROL daemon, connected to one of the core databases, prompts the user for username and password and runs a query against the database to determine what database the requesting client should be directed to. That information is sent to the GDBCONTROL daemon. In turn, the daemon verifies the user is allowed to connect from that particular client machine at that particular time.

After all verification routines have been run, the server:/path, together with the user's real login and password for the server they are connecting to, are sent back to the client so that the client can make the appropriate connections.

The GDBCONTROL daemon is connected not just to a core gdb. It has no interface of its own but it keeps in contact with a user interface via UDP broadcasts that can also log all connection activity.

The daemon is analogous to an NT service. You start it. You have no user interface. It runs in the background and if you want to configure it, you change its configuration settings in the Registry or pass values via the services API.

With the GDBCONTROL, all control commands and responses are done with UDP broadcasts. I am going to detail the interface in my docs.

I am currently putting in capability for a UDP broadcast to registered IP addresses this way a remote user can signal the bot to broadcast everything it is doing. I have not really had a need for such a detailed log. There is enough redundancy in the system that I went a whole week without realizing one of the secondary core files and its associated bots were down. I checked GDBCONTROL session log, saw the problem, rebooted NT and voila, everything was back up and running.

The daemon also is in contact with one of the 'ISALIVE' bots and knows when a server is down.

At this point, the client connections or any one of the automated bots can start up and connect to the system, regardless of what machines are up or down, as long as a physical connection is available between the client machine and an operating core server.

5.2.2 BOTS/IBOTS

We use bots to extend IB's basic functionality by allowing it to perform tasks that normally only a client app can do. A bot is a client app. The only real difference is that the database controls it, rather than the normal situation where a client app controls the database.

The reason I refer to the GDBCONTROL program as a 'daemon' rather than a 'bot' is because it receives its requests and setup commands through a UDP interface and thus directly interfaces with the client software. A bot does not do this. I make this distinction to separate the 'bot' style of approach from daemon-based middleware solutions.

When a bot starts, it finds out what core file (i.e. server and gdb) it is supposed to be a slave to. If that server is not available, it notifies the GDBCONTROL. GDBCONTROL records this into the core file that it is connected to. GDBCONTROL either reassigns the bot to another core file or responds with the shutdown command.

If the bot does not get either the information for a working core file or the shutdown command, it shuts down on its own.

A bot should be configured so that it starts up, knows what kind of bot it is, and contacts the GDBCONTROL program. Once it receives its assigned server, database, login name and password from the GDBCONTROL daemon, it logs into the server and registers an interest in two events. One event has the same name as the bot; the other is called 'BOTSTYLE||SETUP'.

For example, the ROLLFWD bot would be registered into the server for an event matching its unique name as well as for the event called ROLLFWD||SETUP.

We went with the idea that only one of a type of bot would be sitting at a particular IP address and every login has its own unique login name. This meant that, although you could have any number of bots running on a machine, they all have to be different types of bots.

After registering for events, the bot reads its own configuration settings from the appropriate tables. To change a bot's settings, you alter the configuration settings and post the setup event for the particular bot you want reconfigured.

Once a bot's particular event is triggered, it follows its configuration settings and basic rules to perform the task assigned to it.

ROLLFWD

The ROLLFWD bot is connected to a core gdb as well as a log gdb. The connections are not constant — it is connected as needed. When a timer on the ROLLFWD bot fires, the bot executes a procedure on the core server, returning a formatted series of data that is inserted into the log gdb. It is all done via a single multi-gdb transaction because, once the data is committed into the destination, it is removed from the source database. If an error occurs, all changes on both databases get rolled back.

Initially we used a hard-coded SP name but later we found that, with changing the SP code on an operational database, it was a VERY BAD THING (tm).

After that, we started putting the SP name and returned parameters, along with the destination settings, into the configuration tables for the bot. That meant we could create a new version of the SP with the changes we wished to incorporate, update the bot's configuration tables, then post the update event. This ensured that the new settings would take effect when all the client bots were ready, instead of changing the metadata while they were using it. It allowed for very quick configuration changes to many remote bots.

We also started to implement the storage of the actual program within the database as a blob field — this way, when the bot connects it checks its version and downloads a new copy of itself when necessary. I never really went into a lot of detail on the subject, but others may be interested in looking at the source code and coming up with a method for doing it.

5.2.3 BOTS AND DDL

So far I have discussed how to save the actions of DML statements with triggers into internal log tables, and how those log tables are moved into a remote gdb. So far, I have not touched on metadata changes.

At first I was building triggers on the system tables that would fire when the change was committed. Those triggers would try to build the entire DDL statement that caused the change. Many frustrating moments later, I ended up putting up a flag in the Variables tables that would indicate what had changed. I would get the ROLLFWD bot to read in the changes, create the proper DDL, and store it into the log gdb for later application.

5.2.4 PROTECTING CLIENT CONNECTIONS

After a client has connected to a core file, it operates normally except that all inserts are performed via stored procedures. The client also maintains a session log of all DML actions. If a core file goes down, the client requests a different core file to connect to from GDBCONTROL, and then replays all the previous DML actions of the user.

When the first core file is brought back online, the UI's of each record are used to make sure that no record gets double-modified. This protects end users from losing work when a core file fails in some way.

5.2.5 APPLYING THE LOGS

If the basic design that the developer has in mind is not for a load-balanced system and there is only one core file (i.e., no fail-over replication), we are almost done.

Now, you have a database that has become corrupt in some fashion. You have a backup that is working just fine. You also have a log of all the changes to the database.

At this point, you can apply the log to the database with another client program that prompts for start timestamp/end timestamp — stop on first occurrence of user X — step through changes... I could go on for days with all the possible options you could include in this program. I kept mine very simple because I did not have a need that I could not get around by using WISQL or IBO.

5.2.6 WARNING!!!!!

Since you are creating the log from triggers, you have the choice to capture the data on the Before or the After trigger. Consider this: if you do not change the data using triggers, it does not matter where your data capture trigger sits. If you change, modify or insert the values into another table, then you need to think about a few things.
  1. if you capture the values on an insert trigger, you need to think about the receiving server having to process the values during the LOGS insert. This could be a problem if you have another insert trigger putting values into secondary tables. Those changes will also be in the log, so the value gets inserted twice. This is an Opportunity for confusion if you are not extremely careful.
  2. if you capture the values after the DML has occurred, you need to make sure that any triggers on the table do not fire again, or you will corrupt your data.
A simple IF...THEN block around the body of your triggers, that checks to see if the trigger is supposed to fire for this user, will save you lots of grief in the long run.

This is true even if you are not working with replication. You can have a trigger not fire for a specific user for the duration of a transaction and not affect other users or even future transactions of this user.

5.3 My IBOTS

ISALIVE — this bot simply tests to see if the different servers/gdb's are available and keeps the core file it is connected to informed of any which are down or slow to respond. It actually connects and queries the different databases and records whether it was successful. It is more informative than a ping, since a machine could be up but the gdb could be unavailable.

SECURIT — this bot responds to comands to add users, grant rights, checks for the dependencies between (my groups table, my users table, my rights table) and makes sure that a simple procedure ADD_USER_TO_GROUP(username, groupname) would give the user the rights that the group has. It prevents the client apps from needing to know the sysdba password to work with the ib 5 API. It also works with InterBase 4.

ROLLFWD — explained to death so far.

REPLICAT — this is the bot that is used in many-to-many replication across servers.

METABUILD — this is the bot that actually performs metadata updates — I have triggers on all the system tables preventing anyone but this bot from doing DDL statements.

DOCUMENT — these bots create the sequential numbers for invoices etc. There can be only one bot per numeric range.

I have a few others but these are the main ones.

5.4 Some Conclusions

There we have a simple roll-forward system. My big concern is being able to provide a solution for those who need it but are locked into a non-maintained IB environment (4.x) or for those who want a system that is highly modular and easy to modify and maintain without needing to understand C or BLR or even the InterBase API. If they do go this route, they simply print out the final version of the documentation as a development or maintenance guide and give it any new developers on staff to read. I am trying to target as wide a audience as possible with my writing because, for many, this is a very new and intimidating subject.

For many users, the sort of solution I am detailing is overkill. With the source of the different bots released, along with a few wizards (I have been working on a visual database builder — a RAD tool for InterBase) the whole system can be set up easily.

Many of the extras could be trimmed off but I left the extra details in just so that the reader would have a firm understanding of the tools needed, when I go into the extra steps of replication and load balancing.

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6. Replication

Replicating data involves copying changes from one operational database to another operational database. There are different kinds of replication.

People who begin to work with replication think it is a simple process of applying the changes that have occured to one database onto a separate database.

Replication is far more complex than simply applying a log. It necessitates adding a lot more maintenance code to ensure that it does not hog all your network bandwidth.

One-directional replication occurs when the data are moved from an active server that is serving information to client applications, to a non-active server which only receives changes. When the primary server becomes corrupt and unusable, the secondary is activated.

A shadow is a one-way replication system that works on a single server under the control of InterBase. It is good protection against the event of drive failure to maintain your production data on one physical drive and the shadow on another.

This is fine for keeping a ready-to-run operation going. It does not alleviate situations where a single server can not process all the requests that are coming to it. Everyone slows down and the system becomes unworkable.

To combat this, a bi-server or poly-server environment could be implemented. Users log in to different servers, each with a copy of the data, and no single server acts as a bottle neck. Similar methods could be used to keep and synchronize active data at multiple locations.

Fail-over replication

This is the easiest style of replication to set up. Think of it as being a remote shadow. Users and bots work from only one core file at a time. Secondary core files are updated by dedicated bots but it is one-way only.

Shared Replication

In some applications, you may find that, while all users may query all the tables in a database, only one or two users actually modify data in certain tables.

An example of this would be a table that holds large batches of information (like that generated by outside services or machines, with us, it is client transactional data from Bell). If you can segregate your users into those who modify a certain set of tables and those who modify a certain other set of tables, you can split your users onto two or more servers.

You can even have your applications understand the split and connect to the appropriate servers when a operation starts.

Although all servers contain the same data, you have balanced the load, especially if you have a lot of triggers and server-side verification going on.

This method allows you to use a slightly modified version of the Fail-over method, with the idea that it is one-way replication split by tables.

Full Replication

With Fail-over or Shared Replication, you can normalize your activities.

For example, if a new log record gets created, then updated multiple times, then deleted, all within the span of the log, the BOT would not apply anything related to that record. This is a way to cut down the network traffic so that only the data in its final state is applied to the end database.

With full replication, this is a problem.

You may have a record that was in one core database, that conflicts with a record in the destination database (such as a unique key conflict during a certain time period). This sort of problem in minimized if updates are frequent but it does not go away.

What is happening is a process that is as complex as file locking in a multi-user database. The problem is, you can not do any form of file locking, or even MGA, because, at the time that a change is taking place on one server, there is no way for the other servers to know that it is happening.

6.1 Enterprise-scoped Unique Identifiers (UIDs)

Many systems use simple numbers provided by generators as primary (surrogate) keys. A generator has no method of knowing what numbers have been given to what record on another server. This can give rise to invalid numbers or index corruptions — not a pretty sight.

For a data warehouse, many servers may be serving multiple users and producing calculated results that encompass the work being performed by other servers.

A typical scenario for such a system is the need to create an enterprise-unique identifier for every row in a table. Since this identifier is generated by the individual server, it is necessary to make sure it is calculated in such a way that it identifies the very server it was created on.

In this case, a server-wide <server name> variable — let's assume it is a 2-byte string — is used as the beginning of the unique indentifier (UID). Then, because a server may have a second or more copies of the database on it, a second variable, <database name>, is added. So far, the UID is 4 characters in length and it still needs further processing.

Because tables may be combined via union clauses or recursive tree structures, the unique identifier must also be unique across all possible tables, so each table has a unique shortcut name that is 4 characters in length.

Now we are at the point where most other designers begin, with an auto-incrementing number, generally created by a generator, with a start value of 1. The difference is, we must cast the integer value as a string large enough to hold the largest value the integer can be — 11 digits including the sign. To make sorting and other operations on the UID easier, after the cast, we will zero-fill the positions preceding the digits, so that it looks like this

001
002
003
 
instead of
 
1
2
3

This fixes the sort order so that we do not have sorts like this
 
19
2
20
21
22
...
29
3
30
31
etc.

With this structure, any number of simultaneous users can insert any number of records in multiple databases, across multiple servers and not have a duplicate UID assigned. It works even while the communication between servers is down, or on a time-delayed update system.

What we have come up with is a UID that is 19 characters in length and looks like this

CHARS, 1-2 is a unique Server identifier
- ie, AA or AB etc.
CHARS, 3-4 is a unique GDB identifier
- ie, AA or AB etc.
CHARS, 5-8 is a unique TABLE identifier
- the same across all databases
CHARS, 9-19 is the actual number of the record ranging
from -2147483647 to 2147483648, with left zero-filling,
for example
AAAAAAAA-2147483647 (minimum)
AAAAAAAA00000000001 (mid-range)
AAAAAAAA02147483648 (maximum)
etc.

I will be posting the SP code that does this.

In order for us to use replication properly, we resorted to a UID that would survive backup/restore and be unique across the entire database schema. That allows us to identify records even when the data that comprised their primary key had changed.

It also allowed us to identify what server created a record and determine an order of operations for use in identifying conflicts. The UID has further usefulness for us because we use many-many relationships and this UID works well in recursive structures.

This sort of planning is also required when data must be replicated over many servers. In a simple replication strategy, a single column can be used to mark whether a record needs to be copied from one server to the next,

e.g.
select * from mytable where changed='YES'

What happens when you are updating multiple servers or using a ring or star topology? It is extremely important to designate what information is to be replicated, how it is to be marked and to which servers it must be transferred.

As a rule, almost all aspects of data design must be questioned as to how they would hold up in a multi-server system.

Another situation to be handled is entry of the same data by different users into different servers at the same time.

For example, a customer calls in and gives his change of address. Employee A takes the call, takes down the information and prepares to process it after the current work is finished.

Meanwhile, the customer calls in again with a clarification, Employee B, working on a different server, gets the new data, sees it has not been entered and begins entering it.

When Employee A starts to enter the changes, the information from Employee B has not been posted, so the information has not been replicated to Employee A's server. Both employees are working on the same record, at the same time. Neither server blocks it because they are unaware of each other.

Consider, also, two new records being entered at the same time, or one that is deleted from one server while another is updating the 'same' record on another.

The log from the remote database assumes the data is in one state but it has been modified already, locally.

This all comes down a need to know not just what has happened, but also what it happened to and, for updates, what were the values before the update.

To ensure that the data are correct and not duplicated, each table has a series of 'KEY' fields that enable duplicate checking. Also, one server out of the cluster is responsible for maintaining the data integrity. All the servers must have the code in place to do the maintenance, but only one may be active at a time. This is managed by storing a value in the Variables table that the database checks.

You can see that data design for handling load balancing can be very convoluted and detailed. Don't worry, it is actually very simple if you stay in touch with the overall picture and don't get lost in the details.

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7. Reversing User Actions

Previously, I referred to the benefits of logging to trace and 'undo' a single user's actions. Another approach uses a non-transactional approach to process control.

When a user logs onto InterBase and makes a change, that change does not affect others until it is committed to the database. After it is committed, it is difficult to isolate and reverse the user's actions at a later date.

To cover for this, every table can have a linked child table to store all the main table's changes. This would give you the means to run a script and reverse all of a single user's actions across the database.

To prevent your database from becoming huge, you need to factor in a periodic purge of the data history.

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8. Advanced Techniques

8.1 Conflict Management and Reporting

If you are only changing the data on a single table on a single server, your design is much simpler and easier to implement. If you want full fail-over/load balancing without regard to the tables or servers used, you need to design your record conflict management routines.

If you remember my description of core files, you will note that I declared one core file as the primary file. This is because it is the first to receive all replication. It uses stored procedures and dedicated bots to perform all work on the data. If a secondary core file gets out of whack, the primary core file will produce the instructions to get it back into shape.

This is very application-specific. Much of it comes down to the developer's understanding of the application and how the tools work.

8.2 Speed and Bandwidth Issues

An important issue with replication is size of your data and time it takes to insert. You may find that you need to compress your data before transmission and then uncompress it when you get it to the destination machine. It is not too difficult and libraries for almost every compression algorithm under the sun are free for use and download on the web.

8.3 Choice of InterBase Architecture

Slowness comes with the actual inserts. This is where Classic architecture shines because if the inserts are performed on the server itself, they are very fast. As long as your app goes directly to the GDB, it does not go through the networking layer or any of the other layers involved.

With Classic, you can compile the equivalent of gdb_server into your app. If you watch gbak on a classic box, you will note that gbak does all the work and no gdb_server process is spawned. With Superserver, you do not get this benefit (at least as far as I have seen).

Footnote

I will be drawing up some charts and diagrams and working with a friend on some template code.

When I am finished my 10000' overview, I will produce an example application.

Replication is one area of database design where one person's solution is perfect for them and useless for somebody else. I will do my best to show all the different examples in my project.

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