This overview is intended to give a high-level introduction of key models and components of CouchDB, how they work individually and how they fit together.
A CouchDB server hosts named databases, which store **documents**. Each document is uniquely named in the database, and CouchDB provides a RESTful HTTP API for reading and updating (add, edit, delete) database documents.
Documents are the primary unit of data in CouchDB and consist of any number of fields and attachments. Documents also include metadata that’s maintained by the database system. Document fields are uniquely named and contain values of varying types (text, number, boolean, lists, etc), and there is no set limit to text size or element count.
The CouchDB document update model is lockless and optimistic. Document edits are made by client applications loading documents, applying changes, and saving them back to the database. If another client editing the same document saves their changes first, the client gets an edit conflict error on save. To resolve the update conflict, the latest document version can be opened, the edits reapplied and the update tried again.
Document updates (add, edit, delete) are all or nothing, either succeeding entirely or failing completely. The database never contains partially saved or edited documents.
The CouchDB file layout and commitment system features all Atomic Consistent Isolated Durable (ACID) properties. On-disk, CouchDB never overwrites committed data or associated structures, ensuring the database file is always in a consistent state. This is a “crash-only" design where the CouchDB server does not go through a shut down process, it's simply terminated.
Document updates (add, edit, delete) are serialized, except for binary blobs which are written concurrently. Database readers are never locked out and never have to wait on writers or other readers. Any number of clients can be reading documents without being locked out or interrupted by concurrent updates, even on the same document. CouchDB read operations use a Multi-Version Concurrency Control (MVCC) model where each client sees a consistent snapshot of the database from the beginning to the end of the read operation.
Documents are indexed in b-trees by their name (DocID) and a Sequence ID. Each update to a database instance generates a new sequential number. Sequence IDs are used later for incrementally finding changes in a database. These b-tree indexes are updated simultaneously when documents are saved or deleted. The index updates always occur at the end of the file (append-only updates).
Documents have the advantage of data being already conveniently packaged for storage rather than split out across numerous tables and rows in most databases systems. When documents are committed to disk, the document fields and metadata are packed into buffers, sequentially one document after another (helpful later for efficient building of views).
When CouchDB documents are updated, all data and associated indexes are flushed to disk and the transactional commit always leaves the database in a completely consistent state. Commits occur in two steps:
- All document data and associated index updates are synchronously flushed to disk.
- The updated database header is written in two consecutive, identical chunks to make up the first 4k of the file, and then synchronously flushed to disk.
In the event of an OS crash or power failure during step 1, the partially flushed updates are simply forgotten on restart. If such a crash happens during step 2 (committing the header), a surviving copy of the previous identical headers will remain, ensuring coherency of all previously committed data. Excepting the header area, consistency checks or fix-ups after a crash or a power failure are never necessary.
Wasted space is recovered by occasional compaction. On schedule, or when the database file exceeds a certain amount of wasted space, the compaction process clones all the active data to a new file and then discards the old file. The database remains completely online the entire time and all updates and reads are allowed to complete successfully. The old file is deleted only when all the data has been copied and all users transitioned to the new file.
ACID properties only deal with storage and updates, we also need the ability to show our data in interesting and useful ways. Unlike SQL databases where data must be carefully decomposed into tables, data in CouchDB is stored in semi-structured documents. CouchDB documents are flexible and each has its own implicit structure, which alleviates the most difficult problems and pitfalls of bi-directionally replicating table schemas and their contained data.
But beyond acting as a fancy file server, a simple document model for data storage and sharing is too simple to build real applications on -- it simply doesn't do enough of the things we want and expect. We want to slice and dice and see our data in many different ways. What is needed is a way to filter, organize and report on data that hasn't been decomposed into tables.
To address this problem of adding structure back to unstructured and semi-structured data, CouchDB integrates a view model. Views are the method of aggregating and reporting on the documents in a database, and are built on-demand to aggregate, join and report on database documents. Views are built dynamically and don’t affect the underlying document, you can have as many different view representations of the same data as you like.
View definitions are strictly virtual and only display the documents from the current database instance, making them separate from the data they display and compatible with replication. CouchDB views are defined inside special **design documents** and can replicate across database instances like regular documents, so that not only data replicates in CouchDB, but entire application designs replicate too.
Views are a dynamic representation of the actual document contents of a database, and CouchDB makes it easy to create useful views of data. But generating a view of a database with hundreds of thousands or millions of documents is time and resource consuming, it's not something the system should do from scratch each time.
To keep view querying fast, the view engine maintains indexes of its views, and incrementally updates them to reflect changes in the database. CouchDB’s core design is largely optimized around the need for efficient, incremental creation of views and their indexes.
Views and their functions are defined inside special “design” documents, and a design document may contain any number of uniquely named view functions. When a user opens a view and its index is automatically updated, all the views in the same design document are indexed as a single group.
The view builder uses the database sequence ID to determine if the view group is fully up-to-date with the database. If not, the view engine examines the all database documents (in packed sequential order) changed since the last refresh. Documents are read in the order they occur in the disk file, reducing the frequency and cost of disk head seeks.
The views can be read and queried simultaneously while also being refreshed. If a client is slowly streaming out the contents of a large view, the same view can be concurrently opened and refreshed for another client without blocking the first client. This is true for any number of simultaneous client readers, who can read and query the view while the index is concurrently being refreshed for other clients without causing problems for the readers.
As documents are examined, their previous row values are removed from the view indexes, if they exist. If the document is selected by a view function, the function results are inserted into the view as a new row.
When view index changes are written to disk, the updates are always appended at the end of the file, serving to both reduce disk head seek times during disk commits and to ensure crashes and power failures can not cause corruption of indexes. If a crash occurs while updating a view index, the incomplete index updates are simply lost and rebuilt incrementally from its previously committed state.
Security and Validation
To protect who can read and update documents, CouchDB has a simple reader access and update validation model that can be extended to implement custom security models.
CouchDB database instances have administrator accounts. Administrator accounts can create other administrator accounts and update design documents. Design documents are special documents containing view definitions and other special formulas, as well as regular fields and blobs.
Both the user's credentials and the updated document are given as inputs to the validation formula, and can be used to implement custom security models by validating a user's permissions to update a document.
A basic “author only” update document model is trivial to implement, where document updates are validated to check if the user is listed in an “author” field in the existing document. More dynamic models are also possible, like checking a separate user account profile for permission settings.
The update validations are enforced for both live usage and replicated updates, ensuring security and data validation in a shared, distributed system.
Distributed Updates and Replication
CouchDB is a peer-based distributed database system, it allows for users and servers to access and update the same shared data while disconnected and then bi-directionally replicate those changes later.
The CouchDB document storage, view and security models are designed to work together to make true bi-directional replication efficient and reliable. Both documents and designs can replicate, allowing full database applications (including application design, logic and data) to be replicated to laptops for offline use, or replicated to servers in remote offices where slow or unreliable connections make sharing data difficult.
The replication process is incremental. At the database level, replication only examines documents updated since the last replication. Then for each updated document, only fields and blobs that have changed are replicated across the network. If replication fails at any step, due to network problems or crash for example, the next replication restarts at the same document where it left off.
Conflict detection and management are key issues for any distributed edit system. The CouchDB storage system treats edit conflicts as a common state, not an exceptional one. The conflict handling model is simple and "non-destructive" while preserving single document semantics and allowing for decentralized conflict resolution.
CouchDB allows for any number of conflicting documents to exist simultaneously in the database, with each database instance deterministically deciding which document is the “winner” and which are conflicts. Only the winning document can appear in views, while “losing” conflicts are still accessible and remain in the database until deleted or purged during database compaction. Because conflict documents are still regular documents, they replicate just like regular documents and are subject to the same security and validation rules.
When distributed edit conflicts occur, every database replica sees the same winning revision and each has the opportunity to resolve the conflict. Resolving conflicts can be done manually or, depending on the nature of the data and the conflict, by automated agents. The system makes decentralized conflict resolution possible while maintaining single document database semantics.
Conflict management continues to work even if multiple disconnected users or agents attempt to resolve the same conflicts. If resolved conflicts result in more conflicts, the system accommodates them in the same manner, determining the same winner on each machine and maintaining single document semantics.
Using just the basic replication model, many traditionally single server database applications can be made distributed with almost no extra work. CouchDB replication is designed to be immediately useful for basic database applications, while also being extendable for more elaborate and full-featured uses.
With very little database work, it is possible to build a distributed document management application with granular security and full revision histories. Updates to documents can be implemented to exploit incremental field and blob replication, where replicated updates are nearly as efficient and incremental as the actual edit differences ("diffs").
The CouchDB replication model can be modified for other distributed update models. If the storage engine is enhanced to allow multi-document update transactions, it is possible to perform Subversion-like “all or nothing” atomic commits when replicating with an upstream server, such that any single document conflict or validation failure will cause the entire update to fail. Like Subversion, conflicts would be resolved by doing a “pull” replication to force the conflicts locally, then merging and re-replicating to the upstream server.
CouchDB is built on the Erlang OTP platform, a functional, concurrent programming language and development platform. Erlang was developed for real-time telecom applications with an extreme emphasis on reliability and availability.
Both in syntax and semantics, Erlang is very different from conventional programming languages like C or Java. Erlang uses lightweight "processes" and message passing for concurrency, it has no shared state threading and all data is immutable. The robust, concurrent nature of Erlang is ideal for a database server.
CouchDB is designed for lock-free concurrency, in the conceptual model and the actual Erlang implementation. Reducing bottlenecks and avoiding locks keeps the entire system working predictably under heavy loads. CouchDB can accommodate many clients replicating changes, opening and updating documents, and querying views whose indexes are simultaneously being refreshed for other clients, without needing locks.
For higher availability and more concurrent users, CouchDB is designed for "shared nothing" clustering. In a "shared nothing" cluster, each machine is independent and replicates data with its cluster mates, allowing individual server failures with zero downtime. And because consistency scans and fix-ups aren’t needed on restart, if the entire cluster fails – due to a power outage in a datacenter, for example – the entire CouchDB distributed system becomes immediately available after a restart.
CouchDB is built from the start with a consistent vision of a distributed document database system. Unlike cumbersome attempts to bolt distributed features on top of the same legacy models and databases, it is the result of careful ground-up design, engineering and integration. The document, view, security and replication models, the special purpose query language, the efficient and robust disk layout and the concurrent and reliable nature of the Erlang platform are all carefully integrated for a reliable and efficient system.