Race Conditions & ActiveRecord Uniqueness Validation

Race Condition
Race Condition
Source: Google [Secure Programming Clinic]

Wikipedia has a good definition for race conditions but I prefer this one from Search Storage — that I tweaked it just a bit.

A race condition is an undesirable situation that occurs when a device or system attempts to perform two or more operations at the same time, but because of the nature of the device or system, the operations must be executed in the proper sequence to be done correctly.

Uniqueness validation ensures that the value of the specified attributes are unique across the system. In Rails, you’d typically do:

At MondayVC (our name is changing soon, watch out :p), one of our subsystems for ensuring data integrity and accuracy on our Job boards has a polymorphic relationship between a task and a taskable. We want to ensure that all tasks are unique, hence, no repeated taskables. The most natural approach was:

Well, that worked fine for some time, until we had many people from different places using that subsystem. What was the problem? On a high level, a user would request a task and get an error page. Welcome, race condition!

Before delving into the actual problems, some useful information:
* A task can be marked as completed.
* When a task is marked as completed, its taskable is set with an answer gotten from the task.
* A taskable should only have one task.

Now, the actual problems:
1. A user requested tasks in quick succession or two users requested tasks in quick succession, then in both scenarios, the same task gets served.
2. The next time a user that experienced #1 requests a task, the system gets confused because it’s not supposed to serve this user the same task twice when they have already “completed” it. However, the answer to the taskable has not been set because that taskable now has two tasks and both try to set its answer concurrently.
3. The system can’t seem to make a decision whether to serve this user a new task or show them one they had already “completed”, so it craps out.

Why do two tasks with the same taskable get created in the system despite the model level validation? Good question, the model level validation is at the application level, at this point both records are valid and are allowed to be saved. ActiveRecord uniqueness validation is currently not wired to address race conditions. See this section of Rails guides and this comment in Rails’ source.

A more reliable way to handle this is having a database unique index with the fields you want to set the constraint on. You can do this with ActiveRecord migrations:

The unique index ensures that there are no tasks with duplicate taskables and race conditions are handled more reliably. Should you always use unique indexes for uniqueness? Not always, you should be fine with uniqueness validation if race conditions are not a concern.

This approach definitely improved the effectiveness and experience of the users of the subsystem, I hope it helps you too!

Backend Engineer | www.mattwal.com

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