17.8. Non-Atomic Transactions and Heuristic Outcomes

In order to guarantee atomicity, the two-phase commit protocol is blocking. As a result of failures, participants may remain blocked for an indefinite period of time, even if failure recovery mechanisms exist. Some applications and participants cannot tolerate this blocking.
To break this blocking nature, participants that are past the prepare phase are allowed to make autonomous decisions about whether to commit or rollback. Such a participant must record its decision, so that it can complete the original transaction if it eventually gets a request to do so. If the coordinator eventually informs the participant of the transaction outcome, and it is the same as the choice the participant made, no conflict exists. If the decisions of the participant and coordinator are different, the situation is referred to as a non-atomic outcome, and more specifically as a heuristic outcome.
Resolving and reporting heuristic outcomes to the application is usually the domain of complex, manually driven system administration tools, because attempting an automatic resolution requires semantic information about the nature of participants involved in the transactions.
Precisely when a participant makes a heuristic decision depends on the specific implementation. Likewise, the choice the participant makes about whether to commit or to roll back depends upon the implementation, and possibly the application and the environment in which it finds itself. The possible heuristic outcomes are discussed in Table 17.2, “Heuristic Outcomes”.

Table 17.2. Heuristic Outcomes

Outcome
Description
Heuristic Rollback
The commit operation failed because some or all of the participants unilaterally rolled back the transaction.
Heuristic Commit
An attempted rollback operation failed because all of the participants unilaterally committed. One situation where this might happen is if the coordinator is able to successfully prepare the transaction, but then decides to roll it back because its transaction log could not be updated. While the coordinator is making its decision, the participants decides to commit.
Heuristic Mixed
Some participants commit ed, while others were rolled back.
Heuristic Hazard
The disposition of some of the updates is unknown. For those which are known, they have either all been committed or all rolled back.

Heuristic decisions should be used with care and only in exceptional circumstances, since the decision may possibly differ from that determined by the transaction service. This type of difference can lead to a loss of integrity in the system. Try to avoid needing to perform resolution of heuristics, either by working with services and participants that do not cause heuristics, or by using a transaction service that provides assistance in the resolution process.