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Handling a Cassandra transactional workload

Overview of Cassandra

As previously mentioned in my notes on lightweight transactions, Cassandra does not support ACID transactions. Cassandra was built to support a brisk ingest of writes while being distributed for availability. Follow the link to my previous post above to learn more specifics about LWTs and the Paxos algorithm. Here I'll cover some other ways to handle a transactional workload in Cassandra.

Batch mode

The standard write path for Cassandra is from client to memtable, and commit log to sstable. The write is stored on the memtable and commitlog of replica nodes (as configured using replication factor) before it is considered complete. The batch write path includes, in addition, a batch log which is used to group updates that are then considered complete (or not) together. This is an expensive operation unless batch writes affect a single partition key. As with lightweight transactions, time coordination among nodes remains important with batched writes.


To avoid expensive lightweight transactions or batched writes, software can be installed beside Cassandra to manage writes that need to be done together. Applications coordinate with the software to introduce locks to the write path to ensure atomicity and isolation of updates; the software used manages these locks. Two software tools that can be used for this type of workaround are Apache Zookeeper and Hashicorp Consul. Both of these tools are typically used to manage distributed configuration but can be leveraged to assist with Cassandra transactions. Whereas Zookeeper was originally created as an in-memory data store, Consul was built to be a configuration manager.


Because Zookeeper is essentially a data store, several libraries were created for the locking functionality. Two of these are Google's Cages and Netflix's Curator (now maintained as an Apache project). Note that Zookeeper and the Cages/Curator libraries have not been updated in several years. There is no reason application developers could not write similar functionality within their main application to interact with Zookeeper, perhaps using these as references.


Cages is a Java library used to synchronize the movement of data among distributed machines, making Cassandra transactional workloads an ideal use case. Cages includes several classes for reading and writing data. A pertinent one for transactional workloads is ZkWriteLock, used to wrap statements inside a lock stored in Zookeeper. Note that this lock stored in Zookeeper has nothing to do with the underlying Cassandra functionality, and must be adhered to by all parts of the application. Indeed, the application or another user could bypass the lock and interact directly with Cassandra.


Curator was created specifically to manage Zookeeper, resulting in a tighter integration. Curator works similarly to Cages, though, wrapping statements in a mutex and requiring the application to observe the locks to ensure data consistency.


Consul is also a distributed storage system used to manage configuration and similar data. It is recently developed and remains up-to-date. The distribution of Consul storage is highly flexible and performant, making it a great alternative to Zookeeper. The basic interaction from the application remains the same: the application would store a lock as a key-value in Consul, and all writes from the application would need to respect the lock.


Introducing extra steps in the write path is not free with regard to performance. In addition to the lag inherent to locking, Zookeeper can become a bottleneck. This can be avoided by scaling the Zookeeper clusters. A feature called Observer helps to reduce time spent getting a quorum from the Zookeeper cluster. Regardless, there is an upper limit -- of about 5-10K operations per second -- that you can perform per second against Zookeeper, so take this into consideration when planning an architecture.


If the transactional workload is infrequent and minimal, lightweight transactions should suffice. However, if transactions are a core function of the application, we recommend using Zookeeper or Consul to manage write locks. Zookeeper has a longer history, but Consul is more up-to-date and provides great flexibility and performance, giving us a preference for Consul.

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