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Chapter 3 - Replication

Replication provides a fast and reliable way to disseminate corporate information to multiple locations in a distributed business environment, allowing organizations to move their data closer to knowledge workers in corporate, branch, or mobile offices. This chapter provides information about the replication capabilities of Microsoft SQL Server version 7.0, and how they can empower users, improve decision-making, and increase performance and reliability of existing systems by reducing dependencies on centralized data.

What Is Replication?

What do a data warehouse, a corporate intranet, and a sales force automation application have in common? Aside from relying on a database for their storage requirements, all three of these application types must move data quickly and reliably throughout an organization. For example, a data warehouse receives sales data from an order processing system; a corporate intranet application moves financial data from a site in New York to a site in Japan; and a sales force automation system replicates customer information to the laptop computer of a local sales representative.

Today, more and more business applications are being designed to run in distributed computing environments. In addition to distributing applications across a network of workstations, servers, and legacy mainframe systems, organizations are distributing applications from centralized corporate offices to regional and satellite offices, and increasingly, to mobile offices (employee laptop computers).

Distributed office locations and personnel demand 24-hour operations and elaborate tracking systems, along with higher data integrity requirements. Aggravating the issue, most organizations have acquired a mix of disparate networks and computing platforms. The ensuing challenge for today's administrator is determining the best way to distribute large amounts of data across heterogeneous systems in a timely fashion.

SQL Server enables customers to replicate data from one SQL Server database to others throughout the enterprise. SQL Server 7.0 replication goals include:

  • Scalable replication solutions 

    Providing a full range of scalable replication solutions to meet the complete spectrum of application requirements.

  • Reduced complexity 

    Helping to lower the cost and complexity of replicated environments by making replication easier to build, manage, and use.

  • Heterogeneity and interoperability 

    Enabling bidirectional replication capabilities to heterogeneous data sources and easy integration with third-party applications.

Replication Model

SQL Server version 7.0 replication builds on the "publish and subscribe" model introduced in SQL Server version 6.0. The model consists of Publishers, Subscribers and Distributors, publications and articles, and push and pull subscriptions. Four new intelligent agents—Snapshot Agent, Log Reader Agent, Distribution Agent, and Merge Agent—manage the SQL Server 7.0 replication process. All agents can run under the SQL Server Agent and can be fully administered using SQL Server Enterprise Manager. The Snapshot and Log Reader Agents execute on the Distributor server, while the Distribution and Merge Agents execute on the Distributor server for push subscriptions, and on the Subscriber server for pull subscriptions. SQL Server replication is built on OLE DB and ODBC, the industry standards for data access, providing rich interoperability with a wide variety of relational and nonrelational data sources.

Components of SQL Server Replication

These basic components comprise SQL Server's replication model.

Publisher

The Publisher is a server that makes data available for replication to other servers. In addition to identifying the data to replicate, the Publisher detects the data that has changed and maintains information about all publications on the server. Any given data element that is replicated has a single Publisher, even if the data can be updated by any number of Subscribers or published again by a Subscriber.

Subscribers

Subscribers are servers that store replicas and receive updates. In earlier versions of SQL Server, updates could be performed only at the Publisher. However, SQL Server 7.0 allows Subscribers to make updates to data, although a Subscriber making updates is not the same as a Publisher. A Subscriber can, in turn, also become a Publisher to other Subscribers .

Publication

The publication is a collection of one or more articles, and an article is a grouping of data to be replicated. An article can be an entire table, only certain columns (using a vertical filter), or only certain rows (using a horizontal filter), or even a stored procedure (in some types of replication).

Distributor

The distributor is a server that contains the distribution database. The exact role of the Distributor is different in each type of SQL Server replication.

Pull subscription

The pull subscription is one in which the Subscriber asks for periodic updates of all changes at the Publisher. Pull subscriptions are best for publications that have a large number of Subscribers (for example, Subscribers using the Internet). Pull subscriptions are also best for autonomous mobile users because they determine when the data changes are synchronized. A single publication can support a mixture of push and pull subscriptions.

Push subscription 

The push subscription is one in which the Publisher propagates the changes to the Subscriber without a specific request from the Subscriber. Push subscriptions are used to propagate changes as they occur, or to set the schedule set by the Publisher.

Snapshot Agent

A Snapshot Agent prepares the schema and initial data files of published tables and stored procedures, stores the snapshot on the Distributor, and records information about the synchronization status in the distribution database. Each publication has its own Snapshot Agent that runs on the Distributor and connects to the Publisher.

Log Reader Agent

A log reader agent moves transactions marked for replication from the transaction log on the Publisher to the distribution database. Each database published using transactional replication has its own Log Reader Agent that runs on the Distributor and connects to the Publisher.

Distribution Agent

A Distribution Agent moves the transactions and snapshot jobs held in distribution database tables to Subscribers. Transactional and snapshot publications that are set up for immediate synchronization when a new subscription is created have their own Distribution Agent that runs on the Distributor and connects to the Subscriber. Transactional and snapshot publications not set up for immediate synchronization share a Distribution Agent across the Publisher/Subscriber pair that runs on the Distributor and connects to the Subscriber. Pull subscriptions to either snapshot or transactional publications have Distribution Agents that run on the Subscriber instead of the Distributor. The Distribution Agent typically runs under SQL Server Agent and can be administered directly using SQL Server Enterprise Manager.

Merge Agent

A Merge Agent moves and reconciles incremental data changes that occurred after the initial snapshot was created. In merge replication, data moves either in both directions (first from the Subscriber to the Publisher, and then from the Publisher to the Subscriber) or in one direction only. Each merge publication has its own Merge Agent that connects to both the Publisher and the Subscriber and updates them. Push subscriptions to merge publications have Merge Agents that run on the Publisher, while pull subscriptions to merge publications have Merge Agents that run on the Subscriber. Snapshot and transactional publications do not have Merge Agents. The Merge Agent can also be embedded and driven in an application using the Microsoft ActiveX control.

Two-phase commit

A two-phase commit is a process that ensures transactions that apply to more than one server are completed either on all servers or on none.

Scalable Replication Solutions

Replication is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Businesses have different application requirements, and SQL Server 7.0 delivers a broad range of replication solutions to meet them. Envision a spectrum of application requirements with site autonomy (all sites operating in a disconnected state) at one end, and transactional consistency (all sites are guaranteed to have the same data values at the same time) at the opposite end.

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An application's position along the range of requirements determines the appropriate replication solution. For example, contrast the requirements of a sales force automation system with those of an accounts receivable system. Both applications use replication for distributing data. However, the company's mobile sales force can take customer orders on laptop computers while disconnected from the central office network. The lack of a network connection (and an accurate report of inventory) must not prevent the salesperson from taking and submitting the order. Thus, the need for autonomy in the sales application outweighs the risk of taking orders for out-of-stock items (back orders are allowed). In contrast, the invoices sent out by the accounts receivable department must be completely accurate and current for auditing purposes. In this case, transactional consistency outweighs the need for employee autonomy.

SQL Server provides three types of replication you can use as you design your applications:

  • Snapshot replication 

  • Transactional replication 

  • Merge replication 

Each of these types provides different capabilities and different attributes to satisfy the needs for site autonomy and transaction consistency. However, these are not mutually exclusive technologies. It is common for the same application to use multiple replication types.

Snapshot Replication

As its name implies, snapshot replication takes a picture, or snapshot, of the published data in the database at one moment in time. Snapshot replication is the simplest type of replication, and it guarantees latent consistency between the Publisher and Subscriber. Snapshot replication is most appropriate in read-only application scenarios such as look-up or code tables, or in decision support systems in which data latency requirements are not strict and data volumes are not excessive. Snapshots can occur either on a scheduled basis or on demand.

Snapshot replication requires less processor overhead than transactional replication because it does not require continuous monitoring of data changes on source servers. Instead of copying INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE statements (characteristic of transactional replication), or data modifications (characteristic of merge replication), Subscribers are updated by a total refresh of the data set. Therefore, snapshot replication sends all the data to the Subscriber instead of sending the changes only. If the article is large, it can require substantial network resources to transmit. In deciding if snapshot replication is appropriate, you must balance the size of the entire data set against the volatility of change to the data.

Snapshot replication offers strong site autonomy when updates are not made to Subscriber data. If updates are required, snapshot replication provides little site autonomy, limiting its usefulness in a disconnected environment: the higher the update frequency, the more limited the solution. In either case, loose transactional consistency is maintained.

Transactional Replication

The second mode of replication is called transactional replication. Transactional replication monitors changes to the publishing server at the transaction level: insert, update or delete operations. Changes made to the Publisher flow continuously or at scheduled intervals to one or more subscribing servers. Changes are propagated in near real time; typically, with a latency of seconds. With transactional replication, changes must be made at the publishing site to avoid conflicts and guaranteeing transactional consistency.

Only committed transactions are sent to subscribing servers, and in the guaranteed order in which they were committed at the Publisher. This guarantees loose transactional consistency: ultimately all the subscribing sites will achieve the same values as those at the Publisher. The data at any participating site will be the same as it would be had all operations been performed at a single site.

If Subscribers need near-real-time propagation of data changes, they will need a network connection to the Publisher. Transactional replication in a well-networked environment can provide low latency to Subscribers. Push Subscribers would often receive changes within 5 or 10 seconds of when they occurred at the Publisher, provided the network link remains available.

Because transactional replication relies on a given data element having only a single Publisher, it is most commonly used in application scenarios that allow for logical partitioning of data and data ownership. A branch system with centralized reporting (corporate rollup) is an appropriate use of transactional replication. In this scenario, data ownership is maintained at the branch level and is published to a centralized server for read-only reporting. Transactional replication is also an appropriate solution for periodic downloads of read-only data in either a well-connected or disconnected scenario. For example, every night from a hotel room, a mobile salesperson pulls down the incremental changes to a price list, which is modified only at the corporate office.

Immediate Updating Subscribers Option

In their simplest form, both snapshot and transactional replication are based on a model of one-way replication, in which data is modified only at the Publisher and flows downstream to a Subscriber. However, some applications require the ability to update data at subscribing servers and have those changes flow upstream. The Immediate Updating Subscribers option, available with either snapshot or transactional replication, allows data to be updated at subscribing sites.

This option is set when the article is created and allows a Subscriber to update the copy of its local data, as long as that update can be immediately reflected to the Publisher with the two-phase commit (2PC) protocol. If the update can be performed successfully between the Subscriber and the Publisher, the Publisher propagates those changes to all other Subscribers during the next distribution. Because the Subscriber making the update already has the data changes reflected locally, the user can continue working with the updated data secure in the guarantee that the Publisher data also reflects the change.

The Immediate Updating Subscribers option is most appropriate for use with well-connected and reliable networks where application contention for data is relatively low. For example, a distributed ticketing system maintains local replicas of the ticketing database so that available seating can be accessed quickly. However, a seat can be sold only once, so it is critical that the local transaction (for example, the ticket sale) is updated immediately and committed to the central server, the Publisher. The transaction can then be replicated to all other local ticket offices in the next distribution, and any attempt to sell the same seat will be prohibited.

How Immediate Updating Subscribers Works

When a publication is enabled to support the Immediate Updating Subscribers option, a Subscriber site can modify replicated data if the transaction can be performed using 2PC with the Publisher. This approach provides latent guaranteed consistency to other Subscribers without requiring that updates be made only at the publishing site. The 2PC transaction with the Publisher is done automatically so that an application can be written as though it is updating just one site. This approach does not have the availability constraint of doing full 2PC to all participating sites because only the Publisher must be available. After the change is made at the Publisher, it is published to all other Subscribers to the publication, thereby maintaining latent guaranteed consistency.

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With this option, applications are not required to be written to perform data modification operations at the Publisher and read operations at the Subscriber. The application works with data at one site, and the 2PC transaction is performed automatically. The application should be equipped to deal with a failure in the transaction, just as it would in a nonreplication environment. If the transaction is successful, the Subscriber can work with the changed values immediately, as the update has been accepted at the Publisher without conflict and will eventually be replicated to every subscription of the publication. A Subscriber performing updates does not have full autonomy because the Publisher must be available at the time of the update. Nevertheless, autonomy is much higher than it would be with the full 2PC case in which every site must be available for any site to perform changes.

Merge Replication

Merge replication provides the highest level of autonomy for any replication solution. Publishers and Subscribers can work independently and reconnect periodically to merge their results. If a conflict is created by changes being made to the same data element at multiple sites, those changes are resolved automatically. These characteristics make merge replication an ideal solution for applications, such as sales force automation, in which users need full read/write access to local replicas of data in a highly disconnected environment.

When conflicts occur (more than one site updated the same data values), merge replication provides automatic conflict resolution. The winner of the conflict can be resolved based on assigned priorities, who first submitted the change, or a combination of the two. Data values are replicated and applied to other sites only when the reconciliation process occurs, which might be hours, days, or even weeks apart. Conflicts can be detected and resolved at the row level, or at a specific column in a row.

The Snapshot Agent and Merge Agent perform merge replication. The Snapshot Agent prepares snapshot files containing schema and data of published tables, stores the files on the Distributor, and records synchronization jobs in the publication database. The Merge Agent applies to the Subscriber the initial snapshot jobs held in the distribution database tables. It also merges incremental data changes that occurred after the initial snapshot was created, and reconciles conflicts according to rules you configure, or using a custom resolver you create.

How Merge Replication Works

When a table is published with merge replication, SQL Server makes three important changes to the schema of the database. First, SQL Server identifies a unique column for each row in the table being replicated. This allows the row to be uniquely identified across multiple copies of the table. If the base table already contains a unique identifier column (rowguid) with the ROWGUIDCOL property, SQL Server uses that column as the row identifier for that replicated table automatically. Otherwise, SQL Server adds the column rowguid (with the ROWGUIDCOL property) to the base table. SQL Server also adds an index on the rowguid column to the base table.

Second, SQL Server installs triggers that track changes to the data in each row or (optionally) each column. These triggers capture changes made to the base table and record these changes in merge system tables. Different triggers are generated for articles that track changes at the row level or the column level. Because SQL Server supports multiple triggers of the same type on the base table, merge replication triggers do not interfere with the application-defined triggers; that is, application-defined triggers and merge replication triggers can coexist.

Third, SQL Server adds several system tables to the database to support data tracking; efficient synchronization; and conflict detection, resolution, and reporting. The msmerge_contents and msmerge_tombstone tables track the updates, inserts, and deletes to the data within a publication. They use the unique identifier column rowguid to join to the base table. The generation column acts as a logical clock indicating when a row was last updated at a given site. Actual timestamps are not used for marking when changes occur, or for deciding conflicts, and there is no dependence on synchronized clocks between sites. At a given site, the generation numbers correspond to the order in which changes were performed by the Merge Agent or by a user at that site.

Priority-based Conflict Resolution

Under priority-based conflict resolution, every publication is assigned a priority number, 0 being the lowest and 100 the highest. The following diagram represents the simplest case. In this scenario, all three sites agree that Site A created version one of the row, and no subsequent updates occurred. If Sites A and B both update the row, the Site A update is the conflict winner because it has the higher priority.

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In a more complex scenario, if multiple changes have occurred to the same row since the last merge, the maximum site priority for a change that was made to the common version is used to determine the conflict winner. For example, Site A makes version two, and sends it to Site B, which makes version three. Site B then sends version three back to Site A. In the meantime, Site C also made a version two and attempts to reconcile it with A. The maximum site priority for the changes that occurred to the common version is 100 (Site A's priority). Site A and B's joint changes are thus the priority winner, so Site A is the conflict winner.

Custom Conflict Resolution

Merge replication is designed to handle an application's need for flexible conflict resolution schemes. An application can override the default, priority-based resolution by providing its own custom resolver. Custom resolvers are COM-objects or stored procedures that are written to the public resolver interface and invoked during reconciliation by the Merge Agent to support business rules.

For example, suppose multiple sites participate in monitoring a chemical process and record the low and high temperatures achieved in a test. A priority-based or first-wins strategy would not deliver the "lowest low" and the "highest high" values. Design templates and code samples help you create a custom resolver to solve such a business case.

Merge replication is a great solution for disconnected applications that require very high site autonomy, can be partitioned, or do not need transactional consistency. Merge replication is not the right choice for applications that require transactional consistency and cannot supply an assurance of integrity by using partitioning. Transactional consistency refers to strict adherence to the ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability) properties, specifically durability. Any replication solution that allows conflicts cannot, by definition, achieve the ACID properties. Any time conflicts are resolved, a transaction that had been committed is undone, breaking the rule for durability.

Lower Complexity

One of the primary design goals of SQL Server 7.0 replication was to make it easier to build, manage, and use. Microsoft has achieved this goal through a combination of wizards and sophisticated design and monitoring tools. SQL Server Enterprise Manager introduces several new wizards to simplify the installation and maintenance of replication. From a single server or workstation that has SQL Server installed, you can use SQL Server Enterprise Manager to set up a complete replication environment spanning as many servers as necessary across your enterprise. Replication Monitor enables users to view and modify the replication properties and to troubleshoot replication activity.

Replication Wizards

SQL Server includes various replication wizards and numerous dialog boxes to simplify the steps necessary to build and manage replication.

  • The Configure Publishing and Distribution Wizard helps you specify a server to use as a Distributor and other replication components you may need. 

  • The Create Publication Wizard helps you create a publication from the data in your database. 

  • The Disable Publishing and Distribution Wizard helps you disable publishing, distribution, or both, on a server. 

  • The Pull Subscription Wizard helps you "pull" a subscription to a publication on one server into a database on another server. 

  • The Push Subscription Wizard helps you "push" a subscription from a publication on one server to one or more servers or server groups. 

  • The Replication Conflict Viewer helps you review the manner in which conflicts were resolved and make changes to these resolutions. 

After you have used the wizards to configure replication initially and create publications and articles, you can change most of the initial settings through dialog boxes.

Replication Monitor

Use Replication Monitor to view the status of replication agents and troubleshoot potential problems at a Distributor. Replication Monitor is activated as a component of a server in SQL Server Enterprise Manager only when the server is enabled as a Distributor and the current user is a member of the sysadmin fixed server role. All replication agents must be scheduled through SQL Server Agent. Replication and Replication Monitor will not work unless SQL Server Agent is running.

You can use Replication Monitor in SQL Server Enterprise Manager to:

  • View a list of Publishers, publications, and subscriptions to the publications that are supported by the Distributor. 

  • View scheduled replication agents and monitor real-time "heartbeat" status and history for each agent. 

  • Set up and monitor alerts related to replication events. If an event occurs, SQL Server responds automatically, either by executing a task that you have defined or by sending an e-mail or a pager message to an operator that you have specified. 

Monitoring Publishers, Publications, and Subscriptions

Replication Monitor is a powerful tool for getting detailed information about Publishers, publications, and subscriptions. For example, Replication Monitor provides a list of all of the Publishers that use the server as a Distributor, display all of the publications for a particular Publisher, or identify all subscriptions to a particular publication.

Monitoring Replication Agents

For troubleshooting purposes, Replication Monitor graphically monitors the activity of all replication agents: Snapshot, Log Reader, Distribution, and Merge Agents. To display the four agents, select a Distributor, and then click Replication Monitor. To expose the detailed activity and the task history for that agent, expand the node of a specific agent.

Monitoring Replication Alerts

Replication Monitor and the SQL Server Agent provide a powerful mechanism for setting up lights-out management for a replication environment. SQL Server Agent monitors the Windows NT application log, watching for an event that qualifies as one of the defined alerts. If such an event occurs, SQL Server Agent responds automatically, either by executing a task that you have defined or by sending an e-mail or a pager message to an operator that you have specified.

You can select a Distributor and use Replication Monitor to display a list of all replication-related alerts on the server.

Windows NT Application Log

To view the Windows NT application log, use the Windows NT Event Viewer. If you are part of the Windows NT Administrators group, you can also view remote event logs. The Windows NT application log contains SQL Server error messages as well as messages for all activities on the computer. When you use the Windows NT application log, each SQL Server session writes new events to an existing log; you can filter the log for specific events. Unlike the SQL Server error log, a new Windows NT application log is not created each time you start SQL Server; however, you can specify how long logged events are retained.

Heterogeneous Interoperability

Many distributed applications require interoperability with custom solutions and multiple data stores. SQL Server 7.0 addresses this requirement in two ways. First, all replication programming interfaces are exposed and documented, allowing software developers to integrate applications tightly with SQL Server replication. For example, independent software vendors (ISVs) who specialize in replication solutions can easily layer their functionality on top of SQL Server replication to support replication to and from multiple data stores. Sales force automation vendors can easily build SQL Server replication directly into their applications, creating a seamless solution for customers. Second, SQL Server 7.0 replication is built on OLE DB and ODBC, the primary standards for data access, which provide built-in heterogeneous replication capabilities.

Replicating to Heterogeneous Data Sources

SQL Server supports replication to heterogeneous data sources that provide 32-bit ODBC or OLE DB drivers on the Microsoft Windows NT and Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows 98 operating systems. Out of the box, SQL Server supports Microsoft Access, Pocket Access, Oracle, and DB2 with the Microsoft BackOffice family of products as heterogeneous subscribers. In addition, SQL Server 7.0 supports any other database server that complies with ODBC or OLE DB Subscriber requirements.

The most straight forward way to publish data to a Subscriber that is not running SQL Server is to use ODBC/OLE DB and create a push subscription from the Publisher to the ODBC/OLE DB Subscriber. Alternately, you can create a publication, and then create an application with an embedded distribution control. The embedded control implements the pull subscription from the Subscriber to the Publisher. For ODBC/OLE DB Subscribers, the subscribing database has no administrative control over the replication being performed.

Replicating from Heterogeneous Data Sources

SQL Server enables heterogeneous data sources to become Publishers within the SQL Server replication framework. Microsoft has exposed and published the replication interfaces, allowing a developer to use all the transaction replication tools of SQL Server.

The replication tools available to heterogeneous data sources include:

  • Programmable SQL-DMO replication objects for administering and monitoring replication. 

  • Replication distributor interface for storing replicated transactions. 

  • Distribution Agent to forward the transactions to Subscribers. 

  • SQL Server Enterprise Manager to administer and monitor replication graphically. 

The following diagram illustrates how a heterogeneous data source is integrated into the replication framework as a Publisher.

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Microsoft has been actively promoting the Distributor Agent interfaces to the developer community to help ensure that ISVs are able to integrate their heterogeneous replication solutions tightly with SQL Server 7.0. Several vendors, including Platinum and Praxis, are building applications to the distributor interfaces, allowing them to drop publications from third-party databases directly into the SQL Server replication framework. After a heterogeneous publication is dropped into the distribution process, it can be monitored directly from third-party tools that support SQL-DMO replication objects.

Application Design Considerations

Data replication is a complex technology, and SQL Server replication developers recognize that a single solution is not right for all applications. Unlike other replication products that promote a single "update-anywhere-anytime" approach, SQL Server provides a variety of replication technologies that can be tailored to your application's specific requirements. Each technology provides different benefits and satisfies requirements across three important dimensions:

  • Transactional consistency 

  • Site autonomy 

  • Partitioning data to avoid conflicts 

Transactional Consistency

Transactional consistency, with respect to replication, means that the data at any participating site will be the same as it would be had all operations been performed at a single site. That is, the act of replicating the data does not in itself change the data in ways that would not occur if replication were not used. When working with distributed applications that modify data, there are three basic levels of transactional consistency:

  • Immediate guaranteed consistency 

  • Latent guaranteed consistency 

  • Convergence 

Immediate Guaranteed Consistency

With immediate guaranteed consistency (called tight consistency in SQL Server version 6.x), all participating sites are guaranteed to have the same data values at the same time, and the data is in the state that would have been achieved had all the work been done at the publishing site. The only way to achieve immediate guaranteed consistency in a distributed update environment (in which updates can be made to the same data at any location) is with the use of a two-phase commit (2PC) between all participating sites. Each site must simultaneously commit every change, or no site can commit the change. Such a solution is obviously not feasible for large numbers of sites because of unforeseen conditions, such as network outages.

Latent Guaranteed Consistency

With latent guaranteed consistency (called loose consistency in SQL Server version 6.x), all participating sites are guaranteed to have the same data values that were achieved at the publishing site at some point in time. There can be a delay in the data values being reflected at the Subscriber sites, so that at any instant in time, the sites are not assured of having the same data values. If all data modification could be paused long enough to allow every site to catch up and have every change applied, all sites would have the same data values. However, having the same value is not sufficient for latent guaranteed consistency. In addition, the data must be in the state that would have been achieved had all the work been done at one site. The difference between immediate and latent guaranteed consistency is whether the values are consistent at the same instant in time. If the system were allowed to catch up, the values would be identical regardless of whether the system is based on immediate or latent guaranteed consistency.

Convergence

With convergence, all the sites may end up with the same values, but not necessarily the values that would have resulted had all the work been done at only one site. All sites may work freely in a disconnected manner, and when all the nodes have synchronized, all sites converge to the same values. Lotus Notes is an example of a convergence product used to build useful distributed applications, yet it provides neither atomic transactions nor any model of guaranteed consistency.

Database vendors that support atomic transactions at a single site promote "update anywhere" replication solutions. Most database vendors offer the ability to resolve conflicts by discarding or changing the effects of one transaction because of another competing transaction performed at another node. These solutions are promoted as providing complete site autonomy. However, it is not well promoted that the act of conflict resolution means there is no guaranteed transactional consistency.

Example of Transactional Consistency

Three sites are participating in a replication scenario. Site 3 submits five transactions: T1, T2, T3, T4, and T5 for synchronization with the other two sites. Transactions T1 and T2 have no conflicts and are accepted. But transaction T3 has a conflict, and the reconciliation mechanism discards the transaction. Transactions T4 and T5 must also be discarded because these transactions may have read, and depended on, data that transaction T3 had modified. Because transaction T3 was subsequently discarded, it logically never existed. T4 and T5 are also in doubt. If they had been accepted, the results may have differed from the result that would have been obtained had all updates been done at a single site, thereby breaking the rules of transactional consistency.

Even a compensating transaction (for example, a delete if an insert had been accepted) is not sufficient to guarantee transactional consistency. Subsequent transactions may have applied changes to the transient data that resulted from the transaction that was resolved away. To remain in a state in which transactional consistency is guaranteed, not only must transaction T3 be discarded, but all subsequent work performed at that site, including T4 and T5, must be discarded as well.

Site Autonomy

Site autonomy refers to whether the operations of one site are affected seriously by those of another. There is complete site autonomy if one site's ability to do its work is independent of its connectivity to another site, and the state of operations at that site. For example, the use of 2PC makes every change to data dependent on whether every other participating site is able to accept the transaction successfully and immediately. If one site is unavailable, no work can proceed. At the other end of the spectrum, in merge replication, every site works independently and can be completely disconnected from all other sites. Merge replication has high site autonomy but not guaranteed consistency. 2PC has guaranteed tight consistency but a total absence of site autonomy. Other solutions are somewhere between both dimensions.

Partitioning Data to Avoid Conflicts

You can segregate data at multiple sites to provide your guarantee of transactional consistency. The absence of guaranteed transactional consistency does not imply guaranteed transactional inconsistency. If you can design your application so that each participating site works with data that is strictly segregated (or partitioned) from other sites, you can maintain transactional consistency. For example, to ensure that orders never will conflict, design your order entry system so that a given salesperson has a unique, known territory.

Partitioning adds a crucial third dimension to consider when designing and deploying distributed applications. While some of the SQL Server replication technologies allow for detection and resolution of conflicts, partitioning enables avoidance of conflicts. When possible, it is better to avoid conflicts before the update rather than to resolve them afterward. Conflict resolution always results in some site's work being overwritten or rolled back, and the loss of guaranteed transactional consistency. A high number of conflicts requires substantial processing to resolve, is more difficult to administer, and can result in data states that are entirely unpredictable and are not auditable. As a practical matter, if you choose a distributed technology that does not guarantee transactional integrity, you should be certain that your application and deployment will not produce many conflicts. Conflicts should be the exception rather than the rule, and reconciliation can be used to resolve these exceptions.

Other Distributed Technologies

SQL Server 7.0 replication provides powerful technologies for building and supporting a wide range of distributed applications. However, there are applications for which replication may not be the best solution. For these applications, SQL Server introduces several other distributed database technologies:

  • Heterogeneous distributed queries 

  • Microsoft Distributed Transaction Coordinator (MS DTC) 

  • Data Transformation Services (DTS) 

These SQL Server technologies can be used either in conjunction with, or in place of replication, depending upon the requirements for your application.

Heterogeneous Distributed Queries

Based on OLE DB, the distributed query technology for SQL Server 7.0 enables queries to heterogeneous data sources. Any data source supported by ODBC/OLE can participate in a distributed query. For example, an international company has eight regional offices, each using a different database product to store sales data (Oracle, Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, SQL Server, and so on). The sales manager uses distributed queries to read the data from each data source and prepare a quarterly report showing the sales, salary, and commission results for the last three years.

SQL Server allows a single SELECT statement to be issued to databases to the data sources, tapping into all the power of SQL, including heterogeneous joins and subqueries. If an application does require access to distributed data, but the use of a particular piece of data is infrequent, distributed queries may be a better choice than replication.

Microsoft Distributed Transaction Coordinator

Microsoft Distributed Transaction Coordinator (MS DTC) supports distributed updates in an application. This is the only way to guarantee tight consistency (all copies of your data always have the exact same data values at the exact same time) and that the data is in a state that would have been achieved had all the work been done at one site. SQL Server ships with the MSDTC service, which allows for this tight consistency, with real-time updates.

Data Transformation Services

Data Transformation Services (DTS) makes it easy to import, export, and transform data between multiple heterogeneous data sources using an OLE DB-based architecture. DTS allows you to move and transform data to and from:

  • Native OLE DB providers such as SQL Server, Excel, Microsoft Works, and Access. 

  • ODBC data sources such as Access, Oracle, and DB2 using the OLE DB Provider for ODBC. 

  • ASCII fixed-field length text files and ASCII-delimited text files. 

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