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Multi-threaded Access to an SQLite3 Database

(Published on 2011-11-26. Also available in POD.)

(Minor 2013-04-06 update: I abstracted my message passing solution from ncdc and implemented it in a POSIX C library for general use. It's called sqlasync and is part of my Ylib library collection.)

Introduction

As I was porting ncdc over to use SQLite3 as storage backend, I stumbled on a problem: The program uses a few threads for background jobs, and it would be nice to give these threads access to the database.

Serializing all database access through the main thread wouldn't have been very hard to implement in this particular case, but that would have been far from optimal. The main thread is also responsible for keeping the user interface responsive and handling most of the network interaction. Overall responsiveness of the program would significantly improve when the threads could access the database without involvement of the main thread.

Which brought me to the following questions: What solutions are available for providing multi-threaded access to an SQLite database? What problems may I run in to? I was unable to find a good overview in this area on the net, so I wrote this article with the hope to improve that situation.

SQLite3 and threading

Let's first see what SQLite3 itself has to offer in terms of threading support. The official documentation mentions threading support several times in various places, but this information is scattered around and no good overview is given. Someone has tried to organize this before on a single page, and while this indeed gives a nice overview, it has unfortunately not been updated since 2006. The advices are therefore a little on the conservative side.

Nonetheless, it is wise to remain portable with different SQLite versions, especially when writing programs that dynamically link with some random version installed on someone's system. It should be fairly safe to assume that SQLite binaries provided by most systems, if not all, are compiled with thread safety enabled. This doesn't mean all that much, unfortunately: The only thing thread safe means in this context is that you can use SQLite3 in multiple threads, but a single database connection should still stay within a single thread.

Since SQLite 3.3.1, which was released in early 2006, it is possible to move a single database connection along multiple threads. Doing this with older versions is not advisable, as explained in the SQLite FAQ. But even with 3.3.1 and later there is an annoying restriction: A connection can only be passed to another thread when any outstanding statements are closed and finalized. In practice this means that it is not possible to keep a prepared statement in memory for later executions.

Since SQLite 3.5.0, released in 2007, a single SQLite connection can be used from multiple threads simultaneously. SQLite will internally manage locks to avoid any data corruption. I can't recommend making use of this facility, however, as there are still many issues with the API. The error fetching functions and sqlite3_last_insert_row_id(), among others, are still useless without explicit locking in the application. I also believe that the previously mentioned restriction on having to finalize statements has been relaxed in this version, so keeping prepared statements in memory and passing them among different threads becomes possible.

When using multiple database connections within a single process, SQLite offers a facility to allow sharing of its cache, in order to reduce memory usage and disk I/O. The semantics of this feature have changed with different SQLite versions and appear to have stabilised in 3.5.0. This feature may prove useful to optimize certain situations, but does not open up new possibilities of communicating with a shared database.

Criteria

Before looking at some available solutions, let's first determine the criteria we can use to evaluate them.

Implementation size

Obviously, a solution that requires only a few lines of code to implement is preferable over one that requires several levels of abstraction in order to be usable. I won't be giving actual implementations here, so the sizes will be rough estimates for comparison purposes. The actual size of an implementation is of course heavily dependent on the programming environment as well.

Memory/CPU overhead

The most efficient solution for a single-threaded application is to simply have direct access to a single database connection. Every solution is in principle a modification or extension of this idea, and will therefore add a certain overhead. This overhead manifests itself in both increased CPU and memory usage. The order of which varies between solutions.

Prepared statement re-use

Is it possible to prepare a statement once and keep using it for the lifetime of the program? Or will prepared statements have to be thrown away and recreated every time? Keeping statement handles in memory will result in a nice performance boost for applications that run the same SQL statement many times.

Transaction grouping

A somewhat similar issue to prepared statement re-use: From a performance point of view, it is very important to try to batch many UPDATE/DELETE/INSERT statements within a single transaction, as opposed to running each modify query separately. Running each query separately will force SQLite to flush the data to disk separately every time, whereas a single transaction will batch-flush all the changes to disk in a single go. Some solutions allow for grouping multiple statements in a single transaction quite easily, while others require more involved steps.

Background processing

In certain situations it may be desirable to queue a certain query for later processing, without explicitly waiting for it to complete. For example, if something in the database has to be modified as a result of user interaction in a UI thread, then the application would feel a lot more responsive if the UPDATE query was simply queued to be processed in a background thread than when the query had run in the UI thread itself. A database accessing solution with built-in support for background processing of queries will significantly help with building a responsive application.

Concurrency

Concurrency indicates how well the solution allows for concurrent access. The worst possible concurrency is achieved when a single database connection is used for all threads, as only a single action can be performed on the database at any point in time. Maximum concurrency is achieved when each thread has its own SQLite connection. Note that maximum concurrency doesn't mean that the database can be accessed in a fully concurrent manner. SQLite uses internal database-level locks to avoid data corruption, and these will limit the actual maximum concurrency. I am not too knowledgeable about the inner workings of these locks, but it is at least possible to have a large number truly concurrent database reads. Database writes from multiple threads may still allow for significantly more concurrency than when they are manually serialized over a single database connection.

Portability

What is the minimum SQLite version required to implement the solution? Does it require any special OS features or SQLite compilation settings? As outlined above, different versions of SQLite offer different features with regards to threading. Relying one of the relatively new features will decrease portability.

The Solutions

Here I present four solutions to allow database access from multiple threads. Note that this list may not be exhaustive, these are just a few solutions that I am aware of. Also note that none of the solutions presented here are in any way new. Most of these paradigms date back to the entire notion of concurrent programming, and have been applied in software since decades ago.

Connection sharing

By far the simplest solution to implement: Keep a single database connection throughout your program and allow every thread to access it. Of course, you will need to be careful to always put locks around the code where you access the database handler. An example implementation could look like the following:

  // The global SQLite connection
sqlite3 *db;

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
if(sqlite3_open("database.sqlite3", &db))
exit(1);

// start some threads
// wait until the threads are finished

sqlite3_close(db);
return 0;
}

void *some_thread(void *arg) {
sqlite3_mutex_enter(sqlite3_db_mutex(db));
// Perform some queries on the database
sqlite3_mutex_leave(sqlite3_db_mutex(db));
}
Implementation size

This is where connection sharing shines: There is little extra code required when compared to using a database connection in a single-threaded context. All you need to be careful of is to lock the mutex before using the database, and to unlock it again afterwards.

Memory/CPU overhead

As the only addition to the single-threaded case are the locks, this solution has practically no memory overhead. The mutexes are provided by SQLite, after all. CPU overhead is also as minimal as it can be: mutexes are the most primitive type provided by threading libraries to serialize access to a shared resource, and are therefore very efficient.

Prepared statement re-use

Prepared statements can be safely re-used inside a single enter/leave block. However, if you want to remain portable with SQLite versions before 3.5.0, then any prepared statements must be freed before the mutex is unlocked. This can be a major downside if the enter/leave blocks themselves are relatively short but accessed quite often. If portability with older versions is not an issue, then this restriction is gone and prepared statements can be re-used easily.

Transaction grouping

A reliable implementation will not allow transactions to span multiple enter/leave blocks. So as with prepared statements, transactions need to be committed to disk before the mutex is unlocked. Again shared with prepared statement re-use is that this limitation may prove to be a significant problem in optimizing application performance, disk I/O in particular. One way to lower the effects of this limitation is to increase the size of a single enter/leave block, thus allowing for more work to be done in a single transaction. Code restructuring may be required in order to efficiently implement this. Another way to get around this problem is to do allow a transaction to span multiple enter/leave blocks. Implementing this reliably may not be an easy task, however, and will most likely require application-specific knowledge.

Background processing

Background processing is not natively supported with connection sharing. It is possible to spawn a background thread to perform database operations each time that this is desirable. But care should be taken to make sure that these background threads will execute dependent queries in the correct order. For example, if thread A spawns a background thread, say B, to execute an UPDATE query, and later thread A wants to read that same data back, it must first wait for thread B to finish execution. This may add more inter-thread communication than is preferable.

Concurrency

There is no concurrency at all here. Since the database connection is protected by an exclusive lock, only a single thread can operate on the database at any point in time. Additionally, one may be tempted to increase the size of an enter/leave block in order to allow for larger transactions or better re-use of prepared statements. However, any time spent on performing operations that do not directly use the database within such an enter/leave block will lower the maximum possible database concurrency even further.

Portability

Connection sharing requires at least SQLite 3.3.1 in order to pass the same database connection around. SQLite must be compiled with threading support enabled. If prepared statements are kept around outside of an enter/leave block, then version 3.5.0 or higher will be required.

Message passing

An alternative approach is to allow only a single thread to access the database. Any other thread that wants to access the database in any way will then have to communicate with this database thread. This communication is done by sending messages (requests) to the database thread, and, when query results are required, receiving back one or more response messages.

Message passing schemes and libraries are available for many programming languages and come in many different forms. For this article, I am going to assume that an asynchronous and unbounded FIFO queue is used to pass around messages, but most of the following discussion will apply to bounded queues as well. I'll try to note the important differences between the two where applicable.

A very simple and naive implementation of a message passing solution is given below. Here I assume that queue_create() will create a message queue (type message_queue), queue_get() will return the next message in the queue, or block if the queue is empty. thread_create(func, arg) will run func in a newly created thread and pass arg as its argument. Error handling has been ommitted to keep this example consice.

  void *db_thread(void *arg) {
message_queue *q = arg;

sqlite3 *db;
if(sqlite3_open("database.sqlite3", &db))
return ERROR;

request_msg *m;
while((m = queue_get(q)) {
if(m->action == QUIT)
break;
if(m->action == EXEC)
sqlite3_exec(db, m->query, NULL, NULL, NULL);
}

sqlite3_close(db);
return OK;
}

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
message_queue *db_queue = queue_create();
thread_create(db_thread, db_queue);
// Do work.
return 0;
}

This example implementation has a single database thread running in the background that accepts the messages QUIT, to stop processing queries and close the database, and EXEC, to run a certain query on the database. No support is available yet for passing query results back to the thread that sent the message. This can be implemented by including a separate message_queue object in the request messages, to which the results can be sent.

Implementation size

This will largely depend on the used programming environment and the complexity of the database thread. If your environment already comes with a message queue implementation, and constructing the request/response messages is relatively simple, then a simple implementation as shown above will not require much code. On the other hand, if you have to implement your own message queue or want more intelligence in the database thread to improve efficiency, then the complete implementation may be significantly larger than that of connection sharing.

Memory/CPU overhead

Constructing and passing around messages will incur a CPU overhead, though with an efficient implementation this should not be significant enough to worry about. Memory usage is highly dependent on the size of the messages being passed around and the length of the queue. If messages are queued faster than they are processed and there is no bound on the queue length, then a process may quickly run of out memory. On the other hand, if messages are processed fast enough then the queue will generally not have more than a single message in it, and the memory overhead will remain fairly small.

Prepared statement re-use

As the database connection will never leave the database thread, prepared statements can be kept in memory and re-used without problems.

Transaction grouping

A naive but robust implementation will handle each message in its own transaction. A more clever database thread, however, could wait for multiple messages to be queued and can then batch-execute them in a single transaction. Correctly implementing this may require some additional information to be specified along with the request, such as whether the query may be combined in a single transaction or whether it may only be executed outside of a transaction. Some threads may want to have confirmation that the data has been successfully written to disk, in which case responsiveness will not improve if such actions are queued for later processing. Nonetheless, since the database thread has all the knowledge about the state of the database and any outstanding actions, transaction grouping can be implemented quite reliably.

Background processing

Background processing is supported natively with a message passing implementation: a thread that isn't interested in query results can simply queue the action to be performed by the database thread without indicating a return path for the results. Of course, if a thread queues many messages that do not require results followed by one that does, it will have to wait for all earlier messages to be processed before receiving any results for the last one. In the case that the actions are not dependent on each other, the database thread may re-order the messages in order to process the last request first. This requires knowledge about dependencies and may significantly complicate the implementation, however.

Concurrency

As with a shared database connection, database access is exclusive: Only a single action can be performed on the database at a time. Unlike connection sharing, however, any processing within the application will not further degrade the maximum attainable concurrency. As long as unbounded asynchronous queues are used to pass around messages, the database thread will be able to continue working on the database without waiting for another thread to process the results.

Portability

This is where message passing shines: SQLite is only used within the database thread, no other thread will have a need to call any SQLite function. This allows any version of SQLite to be used, even those that have not been compiled with thread safety enabled.

Thread-local connections

A rather different approach to giving each thread access to a single database is to simply open a new database connection for each thread. This way each connection will be local to the specific thread, which in turn has the power to do with it as it likes without worrying about what the other threads do. The following is a short example to illustrate the idea:

  void *some_thread(void *arg) {
sqlite3 *db;
if(sqlite3_open("database.sqlite3", &db))
return ERROR;

// Do some work on the database

sqlite3_close(db);
}

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
int i;
for(i=0; i<10; i++)
thread_create(some_thread, NULL);

// Wait until the threads are done

return 0;
}
Implementation size

Giving each thread its own connection is practically not much different from the single-threaded case where there is only a single database connection. And as the example shows, this can be implemented quite trivially.

Memory/CPU overhead

If we assume that threads are not created very often and each thread has a relatively long life, then the CPU and I/O overhead caused by opening a new connection for each thread will not be very significant. On the other hand, if threads are created quite often and lead a relatively short life before they are destroyed again, then opening a new connection each time will soon require more resources than running the queries themselves.

There is a significant memory overhead: every new database connection requires memory. If each connection also has a separate cache, then every thread will quickly require several megabytes only to interact with the database. Since version 3.5.0, SQLite allows sharing of this cache with the other threads, which will reduce this memory overhead.

Prepared statement re-use

Prepared statements can be re-used without limitations within a single thread. This will allow full re-use of prepared statements if each thread has a different task, in which case every thread will have different queries and access patterns anyway. But when every thread runs the same code, and thus also the same queries, it will still need its own copy of the prepared statement. Prepared statements are specific to a single database connection, so they can't be passed around between the threads. The same argument for CPU overhead works here: as long as threads are long-lived, then this will not be a very large problem.

Transaction grouping

Each thread has full access to its own database connection, so it can easily batch many queries in a single transaction. It is not possible, however, to group queries from the other threads in this same transaction as well. The grouping may therefore not be as optimal as a message passing solution could provide, but it is still a large improvement compared to connection sharing.

Background processing

Background processing is not easily possible. While it is possible to spawn a separate thread for each query that needs to be processed in the background, a new database connection will have to be opened every time this is done. This solution will obviously not be very efficient.

Concurrency

In general, it is not possible to get better concurrency than by providing each thread with its own database connection. This solution definitely wins in this area.

Portability

Thread-local connections are very portable: the only requirement is that SQLite has been built with threading support enabled. Connections are not passed around between threads, so any SQLite version will do. In order to make use of the shared cache feature, however, SQLite 3.5.0 is required.

Connection pooling

A common approach in server-like applications is to have a connection pool. When a thread wishes to have access to the database, it requests a database connection from a pool of (currently) unused database connections. If no unused connections are available, it can either wait until one becomes available, or create a new database connection on its own. When a thread is done with a connection, it will add it back to the pool to allow it to be re-used in an other thread.

The following example illustrates a basic connection pool implementation in which a thread creates a new database connection when no connections are available. A global db_pool is defined, on which any thread can call pool_pop() to get an SQLite connection if there is one available, and pool_push() can be used to push a connection back to the pool. This pool can be implemented as any kind of set: a FIFO or a stack could do the trick, as long as it can be accessed from multiple threads concurrently.

  // Some global pool of database connections
pool_t *db_pool;

sqlite3 *get_database() {
sqlite3 *db = pool_pop(db_pool);
if(db)
return db;
if(sqlite3_open("database.sqlite3", &db))
return NULL;
return db;
}

void *some_thread(void *arg) {
// Do some work

sqlite3 *db = get_database();

// Do some work on the database

pool_push(db_pool, db);
}

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
int i;
for(i=0; i<10; i++)
thread_create(some_thread, NULL);

// Wait until the threads are done

return 0;
}
Implementation size

A connection pool is in essense not very different from thread-local connections. The only major difference is that the call to sqlite3_open() is replaced with a function call to obtain a connection from the pool and sqlite3_close() with one to give it back to the pool. As shown above, these functions can be fairly simple. Note, however, that unlike with thread-local connections it is advisable to "open" and "close" a connection more often in long-running threads, in order to give other threads a chance to use the connection as well.

Memory/CPU overhead

This mainly depends on the number of connections you allow to be in memory at any point in time. If this number is not bounded, as in the above example, then you can assume that after running your program for a certain time, there will always be enough unused connections available in the pool. Requesting a connection will then be very fast, since the overhead of creating a new connection, as would have been done with thread-local connections, is completely gone.

In terms of memory usage, however, it would be more efficient to put a maximum limit on the number of open connections, and have the thread wait until another thread gives a connection back to the pool. Similarly to thread-local connections, memory usage can be decreased by using SQLite's cache sharing feature.

Prepared statement re-use

Unfortunately, this is where connection pooling borrows from connection sharing. Prepared statements must be cleaned up before passing a connection to another thread if one aims to be portable. But even if you remove that portability requirement, prepared statements are always specific to a single connection. Since you can't assume that you will always get the same connection from the pool, caching prepared statements is not practical.

On the other hand, a connection pool does allow you to use a single connection for a longer period of time than with connection sharing without negatively affecting concurrency. Unless, of course, there is a limit on the number of open connections, in which case using a connection for a long period of time may starve another thread.

Transaction grouping

Pretty much the same arguments with re-using prepared statements also apply to transaction grouping: Transactions should be committed to disk before passing a connection back to the pool.

Background processing

This is also where a connection pool shares a lot of similarity with connection sharing. With thread-local storage, creating a worker thread to perform database operations on the background would be very inefficient. But since this inefficiency is being tackled by allowing connection re-use with a connection pool, it's not a problem. Still the same warning applies with regard to dependent queries, though.

Concurrency

Connection pooling gives you fine-grained control over how much concurrency you'd like to have. For maximum concurrency, don't put a limit on the number of maximum database connections. If there is a limit, then that will decrease the maximim concurrency in favor of lower memory usage.

Portability

Since database connections are being passed among threads, connection pooling will require at least SQLite 3.3.1 compiled with thread safety enabled. Making use of its cache sharing capibilities to reduce memory usage will require SQLite 3.5.0 or higher.

Final notes

As for what I used for ncdc. I initially chose connection sharing, for its simplicity. Then when I noticed that the UI became less responsive than I found acceptable I started adding a simple queue for background processing of queries. Later I stumbled upon the main problem with that solution: I wanted to read back a value that was written in a background thread, and had no way of knowing whether the background thread had finished executing that query or not. I then decided to expand the background thread to allow for passing back query results, and transformed everything into a full message passing solution. This appears to be working well at the moment, and my current implementation has support for both prepared statement re-use and transaction grouping, which measurably increased performance.

To summarize, there isn't really a best solution that works for every application. Connection sharing works well for applications where responsiveness and concurrency isn't of major importance. Message passing works well for applications that aim to be responsive, and is flexible enough for optimizing CPU and I/O by re-using prepared statements and grouping queries in larger transactions. Thread-local connections are suitable for applications that have a relatively fixed number of threads, whereas connection pooling works better for applications with a varying number of worker threads.