Chapter 11. Transactions And Concurrency

NHibernate is not itself a database. It is a lightweight object-relational mapping tool. Transaction management is delegated to the underlying database connection. If the connection is enlisted with a distributed transaction, operations performed by the ISession are atomically part of the wider distributed transaction. NHibernate can be seen as a thin adapter to ADO.NET, adding object-oriented semantics.

11.1. Configurations, Sessions and Factories

An ISessionFactory is an expensive-to-create, threadsafe object intended to be shared by all application threads. An ISession is an inexpensive, non-threadsafe object that should be used once, for a single business process, and then discarded. For example, when using NHibernate in an ASP.NET application, pages could obtain an ISessionFactory using:

ISessionFactory sf = Global.SessionFactory;

Each call to a service method could create a new ISession, Flush() it, Commit() its transaction, Close() it and finally discard it. (The ISessionFactory may also be kept in a static Singleton helper variable.)

We use the NHibernate ITransaction API as discussed previously, a single Commit() of a NHibernate ITransaction flushes the state and commits any underlying database connection (with special handling of distributed transactions).

Ensure you understand the semantics of Flush(). Flushing synchronizes the persistent store with in-memory changes but not vice-versa. Note that for all NHibernate ADO.NET connections/transactions, the transaction isolation level for that connection applies to all operations executed by NHibernate!

The next few sections will discuss alternative approaches that utilize versioning to ensure transaction atomicity. These are considered "advanced" approaches to be used with care.

11.2. Threads and connections

You should observe the following practices when creating NHibernate Sessions:

  • Never create more than one concurrent ISession or ITransaction instance per database connection.

  • Be extremely careful when creating more than one ISession per database per transaction. The ISession itself keeps track of updates made to loaded objects, so a different ISession might see stale data.

  • The ISession is not threadsafe! Never access the same ISession in two concurrent threads. An ISession is usually only a single unit-of-work!

11.3. Considering object identity

The application may concurrently access the same persistent state in two different units-of-work. However, an instance of a persistent class is never shared between two ISession instances. Hence there are two different notions of identity:

Database Identity

foo.Id.Equals( bar.Id )

CLR Identity

foo == bar

Then for objects attached to a particular Session, the two notions are equivalent. However, while the application might concurrently access the "same" (persistent identity) business object in two different sessions, the two instances will actually be "different" (CLR identity).

This approach leaves NHibernate and the database to worry about concurrency. The application never needs to synchronize on any business object, as long as it sticks to a single thread per ISession or object identity (within an ISession the application may safely use == to compare objects).

11.4. Optimistic concurrency control

Many business processes require a whole series of interactions with the user interleaved with database accesses. In web and enterprise applications it is not acceptable for a database transaction to span a user interaction.

Maintaining isolation of business processes becomes the partial responsibility of the application tier, hence we call this process a long running application transaction. A single application transaction usually spans several database transactions. It will be atomic if only one of these database transactions (the last one) stores the updated data, all others simply read data.

The only approach that is consistent with high concurrency and high scalability is optimistic concurrency control with versioning. NHibernate provides for three possible approaches to writing application code that uses optimistic concurrency.

11.4.1. Long session with automatic versioning

A single ISession instance and its persistent instances are used for the whole application transaction.

The ISession uses optimistic locking with versioning to ensure that many database transactions appear to the application as a single logical application transaction. The ISession is disconnected from any underlying ADO.NET connection when waiting for user interaction. This approach is the most efficient in terms of database access. The application need not concern itself with version checking or with reattaching detached instances.

// foo is an instance loaded earlier by the Session
transaction = session.BeginTransaction();
foo.Property = "bar";

The foo object still knows which ISession it was loaded it. As soon as the ISession has an ADO.NET connection, we commit the changes to the object.

This pattern is problematic if our ISession is too big to be stored during user think time, e.g. an HttpSession should be kept as small as possible. As the ISession is also the (mandatory) first-level cache and contains all loaded objects, we can propably use this strategy only for a few request/response cycles. This is indeed recommended, as the ISession will soon also have stale data.

11.4.2. Many sessions with automatic versioning

Each interaction with the persistent store occurs in a new ISession. However, the same persistent instances are reused for each interaction with the database. The application manipulates the state of detached instances originally loaded in another ISession and then "reassociates" them using ISession.Update() or ISession.SaveOrUpdate().

// foo is an instance loaded by a previous Session
foo.Property = "bar";
session = factory.OpenSession();
transaction = session.BeginTransaction();

You may also call Lock() instead of Update() and use LockMode.Read (performing a version check, bypassing all caches) if you are sure that the object has not been modified.

11.4.3. Customizing automatic versioning

You may disable NHibernate's automatic version increment for particular properties and collections by setting the optimistic-lock mapping attribute to false. NHibernate will then no longer increment versions if the property is dirty.

Legacy database schemas are often static and can't be modified. Or, other applications might also access the same database and don't know how to handle version numbers or even timestamps. In both cases, versioning can't rely on a particular column in a table. To force a version check without a version or timestamp property mapping, with a comparison of the state of all fields in a row, turn on optimistic-lock="all" in the <class> mapping. Note that this concepetually only works if NHibernate can compare the old and new state, i.e. if you use a single long ISession and not session-per-request-with-detached-objects.

Sometimes concurrent modification can be permitted as long as the changes that have been made don't overlap. If you set optimistic-lock="dirty" when mapping the <class>, NHibernate will only compare dirty fields during flush.

In both cases, with dedicated version/timestamp columns or with full/dirty field comparison, NHibernate uses a single UPDATE statement (with an appropriate WHERE clause) per entity to execute the version check and update the information. If you use transitive persistence to cascade reattachment to associated entities, NHibernate might execute uneccessary updates. This is usually not a problem, but on update triggers in the database might be executed even when no changes have been made to detached instances. You can customize this behavior by setting select-before-update="true" in the <class> mapping, forcing NHibernate to SELECT the instance to ensure that changes did actually occur, before updating the row.

11.4.4. Application version checking

Each interaction with the database occurs in a new ISession that reloads all persistent instances from the database before manipulating them. This approach forces the application to carry out its own version checking to ensure application transaction isolation. (Of course, NHibernate will still update version numbers for you.) This approach is the least efficient in terms of database access.

// foo is an instance loaded by a previous Session
session = factory.OpenSession();
transaction = session.BeginTransaction();
int oldVersion = foo.Version;
session.Load( foo, foo.Key );
if ( oldVersion != foo.Version ) throw new StaleObjectStateException();
foo.Property = "bar";

Of course, if you are operating in a low-data-concurrency environment and don't require version checking, you may use this approach and just skip the version check.

11.5. Session disconnection

The first approach described above is to maintain a single ISession for a whole business process thats spans user think time. (For example, a servlet might keep an ISession in the user's HttpSession.) For performance reasons you should

  1. commit the ITransaction and then

  2. disconnect the ISession from the ADO.NET connection

before waiting for user activity. The method ISession.Disconnect() will disconnect the session from the ADO.NET connection and return the connection to the pool (unless you provided the connection).

ISession.Reconnect() obtains a new connection (or you may supply one) and restarts the session. After reconnection, to force a version check on data you aren't updating, you may call ISession.Lock() on any objects that might have been updated by another transaction. You don't need to lock any data that you are updating.

Heres an example:

ISessionFactory sessions;
IList<Foo> fooList;
Bar bar;
ISession s = sessions.OpenSession();
ITransaction tx = null;

    tx = s.BeginTransaction())

    fooList = s.CreateQuery(
    	"select foo from Eg.Foo foo where foo.Date = current date"
        // uses db2 date function

    bar = new Bar();

catch (Exception)
    if (tx != null) tx.Rollback();

Later on:


    tx = s.BeginTransaction();

    bar.FooTable = new HashMap();
    foreach (Foo foo in fooList)
        s.Lock(foo, LockMode.Read);    //check that foo isn't stale
        bar.FooTable.Put( foo.Name, foo );

catch (Exception)
    if (tx != null) tx.Rollback();

You can see from this how the relationship between ITransactions and ISessions is many-to-one, An ISession represents a conversation between the application and the database. The ITransaction breaks that conversation up into atomic units of work at the database level.

11.6. Pessimistic Locking

It is not intended that users spend much time worring about locking strategies. It's usually enough to specify an isolation level for the ADO.NET connections and then simply let the database do all the work. However, advanced users may sometimes wish to obtain exclusive pessimistic locks, or re-obtain locks at the start of a new transaction.

NHibernate will always use the locking mechanism of the database, never lock objects in memory!

The LockMode class defines the different lock levels that may be acquired by NHibernate. A lock is obtained by the following mechanisms:

  • LockMode.Write is acquired automatically when NHibernate updates or inserts a row.

  • LockMode.Upgrade may be acquired upon explicit user request using SELECT ... FOR UPDATE on databases which support that syntax.

  • LockMode.UpgradeNoWait may be acquired upon explicit user request using a SELECT ... FOR UPDATE NOWAIT under Oracle.

  • LockMode.Read is acquired automatically when NHibernate reads data under Repeatable Read or Serializable isolation level. May be re-acquired by explicit user request.

  • LockMode.None represents the absence of a lock. All objects switch to this lock mode at the end of an ITransaction. Objects associated with the session via a call to Update() or SaveOrUpdate() also start out in this lock mode.

The "explicit user request" is expressed in one of the following ways:

  • A call to ISession.Load(), specifying a LockMode.

  • A call to ISession.Lock().

  • A call to IQuery.SetLockMode().

If ISession.Load() is called with Upgrade or UpgradeNoWait, and the requested object was not yet loaded by the session, the object is loaded using SELECT ... FOR UPDATE. If Load() is called for an object that is already loaded with a less restrictive lock than the one requested, NHibernate calls Lock() for that object.

ISession.Lock() performs a version number check if the specified lock mode is Read, Upgrade or UpgradeNoWait. (In the case of Upgrade or UpgradeNoWait, SELECT ... FOR UPDATE is used.)

If the database does not support the requested lock mode, NHibernate will use an appropriate alternate mode (instead of throwing an exception). This ensures that applications will be portable.

11.7. Connection Release Modes

The legacy (1.0.x) behavior of NHibernate in regards to ADO.NET connection management was that a ISession would obtain a connection when it was first needed and then hold unto that connection until the session was closed. NHibernate introduced the notion of connection release modes to tell a session how to handle its ADO.NET connections. Note that the following discussion is pertinent only to connections provided through a configured IConnectionProvider; user-supplied connections are outside the breadth of this discussion. The different release modes are identified by the enumerated values of NHibernate.ConnectionReleaseMode:

  • OnClose - is essentially the legacy behavior described above. The NHibernate session obtains a connection when it first needs to perform some database access and holds unto that connection until the session is closed.

  • AfterTransaction - says to release connections after a NHibernate.ITransaction has completed.

The configuration parameter hibernate.connection.release_mode is used to specify which release mode to use. The possible values:

  • auto (the default) - equivalent to after_transaction in the current release. It is rarely a good idea to change this default behavior as failures due to the value of this setting tend to indicate bugs and/or invalid assumptions in user code.

  • on_close - says to use ConnectionReleaseMode.OnClose. This setting is left for backwards compatibility, but its use is highly discouraged.

  • after_transaction - says to use ConnectionReleaseMode.AfterTransaction. Note that with ConnectionReleaseMode.AfterTransaction, if a session is considered to be in auto-commit mode (i.e. no transaction was started) connections will be released after every operation.

As of NHibernate, if your application manages transactions through .NET APIs such as System.Transactions library, ConnectionReleaseMode.AfterTransaction may cause NHibernate to open and close several connections during one transaction, leading to unnecessary overhead and transaction promotion from local to distributed. Specifying ConnectionReleaseMode.OnClose will revert to the legacy behavior and prevent this problem from occuring.