You Cannot Have Exactly-Once Delivery Redux

A couple years ago I wrote You Cannot Have Exactly-Once Delivery. It stirred up quite a bit of discussion and was even referenced in a book, which I found rather surprising considering I’m not exactly an academic. Recently, the topic of exactly-once delivery has again become a popular point of discussion, particularly with the release of Kafka 0.11, which introduces support for idempotent producers, transactional writes across multiple partitions, and—wait for it—exactly-once semantics.

Naturally, when this hit Hacker News, I received a lot of messages from people asking me, “what gives?” There’s literally a TechCrunch headline titled, Confluent achieves holy grail of “exactly once” delivery on Kafka messaging service (Jay assures me, they don’t write the headlines). The myth has been disproved!

First, let me say what Confluent has accomplished with Kafka is an impressive achievement and one worth celebrating. They made a monumental effort to implement these semantics, and it paid off. The intention of this post is not to minimize any of that work but to try to clarify a few key points and hopefully cut down on some of the misinformation and noise.

“Exactly-once delivery” is a poor term. The word “delivery” is overloaded. Frankly, I think it’s a marketing word. The better term is “exactly-once processing.” Some call the distinction pedantic, but I think it’s important and there is some nuance. Kafka did not solve the Two Generals Problem. Exactly-once delivery, at the transport level, is impossible. It doesn’t exist in any meaningful way and isn’t all that interesting to talk about. “We have a word for infinite packet delay—outage,” as Jay puts it. That’s why TCP exists, but TCP doesn’t care about your application semantics. And in the end, that’s what’s interesting—application semantics. My problem with “exactly-once delivery” is it assumes too much, which causes a lot of folks to make bad assumptions. “Delivery” is a transport semantic. “Processing” is an application semantic.

All is not lost, however. We can still get correct results by having our application cooperate with the processing pipeline. This is essentially what Kafka does, exactly-once processing, and Confluent makes note of that in the blog post towards the end. What does this mean?

To achieve exactly-once processing semantics, we must have a closed system with end-to-end support for modeling input, output, and processor state as a single, atomic operation. Kafka supports this by providing a new transaction API and idempotent producers. Any state changes in your application need to be made atomically in conjunction with Kafka. You must commit your state changes and offsets together. It requires architecting your application in a specific way. State changes in external systems must be part of the Kafka transaction. Confluent’s goal is to make this as easy as possible by providing the platform around Kafka with its streams and connector APIs. The point here is it’s not just a switch you flip and, magically, messages are delivered exactly once. It requires careful construction, application logic coordination, isolating state change and non-determinism, and maintaining a closed system around Kafka. Applications that use the consumer API still have to do this themselves. As Neha puts it in the post, it’s not “magical pixie dust.” This is the most important part of the post and, if it were up to me, would be at the very top.

Exactly-once processing is an end-to-end guarantee and the application has to be designed to not violate the property as well. If you are using the consumer API, this means ensuring that you commit changes to your application state concordant with your offsets as described here.

Side effects into downstream systems with no support for idempotency or distributed transactions make this really difficult in practice I suspect. The argument is that most people are using relational databases that support transactions, but I think there’s still a reasonably large, non-obvious assumption here. Making your event processing atomic might not be easy in all cases. Moreover, every part in your system needs to participate to ensure end-to-end, exactly-once semantics.

Several other messaging systems like TIBCO EMS and Azure Service Bus have provided similar transactional processing guarantees. Kafka, as I understand it, attempts to make it easier and with less performance overhead. That’s a great accomplishment.

What’s really worth drawing attention to is the effort made by Confluent to deliver a correct solution. Achieving exactly-once processing, in and of itself, is relatively “easy” (I use that word loosely). What’s hard is dealing with the range of failures. The announcement shows they’ve done extensive testing, likely much more than most other systems, and have shown that it works and with minimal performance impact.

Kafka provides exactly-once processing semantics because it’s a closed system. There is still a lot of difficulty in ensuring those semantics are maintained across external services, but Confluent attempts to ameliorate this through APIs and tooling. But that’s just it: it’s not exactly-once semantics in a building block that’s the hard thing, it’s building loosely coupled systems that agree on the state of the world. Nevertheless, there is no holy grail here, just some good ole’ fashioned hard work.

Special thanks to Jay Kreps and Sean T. Allen for their feedback on an early draft of this post. Any inaccuracies or opinions are mine alone.

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