Altering large tables without bringing down your service

When we run ALTER statements on our big tables we have to plan ahead to keep from breaking whatever service is using the database. In MySQL, many times* a simple change to a column (say, from being a short varchar to being a text field) can read-lock the entire table for however long it takes to make the change. If you have a service using the table when you begin the query you'll start eating into your downtime budget.

If you have a large enough site to have database slaves you'll have a double-whammy - all reads will block on the master altering the table, and then, by default, the change will be replicated out to your slaves and not only will they read-lock the table while they alter it, but they will pause any further replication until the change is done, potentially adding many more hours of outdated data being returned to your service as the replication catches up.

The good news is, in some situations, we can take advantage of having database slaves to keep the site at 100% uptime while we make time consuming changes to the table structure. The notes below assume a single master with multiple independent slaves (meaning, the slaves aren't replicating to each other).

Firstly, it should go without saying, but the client application needs to gracefully handle both the existing structure and the anticipated structure.

When you're ready to begin, pull a slave out of rotation and run your alter statement on it. When it completes, put the slave back into the cluster and let it catch up on replication. Repeat those steps for each slave. Then failover one of the slaves as a new master and pull the old master out of rotation and run the alter statement on it. Once it has finished put it back in the cluster as a slave. When the replication catches up you can promote it back to the master and switch the temporary master back to a slave.

At this point you should have the modified table structure everywhere and be back to your original cluster configuration.

Special thanks to Sheeri who explained how to do all the above and saved us from temporarily incapacitating our service.

*What changes will lock a table vary depending on the version of MySQL. Look for "Allows concurrent DML?" in the table on this manual page.

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