Object Deletion Reference

In single-server, non-clustered data storage systems, object deletion is a trivial process. In an eventually consistent, clustered system like Riak, however, object deletion is far less trivial because objects live on multiple nodes, which means that a deletion process must be chosen to determine when an object can be removed from the storage backend.

Object Deletion Example

The problem of object deletion in distributed systems can be illustrated more concretely using the following example:

  • An object is stored on nodes A, B, and C
  • Node C suddenly goes offline due to a network failure
  • A client sends a delete request to node A, which forwards that request to node B, but it cannot reach node C
  • On nodes A and B, the object is deleted
  • Node C comes back online
  • A client attempts to read the object, and the request hits node C
  • Node C asks nodes A and B for the object, but they return not_found. Node C, on the other hand, still has the object.

The question here is: how should node C respond to the client? Given only the above information, it isn’t possible to determine which of two possible scenarios actually occurred:

  1. the object was deleted on A & B but not on C
  2. the object was created on C but not on A & B

To get around this problem, Riak uses Tombstones.


Riak addresses the problem of deletion in distributed systems by replacing the deleted object with a special object called a tombstone rather than just removing it.

This allows Riak to understand the difference between an object that has been deleted, and one that was never written in the first place. A tombstone specifically has X-Riak-Deleted = true in the metadata and a value of <<>> (the Erlang empty binary) in its contents, whereas an unwritten object has no entry at all.

The problem with tombstones is that they take up space, albeit not very much. For this reason, Riak can be configured to automatically remove tombstones after a set period of time. This process is called reaping.

After being reaped, a tombstone is completely removed, and the object entry ceases to exist entirely (as if it had never been written to).

Configuring Object Deletion

The delete_mode setting in a cluster’s configuration files will determine how long a tombstone will remain before being reaped.

There are three possible settings:

  • keep — Disables tombstone removal
  • immediate — The tombstone is removed as soon as the request is received
  • Custom time interval — How long to wait until the tombstone is removed, expressed in milliseconds. The default is 3000, i.e. to wait 3 seconds

In general, we recommend setting the delete_mode parameter to keep if you plan to delete and recreate objects under the same key. This protects against failure scenario cases in which a deleted object may be resurrected.

Setting delete_mode to immediate can be useful in situations in which an aggressive space reclamation process is necessary, such as when running MapReduce jobs, but we do not recommend this in general.

Setting delete_mode to a longer time duration than the default can be useful in certain cases involving Multi-Datacenter Replication, e.g. when network connectivity is an issue.

Deletion from Backends

When attempting to reclaim disk space, deleting data may seem like the obvious first step. However, in Riak this is not necessarily the best thing to do if the disk is nearly full. This is because Riak’s disk-based backends don’t remove data immediately. This is true both for the initial deletion when a Riak tombstone is created, and later when that tombstone is reaped.

In the case of Bitcask, a new entry is written in the log with either the Riak tombstone or, after reaping, a Bitcask tombstone. The in-memory key-pointer is then updated to point to this new value.

In LevelDB, a newly written value obscures the earlier value. Again, this is either the Riak tombstone or, after reaping, a LevelDB tombstone.

Some time later, the backends will perform their regular garbage collection procedures. For Bitcask this is merging, for LevelDB it is compaction. At this time, stale entries containing the original objects will be purged from disk, along with any Bitcask or LevelDB tombstones. Riak tombstones will not be purged, because the backends treat them like regular objects.

Thus, reclaiming disk space is not immediate with respect to delete operations, nor even with respect to reaping, and prior to garbage collection delete operations will actually cause disk space usage to rise slightly.

Tombstones & Reporting

When designing applications and operating a live Riak cluster, it is important to know how to interpret Riak’s responses to requests. With respect to deletion and tombstones, please note the following:

  • A delete request is considered a special case of an update. It will fail if the W and PW values are not satisfied. However, due to Sloppy Quorum, deletes will usually succeed. This does not mean that tombstones have been written over all copies of the object, but rather that tombstones have been written on at least W nodes, of which at least PW are primaries.
  • Successful delete requests do not guarantee successful reaping. If a node fails before its reap timer expires, the reap timer will not automatically recommence upon restart. Rather, the tombstone will remain upon the node until a further request finds it. At this time, a new reap timer will be initiated.
  • A GET request that sees a quorum of Riak tombstones will return a not_found response to the client, even though internally Riak knows there used to be an object there.
  • A GET request will never see backend tombstones, because the backends report these as not_found. To RiakKV, such answers will appear as if the object has never been written. A not_found will be sent up to the client in this case, too.
  • A Keylist or MapReduce operation will return Riak tombstones, but not backend tombstones. This is because these operations fold over the backends directly, and make no attempt to filter Riak tombstones out of the fold by default.

Client Library Examples

Check out Deleting Objects in the Developing section for examples of deleting objects client-side.