I haven’t seen Expand-Contract written about in some years, and I think it is a great way of performing database schema migrations without the need for application downtime. I also realised that it also applies to microservices and service-to-service communication in general.
The Easy Example
One of the two examples given is wanting to change how an address is stored in a database. The schema starts off looking like this:
|1||Reaktor||Läntinen Rantakatu 15, 20100, Turku, Finland|
The requirement is that the schema is changed to look like this:
|1||Reaktor||Läntinen Rantakatu 15||20100||Turku||Finland|
The way you would traditionally achieve this is with a migration:
alter table buildings add column street text, add column postcode text, -- postcodes can start with a 0, so store them as text add column town text, add column country text update buildings set street = split_part(address, ',', 1), postcode = split_part(address, ',', 2), town = split_part(address, ',', 3), country = split_part(address, ',', 4) where address != "" alter table buildings drop column address
The problem with doing this is that the software using this table needs to be stopped while the update is happening; if the old version is running, the app will suddenly be trying to query a non-existing column. If the new version is running, it will also be trying to query non-existing columns.
The process has to look like this:
- stop the old app
- run the migration
- start the new app
Step 2 however can be long, especially if there is lots of data. And what happens if you cannot have downtime for your service?
The Expand Contract Way
- add a new column to the table (nullable)
- release new software
- for reads, read both old and new columns; prefer data in new columns if it exists
- for writes, write to new columns
- run a script to migrate any remaining data
- release new software
- only reads new columns
- only writes new columns
- drop the old column
This is more steps than the original method, but it means there is no downtime in your system. Also, if you make step 2 write to both columns, the migration is easily reversible as no data is lost until the fourth step runs. .
What about APIs? Services?
Expand Contract doesn’t have to just be about services either. For example, you have two services and have decided that part of service A should be migrated into service B, which has a similar system. The process is broadly similar to the database example above but with service releases instead:
- Service B’s data model is expanded
- Service A is released:
- for reads, read both it’s own datastore and Service B. Return result from B if available
- for writes, write to it’s own datastore and Service B
- Run a script/application to migrate the remaining data
- Release Service A:
- uses Service B for all operations
- Drop old data store tables
As you can see, the process is broadly similar to when implementing a database change; the only difference is some coordination with the other service team. The coordination is only to make sure their data model is ready; no need to release anything at the same time, and no downtime in either service is required.
This may sound like a silver bullet, but as with all techniques, it has drawbacks.
The primary drawback is the extra steps required. There are multiple releases, and data migrates lazily/on demand. Then there is the extra step of migrating the remaining data, which is an additional effort.
The other drawback is a symptom of the first drawback: time. It takes far longer to do expand-contract than to have a short downtime. Depending on your application, short downtime might be the better choice to make. For example, a queue processing service which doesn’t have a synchronous API would probably be better choosing the downtime, assuming it can catch up with any messages which queue up during the downtime!