Distributed Locking in DynamoDB

June 30, 2020

When multiple processes run at the same time, they are said to run concurrently. When multiple processes share data, a number of problems can arise.

Consider a scenario where one process is computing the sum of a user's order history while at the same time another process is mutating the same user's order history. If the data comprising the user's order history is not protected from mutation, then the sum computed by one process can be inaccurate relative to the final outcome of both processes.

Traditional relational databases provide isolation through commitment control concepts like transactions.

Transactions in traditional relational databases involve high-level application decisions such as:

  • Beginning a transaction;
  • Performing work like inserting, updating, and deleting rows or tables;
  • Ending a transaction with the implicit or explicit option to commit or rollback.

During the course of a transaction, traditional relational databases implement isolation by locking the underlying resources. Depending on the isolation level chosen, the affected rows and tables are locked so that two concurrent processes cannot interfere with each other.

In the case of DynamoDB, commitment control is not provided. The standard offering in DynamoDB does not provide locks at either the row-level or table-level.

This article will discuss transactions in DynamoDB, their limitations, and a proposed solution involving distributing locking, replete with details.

Transactions in DynamoDB

DynamoDB is the AWS defacto NoSQL solution. DynamoDB provides great flexibility for storing a wide range of data with impressive scaling and high throughput. DynamoDB also provides ACID (atomicity, consistency, isolation, and durability) guarantees through transactions.

Although DynamoDB transactions have many benefits there are some limitations. While transactions provide some guarantees surrounding atomicity and consistency, the solution does not provide units of work. Additionally, isolation is only provided through interference detection.

A transaction in DynamoDB is an all-or-nothing operation without any residual locking, committing, or rollback operations. Transactions fail in DynamoDB if two processes interfere with any shared data. Either one or both of the failed transactions are rolled-back entirely.

As a consequence, a common strategy for transaction fault-tolerance when working with DynamoDB is retry with exponential back-off. While this rudimentary approach may work for common use cases, applications which might otherwise take advantage of isolation levels and units of work become complicated with loops and additional state-management.

Finally, transactions in DynamoDB have severe limitations. The number of rows in a DynamoDB transaction is limited to 25. Additionally, no row can be referenced by more than one check or mutation in a single transaction. This means you cannot apply a condition and also update a row, for example.

Distributed Locking

Distributed locking is a technique which, when implemented correctly, guarantees that two processes cannot access shared data at the same time. The processes rely upon the locking protocol to ensure that only one is allowed to proceed once a lock is acquired.

Common implementations for distributed locking typically involve a lock manager that processes communicate with. The lock manager controls the state of the locks.

Implementing a distributed lock is difficult to get right because there are edge cases to consider such as:

  • Race conditions - multiple processes acquiring the lock simultaneously
  • Deadlocks - multiple processes competing for separate locks out of order
  • Stale locks - a lock which is granted but no longer valid

One naive solution for a distributed lock involves a record of the current lock holder while competing processes repeatedly try to be the next lock holder. Typically this entails retry with exponential back-off.

One drawback of this approach is that a process could be very unlucky while other processes are very lucky. The first process which cannot hold the lock sleeps for a period of time, only to find upon waking that another process is holding the lock. The process sleeps for a longer period of time and again awakes to find yet another process holding the lock. Theoretically, this can continue forever, resulting in the process suffering from resource starvation. The process is unable to obtain the lock while other processes were able to complete their work — even out of order.

The aforementioned solution is discussed in this implementation provided by engineers at AWS:

Building Distributed Locks with the DynamoDB Lock Client | Amazon Web Services

The solution proposed in this article overcomes this limitation through a ticket-based queuing mechanism.

Implementing Concurrency Locks in DynamoDB

Consider the scenario where two or more processes may interfere with each other. One process might try to insert, update, or delete one or more rows. If there is no other active process, then there is no problem because there is zero concurrency. Without concerns of concurrency, isolation levels and units of work have no real value. In reality, a robust application must assume there are potentially many concurrent processes vying for the same data.

Without full commitment control features like units of work, commit, rollback, and row-level locking, any sufficiently complex transaction can easily exceed the limitations of DynamoDB transactions.

Since DynamoDB provides neither isolation levels nor units of work, and transactions are severely limited in their size and capability, applications need another way to isolate themselves from each other. If applications can logically isolate each other from accessing shared data, they can be assured they will not interfere with each other.

An ideal solution will have the following characteristics:

  • FIFO (first-in, first-out) - access to shared data will be handled in the order requested
  • Isolated - no two processes can share the data concurrently
  • Record wait - a process can choose to wait for a defined amount of time before failing
  • Fault-tolerant - no user or application intervention will be required to handle failures
  • Self-cleaning - any locks acquired must be removed automatically


Imagine a set of processes as a FIFO (first-in, first-out) queue. The first such process will have no competing process; naturally it is the first and therefore is able to perform its work. Subsequent processes must wait their respective turns before accessing the shared data. If each process were to "take a number" so to speak, then after the first process completes its work, the process next in line will be allowed to proceed.

DynamoDB has a feature which can be used to create such a mechanism: atomic counters. An atomic counter in DynamoDB allows an application to update a row through incrementing the value. While the order of simultaneous processes accessing the counter is not guaranteed, the result is that no two processes will obtain the exact same result. Additionally, the value is atomically incremented and globally unique.

Note DynamoDB supports integer values with up to 38 digits of precision. This means a ticket number can range between 1 and 99,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999. That is 99 undecillion ticket numbers. Using this scheme, processes requesting one million ticket numbers per second every day, every year, would take 31,536,000,000,000 years before the limit is reached.

The row holding the ticket number will need a common partition key value known to all processes. If the ticket number is shared across multiple disparate locks, then a simple name will suffice. If namespacing is desirable, then a more complex partition key with prefixes or a partition key combined with a sort key namespace is a possibility.

Example atomic counter increment

/** * In this example, assume the DynamoDB table 'my-dynamodb-table' has a composite key: pk, sk * where pk (partition key) and sk (sort key) are both string values. */ import * as AWS from 'aws-sdk'; const client = new AWS.DynamoDB.DocumentClient({ accessKeyId, endpoint, secretAccessKey }); const key: Record<string, string> = { pk: 'ticket-master', sk: 'current' } let ticketNumber: number | BigInt = 1; ({ Attributes: { ticketNumber }, } = await client .update({ ConditionExpression: 'attribute_exists(pk)', ExpressionAttributeValues: { ':ticketNumber': ticketNumber }, Key: key, ReturnValues: 'UPDATED_NEW', TableName: 'my-dynamodb-table', UpdateExpression: 'SET ticketNumber = ticketNumber + :ticketNumber', }) .promise() );

There is an edge-case here: what if the row does not yet exist? In this case the ConditionExpression above will cause the update to fail. To account for this, the process should trap for the failure and seed the initial value.

await client .put({ ConditionExpression: 'attribute_not_exists(pk)', Item: { ...key, ticketNumber }, TableName: 'my-dynamodb-table', }) .promise();

There is yet another edge-case here: what if another competing process beats the first process in seeding the initial value? In this case the ConditionExpression here will fail also. The solution is to retry the first update statement a second time. One of these two operations will ultimately succeed.

Once the ticket number is determined, the process enters the queue by creating a row in DynamoDB where the sort key defines the order of the data using the ticket number. The partition key of the queue row is the name of the entity being locked. If multiple types of locks are desired against the same entity, then the sort key can implement a namespace prefix followed by the ticket number.

Example creating queued lock row

/** * In this example, the pk (partition key) is the name of the entity which is to be locked. * The sk (sort key) implements a namespacing strategy, which allows for multiple, independent * locks to be applied to the same entity. * To prevent deadlocks, any two processes would need to use the same ticket number for each lock. */ const now = Date.now() / 1000; await client .put({ ConditionExpression: 'attribute_not_exists(pk)', Item: { createdAt: now, expiresAt: now + 60, pk: 'identity-of-locked-entity', sk: `locked-for-some-reason/${ticketNumber.toString().padStart(38, '0')}` }, TableName: 'my-dynamodb-table', }) .promise();

Note If the sort key is not numeric, then for proper hexadecimal sorting to work the ticket number must be left-padded with zeros.


To isolate any two processes each process will need to check their relative position in the queue. Once a given process is the first in the queue then it is allowed to proceed. This is accomplished by querying the queue rows.

The query operation will specify the partition key, which is the name of the entity locked. If lock namespaces are implemented, the sort key can use the begins_with operator where the prefix is the namespace. Otherwise, the sort key is the ticket number and the sort key component of the key expression can request those rows whose ticket number is less than the ticket number obtained by the given process.

For the rows that are queried, the process determines if the sort key matches the sort key containing the ticket number for the relevant process. If it does not and it is less than the ticket number for the given process, then that process is still waiting in the queue. If the sort key does match and there are no processes before the given process, then that process is first in the queue and is allowed to proceed.

Example checking queue position

/** * In this example, the process iterates through pages of locks. * Expired locks are captured for subsequent removal. */ const expiredLocks: Record<string, any>[] = []; const now = Date.now() / 1000; let page: Record<string, any>[] = []; let resumeAfter: Record<string, any> | undefined; do { ({ Items: page = [], LastEvaluatedKey: resumeAfter } = await client .query({ ConsistentRead: true, ExclusiveStartKey: resumeAfter, ExpressionAttributeValues: { pk: 'identity-of-locked-entity', sk: 'locked-for-some-reason/', }, KeyConditionExpression: 'pk = :pk AND begins_with(sk, :sk)', Limit: 100, ScanIndexForward: true, TableName: 'my-dynamodb-table', }) .promise() ); for (const entry of page) { if (entry.expiresAt < now) { // capture expired locks for removal expiredLocks.push(entry); } else if (entry.sk === sk) { // expired locks can be proactively deleted // await Promise.all(expiredLocks.map( ... see below ... )); // reached the front of queue return true; } else { // not at front of queue; cannot proceed return false; } } } while (resumeAfter);

Note It is important that strongly consistent reads are enforced when checking the queue. This ensures that all pending updates to the partition key are applied before reading the queue.

Since DynamoDB implements pagination for queries, the process needs to iterate through each page of locks. In each page, the process examines each returned lock to determine its relative position.

If the first row of the first page has the matching sort key containing the ticket number obtained by the given process, then the process is the first in line and should proceed with its work.

If the process is not first in the queue, then the process should sleep for a short period of time and re-check the queue. The polling interval should be fairly short, perhaps 500 milliseconds.

If the process implements proactive deletion of expired locks, each row returned should be deleted if the expiration time is less than the current time.

After completing its work, the process which was first in the queue needs to delete its queue entry.

Example deleting queued lock row

await client .delete({ Key: { pk: 'identity-of-locked-entity', sk: `locked-for-some-reason/${ticketNumber.toString().padStart(38, '0')}`, }, TableName: 'my-dynamodb-table', }) .promise();

Record wait

Processes should not check the queue indefinitely — unless it chooses to do so. During queue checking the process can check the elapsed time against a start time. Once the configured wait time for a lock has been reached the process can choose to throw an exception or otherwise return unsuccessfully.

If the record wait parameter is 0, then the process should fail if there is any other process already in the queue. This is known as no wait.

If the record wait parameter is Infinity, then the process should never stop waiting to reach the front of the queue.

A commonly used setting for this parameter is sixty seconds.


When creating the queue row, an expiration timestamp is also included. Rows created in the queue cannot exist forever. In fact, rows should have a reasonably short time to live such as sixty seconds. When a given process creates its entry in the queue, it will need to periodically refresh the expiration time. If sixty seconds is chosen as the time for the lock to live, then a half-life value of thirty seconds is a reasonable interval of time for the process to refresh the lock.

In other words, the original lock entry in the queue defines an expiration of sixty seconds from the time of creation. Every thirty seconds later the process should update the expiration time to be another sixty seconds from then.

Example lock heartbeat

const heartbeat: NodeJS.Timeout = setInterval(async () => { await client .update({ ConditionExpression: 'attribute_exists(pk)', ExpressionAttributeValues: { ':expiresAt': Date.now() / 1000 + 60, }, Key: { pk: 'identity-of-locked-entity', sk: `locked-for-some-reason/${ticketNumber.toString().padStart(38, '0')}`, }, TableName: 'my-dynamodb-table', UpdateExpression: 'SET expiresAt = :expiresAt', }) .promise(); }, 30000)

This "heartbeat" approach to refreshing the lock expiration value, combined with a relatively short time to live, provides fault-tolerance. If a given process fails to refresh the expiration time before it expires, then it will shortly thereafter be considered stale. During the queue check, processes can ignore those rows which are considered expired. Such rows would have an expiration value which is less than the current time.

Note Two servers may experience clock drift. A sixty-second time to live and a thirty-second refresh interval provides a generous thirty-second range of variance to account for such anomalies.

Important The heartbeat interval created needs to be cleared once the process completes its work. Otherwise, the process will hang indefinitely and continue to hold the lock, blocking all other processes waiting in the queue.


Rows which are found to be expired can either be ignored, proactively removed, or lazily removed by DynamoDB. If the rows are ignored, then stranded locks will grow over time, unnecessarily increasing the size of the table. Additionally, the time to process the queue to determine the relative position of a given process will increase over time.

Processes can proactively clean any expired rows by deleting them from the queue.

Alternatively, the TTL (time to live) feature of DynamoDB can be used here. With the TTL feature, DynamoDB will periodically scan and delete expired items automatically.

If the TTL feature is used, then the expiration time needs to be a numeric value representing the time of expiration using the Unix epoch time format, in seconds. That is, the number of seconds elapsed since 1970-01-01T00:00:00.000Z, plus the amount of time to live, in seconds.


The capabilities of DynamoDB make it an attractive, all-purpose NoSQL solution. Nevertheless, the limitations of its transactions introduce complications that might cause developers to choose another database system. Specifically, the inability to choose to commit or rollback units of work is an important consideration.

The solution described here does not provide complete commitment control. The solution only helps to simplify application design through isolation. Implementing application-level concurrency ensures that no two processes can hold a lock on the resource(s) identified. Isolating processes from shared data helps in reasoning about the application. Specifically, isolation prevents applications from experiencing the side effects of lost updates, dirty reads, phantom reads, and non-repeatable reads.

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