[This post also appears on Dustin’s github blog.]

We built a couple of new protocol operations for people building applications. The general goal of adding an operation is to keep it orthogonal to other commands while enhancing the functionality in a way that lets you do things that couldn’t be done before, or at least were common and difficult to do efficiently.

Here is a description of the new commands and an idea of how they might be used.



The other new concept we introduced is a sync command for providing a barrier where you wait for an application’s data to change state in specific ways such as having an item change from a known value or achieve a specified level of durability.

Quick background on how this works in membase (for which we implemented sync to begin with): Membase’s engine has what is effectively an air-gap between the network interface and the disk. Operations are almost all processed from and to RAM and then asynchronously replicated and persisted. Incoming items are available for request immediately upon return from your mutation command (i.e. the next request for a given key will return the item that was just set), but replication and persistence will be happening soon.

The membase sync command is somewhat analagous to fsync or perhaps msync in that you can first freely lob items at membase and verify that it’s accepted them at the lowest level of availability. When you have stored a set of critical items, you can then issue a sync command with the set of your critical keys and required durability level and the server will block until this level is achieved (or something happens that prevents us from doing so).

There were discussions about different semantics (such as a fully-sync’d mode or a specific set+sync type command). While a single set+sync command would be one fewer round trip than doing a separate set and sync, it makes little difference in practice since the typical effect of a sync command is a delay. This, however, comes at the cost of making it very difficult to do any sort of practical batching or pipelining. One can sync after every command, after a large batch, or on select items from within a large batch.

What can you Sync On?

The specification permits a given set of keys to be monitored for one of the following state changes:

  1. Wait for Replication
  2. Wait for Persistence
  3. Wait for Replication and Persistence
  4. Wait for Replication or Persistence
  5. Wait for Mutation

There’s also space for a lightly discussed “any vs. all” flag for the keys where you can hand the server a set of keys and be informed as soon as any one of them changes to the desired state instead of waiting for all of them.


Given a giant sack of items, with a mix of important items (want stored) and really important items (must guarantee are stored before returning), let’s do the right thing.

def store_stuff(items):
“””Store a collection of items.

Items will be stored asynchronously, then important items
will be synchronized on before returning.”””
important = []
for i in items:
mc.set(i.key, i.exp, i.flags, i.value)
if i.important:


(note that a python client supports these features, but not exactly with this API, but this should give you the basic idea)

Similarly, one can rate limit inserts such that items don’t go in faster than they can be written to disk.

def store_stuff_slowly(items, sync_every=1000):
“””Store a collection of items without building a large
replication backlog.”””

for n, i in enumerate(items, 1):
mc.set(i.key, i.exp, i.flags, i.value)
if (n % sync_every) == 0:

Every sync_every item (default 1000) waits for synchronization to catch up. Setting sync_every to one would cause us fully synchronize every item.


We have heard from quite a few projects owners that they’d like the ability to have items with a sliding window of expiration. For example, instead of having an item expire after five minutes of mutating (which is how you specify an object’s time-to-live today), we’d like it to expire after five minutes of inactivity.

If you’re familiar with LRU caches (such as memcached), you should note that this is semantically quite different from LRU. With an LRU, we effectively don’t care about old data. The use cases for touch require us to actively disable access to inactive data on a user-defined schedule.

The touch command can be used to adjust expiration on an existing key without touching the value. It uses the same type of expiration definition all mutation commands use, but doesn’t actually touch the data.

Similar to touch we added a gat (get-and-touch) command that returns the data and adjusts the expiration at the same time. For most use cases, gat is probably more appropriate than touch, but it really depends on how you build your application.

Example Usage

Usage of touch and gat are pretty straightforward. A really common pattern might be storing session data where we want “idle” data to be removed quickly, but active data to stick around as long as it’s active.

def get_session(session_id, max_session_age=300):
“””Get a valid session object for the given session ID.

Sessions will only live for five minutes.
Unauthenticated will be thrown if the session
can not be loaded.”””
s = mc.gat(session_id, max_session_age)
if not s:
throw Unauthenticated()
return s

This example showed a simple session loader that keeps the session alive and signals mission sessions to another part of the application stack that can deal with logins and stuff.


We’ve been using this stuff, but we haven’t yet achieved universal availability.


Membase 1.7 provides this full touch and gat functionality and partial sync functionality.

For sync, only waiting for replication is supported, and only a single replica. The protocol allows for the tracking of up to 16 replicas, but membase as a cluster uses transitive replication so it’s not possible to track when the second replica is complete from the primary host (much less the sixteenth!).

Similarly, we’ve written most of the code for syncing on persistence, but before our 2.0 storage strategies, we thing it could be more harmful than useful in most applications. Even with our 2.0 strategies, it’s likely that it’s not as appropriate as replication tracking for all but the absolutely most important data.

Memcached 1.6(ish) has support for touch and gat in the default engine (which also ships in Membase).


In addition to mc_bin_client.py (which is a sort of reference/playground client that ships with membase and we write many of the tools with), we’ve got support in two clients yet, but we’re considering the feature “evolving” as we’re trying to find the best way to do it. Feedback is far more than welcome!


spymemcached 2.7 has support for touch, gat, and sync.

C Sharp

The enyim C# client for memcached has support for touch, gat, and sync in a release that should hit the shelves quite soon.

Posted by Dustin Sallings, Chief Architect, Couchbase

Author of spymemcached. Core contributor to Couchbase and Memcached projects.


  1. Fantastic!  I will review the new code and give you my input as you requested – thanks for all the hard work!

  2. , we thing it could be more harmful than useful in most applications. Even with our 2.0 strategies,

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