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Living the Developer's Life

Ruby on Rails: Database Migration and Downtime

Recently, we had a production outage for a few minutes due a database migration on one of our Ruby on Rails apps. The deployment went fine through a few stages, but the problem only showed up at the last and the largest stage. This is exactly what happened during the deploy process.

  1. New code was deployed. Restart was pending, so the server was still running old code.
  2. Migrations ran.
  3. One migration removed a column that was used in the old code, but no longer used in the new code.
  4. The next migration was a data migration that inserted one row / user to a table. This was a very slow migration, taking 5+ minutes.
  5. The old code failed because it tried to use a column in the database that was no longer there. To make things worse, the column was referenced at all page loads within the app.
  6. The long running migration didn’t finish because it ran into a timeout.
  7. The servers weren’t restarted because the migration had failed. So, the new code wasn’t served at all.
  8. There was no automatic database rollback to restore the system into a good state with the old code.

The team was able to resolve the issues within the next 5 minutes, but it was the worst system outage we’ve seen in years. For anyone dealing with a large Ruby on Rails app, you can use the following safeguards to avoid such problems:

  1. Do not remove a column from the database while the current code is still using it. Do it at a later release.
  2. When a deployment fails at the migration step, ensure you have a rollback policy so that the system can be automatically restored to a known good state.
  3. Consider data migrations to be a performance problem and always test the migrations with relaistic load before production release.
  4. If possible, run your data migrations seprately from schema migrations so that you don’t incur deployment delays for optional new data.

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