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LSM Users Guide

Table of Contents

      1. Introduction to LSM
      2. Using LSM in Applications
      3. Basic Usage
            3.1. Opening and Closing Database Connections
            3.2. Writing to a Database
            3.3. Reading from a Database
            3.4. Database Transactions and MVCC
      4. Data Durability
      5. Compressed and Encrypted Databases
      6. Performance Tuning
            6.1. Performance Related Configuration Options
            6.2. Using Worker Threads or Processes
                  6.2.1. Architectural Overview
                  6.2.2. Automatic Work and Checkpoint Scheduling
                  6.2.3. Explicit Work and Checkpoint Scheduling
                  6.2.4. Compulsary Work and Checkpoint Scheduling
            6.3. Database File Optimization


This document describes the LSM embedded database library and use thereof. It is intended to be part user-manual and part tutorial. It is intended to complement the LSM API reference manual.

The first section of this document contains a description of the LSM library and its features. Section 2 describes how to use LSM from within a C or C++ application (how to compile and link LSM, what to #include etc.). The third section describes the essential APIs that applications use to open and close database connections, and to read from and write to databases.

The three sections described above contain all the information required to create applications that use LSM. The remaining sections discuss more specialized topics. Section 4 discusses the configuration parameter that influences transaction durability (the guarantees offered with respect to recently committed transactions if a power failure occurs). Section 5 explains the interface provided by LSM that allow external data compression and/or encryption functions to be used to create compressed and/or encrypted databases. Section 6 deals with the topic of performance tuning.

1. Introduction to LSM

LSM is an embedded database library for key-value data, roughly similar in scope to Berkeley DB, LevelDB or KyotoCabinet. Both keys and values are specified and stored as byte arrays. Duplicate keys are not supported. Keys are always sorted in memcmp() order. LSM supports the following operations for the manipulation and query of database data:

Other salient features are:

Many database systems that support range queries, including SQLite 3, Berkeley DB and Kyoto Cabinet, are based on one of many variants of the b-tree data structure. B-trees are attractive because a b-tree structure minimizes the number of disk sectors that must be read from disk when searching the database for a specific key. However, b-tree implementations usually suffer from poor write localization - updating the contents of a b-tree often involves modifying the contents of nodes scattered throughout the database file. If the database is stored on a spinning disk (HDD), then the disk heads must be moved before writing non-contiguous sector, which is extremely slow. If the database is stored on solid state storage (SDD) a similar phenomena is encountered due to the large erase-block sizes. In general, writing to a series of contiguous disk sectors is orders of magnitude faster than updating to the same number of disk sectors scattered randomly throughout a large file. Additionally, b-tree structures are prone to fragmentation, reducing the speed of range queries.

Todo: Should have references for the claims above.

Also, fix the link in the next paragraph to point to a description of the log-structured-merge tree within lsm.wiki (or its successor).

LSM uses a different data structure that makes the following performance tradeoffs relative to a b-tree:

In other words, writing to an LSM database should be very fast and scanning through large ranges of keys should also perform well, but searching the database for specific keys may be slightly slower than when using a b-tree based system. Additionally, avoiding random writes in favour of largely contiguous updates (as LSM does) can significantly reduce the wear on SSD or flash memory devices.

Although it has quite different features to LSM in other respects, LevelDB makes similar performance tradeoffs.

Benchmark test results for LSM are available here. Todo: Fix this link to point to a page with performance graphs.

2. Using LSM in Applications

LSM is not currently built or distributed independently. Instead, it is part of the SQLite4 library. To use LSM in an application, the application links against libsqlite4 and includes the header file "lsm.h" in any files that access the LSM API.

Pointer to build instructions for sqlite4

3. Basic Usage

3.1. Opening and Closing Database Connections

Opening a connection to a database is a two-step process. The lsm_new() function is used to create a new database handle, and the lsm_open() function is used to connect an existing database handle to a database on disk. This is because some database connection properties may only be configured before the database is opened. In that case, one or more calls to the lsm_config() method are made between the calls to lsm_new() and lsm_open().

The functions are defined as follows:

  int lsm_new(lsm_env *env, lsm_db **pDb);
  int lsm_open(lsm_db *db, const char *zFile);

Like most lsm_xxx() functions that return type int (the exception is lsm_csr_valid()), both of the above return LSM_OK (0) if successful, or an LSM error code otherwise. The first argument to lsm_new() may be passed either a pointer to a database environment object or NULL. Almost all applications should pass NULL. A database environment object allows the application to supply custom implementations of the various operating system calls that LSM uses to read and write files, allocate heap memory, and coordinate between multiple application threads and processes. This is normally only required if LSM is being used on a platform that is not supported by default. Passing NULL instructs the library to use the default implementations of all these things, which is usually the right thing to do. The second argument to lsm_new() is an output variable. Assuming the call is successful, *pDb is set to point to the new database handle before returning.

The first argument passed to lsm_open() must be an existing database handle. The second is the name of the database file to connect to. Once lsm_open() has been successfully called on a database handle, it can not be called again on the same handle. Attempting to do so is an LSM_MISUSE error.

For example, to create a new handle and connect it to database "test.db" on disk:

  int rc;
  lsm_db *db;

  /* Allocate a new database handle */
  rc = lsm_new(0, &db);
  if( rc!=LSM_OK ) exit(1);

  /* Connect the database handle to database "test.db" */
  rc = lsm_open(db, "test.db");
  if( rc!=LSM_OK ) exit(1);

A database connection can be closed using the lsm_close() function. Calling lsm_close() disconnects from the database (assuming lsm_open() has been successfully called) and deletes the handle itself. Attempting to use a database handle after it has been passed to lsm_close() results in undefined behaviour (likely a segfault).

  rc = lsm_close(db);

It is important that lsm_close() is called to close all database handles created with lsm_new(), particularly if the connection has written to the database. If an application that has written to a database exits without closing its database connection, then subsequent clients may have to run "database recovery" when they open the database, making the lsm_open() call less responsive. Additionally, not matching each successful lsm_new() call with a call to lsm_close() is a resource leak.

Counter-intuitively, an lsm_close() call may fail. In this case the database handle is not closed, so if the application exits it invites the "database recovery" performance problem mentioned above. The usual reason for an lsm_close() call failing is that the database handle has been used to create database cursors that have not been closed. Unless all database cursors are closed before lsm_close() is called, it fails with an LSM_BUSY error and the database handle is not closed.

3.2. Writing to a Database

Three API functions are used to write to the database:

Each of these functions returns LSM_OK (0) if successful, or an LSM error code otherwise (some non-zero value).

The following example code inserts a key/value pair into the database. The key is a 1-byte blob consisting of the value 0x61, and the value is a 3 byte blob consisting of 0x6F, 0x6E and 0x65, in that order. An application might interpret these as utf-8 or ASCII codepoints, but LSM treats them as opaque blobs of data.

  rc = lsm_insert(db, "a", 1, "one", 3);

Remove the entry with the key "a" (single 0x61 octet) from the database:

  rc = lsm_delete(db, "a", 1);

Remove all entries with keys that are greater than "c" but less than "f". In this context key blobs are compared in the normal way - using memcmp(), with longer keys being considered larger than their prefixes.

  rc = lsm_delete_range(db, "c", 1, "f", 1);

The example above removes all keys between "c" and "f", but does not remove the endpoints "c" and "f" themselves. To do this, requires three separate calls - one to remove the open-ended range of keys and two to remove the two endpoints. As follows:

  /* Should be checking return codes! */
  lsm_delete(db, "c", 1);
  lsm_delete_range(db, "c", 1, "f", 1);
  lsm_delete(db, "f", 1);

3.3. Reading from a Database

All data read from an LSM database is read via a cursor handle. Cursor handles are opened using the lsm_csr_open() API, as follows:

  lsm_csr *csr;
  rc = lsm_csr_open(db, &csr);

Once an application has finished using a database cursor, it must be closed using the lsm_csr_close() API. The lsm_csr_close() function does not return any value. It cannot fail.


Database cursors support the following functions for positioning the cursor:

Once a cursor has been positioned, it supports the following functions for retrieving the details of the current entry:

The following example demonstrates using the lsm_csr_seek() function to search the database for a specified key, lsm_csr_valid() to check if the search was successful, and lsm_csr_value() to retrieve the value associated with the key within the database.

  rc = lsm_csr_seek(csr, "b", 1, LSM_SEEK_EQ);
  if( lsm_csr_valid(csr) ){
    const void *pVal; int nVal;

    rc = lsm_csr_value(csr, &pVal, &nVal);
    if( rc==LSM_OK ){
      /* pVal now points to a buffer nVal bytes in size containing the
      ** value associated with database key "b".  */

The example code below iterates forwards through all entries (in key order, from smallest to largest) in the database. Function lsm_csr_first() is used to position the cursor to point to the first entry in the database, and lsm_csr_next() is used to advance to the next entry. After lsm_csr_next() is called to advance past the final entry in the database, the cursor is left pointing to no entry at all, lsm_csr_valid() returns 0, and the loop is finished. API function lsm_csr_key() is used to retrieve the key associated with each database entry visited.

  for(rc = lsm_csr_first(csr); lsm_csr_valid(csr); rc = lsm_csr_next(csr)){
    const void *pKey; int nKey;
    const void *pVal; int nVal;

    rc = lsm_csr_key(csr, &pKey, &nKey);
    if( rc==LSM_OK ) rc = lsm_csr_value(csr, &pVal, &nVal);
    if( rc!=LSM_OK ) break;

    /* At this point pKey points to the current key (size nKey bytes) and
    ** pVal points to the corresponding value (size nVal bytes).  */

The example code above could be modified to iterate backwards through the entries in the database (again in key order, but this time from largest to smallest) by replacing the call to lsm_csr_first() with lsm_csr_last() and the call to lsm_csr_next() with lsm_csr_prev().

The signature of lsm_csr_seek() is:

  int lsm_csr_seek(lsm_cursor *csr, const void *pKey, int nKey, int eSeek);

The second and third arguments passed to lsm_csr_seek() define the key to search the database for (pKey must point to the buffer containing the nKey byte key when this function is called). Assuming no error occurs, if there an entry with the requested key is present in the database, the cursor is left pointing to it. Otherwise, if no such entry is present, the final position of the cursor depends on the value passed as the fourth parameter to lsm_csr_seek(). Valid values for the fourth parameter to lsm_csr_seek() are:


In this case, if the specified key is not present in the database, the cursor is not left pointing to any database entry (i.e. calling lsm_csr_valid() returns 0).


If the specified key is not present in the database and the fourth argument to lsm_csr_seek() is LSM_SEEK_LE (Less than or Equal), the cursor is left pointing to the database entry with the largest key that is less than the specified key. Or, if there are no entries in the database with keys smaller than the specified key, the cursor is left pointing to no entry at all.


If the specified key is not present in the database and the fourth argument to lsm_csr_seek() is LSM_SEEK_GE (Greater than or Equal), the cursor is left pointing to the database entry with the smallest key that is greater than the specified key. Or, if there are no entries in the database with keys larger than the specified key, the cursor is left pointing to no entry at all.

Calls made to lsm_csr_seek() with LSM_SEEK_EQ as the final argument are slightly more efficient than those made specifying LSM_SEEK_LE or LSM_SEEK_GE. So to retrieve a specific entry from a database, LSM_SEEK_EQ should be preferred. The other two values are primarily useful for implementing range queries. For example, to iterate backwards through all keys from "ggg" to "cc", inclusive:

  for(rc = lsm_csr_seek(csr, "ggg", 3, LSM_SEEK_LE); lsm_csr_valid(csr); rc = lsm_csr_prev(csr)){
    const void *pKey; int nKey;
    const void *pVal; int nVal;
    int res;

    /* Compare the key that the cursor currently points to with "cc". If
    ** the cursor key is less than "cc", break out of the loop. */
    rc = lsm_csr_cmp(csr, "cc", 2, &res);
    if( rc!=LSM_OK || res<0 ) break;

    rc = lsm_csr_key(csr, &pKey, &nKey);
    if( rc==LSM_OK ) rc = lsm_csr_value(csr, &pVal, &nVal);
    if( rc!=LSM_OK ) break;

    /* At this point pKey points to the current key (size nKey bytes) and
    ** pVal points to the corresponding value (size nVal bytes).  */

In the example code above, the call to lsm_csr_seek() positions the cursor to point to the entry with key "ggg", if it exists, or to the largest entry in the database with a key smaller than "ggg" if such a key can be found, or to EOF otherwise. The lsm_csr_prev() call advances the cursor to the next entry in the database file (in key order from largest to smallest), and the lsm_csr_valid() call returns 0 to break out of the loop once the cursor is advance past the entry with the smallest key in the database. So on its own, the "for" statement serves to iterate the cursor in reverse order through all keys in the database less than or equal to "ggg".

The call to lsm_csr_cmp() call in the body of the loop is used to enforce the lower bound (keys >= "cc") on the range query by breaking out of the loop if an entry with a key smaller than "cc" is ever visited. lsm_csr_cmp() has the following signature:

  int lsm_csr_cmp(lsm_cursor *csr, const void *pKey, int nKey, int *piRes);

When lsm_csr_cmp() is called, the key specified by the second and third arguments (pKey and nKey) is compared to the database key that the cursor currently points to. Assuming no error occurs, depending on whether or not the cursors key is less than, equal to, or greater than the specified key, *piRes is set to a value less than, equal to, or greater than zero before returning. In other words:

  *piRes = (cursors key) - (specified key) 

3.4. Database Transactions and MVCC

LSM supports a single-writer/multiple-reader MVCC based transactional concurrency model. This is the same model that SQLite supports in WAL mode.

A read-transaction must be opened in order to read from the database. After a read-transaction has been opened, no writes to the database made by other database connections are visible to the database reader. Instead, the reader operates on a snapshot of the database as it existed when the read transaction was first opened. Any number of clients may simultaneously maintain open read-transactions.

If one is not already open, a read-transaction is opened when a database cursor is created (the lsm_csr_open() function). It is closed when the number of open cursors drops to zero.

A write-transaction is required to write to the database. At any point, at most one database client may hold an open write transaction. If another client already has an open write transaction, then attempting to open one is an error (LSM_BUSY). If a read-transaction is already open when the write-transaction is opened, then the snapshot read by the read-transaction must correspond to the most recent version of the database. Otherwise, the attempt to open the write-transaction fails (LSM_BUSY). In other words, if any other client has written to the database since the current clients read-transaction was opened, it will not be possible to upgrade to a write-transaction.

Write-transactions may be opened either implicitly or explicitly. If any of the following functions are called to write to the database when there is no write-transaction open, then an implicit write-transaction is opened and closed (committed) within the call:

This means, of course, that all three of the above may return LSM_BUSY. Indicating either that another client currently has an open write-transaction, or that there is currently an open read-transaction and some other client has written to the database since it was opened.

When an explicitly opened transaction is closed, it may either be committed or rolled back (reverted - so that the state of the database is unchanged). Within a write-transaction there may also be a hierarchy of nested sub-transactions that may be rolled back or committed independently. A write-transaction is a property of a database connection - all writes made by the connection become part of the current transaction (and possibly sub-transaction).

The functions used to open, commit and rollback explicity transactions and sub-transactions are, respectively:

  int lsm_begin(lsm_db *, int);
  int lsm_commit(lsm_db *, int);
  int lsm_rollback(lsm_db *, int);

In all cases, the second parameter is either the maximum (lsm_commit(), lsm_rollback()) or minimum (lsm_begin()) the number of nested write-transactions that will exist following the call (assuming it succeeds). If the second parameter passed is N,

Examples follow. With error checking omitted for brevity's sake.

  /* Open a write-transaction. Write some data to the database. Then
  ** commit and close the write transaction. Following this, the database
  ** contains:
  **   "j" -> "ten"
  **   "k" -> "eleven"
  lsm_begin(db, 1);
  lsm_insert(db, "j", 1, "ten",    3);
  lsm_insert(db, "k", 1, "eleven", 6);
  lsm_commit(db, 0);

  /* Open a write-transaction, perform all manner of writes and other
  ** operations (not shown). Then roll the top-level transaction back.
  ** Regardless of the write operations performed, the database remains
  ** unchanged:
  **   "j" -> "ten"
  **   "k" -> "eleven"
  lsm_begin(db, 1);
  /* Do all manner of writes, sub-transactions etc. */
  lsm_rollback(db, 0);

  /* Open a write-transaction. Write some data to the database. Then
  ** rollback the top level transaction but do not close it. Write 
  ** different data to the database and commit. Following this block,
  ** the database is:
  **   "j" -> "ten"
  **   "k" -> "eleven"
  **   "m" -> "thirteen"
  lsm_begin(db, 1);
  lsm_insert(db, "l", 1, "twelve",    3);
  lsm_rollback(db, 1);
  lsm_insert(db, "m", 1, "thirteen", 6);
  lsm_commit(db, 0);

  /* Open a write-transaction and 2 nested sub-transactions. Delete a
  ** database key. Then commit and close the outermost sub-transaction.
  ** Open another sub-transaction (so that there are again 2 nested
  ** sub-transactions). Delete a different database key. Then rollback
  ** and close the outermost sub-transaction. Finally, delete yet another
  ** db key and commit the outermost transaction. Leaving just:
  **   "k" -> "eleven"
  lsm_begin(db, 3);
  lsm_delete(db, "j", 1);
  lsm_commit(db, 2);
  lsm_begin(db, 3);
  lsm_delete(db, "k", 1);
  lsm_rollback(db, 2);
  lsm_delete(db, "m", 1);
  lsm_commit(db, 0);

4. Data Durability

The value of the configuration parameter LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY determines how often data is synced to disk by the LSM library. This is an important tradeoff - syncing less often can lead to orders of magnitude better performance, but also exposes the application to the risk of partial or total data loss in the event of a power failure;

LSM_SAFETY_OFF (0) Do not sync to disk at all. This is the fastest mode.

If a power failure occurs while writing to the database, following recovery the database may be corrupt. All or some data may be recoverable.

LSM_SAFETY_NORMAL (1) Sync only as much as is necessary to prevent database corruption. This is the default setting. Although slower than LSM_SAFETY_OFF, this mode is still much faster than LSM_SAFETY_FULL.

If a power failure occurs while writing to the database, following recovery some recently committed transactions may have been lost. But the database file should not be corrupt and older data intact.

LSM_SAFETY_FULL (2) Sync every transaction to disk as part of committing it. This is the slowest mode.

If a power failure occurs while writing to the database, all successfully committed transactions should be present. The database file should not be corrupt.

The following example code sets the value of the LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY parameter for connection db to LSM_SAFETY_FULL:

  int iSafety = LSM_SAFETY_FULL;
  lsm_config(db, LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY, &iSafety);

The current value of the LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY parameter can also be queried by setting the initial value of the argument to -1 (or any other negative value). For example:

  int iSafety = -1;
  lsm_config(db, LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY, &iSafety);
  /* At this point, variable iSafety is set to the currently configured value
  ** of the LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY parameter (either 0, 1 or 2).  */

The lsm_config() function may also be used to configure other database connection parameters.

5. Compressed and Encrypted Databases

LSM does not provide built-in methods for creating encrypted or compressed databases. Instead, it allows the user to provide hooks to call external functions to compress and/or encrypt data before it is written to the database file, and to decrypt and/or uncompress data as it is read from the database file.

A database connection is configured to call compression functions using a call to lsm_config() with the second argument set to LSM_CONFIG_SET_COMPRESSION. The third argument should point to an instance of type lsm_compress, which is defined as follows:

  typedef struct lsm_compress lsm_compress;
  struct lsm_compress {
    u32 iId;
    void *pCtx;
    int (*xBound)(void *pCtx, int nIn);
    int (*xCompress)(void *pCtx, void *pOut, int *pnOut, const void *pIn, int nIn);
    int (*xUncompress)(void *pCtx, void *pOut, int *pnOut, const void *pIn, int nIn);
    void (*xFree)(void *pCtx);

Explain how the hooks work here (same as zipvfs)

Example code? Using zlib? Or something simple like an RLE implementation?

The database file header of any LSM database contains a 32-bit unsigned "compression id" field. If the database is not a compressed database, this field is set to 1. Otherwise, it is set to an application supplied value identifying the compression and/or encryption scheme in use. Application compression scheme ids must be greater than or equal to 10000. Values smaller than 10000 are reserved for internal use.

The lsm_compression_id() API may be used to read the compression id from a database connection. Because the compression id is stored in the database header, it may be read before any required compression or encryption hooks are configured.

  #define LSM_COMPRESSION_NONE     1
  int lsm_compression_id(lsm_db *db, u32 *piId);

When a database is opened for the first time, before it is first written, the compression id field is set to LSM_COMPRESSION_EMPTY (0). The first time a transaction is committed, the database compression id is set to a copy of the lsm_compress.iId field of the compression hooks for the database handle committing the transaction, or to LSM_COMPRESSION_NONE (1) if no compression hooks are configured.

Once the compression id is set to something other than LSM_COMPRESSION_EMPTY, when a database handle opens a read or write transaction on the database, the compression id is compared against the lsm_compress.iId field of the configured compression hooks, or against LSM_COMPRESSION_NONE if no compression hooks are configured. If the compression id does not match, then an LSM_MISMATCH error is returned and the operation fails (no transaction or database cursor is opened).

Maybe there should be a way to register a mismatch-handler callback. Otherwise, applications have to handle LSM_MISMATCH everywhere...

6. Performance Tuning

This section describes the various measures that can be taken in order to fine-tune LSM in order to improve performance in specific circumstances. Sub-section 6.1 identifies the configuration parameters that can be used to influence database performance. Sub-section 6.2 discusses methods for shifting the time-consuming processes of actually writing and syncing the database file to background threads or processes in order to make writing to the database more responsive. Finally, 6. 3 introduces "database optimization" - the process of reorganizing a database file internally so that it is as small as possible and optimized for search queries.

The options in this section all take integer values. They may be both set and queried using the lsm_config() function. To set an option to a value, lsm_config() is used as follows:

  /* Set the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOFLUSH option to 1MB */
  int iVal = 1 * 1024 * 1024;
  rc = lsm_config(db, LSM_CONFIG_AUTOFLUSH, &iVal);

In order to query the current value of an option, the initial value of the parameter (iVal in the example code above) should be set to a negative value. Or any other value that happens to be out of range for the parameter - negative values just happen to be out of range for all integer lsm_config() parameters.

  /* Set iVal to the current value of LSM_CONFIG_AUTOFLUSH */
  int iVal = -1;
  rc = lsm_config(db, LSM_CONFIG_AUTOFLUSH, &iVal);

If LSM is running on a system with a 64-bit address space, this option may be set to either 1 (true) or 0 (false). On a 32-bit platform, it is always set to 0.

If it is set to true, the entire database file is memory mapped. Or, if it is false, data is accessed using ordinary OS file read and write primitives. Memory mapping the database file can significantly improve the performance of read operations, as database pages do not have to be copied from operating system buffers into user space buffers before they can be examined.

This option can only be set before lsm_open() is called on the database connection.

The default value is 1 (true) on a 64-bit platform, and 0 otherwise.


This option may also be set to either 1 (true) or 0 (false). If it is set to 0, then the library assumes that all database clients are located within the same process (have access to the same memory space). Assuming this means the library can avoid using OS file locking primitives to lock the database file, which speeds up opening and closing read and write transactions.

This option can only be set before lsm_open() is called on the database connection.

The default value is 1 (true).


This is another option may also be set to either 1 (true) or 0 (false). If it is set to false, then the library does not write data into the database log file. This makes writing faster, but also means that if an application crash or power failure occurs, it is very likely that any recently committed transactions will be lost.

If this option is set to true, then an application crash cannot cause data loss. Whether or not data loss may occur in the event of a power failure depends on the value of the LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY parameter.

This option can only be set if the connection does not currently have an open write transaction.

The default value is 1 (true).


When a client writes to an LSM database, changes are buffered in memory before being written out to the database file in a batch. This option is set to the size of the buffer in bytes. The default value is 1048576. Increasing this value may improve overall write throughput. Decreasing it reduces memory usage.


This option determines how often the database is checkpointed (synced to disk). A checkpoint is performed after each N bytes (approximately) are written to the database file, where N is the value of this option. The default value is 2097152 (2MB).

Increasing this value (say to 4MB or even 8MB) may improve overall write throughput. However, it is important not to checkpoint too infrequently, as:

  • Space in the log file may only be reused following a checkpoint. Once a checkpoint has been completed, all application data written before the checkpoint is safely stored in the database file. This means the contents of the log file are no longer required, and so the next database writer may start writing a new log into the start of the existing file (overwriting the old data). As well as consuming disk space, large log files are undesirable as often the entire log file must be read during database recovery following an application or system failure.

  • Similarly, space in the database file freed by the continuous incremental reorganization of the database file that LSM performs cannot be reused until after a checkpoint has been performed. So increasing the value of this parameter causes the space used by the pre-reorganization versions of data structures within the file to be recycled more slowly. Increasing the overall size of database files under some circumstances.

The roles of the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOFLUSH and LSM_CONFIG_AUTOCHECKPOINT options are discussed in more detail in the following section.

6.2. Using Worker Threads or Processes

Usually, the database file is updated on disk from within calls to write functions - lsm_insert(), lsm_delete(), lsm_delete_range() and lsm_commit(). This means that occasionally, a call to one of these four functions may take signicantly longer than usual as it pauses to write or sync the database file. See below for details.

The alternative to updating the database file from within calls to write functions is to use one or more background threads or processes to perform the actual work of writing to the database file.

Further explanation of, and example code for, the above is available below.

The following sub-sections provide a high-level description of the LSM database architecture and descriptions of how various parameters affect the way clients write to the database file. While this may seem in some ways an inconvenient amount of detail, it may also be helpful when diagnosing performance problems or analyzing benchmark results.

6.2.1. Architectural Overview

The LSM library implements two separate data structures that are used together to store user data. When the database is queried, the library actually runs parallel queries on both of these data stores and merges the results together to return to the user. The data structures are:

When a database client writes a transaction to the database, the new data is inserted into the "live" in-memory tree structure. At the same time, the new data is also appended to the log file on disk. The purpose of the log file is to provide a persistent backup of any data that the system does not consider to have been safely stored (see below) in the database file. If a crash or power failure occurs, this data is recovered by reading the log file.

Once sufficient data has accumulated within the "live" in-memory tree, it is marked as "old" and a new live tree created. At any point thereafter, the contents of the old in-memory tree may be used to populate a new segment within the database file and then discarded. When this happens, the old in-memory tree is said to have been "flushed to disk". If there is already an old in-memory tree when the live tree is deemed to have accumulated enough data to itself become an old tree, the existing old tree must first be flushed to disk.

The set of segments that make up the log-structured-merge tree at any time and the order in which they should be queried is termed a "snapshot". The header of the database file contains a snapshot. A snapshot is also stored in main memory. When set of segments that make up the log-structured-merge tree is modified, either by flushing an old in-memory tree to disk or by merging two or more existing segments, the in-memory snapshot is updated immediately. This is the snapshot that database clients use when querying or otherwise operating on the database.

At any point after the in-memory snapshot has been updated, the in-memory snapshot may be written into the database file header. This is known as "checkpointing" the database. Depending on the value of the LSM_CONFIG_SAFETY parameter, it may be necessary to ensure that all segments referenced by the snapshot have been synced to disk (safely stored on the persistent media such that they will not be lost if a power failure occurs) before doing so. It is not necessary for every version of the in-memory snapshot to be checkpointed. The in-memory snapshot may be modified multiple times between checkpoints.

Because a checkpointer process is often required to sync the database file before updating the database header, "checkpointing" often appears to be the costliest part of transfering data to the database file, at least in terms of wall-clock time.

Regular database checkpoints are required to ensure that unused space within the log file and database file can be reused in a timely fashion. Specifically:

In other words, without checkpoints the system will function, but both the log and database files will grow indefinitely as the database is modified (even if the size of the dataset remains constant). Additionally, if a crash or power failure occurs, the next client to open the database file has to process all data written to the log file since the most recent checkpoint. If checkpoints are performed infrequently, this can be a time consuming exercise.

In order to safely write data into the in-memory tree (by calling lsm_insert, lsm_delete or lsm_delete_range), the database client must hold the database WRITER lock. At most one client may concurrently hold the WRITER lock. Holding the WRITER lock is synonymous with having an open write transaction - the client obtains the WRITER lock when the transaction is opened and relinquishes it when the transaction is closed.

As well as the WRITER lock, there are two other locks that may be held by at most one client at any time - the WORKER and CHECKPOINTER locks. The roles of the three locks are roughly as follows:

WRITER The WRITER lock is required to modify the contents of the in-memory tree. Including marking an in-memory tree as "old" and starting a new live tree. It is also required to write to the log file.
WORKER The WORKER lock is required to write to segments within the database file. Either when merging two or more existing segments within the database, or when flushing an in-memory tree to disk to create a new segment. The WORKER lock is also required to update the database snapshot stored in main memory (updated so that new clients will use the new segments the worker creates).
CHECKPOINTER The CHECKPOINTER lock is required to update the snapshot stored in the database file header (to checkpoint the database).

The tasks associated with each of the locks above may be performed concurrently by multiple database connections, located either in the same application process or different processes.

6.2.2. Automatic Work and Checkpoint Scheduling

By default, database "work" (the flushing and merging of segments, performed by clients holding the WORKER lock) and checkpointing are scheduled and performed automatically from within calls to "write" API functions. The "write" functions are:

It is expected that automatic work and checkpoint scheduling will be suitable for most applications. The advantage of this model is that it is simple to use. However, any call to one of the functions listed above may be co-opted by the system to perform database work or a checkpoint, causing it to return more slowly than it otherwise would. In some situations, for example when a writer thread is also responsible for handling user-interface events, this may be undesirable.

Automatic work and checkpoint scheduling is controlled by four integer parameters set or queried using the lsm_config() interface. The parameters are:


This is a boolean parameter (default 1). If set, auto-work mode is enabled for the database connection. Otherwise, it is not.


An integer parameter (default 1048576). If this parameter is set to a non-zero value, then after each transaction is committed, the library checks the total size of the live in-memory tree. If it is equal to or greater than the configured value of this parameter in bytes and there is no existing old in-memory tree, then the current live tree is marked as old.

Additionally, if the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOWORK parameter is set, the contents of the in-memory tree are immediately flushed to disk.


This parameter must be set to an integer value between 2 and 8, inclusive. It controls the number of existing segments that auto-work attempts to merge together at a time. The default value is 4.


If this parameter is set to an integer value greater than 0, then a checkpoint is automatically attempted after this many bytes are written into the database file. The default value is 2097152.

Each segment in the database file is assigned an "age" - an integer zero or greater indicating how many times the data in the segment has been merged. A segment created by flushing the in-memory tree to disk is assigned an age of 1. When two or more segments with age=1 are merged together to create a larger segment, it is assigned an age of 2. And so on.

If auto-work is enabled, the library periodically checks the state of the database file to see if there exist N or more segments with the same age value A, where N is the value assigned to the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOMERGE parameter. If so, work is done to merge all such segments with age=A into a new, larger segment assigned age=A+1. At present, "periodically" as used above means roughly once for every 32KB of data (including overhead) written to the in-memory tree. The merge operation is not necessarily completed within a single call to a write API (this would result in blocking the writer thread for too long in many cases - in large databases segments may grow to be many GB in size). Currently, the amount of data written by a single auto-work operation is roughly 32KB multiplied by the number of segments in the database file. This formula may change - the point is that the library attempts to limit the amount of data written in order to avoid blocking the writer thread for too long within a single API call.

Each time a transaction is committed in auto-work mode, the library checks to see if there exists an "old" in-memory tree (see the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOFLUSH option above). If so, it attempts to flush it to disk immediately. Unlike merges of existing segments, the entire in-memory tree must be flushed to disk before control is returned to the user. It is not possible to incrementally flush an in-memory tree in the same ways as it is possible to incrementally merge existing database segments together.

In order to perform auto-work on the database file, either to flush the contents of an old in-memory tree to disk or to merge existing segments within the database file together, the client must obtain the WORKER lock. If some other client is already holding the WORKER lock, this will not be possible. This is not an error. If this occurs, the writer thread simply returns immediately, without performing any work on the database file.

Assuming the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOCHECKPOINT parameter is set to a value greater than zero, after performing database work, the library automatically checks how many bytes of raw data have been written to the database file since the last checkpoint (by any client, not just by the current client). If this value is greater than the value of the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOCHECKPOINT parameter, a checkpoint is attempted. It is not an error if the attempt fails because the CHECKPOINTER lock cannot be obtained.

6.2.3. Explicit Work and Checkpoint Scheduling

The alternative to automatic scheduling of work and checkpoint operations is to explicitly schedule them. Possibly in a background thread or dedicated application process. In order to disable automatic work, a client must set the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOWORK parameter to zero. This parameter is a property of a database connection, not of a database itself, so it must be cleared separately by all processes that may write to the database. Otherwise, they may attempt automatic database work or checkpoints.

  /* Disable auto-work on connection db */
  int iVal = 0;
  lsm_config(db, LSM_CONFIG_AUTOWORK, &iVal);

The lsm_work() function is used to explicitly perform work on the database:

  int lsm_work(lsm_db *db, int nMerge, int nByte, int *pnWrite);

Parameter nByte is passed a limit on the number of bytes of data that should be written to the database file before the call returns. It is a hint only, the library does not honor this limit strictly.

If the database has an old in-memory tree when lsm_work() is called, it is flushed to disk. If this means that more than nByte bytes of data is written to the database file, no further work is performed. Otherwise, the number of bytes written is subtracted from nByte before proceeding.

If parameter nMerge is greater than 1, then the library searches for nMerge or more segments of the same age within the database file and performs up to nByte bytes of work to merge them together. If the merge is completed before the nByte limit is exceeded, the library searches for another set of nMerge or more segments to work on, and so on. If at any point no such set of nMerge segments can be found, the call returns without performing any further work.

Calling lsm_work() with the nMerge argument set to 1 is used to "optimize" the database (see below). Passing a value of zero or less for the nMerge parameter is an error.

In any case, before returning the value of *pnWrite is set to the actual number of bytes written to the database file.

The example code below might be executed in a background thread or process in order to perform database work and checkpointing. In this case all other clients should set the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOWORK parameter to zero.

  int rc;
  lsm_db *db;
  int nCkpt = 4*1024*1024;

  /* Open a database connection to database "test.db". 
  ** Configure the connection to automatically checkpoint the database after
  ** writing each 4MB of data to it (instead of the default 2MB). As well
  ** as to auto-work, the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOCHECKPOINT parameter applies to data
  ** written by explicit calls to lsm_work().
  lsm_new(0, &db);
  lsm_config(db, LSM_CONFIG_AUTOCHECKPOINT, &nCkpt);
  lsm_open(db, "test.db");

  while( 1 ){
    int nWrite;

    /* Attempt up to 512KB of work. Set nWrite to the number of bytes
    ** actually written to disk.  */
    rc = lsm_work(db, 2, 512*1024, &nWrite);
    if( rc!=LSM_OK && rc!=LSM_BUSY ){
      /* Anything other than LSM_OK or LSM_BUSY is a problem. LSM_BUSY
      ** indicates that some other client has taken the WORKER lock. Any
      ** other error indicates something has gone quite wrong.  */
      return rc;

    /* nWrite may be set to zero here in two scenarios. lsm_work()
    ** may have failed to obtain the WORKER lock and returned LSM_BUSY,
    ** indicating that some other connection is working on the database.
    ** Alternatively, it may be that there was no old in-memory tree to
    ** flush and no two segments of the same age within the database file,
    ** meaning the function could find no work to do.
    ** In either case, there is no point in calling lsm_work() again 
    ** immediately. Instead, sleep for a second before continuing. By that
    ** time, things may have changed (the other process may have relinquished
    ** the WORKER lock, or an in-memory tree may have been marked as old).
    if( nWrite==0 ) sleep(1);

Checkpoints can also be requested explicitly, using the lsm_checkpoint() API:

  int lsm_checkpoint(lsm_db *db, int *pnCkpt);

If no work has been performed on the database since the most recent checkpoint (implying that the snapshot has not changed and there is no need to write it into the database file), lsm_checkpoint() sets *pnCkpt to zero and returns immediately. Otherwise, it checkpoints the database and sets *pnCkpt to the number of bytes written to the database file since the previous checkpoint.

The number of bytes written to the database since the most recent checkpoint can also be using the lsm_info() API function. As follows:

  int nCkpt;
  rc = lsm_info(db, LSM_INFO_CHECKPOINT_SIZE, &nCkpt);
  int nOld, nLive;
  rc = lsm_info(db, LSM_INFO_TREE_SIZE, &nOld, &nLive);

6.2.4. Compulsary Work and Checkpoint Scheduling

Apart from the scenarios described above, there are two there are two scenarios where database work or checkpointing may be performed automatically, regardless of the value of the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOWORK parameter.

Whenever an lsm_close() call would mean that the total number of connections to a database drops to zero, the connection checks if the in-memory tree is empty. If not, it is flushed to disk. Both the live and old in-memory trees are flushed to disk in this case. It also checks if the database file has been modified since the most recent checkpoint was performed. If so, it also performs a checkpoint. And, assuming no error has occurred, deletes the log file.

Additionally, whenever a worker wishes to flush an in-memory tree to a new age=1 segment, it must first ensure that there are less than N existing age=1 segments, where N is the value that the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOMERGE parameter is set to. If there are already N or more age=1 segments, they must be merged into an age=2 segment before a new age=1 segment can be created within the database file. Similar rules apply to segments of other ages - it is not possible to create a new age=I segment if there are already N segments with age=I in the database file. This has two implications:

Finally, regardless of age, a database is limited to a maximum of 64 segments in total. If an attempt is made to flush an in-memory tree to disk when the database already contains 64 segments, two or more existing segments must be merged together before the new segment can be created.

6.3. Database File Optimization

Database optimization transforms the contents of database file so that the following are true:

Should we add a convenience function lsm_optimize() that does not return until the database is completely optimized? One that more or less does the same as the example code below and deals with the AUTOCHECKPOINT issue? This would help with this user manual if nothing else, as it means a method for database optimization can be presented without depending on the previous section.

In order to optimize the database, lsm_work() should be called repeatedly with the nMerge argument set to 1 until it returns without writing any data to the database file. For example:

  int nWrite;
  int rc;
  do {
    rc = lsm_work(db, 1, 2*1024*1024, &nWrite);
  }while( rc==LSM_OK && nWrite>0 );

When optimizing the database as above, either the LSM_CONFIG_AUTOCHECKPOINT parameter should be set to a non-zero value or lsm_checkpoint() should be called periodically. Otherwise, no checkpoints will be performed, preventing the library from reusing any space occupied by old segments even after their content has been merged into the new segment. The result - a database file that is optimized, except that it is up to twice as large as it otherwise would be.