Mnesia and additional indexes: a cautionary tale

Scott Lystig Fritchie <>
Thu Mar 30 02:00:02 CEST 2006

Greetings.  I have a cautionary tale to tell about Mnesia and adding
an extra attribute index.

The story starts with panic (mine!) late last night.  I was doing some
route performance tests for a Mnesia-based application: simple
1-attribute changes to single records in several tables.  Updates for
one specific table were 2.5 *orders of magnitude* slower than all

All of the tables were disc_copies tables.  All contained 200K
entries.  All fit quite comfortably in RAM without pissing off the
virtual memory system.

It was late, and I didn't want to struggle with remembering how to use
"fprof" or "eprof", so I used "cprof".  IIRC, "cprof" can profile all
Erlang processes without lots of brain power or keystrokes.  (It was
late, I was tired.)  Cprof showed that about close to 2 orders of
magnitude fewer VM reductions being executed.  Huh.  That was not what
I wanted to see.

Go to sleep, wake up refreshed, then tackle the problem again.
Additional profiling is frustrated: no Erlang functions claim the
extra time.  Perhaps I'm just inept at "fprof" subtlety, somehow
omitting the Erlang process that was eating all the CPU time?  {shrug}

Later in the afternoon, I shutdown Mnesia, then restart it.  My
application starts timing out at mnesia:wait_for_tables/2.  So I start
mnesia manually, then go get coffee and make a phone call.  When I
return 15 minutes later, Mnesia *still* hasn't finished starting up.

The "beam" process size should've been about 1,400KB with everything
loaded.  But the process size was only 390MB, and "beam" was still
using 100% CPU time ... doing something, I dunno what!

So, I kill the VM and restart.  Before starting Mnesia, I use
mnesia:set_debug_level(verbose).  Sure enough, I see messages like:

    Mnesia(): Intend to load tables: [{'Tab1',local_only},
    Mnesia(): Mnesia started, 0 seconds
    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab1' 
    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab2' 
    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab3' 
    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab3' 

... and it hangs there, eating 100% CPU and getting no further.

A quick edit to mnesia_index.erl to include the attribute position
number shows me this instead:

    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab1' Pos 3
    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab2' Pos 7
    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab3' Pos 3
    Mnesia(): Creating index for 'Tab3' Pos 5

Ah!  Suddenly, it becomes very, very clear.

The table 'Tab3' contains 200K of debugging/development records.  When
the code to create those records was first written, the attribute at
position #5 was a constant binary term.

Then "feature creep" happened, and an extra Mnesia index was created
for position #5.  At the 200K records were added slowly, no one
noticed the performance impact using the exact same term for position
#5 ... until I did, last last night.

Moral of the story for Mnesia users (and other databases, I'm sure):
beware of the impact of adding secondary indexes.

For the Mnesia dev team, I have two questions:

1. That change to mnesia_index.erl is awfully handy ... though
   unfortunately only handy when the Mnesia debug level is changed
   from the default.

2. What are the odds that a future release could have less evil
   behavior (less than O(N^2), taking a wild guess) with secondary
   indexes like my (unfortunate, pilot error!) story?


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