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Isolation Levels

SQL Server 2000

When locking is used as the concurrency control mechanism, it solves concurrency problems. This allows all transactions to run in complete isolation of one another, although there can be more than one transaction running at any time.

Serializability is the database state achieved by running a set of concurrent transactions equivalent to the database state that would be achieved if the set of transactions were executed serially in order.

SQL-92 Isolation Levels

Although serialization is important to transactions to ensure that the data in the database is correct at all times, many transactions do not always require full isolation. For example, several writers are working on different chapters of the same book. New chapters can be submitted to the project at any time. However, after a chapter has been edited, a writer cannot make any changes to the chapter without the editor's approval. This way, the editor can be assured of the accuracy of the book project at any point in time, despite the arrival of new unedited chapters. The editor can see both previously edited chapters and recently submitted chapters.

The level at which a transaction is prepared to accept inconsistent data is termed the isolation level. The isolation level is the degree to which one transaction must be isolated from other transactions. A lower isolation level increases concurrency, but at the expense of data correctness. Conversely, a higher isolation level ensures that data is correct, but can affect concurrency negatively. The isolation level required by an application determines the locking behavior SQL Server uses.

SQL-92 defines the following isolation levels, all of which are supported by SQL Server:

  • Read uncommitted (the lowest level where transactions are isolated only enough to ensure that physically corrupt data is not read).

  • Read committed (SQL Server default level).

  • Repeatable read.

  • Serializable (the highest level, where transactions are completely isolated from one another).

If transactions are run at an isolation level of serializable, any concurrent overlapping transactions are guaranteed to be serializable.

These isolation levels allow different types of behavior.

Isolation level Dirty read Nonrepeatable read Phantom
Read uncommitted Yes Yes Yes
Read committed No Yes Yes
Repeatable read No No Yes
Serializable No No No

Transactions must be run at an isolation level of repeatable read or higher to prevent lost updates that can occur when two transactions each retrieve the same row, and then later update the row based on the originally retrieved values. If the two transactions update rows using a single UPDATE statement and do not base the update on the previously retrieved values, lost updates cannot occur at the default isolation level of read committed.

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