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4.6 Message Delivery Semantics

Now that we understand a little about how producers and consumers work, let’s discuss the semantic guarantees Kafka provides between producer and consumer. Clearly there are multiple possible message delivery guarantees that could be provided:

  • At most once—Messages may be lost but are never redelivered.
  • At least once—Messages are never lost but may be redelivered.
  • Exactly once—this is what people actually want, each message is delivered once and only once.

It’s worth noting that this breaks down into two problems: the durability guarantees for publishing a message and the guarantees when consuming a message.

Many systems claim to provide “exactly once” delivery semantics, but it is important to read the fine print, most of these claims are misleading (i.e. they don’t translate to the case where consumers or producers can fail, cases where there are multiple consumer processes, or cases where data written to disk can be lost).

Kafka’s semantics are straight-forward. When publishing a message we have a notion of the message being “committed” to the log. Once a published message is committed it will not be lost as long as one broker that replicates the partition to which this message was written remains “alive”. The definition of committed message, alive partition as well as a description of which types of failures we attempt to handle will be described in more detail in the next section. For now let’s assume a perfect, lossless broker and try to understand the guarantees to the producer and consumer. If a producer attempts to publish a message and experiences a network error it cannot be sure if this error happened before or after the message was committed. This is similar to the semantics of inserting into a database table with an autogenerated key.

Prior to, if a producer failed to receive a response indicating that a message was committed, it had little choice but to resend the message. This provides at-least-once delivery semantics since the message may be written to the log again during resending if the original request had in fact succeeded. Since, the Kafka producer also supports an idempotent delivery option which guarantees that resending will not result in duplicate entries in the log. To achieve this, the broker assigns each producer an ID and deduplicates messages using a sequence number that is sent by the producer along with every message. Also beginning with, the producer supports the ability to send messages to multiple topic partitions using transaction-like semantics: i.e. either all messages are successfully written or none of them are. The main use case for this is exactly-once processing between Kafka topics (described below).

Not all use cases require such strong guarantees. For uses which are latency sensitive we allow the producer to specify the durability level it desires. If the producer specifies that it wants to wait on the message being committed this can take on the order of 10 ms. However the producer can also specify that it wants to perform the send completely asynchronously or that it wants to wait only until the leader (but not necessarily the followers) have the message.

Now let’s describe the semantics from the point-of-view of the consumer. All replicas have the exact same log with the same offsets. The consumer controls its position in this log. If the consumer never crashed it could just store this position in memory, but if the consumer fails and we want this topic partition to be taken over by another process the new process will need to choose an appropriate position from which to start processing. Let’s say the consumer reads some messages — it has several options for processing the messages and updating its position.

  1. It can read the messages, then save its position in the log, and finally process the messages. In this case there is a possibility that the consumer process crashes after saving its position but before saving the output of its message processing. In this case the process that took over processing would start at the saved position even though a few messages prior to that position had not been processed. This corresponds to “at-most-once” semantics as in the case of a consumer failure messages may not be processed.
  2. It can read the messages, process the messages, and finally save its position. In this case there is a possibility that the consumer process crashes after processing messages but before saving its position. In this case when the new process takes over the first few messages it receives will already have been processed. This corresponds to the “at-least-once” semantics in the case of consumer failure. In many cases messages have a primary key and so the updates are idempotent (receiving the same message twice just overwrites a record with another copy of itself).

So what about exactly once semantics (i.e. the thing you actually want)? When consuming from a Kafka topic and producing to another topic (as in a Kafka Streams application), we can leverage the new transactional producer capabilities in that were mentioned above. The consumer’s position is stored as a message in a topic, so we can write the offset to Kafka in the same transaction as the output topics receiving the processed data. If the transaction is aborted, the consumer’s position will revert to its old value and the produced data on the output topics will not be visible to other consumers, depending on their “isolation level.” In the default “read_uncommitted” isolation level, all messages are visible to consumers even if they were part of an aborted transaction, but in “read_committed,” the consumer will only return messages from transactions which were committed (and any messages which were not part of a transaction).

When writing to an external system, the limitation is in the need to coordinate the consumer’s position with what is actually stored as output. The classic way of achieving this would be to introduce a two-phase commit between the storage of the consumer position and the storage of the consumers output. But this can be handled more simply and generally by letting the consumer store its offset in the same place as its output. This is better because many of the output systems a consumer might want to write to will not support a two-phase commit. As an example of this, consider a Kafka Connect connector which populates data in HDFS along with the offsets of the data it reads so that it is guaranteed that either data and offsets are both updated or neither is. We follow similar patterns for many other data systems which require these stronger semantics and for which the messages do not have a primary key to allow for deduplication.

So effectively Kafka supports exactly-once delivery in Kafka Streams, and the transactional producer/consumer can be used generally to provide exactly-once delivery when transferring and processing data between Kafka topics. Exactly-once delivery for other destination systems generally requires cooperation with such systems, but Kafka provides the offset which makes implementing this feasible (see also Kafka Connect). Otherwise, Kafka guarantees at-least-once delivery by default, and allows the user to implement at-most-once delivery by disabling retries on the producer and committing offsets in the consumer prior to processing a batch of messages.