Managed, Online Schema Changes

Note: this feature is EXPERIMENTAL.

Vitess offers managed, online schema migrations (aka Online DDL), transparently to the user. Vitess Onine DDL offers:

  • Non-blocking migrations
  • Migrations are asyncronously auto-scheduled, queued and executed by tablets
  • Migration state is trackable
  • Migrations are cancellable
  • Migrations are retry-able
  • Lossless, revertible migrations
  • Support for declarative migrations

As general overview:

  • User chooses a strategy for online DDL (online DDL is opt in)
  • User submits one or more schema change queries, using the standard MySQL CREATE TABLE, ALTER TABLE and DROP TABLE syntax.
  • Vitess responds with a Job ID for each schema change query.
  • Vitess resolves affected shards.
  • A shard’s primary tablet schedules the migration to run when possible.
  • Tablets will independently run schema migrations:
    • ALTER TABLE statements run via VReplication, gh-ost or pt-online-schema-change, as per selected strategy
    • CREATE TABLE statements run directly.
    • DROP TABLE statements run safely and lazily.
  • Vitess provides the user a mechanism to view migration status, cancel or retry migrations, based on the job ID.

Syntax #

The standard MySQL syntax for CREATE, ALTER and DROP is supported.


Use the standard MySQL ALTER TABLE syntax to run online DDL. Whether your schema migration runs synchronously (the default MySQL behavior) or asynchronously (aka online), is determined by ddl_strategy.

We assume we have a keyspace (schema) called commerce, with a table called demo, that has the following definition:

  `id` int NOT NULL,
  `status` varchar(32) DEFAULT NULL,
  PRIMARY KEY (`id`)

Consider the following schema migration statement:


This statement can be executed as:

  • a VReplication, managed online migration
  • a gh-ost, managed online migration
  • a pt-online-schema-change, managed online migration
  • a synchronous, unmanaged schema change

See DDL Strategies for discussion around the different options.


Use the standard MySQL CREATE TABLE syntax. The query goes through the same migration flow as ALTER TABLE does. The tablets eventually run the query directly on the MySQL backends.


Use the standard MySQL DROP TABLE syntax. The query goes through the same migration flow as ALTER TABLE does. Tables are not immediately dropped. Instead, they are renamed into special names, recognizable by the table lifecycle mechanism, to then slowly and safely transition through lifecycle states into finally getting dropped.

Statement transformations #

Vitess may modify your queries to qualify for online DDL statement. Modifications include:

  • A multi-table DROP statement is replaced by multiple DROP statements, each operating on a single table (and each tracked by its own job ID).
  • A CREATE INDEX statement is replaced by the equivalent ALTER TABLE statement.

ddl_strategy #

You will set either @@ddl_strategy session variable, or -ddl_strategy command line flag, to control your schema migration strategy, and specifically, to enable and configure online DDL. Details in DDL Strategies. A quick overview:

  • The value "direct", means not an online DDL. The empty value ("") is also interpreted as direct. A query is immediately pushed and applied on backend servers. This is the default strategy.
  • The value "online" instructs Vitess to run an ALTER TABLE online DDL via VReplication.
  • The value "gh-ost" instructs Vitess to run an ALTER TABLE online DDL via gh-ost.
  • The value "pt-osc" instructs Vitess to run an ALTER TABLE online DDL via pt-online-schema-change.
  • You may specify arguments for your tool of choice, e.g. "gh-ost --max-load Threads_running=200". Details follow.

CREATE and DROP statements run in the same way for "online", "gh-ost" and "pt-osc" strategies, and we consider them all to be online.

Running, tracking and controlling Online DDL #

Vitess provides two interfaces to interacting with Online DDL:

  • SQL commands, via VTGate
  • Command line interface, via vtctl

Supported interactions are:

See Audit and Control for a detailed breakdown. As quick examples:

Executing an Online DDL via VTGate/SQL #

mysql> set @@ddl_strategy='online';

mysql> alter table corder add column ts timestamp not null default current_timestamp;
| uuid                                 |
| bf4598ab_8d55_11eb_815f_f875a4d24e90 |

mysql> drop table customer;
| uuid                                 |
| 6848c1a4_8d57_11eb_815f_f875a4d24e90 |

Executing an Online DDL via vtctl/ApplySchema #

$ vtctlclient ApplySchema -ddl_strategy "online" -sql "ALTER TABLE demo MODIFY id bigint UNSIGNED" commerce

Migration flow and states #

We highlight how Vitess manages migrations internally, and explain what states a migration goes through.

  • Whether via vtctlclient ApplySchema or via VTGate as described above, a migration request entry is persisted in global topo (e.g. the global etcd cluster).
  • vtctld periodically checks on new migration requests.
  • vtctld resolves the relevant shards, and the primary tablet for each shard.
  • vtctld pushes the request to all relevant primary tablets.
  • If not all shards confirm receipt, vtctld periodically keeps retrying pushing the request to the shards until all approve.
  • Internally, tablets persist the request in a designated table in the _vt schema. Do not manipulate that table directly as that can cause inconsistencies.
  • A shard’s primary tablet owns running the migration. It is independent of other shards. It will schedule the migration to run when possible. A tablet will not run two migrations at the same time.
  • A migration is first created in queued state.
  • If the tablet sees queued migration, and assuming there’s no reason to wait, it picks the oldest requested migration in queued state, and moves it to ready state.
  • For ALTER TABLE statements:
    • Tablet prepares for the migration. It creates a MySQL account with a random password, to be used by this migration only. It creates the command line invocation, and extra scripts if possible.
    • The tablet then runs the migration. Whether gh-ost or pt-online-schema-change, it first runs in dry run mode, and, if successful, in actual execute mode. The migration is then in running state.
    • The migration will either run to completion, fail, or be interrupted. If successful, it transitions into complete state, which is the end of the road for that migration. If failed or interrupted, it transitions to failed state. The user may choose to retry failed migrations (see below).
    • The user is able to cancel a migration (details below). If the migration hasn’t started yet, it transitions to cancelled state. If the migration is running, then it is interrupted, and is expected to transition into failed state.
  • For CREATE TABLE statements:
    • Tablet runs the statement directly on the MySQL backend
  • For DROP TABLE statements:
    • A multi-table DROP TABLE statement is converted to multiple single-table DROP TABLE statements
    • Each DROP TABLE is internally replaced with a RENAME TABLE
    • Table is renamed using a special naming convention, identified by the Table Lifecycle mechanism
    • As result, a single DROP TABLE statement may generate multiple distinct migrations with distinct migration UUIDs.

By way of illustration, suppose a migration is now in running state, and is expected to keep on running for the next few hours. The user may initiate a new ALTER TABLE... statement. It will persist in global topo. vtctld will pick it up and advertise it to the relevant tablets. Each will persist the migration request in queued state. None will run the migration yet, since another migration is already in progress. In due time, and when the executing migration completes (whether successfully or not), and assuming no other migrations are queued, the primary tablets, each in its own good time, will execute the new migration.

At this time, the user is responsible to track the state of all migrations. VTTablet does not report back to vtctld. This may change in the future.

At this time, there are no automated retries. For example, a failover on a shard causes the migration to fail, and Vitess will not try to re-run the migration on the new primary. It is the user’s responsibility to issue a retry. This may change in the future.

Configuration #

  • -retain_online_ddl_tables: (vttablet) determines how long vttablet should keep an old migrated table before purging it. Type: duration. Default: 24 hours.

    Example: vttablet -retain_online_ddl_tables 48h

  • -migration_check_interval: (vttablet) interval between checks for submitted migrations. Type: duration. Default: 1 hour.

    Example: vttablet -migration_check_interval 30s

  • -enable_online_ddl: (vtgate) whether Online DDL operations are at all possible through VTGate. Type: boolean. Default: true

    Example: vtgate -enable_online_ddl=false to disable access to Online DDL via VTGate.

Auto resume after failure #

VReplication based migrations (ddl_strategy="online") are resumable across failure and across primary failovers.

Auto retry after failure #

Neither gh-ost and pt-osc are able to resume from point of failure, or after a failover. However, Vitess management can issue an automated retry (starting the migration afresh).

  • which vttablet initiated the migration
  • how many times a migration has been retried
  • whether a migration failed due to a vttablet failure (as is the case in a failover scenario)

Vitess will auto-retry a failed migration when:

  • The migration failed due to a vttablet failure, and
  • it has not been retried (this is a temporary restriction)

The migration will be transitioned into queued state, as if the user requested a retry operation. Note that this takes place on a per-shard basis.

The primary use case is a primary failure and failover. The newly promoted tablet will be able to retry the migration that broke during the previous primary failure. To clarify, the migration will start anew, as at this time there is no mechanism to resume a broken migration.

Throttling #

All three strategies: online, gh-ost and pt-osc utilize the tablet throttler, which is a cooperative throttler service based on replication lag. The tablet throttler automatically detects topology REPLICA tablets and adapts to changes in the topology. See Tablet throttler.

  • online strategy uses the throttler by the fact VReplication natively uses the throttler on both source and target ends (for both reads and writes)
  • gh-ost uses the throttler via --throttle-http, which is automatically provided by Vitess
  • pt-osc uses the throttler by replication lag plugin, automatically injected by Vitess.

NOTE that at this time (and subject to change) the tablet throttler is disabled by default. Enable it with vttablet’s -enable-lag-throttler flag. If the tablet throttler is disabled, schema migrations will not throttle on replication lag.

Table cleanup #

All ALTER strategies leave artifacts behind. Whether successful or failed, either the original table or the ghost table is left still populated at the end of the migration. Vitess explicitly makes sure the tables are not dropped at the end of the migration. This is for two reasons:

  • Make the table/data still available for a while, and
  • in MySQL pre 8.0.23, a DROP TABLE operation can be dangerous in production as it commonly locks the buffer pool for a substantial period.

The tables are kept for 24 hours after migration completion. Vitess automatically cleans up those tables as soon as a migration completes (either successful or failed). You will normally not need to do anything.

Artifact tables are identifiable via SELECT artifacts FROM _vt.schema_migrations in a VExec command, see below. You should generally not touch these tables. It’s possible to DROP those tables with direct DDL strategy. Note that dropping tables in production can be risky and lock down your database for a substantial period of time.