Building an atomic database with clojure

Atoms provide a way to hold onto a value in clojure and perform thread-safe transitions on that value. In a world of immutability, they are the closest equivalent to other languages’ notion of variables you will encounter in your daily clojure programming.

Storing with an atom

One of the frequent uses of atoms is to hold onto maps used as some sort of cache. Let’s say our program stores a per-user high score for a game.

To store high-scores in memory atoms allow us to implement things very quickly:

(ns game.scores
  "Utilities to record and look up game high scores")

(defn make-score-db
  "Build a database of high-scores"
  (atom nil))

(def compare-scores
  "A function which keeps the highest numerical value.
   Handles nil previous values."
  (fnil max 0))

(defn record-score!
  "Record a score for user, store only if higher than
   previous or no previous score exists"
  [scores user score]
  (swap! scores update user compare-scores score))

(defn user-high-score
  "Lookup highest score for user, may yield nil"
  [scores user]
  (get @scores user))

(defn high-score
  "Lookup absolute highest score, may yield nil
   when no scores have been recorded"
  (last (sort-by val @scores)))

In the above we have put together a very simple record mechanism, which through the use of defonce keeps scores across application reloads or namespace reevaluations. Ideally this should be provided as a component, but for the purposes of this post we will keep things as simple as possible.

Using the namespace works as expected:

(def scores (make-score-db))
(high-score scores)         ;; => nil
(user-high-score scores :a) ;; => nil
(record-score! scores :a 2) ;; => {:a 2}
(record-score! scores :b 3) ;; => {:a 2 :b 3}
(record-score! scores :b 1) ;; => {:a 2 :b 3}
(record-score! scores :a 4) ;; => {:a 4 :b 3}
(user-high-score scores :a) ;; => 4
(high-score scores)         ;; => [:a 4]

Atom persistence

This is all old news to most. What I want to showcase here is how the add-watch functionality on top of atoms can help serializing atoms like these.

First lets consider the following:

It is thus straightforward to write a serializer and deserializer for such a map:

(ns game.serialization
  "Serialization utilities"
   (:require [clojure.edn :as edn]))

(defn dump-to-path
  "Store a value's representation to a given path"
  [path value]
  (spit path (pr-str value)))

(defn load-from-path
  "Load a value from its representation stored in a given path.
   When reading fails, yield nil"
    (edn/read-string (slurp path))
    (catch Exception _)))

This also works as expected:

(dump-to-path "/tmp/scores.db"
  {:a 0 :b 3 :c 3 :d 4})          ;; => nil
(load-from-path "/tmp/scores.db") ;; => {:a 0 :b 3 :c 3 :d 4}

With these two separate namespaces, we are now left figuring out how to persist our high-score database. To be as faithful as possible, we will avoid techniques such as doing regular snapshots. Instead we will reach out to add-watch which has the following signature (add-watch reference key fn) and documentation:

Adds a watch function to an agent/atom/var/ref reference. The watch fn must be a fn of 4 args: a key, the reference, its old-state, its new-state. Whenever the reference’s state might have been changed, any registered watches will have their functions called. The watch fn will be called synchronously, on the agent’s thread if an agent, before any pending sends if agent or ref. Note that an atom’s or ref’s state may have changed again prior to the fn call, so use old/new-state rather than derefing the reference. Note also that watch fns may be called from multiple threads simultaneously. Var watchers are triggered only by root binding changes, not thread-local set!s. Keys must be unique per reference, and can be used to remove the watch with remove-watch, but are otherwise considered opaque by the watch mechanism.

Our job is thus to write a 4 argument function of the atom itself, a key to identify the watcher, the previous and new state.

To persist each state transition to a file, we can use our dump-to-path function above as follows:

(defn persist-fn
  "Yields an atom watch-fn that dumps new states to a path"
  (fn [_ _ _ state]
    (dump-to-path path state)))

(defn file-backed-atom
   "An atom that loads its initial state from a file and persists each new state
    to the same path"
   (let [init  (load-from-path path)
         state (atom init)]
     (add-watch state :persist-watcher (persist-fn path))

Wrapping up

The examples above can now be exercized using our new file-backed-atom function:

(def scores (file-backed-atom "/tmp/scores.db"))
(high-score scores)         ;; => nil
(user-high-score scores :a) ;; => nil
(record-score! scores :a 2) ;; => {:a 2}
(record-score! scores :b 3) ;; => {:a 2 :b 3}
(record-score! scores :b 1) ;; => {:a 2 :b 3}
(record-score! scores :a 4) ;; => {:a 4 :b 3}
(user-high-score scores :a) ;; => 4
(high-score scores)         ;; => [:a 4]

The code presented here is available here