ALTER TABLE is now universally online


MariaDB Community Server 11.2 release series brings ALTER TABLE with a no-headache process of table schema change for many cases, server-wide. The feature can also be tested by customers by installing the MariaDB Enterprise Server 23 technical preview.

What is Online schema change?

Generally speaking, “online” means an ability to update the table schema without blocking the concurrent DML for the duration of copy.

Suppose we have a table items featuring columns (id SERIAL, name TEXT).

Now, it will be ALTERed with adding a TIMESTAMP field in one connection, while having a concurrent connection inserting a new row.

connection 1:



connection 2:

INSERT INTO items(name) VALUES (“New item”);

Alter table image


If the INSERT statement begins its execution after ALTER TABLE is issued, it will not be blocked and will proceed normally, and thus it may finish before ALTER TABLE.

ALTER TABLE always allows concurrent SELECT statements. If LOCK=NONE locking strategy is chosen, it will allow concurrent modifications (INSERT/DELETE/UPDATE). Namely, LOCK=NONE  was supported by InnoDB and the Partition engine, when ALGORITHM=NOCOPY is chosen, and is a default locking strategy, when available.

With the new release, LOCK=NONE support is added for ALGORITHM=COPY, thus almost all ALTER TABLE operations (a few exceptions are given below) now allow concurrent DML.


The mechanism

LOCK=NONE adds one extra step to the copy algorithm. It introduces a new internal entity, the online change buffer.

Online change buffer


  • First, a new table is created using the old table content as it was at the beginning of the ALTER TABLE statement. For InnoDB and other transactional engines it means copying in REPEATABLE READ isolation mode.
    • In the meantime, every concurrent change is written in the old table, and is duplicated to the online change buffer.
  • Then, ALTER TABLE applies the changes accumulated in that online change buffer.

Note that while all copying and online changes application happens without blocking concurrent DML, in the end it acquires an EXCLUSIVE lock on the table for a short amount of time, to synchronize with all parallel operations that are not yet finished.


Supported engines

The requirement for an engine is to allow concurrent writes, while another connection can read and have a repeatable-read behavior.


MyISAM is capable of concurrent INSERTs and also supports concurrent inserts while reading: we can’t say it supports REPEATABLE READ transaction isolation layer, but the newly inserted data is not seen by the readers until the end of the statement, so it satisfies the criterion, however it is not transactional.

An attempt to invoke any statement that can update or delete a row will be blocked until the end of ALTER TABLE (or will evaluate before ALTER TABLE acquires a lock, if it started earlier).


InnoDB supports REPEATABLE READ isolation layer and allows concurrent writes, so it is also supported by Online schema change, broadly enhancing its online ability represented by INPLACE and INSTANT algorithms. By default, an engine-native algorithm will be chosen whenever possible. If InnoDB will not be capable of holding the schema change natively, then, if possible, a COPY algorithm with Online schema change will be applied. A more detailed comparison follows below.

Other engines

MariaDB ColumnStore does not support REPEATABLE READ isolation layer, therefore it cannot support online schema change.

LOCK=NONE is naturally disabled for engines like BLACKHOLE, as well as for SEQUENCE engine, and sequences, and for read-only engines like S3.

CONNECT cannot read concurrently to writes, so it is also not capable of making ALTER TABLE online.

SPIDER storage engine does not really do a copy, but rather just reassigns a table with a new metadata.


Comparison to InnoDB’s INPLACE capabilities

Everything that can be done by InnoDB’s INPLACE, can be done by online COPY, except that tables with foreign keys with cascade operations  are not supported. See the limitations section.

  • Changing the column’s data type is now possible.
  • A column can be modified to NOT NULL.
  • A column with non-constant DEFAULT value can be added.
  • A STORED generated column can be added.
  • A CHECK constraint can be added.
  • PRIMARY KEY can be dropped.
  • No key is required in the resulting table.
  • A table can be changed to partitioned, or otherwise, partitioning can be removed.
  • SYSTEM VERSIONING can be added.
  • AUTO_INCREMENT can be added to the existing column, but see limitations.



We have come across a number of limitations apart from the engine support, while we were testing. Some of them just lack a proper implementation, and some are also theoretically infeasible without relaxing the rules we have defined. If you feel that some of these limitations affect you, please leave a comment and tell us about it.

Now, a complete list of limitations we are aware of follows:

  • Adding an AUTO_INCREMENT column is forbidden. Same applies to DEFAULT(…NEXTVAL(…)). We found that we can end up with the undefined behavior in this case, depending on when the concurrent DML is evaluated. Changing an existing column to become AUTO_INCREMENT is allowed, though. The two following conditions should be met:
    • A column should be NOT NULL in the old schema
    • NO_AUTO_VALUE_ON_ZERO mode should be unset.
    • At least one UNIQUE NOT NULL key should be in the old schema, and it should remain unchanged.
  • Support for ALTER IGNORE TABLE is not implemented. This operation can make the altered table have fewer rows than the original one (because duplicates are skipped) and the online copy algorithm doesn’t support operations that change the number of rows in the table.
  • ALTER TABLE DROP SYSTEM VERSIONING is not supported either, for the similar reason.
  • Tables with foreign keys with CASCADE/SET NULL/SET DEFAULT operations can’t go online under ALGORITHM=COPY — similar to disallowing CHECK constraints and stored generated columns, cascade operations are done internally by the storage engine so they bypass the online changes buffer. However, most operations are allowed by InnoDB’s INPLACE algorithm. Again, for every DDL request the most optimal algorithm will be chosen automatically.
  • Transaction-versioned tables can also be only changed “online” under INPLACE/INSTANT ALTER TABLE algorithms.
  • All the constraints (CHECK, UNIQUE, FOREIGN KEY) are evaluated for each row change that is applied from the online change buffer. This means that all the changes that are made during ALTER TABLE’s main phase should not violate the final table schema at any point in time.  As always, the checks can be disabled by setting check_constraint_checks and FOREIGN_KEY_CHECKS to OFF.
  • ALTER TABLE … ORDER BY cannot be supported, because changes from the buffer are applied at the end and they might break the strict ordering of rows.
  • It is not available in embedded MariaDB Server due to replication libraries that are not present in the embedded version.


Switching back

Starting with MariaDB Community Server 11.2 the online copy is the default mode whenever NOCOPY does not apply. In case of any problem with it, it can be disabled by specifying LOCK=SHARED to force the usual COPY algorithm.

To better support existing workflows, a new old_mode flag was also added: setting

set old_mode= LOCK_ALTER_TABLE_COPY;

disables online copy by default. It can still be forced to use the new feature under this mode by explicitly specifying LOCK=NONE in the ALTER TABLE statement.



Server-wide online schema change expands MariaDB Server’s capability for the LOCK=NONE approach broadly. The change is made in the core Server operation, which interferes with many components, so it took quite a while to get our approach right. This is still an early version of the feature so please note the limitations that we outlined above.

Download MariaDB Community Server 11.2 RC or MariaDB Enterprise Server 23 (tech preview) to try this new feature. Tell us what you think! We look forward to getting aligned with your production needs.