Book a Demo Start Instantly

Database systems are integral to any application, providing the necessary mechanisms to store, manage, and retrieve data seamlessly. Among the various aspects of databases, the concept of SQL isolation levels stands as a cornerstone for ensuring the consistency and reliability of transactions. Understanding SQL isolation levels is crucial for database administrators and developers alike, as it directly impacts the integrity and concurrent updates performance of transactions in multi-user environments.

What are SQL Isolation Levels?

SQL isolation levels dictate how transaction integrity is visible to concurrent transactions. They are part of the ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability) properties that guarantee reliable transaction processing. According to the SQL-92 standard, there are four levels of isolation:

  1. Read Uncommitted
  2. Read Committed
  3. Repeatable Read
  4. Serializable

Each level provides different guarantees regarding the visibility of data changes made by transactions, thereby controlling how anomalies like dirty reads, non-repeatable reads, and phantom reads are handled.

Four Isolation Levels Explained

Read Uncommitted

In the Read Uncommitted level, transactions can see uncommitted changes made by other transactions. This means:

  • Dirty Writes: Transactions may overwrite changes that are not yet committed.
  • Dirty Reads: Transactions may read uncommitted changes.
  • Fuzzy Reads: Transactions may see changes made by others in the middle of execution.
  • Phantom Reads: New rows added by other transactions may be visible within a transaction.

This level is the lowest isolation level, provides minimal isolation, primarily useful in scenarios where performance is a higher priority than accuracy. For example, in analytics applications where large datasets are processed quickly to identify trends rather than necessitating precise real-time data correctness, using the Read Uncommitted can significantly enhance processing speed without undermining the overall utility of the insights generated. Such environments can afford occasional anomalies like dirty reads for the sake of improved transaction throughput and system responsiveness.

Read Committed

Read Committed is a more stringent level compared to Read Uncommitted:

  • Dirty Writes: Not possible.
  • Dirty Reads: Not possible.
  • Fuzzy Reads: Possible.
  • Phantom Reads: Possible.

In this level, a transaction is restricted from viewing the intermediate changes made by other transactions. Instead, it is only permitted to view changes that have been committed. This level offers a balance between data consistency and performance, making it ideal for many typical operational workloads. For example, in an Online Transaction Processing (OLTP) system where balancing strict data accuracy and high transaction throughput is necessary, the Read Committed level can prevent harmful data anomalies such as dirty reads while still maintaining respectable system performance.

Repeatable Read

Repeatable Read offers even stricter isolation:

  • Dirty Writes: Not possible.
  • Dirty Reads: Not possible.
  • Fuzzy Reads: Not possible.
  • Phantom Reads: Possible.

It ensures that if a transaction reads a row, any subsequent reads within the same transaction will always return the same data, irrespective of updates made by other transactions. This level of isolation is instrumental in scenarios where consistent data reads are paramount, such as in financial applications where the stability of balances or transaction histories must be preserved throughout the transaction. By preventing anomalies like fuzzy reads, Repeatable Read isolation facilitates accurate and reliable data handling within complex, concurrent transaction environments, ensuring the data’s integrity and consistency for operations necessitating precision, such as sequential analytics or auditing processes.


The Serializable isolation level is the strictest:

  • Dirty Writes: Not possible.
  • Dirty Reads: Not possible.
  • Fuzzy Reads: Not possible.
  • Phantom Reads: Not possible.

It ensures that transactions are executed in a completely isolated manner, akin to running each transaction serially, one after the other. This optimal level of isolation is paramount in highly consistent data applications where the accuracy of transactions is non-negotiable.

For instance, in financial systems, especially high-frequency trading platforms, each transaction involving buy and sell orders must be handled with absolute precision to prevent any data inconsistencies that could lead to significant financial losses. Similarly, in airline reservation systems, the Serializable isolation ensures that seat bookings and cancellations are processed with impeccable accuracy, avoiding scenarios where multiple customers might be shown the same available seat due to concurrent transactions.

In such applications, the accuracy and consistency of data are of utmost importance to avoid potentially life-threatening errors. The trade-off, however, is that Serializable isolation can lead to significant performance overhead, which can impact system scalability and speed. Hence, while Serializable isolation provides the highest level of data integrity, it is essential to evaluate its impact on the overall system performance and to balance it with the application’s specific needs for data consistency and transactional throughput.

Advantages and Disadvantages

SQL isolation levels provide a range of benefits, including:

  1. Data Integrity: Ensures consistent data by managing concurrent transactions effectively.
  2. Concurrency Management: Helps balance the need for transaction isolation with performance requirements.
  3. Transactional Safety: Minimizes anomalies such as dirty reads, non-repeatable reads, and phantom reads.
  4. Error Handling: Streamlines the process of rollback and error management in case of transaction failures.

However, these advantages also come with certain drawbacks:

  1. Performance Overhead: Higher isolation means more locks and potential for decreased performance.
  2. Complexity: Implementing and managing different isolation levels can add complexity to the database configuration.
  3. Resource Consumption: Locking mechanisms to ensure isolation levels can consume significant resources, impacting scalability.

Which Isolation Level Should You Choose?

The choice of isolation level depends on the application’s requirements for consistency and performance:

  • Opt for Read Uncommitted for scenarios where speed is critical and occasional dirty reads are acceptable.
  • Choose Read Committed for applications needing a balance between performance and accuracy, like OLTP systems.
  • Repeatable Read suits environments where consistency is paramount, such as in financial applications.
  • For maximum consistency and minimal anomalies, Serializable is ideal, though it’s usually the slowest.

Isolation Levels in TiDB

TiDB, a modern distributed SQL database compatible with MySQL, effectively handles isolation levels to balance consistency and performance. TiDB implements Snapshot Isolation (SI), advertised as REPEATABLE-READ for MySQL compatibility. Unlike standard Repeatable Read, SI avoids strict phantoms but allows broad phantoms and write skews.

In MySQL, the Repeatable Read isolation does not check the visibility when updating, allowing rows updated after transaction start. In contrast, TiDB’s optimistic transaction mode rolls back such updates, whereas pessimistic transactions wait for locks.

TiDB supports setting transaction isolation levels through SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL statement.


Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.00 sec)
mysql> SET SESSION transaction_isolation = 'REPEATABLE-READ';
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.00 sec)


Understanding and choosing the correct SQL isolation levels is crucial for the consistency, integrity, and performance of database transactions. TiDB, with its unique implementation of isolation levels like Snapshot Isolation, provides robust solutions for various transactional requirements, making it a versatile choice for modern distributed applications.

By mastering SQL isolation levels and leveraging the advanced capabilities of databases like TiDB, developers and DBAs can ensure reliable, performant, and consistent data operations, essential for any high-stakes application environment.

Last updated June 7, 2024

Spin up a Serverless database with 25GiB free resources.

Start Now