The Khepri Database

Copyright © 2021-2022 VMware, Inc. or its affiliates. All rights reserved.

Version: 0.4.3

Authors: Jean-Sébastien Pédron (, Karl Nilsson (, The RabbitMQ team (

Khepri is a tree-like replicated on-disk database library for Erlang and Elixir.

Data are stored in a tree structure. Each node in the tree is referenced by its path from the root node. A path is a list of Erlang atoms and/or binaries. For ease of use, Unix-like path strings are accepted as well.

For consistency and replication and to manage data on disk, Khepri relies on Ra, an Erlang implementation of the Raft consensus algorithm. In Ra parlance, Khepri is a state machine in a Ra cluster.

This page describes all the concepts in Khepri and points the reader to the modules' documentation for more details.

Why Khepri?

This started as an experiment to replace how data (other than message bodies) are stored in the RabbitMQ messaging broker. Before Khepri, those data were stored and replicated to cluster members using Mnesia.

Mnesia is very handy and powerful:

However, recovering from any network partitions is quite difficult. This was the primary reason why the RabbitMQ team started to explore other options.

Because RabbitMQ already uses an implementation of the Raft consensus algorithm for its quorum queues, it was decided to leverage that library for all metadata. That's how Khepri was borned.

Thanks to Ra and Raft, it is clear how Khepri will behave during a network partition and recover from it. This makes it more comfortable for the RabbitMQ team and users, thanks to the absence of unknowns.

At the time of this writing, RabbitMQ does not use Khepri in a production release yet because this library and its integration into RabbitMQ are still a work in progress.

The tree structure

Tree nodes

Data in Khepri are organized as tree nodes (khepri_machine:tree_node()) in a tree structure. Every tree nodes have:
+-- orders
`-- stock
    `-- wood
        |-- <<"mapple">> = 12
        `-- <<"oak">> = 41

Node ID

A tree node name is either an Erlang atom or an Erlang binary (khepri_path:node_id()).


A tree node may or may not have a payload. Khepri supports two types of payload, the data payload and the stored procedure payload. More payload types may be added in the future.

When passed to khepri:put/2, the type of the payload is autodetected. However if you need to prepare the payload before passing it to Khepri, you can use the following functions:


Properties are:

Addressing a tree node

The equivalent of a key in a key/value store is a path (khepri_path:path()) in Khepri.

A path is a list of node IDs, from the root (unnamed) tree node to the target (khepri_path:path()). For instance:
%% Points to "/:stock/:wood/oak" in the tree showed above:
Path = [stock, wood, <<"oak">>].
It is possible to target multiple tree nodes at once by using a path pattern (khepri_path:pattern()). In addition to node IDs, path patterns have conditions (khepri_condition:condition()). Conditions allow things like: For instance:
%% Matches all varieties of wood in the stock:
PathPattern = [stock, wood, #if_node_matches{regex = any}].

%% Matches the supplier of oak if there is an active order:
PathPattern = [order,
               #if_all{conditions = [
                 #if_data_matches{pattern = {active, true}}]},
Finally, a path can use some special path component names, handy when using relative paths:

Relative paths are useful when putting conditions on tree node lifetimes.

Tree node lifetime

A tree node's lifetime starts when it is inserted the first time, until it is removed from the tree. However, intermediary tree nodes created on the way remain in the tree long after the leaf node was removed.

For instance, when [stock, wood, <<"walnut">>] was inserted, the intermediary tree nodes stock and wood were created if they were missing. After <<"walnut">> is removed, they will stay in the tree with possibly neither payload nor child nodes.

Khepri has the concept of keep_while conditions. A keep_while condition is like the conditions which can be used inside path pattern. When a node is inserted or updated, it is possible to set keep_while conditions: when these conditions evaluate to false, the tree node is removed from the tree.

For instance, it is possible to set the following condition on [stock, wood] to make sure it is removed after its last child node is removed:
%% We keep [stock, wood] as long as its child nodes count is strictly greater
%% than zero.
KeepWhileCondition = #{[stock, wood] => #if_child_list_length{count = {gt, 0}}}.

keep_while conditions on self (like the example above) are not evaluated on the first insert though.


A Khepri store corresponds to one Ra cluster. In fact, the name of the Ra cluster is the name of the Khepri store. It is possible to have multiple database instances running on the same Erlang node or cluster by starting multiple Ra clusters. Note that it is called a "cluster" but it can have a single member.

You can start a Khepri store using start/0 up to start/3. See those functions to learn more about the configuration settings.

To expand or shrink a cluster, khepri_cluster:join/1 and khepri_cluster:reset/0 allow a Khepri store node to join or leave a cluster.

Khepri API

The essential part of the public API is provided by the khepri module. It covers most common use cases and should be straightforward to use.

{ok, _} = khepri:put([stock, wood, <<"lime tree">>], 150),

Ret = khepri:get([stock, wood, <<"lime tree">>]),
{ok, #{[stock, wood, <<"lime tree">>] =>
       #{data => 150,
         payload_version => 1,
         child_list_count => 0,
         child_list_version => 1}}} = Ret,

true = khepri:exists([stock, wood, <<"lime tree">>]),

{ok, _} = khepri:delete([stock, wood, <<"lime tree">>]).

Inside transaction funtions, khepri_tx must be used instead of khepri. The former provides the same API, except for functions which don't make sense in the context of a transaction function.

The public API is built on top of a low-level internal API, provided by the private khepri_machine module.



On the surface, Khepri transactions look like Mnesia ones: they are anonymous functions which can do any arbitrary operations on the data and return any result. If something goes wrong or the anonymous function aborts, nothing is committed and the database is left untouched as if the transaction code was never called.

Under the hood, there are several restrictions and caveats that need to be understood in order to use transactions in Khepri:

The nature of the anonymous function is passed as the ReadWrite argument to khepri:transaction/3.

The constraints imposed by Raft

The Raft algorithm is used to achieve consensus among Khepri members participating in the database. Khepri is a state machine executed on each Ra node and all instances of that Khepri state machine start with the same state and modify it identically. The goal is that, after the same list of Ra commands, all instances have the same state.

When a new Ra node joins the cluster and therefore participates to the Khepri database, it starts a new Khepri state machine instance. This instance needs to apply all Ra commands from an initial state to be on the same page as other existing instances.

Likewise, if for any reason, one of the Khepri state machine instance looses the connection to other members and can't apply Ra commands, then when the link comes back, it has to catch up.

All this means that the code to modify the state of the state machines (i.e. the tree) needs to run on all instances, possibly not at the same time, and give the exact same result everywhere.

The problem with anonymous functions

This is fine for inserts and deletes because the code is part of Khepri and is deterministic. This poses a problem when transactions are anonymous functions outside of Khepri's control:
  1. Khepri must be able to store the anonymous function as a Ra command in Ra's log. This is the basis for replication and is mandatory to add a new cluster member or for a lagging member to catch up.
  2. The anonymous function must produce exactly the same result in all state machine instances, regardless of the time it runs, the availability of other Erlang modules, the state of Erlang processes, files on disk or network connections, and so on.

To achieve that, khepri_fun and khepri_tx extract the assembly code of the anonymous function and create a standalone Erlang module based on it. This module can be stored in Ra's log and executed anywhere without the presence of the initial anonymous function's module.

Here is what they do in more details:
  1. The assembly code of the module hosting the anonymous function is extracted.
  2. The anonymous function code is located inside that assembly code.
  3. The code is analyzed to determine:
  4. Based on the listed function calls, the same steps are repeated for all of them (extract, verify, list calls).
  5. Once all the assembly code to have a standalone anonymous function is collected, an Erlang module is generated.

How to handle side effects?

The consequence of the above constraints is that a transaction function can't depend on anything else than the tree and it can't have any side effects outside of the changes to the tree nodes.

If the transaction needs to have side effects, there are two options:

Here is an example of the second option:

Path = [stock, wood, <<"lime tree">>],
{ok, #{Path := #{data = Term,
                 payload_version = PayloadVersion}}} =
  khepri:get(StoredId, Path),

%% Do anything with `Term` that depend on external factors and could have side
%% effects.
Term1 = do_something_with_side_effects(Term),

PathPattern = [stock,
                 conditions = [
                   <<"lime tree">>,
                   #if_payload_version{version = PayloadVersion}]}],
case khepri:put(StoredId, PathPattern, Term1) of
    {ok, _} ->
        ok; %% `Term1` was stored successfully.
    {error, {mismatching_node, _}} ->
        loop() %% Restart the whole function to read/modify/write again.

Stored procedures and triggers

Triggering a function after some event

It is possible to associate events with an anonymous function to trigger its execution when something happens. This is what is usually called a trigger in databases and Khepri supports this feature.

Currently, Khepri supports a single type of event, tree changes. This event is emitted whenever a tree node is being created, updated or deleted.

Here is a summary of what happens when such an event is emitted:
  1. Khepri looks up any event filters which could match the emitted event.
  2. If one or more event filters are found, their corresponding stored procedures are executed.

The indicated stored procedure must have been stored in the tree first.

Storing an anonymous function

This is possible to store an anonymous function as the payload of a tree node:

  fun() -> do_something() end).

The StoredProcPath can be any path in the tree.

Unlike transaction functions, a stored procedure has no restrictions on what it is allowed to do. Therefore, a stored procedure can send or receive messages, read or write from a disk, generate random numbers and so on.

A stored procedure can accept any numbers of arguments too.

It is possible to execute a stored procedure directly without configuring any triggers. To execute a stored procedure, you can call khepri:run_sproc/3. Here is an example:

Ret = khepri:run_sproc(
        [] = _Args).

This works exactly like erlang:apply/2. The list of arguments passed to khepri:run_sproc/3 must correspond to the stored procedure arity.

Configuring a trigger

Khepri uses event filters to associate a type of events with a stored procedure. Khepri supports tree changes events and thus only supports a single event filter called khepri_evf:tree_event_filter().

An event filter is registered using khepri:register_trigger/4:

%% An event filter can be explicitly created using the `khepri_evf'
%% module. This is possible to specify properties at the same time.
EventFilter = khepri_evf:tree([stock, wood, <<"oak">>], %% Required
                              #{on_actions => [delete], %% Optional
                                priority => 10}),       %% Optional

%% For ease of use, some terms can be automatically converted to an event %
%filter. Here, a Unix-like path could be used as a tree event % filter, though
%it would have default properties unlike the previous line:
EventFilter = "/:stock/:wood/oak".

ok = khepri:register_trigger(

In this example, the khepri_evf:tree_event_filter() structure only requires the path to monitor. The path can be any path pattern and thus can have conditions to monitor several nodes at once.

The on_actions property is optional. By default the event filter matches all tree changes (create, update or delete).

The priority property is also optional and defaults to 0. When several event filters match a given event, they are sorted by priority (a greater integer means the event filter will be considered first), then by TriggerId in alphabetical order.

Neither the monitored path nor the stored procedure (pointed to by StoredProcPath) need to exist when the event filter is registered. If the stored procedure doesn't exist when an event occurs, the event filter is simply ignored. A stored procedure can change after an event filter is registered as well.

The stored procedure used for a trigger must accept a single argument, a map containing properties of the emitted event:

my_stored_procedure(Props) ->
    #{path := Path},
      on_action => Action} = Props.

Path is the path to the tree node created, updated or deleted.

Action is the nature of the change (create, update or delete).

The return value of this stored procedure is ignored in the context of a trigger.

Execution guaranties

The stored procedure associated with a trigger (event filter) is executed on the Ra leader node.

If the stored procedure throws an exception, it is logged and there is no retry.

There is an internal ack mechanism to make sure the stored procedure is executed at least once. Therefore, if the Ra leader changes before the execution of the stored procedure could be confirmed to the Khepri state machine, the execution will be retried on the new Ra leader.

This means that the stored procedure could be executed multiple times. Therefore it is important it is idempotent.

Differences with triggers in RDBMS

As described earlier, the rationale for triggers in Khepri is that sometimes, one needs to execute some code with side effects (e.g. sending a message to a process) after a record was modified in the database. This can't happen in a transaction because side effects are forbidden. The caller could handle that after he modifies the record, but the record could be indirectly modified (deleted) as a consequence of another record being modified or deleted. In this case, the caller can't do anything.

Because of the freedom they need, triggers are not allowed to mess with the database directly. In other words, they must go through the regular Khepri API like any caller. Triggers do not have any privileges or blanket approvals to tamper with the data.

So even though Khepri uses the same naming than many RDBMS, triggers in Khepri can't have unexpected consequences.

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