A GOV.UK Incident

In August 2018 GOV.UK had an incident where people who had subscribed to content changes on the site received duplicate emails — one user got as many as 7 for the same thing! There’s a subtle technical reason behind this incident, so I’m writing about it and our incident management process here. At some point there will also be an official blog post on the Inside GOV.UK blog.

Incident management at GOV.UK

When something breaks at GOV.UK, we first have to ask “is this an incident?” Nobody really wants to ask that because if the answer is “yes” the incident management process begins, but a good rule of thumb is that if you have to ask it probably is.

When we’ve decided that something is an incident, the incident management process begins:

  1. Pick one dev to be “incident lead” and one to be “comms lead”
  2. Incident lead begins working on fixing it, which may include pulling in other devs for help; comms lead continues with:
    • Categorise the incident (roughly “big”, “medium”, or “small”)
    • Start recording what’s going on in an incident report
    • Send an email to the incident mailing list with the draft report

As work on resolving the incident continues, the comms lead keeps the draft report updated, and sends periodic emails to the mailing list to reassure people that, yes, it is still being worked on.

Eventually the incident is resolved, the report gets fleshed out more, and we have a meeting to discuss the incident, including both the people who were directly involved, and people a bit more detached.

Incident categorisation

We use a slightly fuzzy incident categorisation system:

  • A P1 incident is an outage of a critical service, with no workaround possible. For example, if travel advice emails weren’t being sent, or if publishers couldn’t edit content.

  • A P2 incident is something major broken, but with work-arounds available. For example, search is down (you can use Google), or publishers need to jump through some additional hoops to publish content.

  • A P3 incident is everything else: something isn’t working properly, but it’s still largely usable.

Security incidents are either a P1 or a P2, whichever seems the most appropriate.

We decided this was a P3 incident, because nothing actually broke as such. It was certainly annoying for users, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office got involved because this also resulted in duplicate travel advice emails, but at least the emails were still being sent.

The incident

So, onto the incident. This will involve diving into code a bit.

  • The symptoms: people were getting duplicate emails.
  • The cause: not immediately apparent.

Because there wasn’t an immediately obvious solution, and it had been happening for a few hours by the time the investigation began, this was an incident. I wasn’t directly involved at this stage, but I was sat behind the people who were, so I overheard a lot. I’ll keep using “we” instead of “the incident lead and comms” though.

Because we only found out about this from support tickets, we only knew about duplicate travel advice emails, so we began looking there.

Travel advice on GOV.UK is published by the travel-advice-publisher, which talks to the email-alert-api, which talks to GOV.UK Notify, which is what actually sends the emails via some Amazon thing.

GOV.UK Notify is, despite the name, not managed by the GOV.UK team, but by another team here in the Government Digital Service. We can log in to GOV.UK Notify to see which emails we told it to send, which is a quick way to confirm if the problem is at our end or their end. Not too surprisingly, it was a problem on our end.

Next we began looking into the email-alert-api. At some point during this initial investigation, we got another support ticket for duplicate emails which weren’t travel advice. Non-urgent emails (basically everything but travel advice) makes it into the email-alert-api by a different route (through the email-alert-service, which listens to a message bus which the publishing-api writes to when there is some new content), so the fact that both of these were failing made us fairly confident that the problem is in how the email-alert-api is generating emails.

The email-alert-api

The email-alert-api receives notifications of content changes, matches those against subscribers in the database, and generates emails from these. We quickly found that there were duplicate emails in the database for the same content change, so we started looking at the code which generates the emails, the ImmediateEmailGenerationWorker:

class ImmediateEmailGenerationWorker
  include Sidekiq::Worker

  sidekiq_options queue: :email_generation_immediate

  LOCK_NAME = "immediate_email_generation_worker".freeze

  attr_reader :content_changes

  def perform
    @content_changes = {}

    ensure_only_running_once do
      subscribers.find_in_batches do |group|
        subscription_contents = grouped_subscription_contents(group.pluck(:id))
        import_and_associate_emails(group, subscription_contents)

  # ...

This is a worker process run by sidekiq, a popular job-scheduling library for Ruby. There are three email-alert-api boxes, so multiple of these workers can run at the same time. If multiple workers ran the email generation logic at the same time, duplicate emails would be sent; but how could that happen?

Mutual exclusion is achieved with the ensure_only_running_once method, which uses PostgreSQL advisory locks under the hood:

  def ensure_only_running_once
    Subscriber.with_advisory_lock(LOCK_NAME, timeout_seconds: 0) do

All the workers use the same LOCK_NAME, so they use the same lock. The timeout_seconds: 0 option means that if a worker can’t acquire the lock on its first try, it aborts (rather than blocking and waiting to grab the lock). A new ImmediateEmailGenerationWorker is enqueued every minute or so, so content changes are processed promptly even if most of the workers short-circuit like this.

At this point we were stumped. That code looked fairly sensible, the PostgreSQL docs reassured us that this is a reasonable thing to do, and the problem had never come up before. Time to look at the recent deployments of email-alert-api.

Nothing. At least, nothing remotely relevant.

Ah, but there had been a deployment of govuk-puppet recently, which switched the email-alert-api over to connecting to its database through PgBouncer, and which coincided almost exactly with the first duplicate email!

At this point we didn’t know why PgBouncer would cause a problem (and I joined in at this point because I’d been recently working on the PgBouncer puppet code), but we deployed a reversion while we investigated further.

Transaction pooling and PostgreSQL locks

At this point I was reading the PgBouncer docs, and the incident lead was googling combinations of “postgres”, “advisory lock”, and “pgbouncer”. Eventually we stumbled across Rails issue #32622, “Migrations failing due to ConcurrentMigrationError while trying to release an already acquired lock”.

After a few comments, the author figured out the problem:

I finally figured that this is not a rails issue. Rails takes an advisory lock to prevent concurrent migrations on the same DB.

There is one crucial detail that I forgot to mention in the issue description, it’s that we were using PgBouncer in transaction pooling mode. Since, in transaction pooling mode, different connections can be used for different transactions in the same session, it experiences issues with things like Advisory Locks.

Were we using transaction pooling mode? Yes we were! Why were we using transaction pooling? We had hoped to make more efficient use of the database server’s resources.

This is the sort of problem which could only have arisen in a distributed system: we needed database-level locking because we had multiple nodes running this code concurrently, and the database-level locking is necessarily tied to a session; we then introduced a layer between the database and the applications, which broke session-level features like this.

Lessons for the future

In an incident review, we discuss how we can lessen the risk of a similar incident happening again in the future. For this incident, there are a few things we can take away:

  • When deviating from the default configuration of a tool (transaction pooling is not the default for PgBouncer), check what the costs are and be very confident that nothing will be adversely affected.

  • If an application uses something unusual, like an advisory lock, document that.

  • Our alerting only checks that emails have been sent, not that they have been sent only once. Perhaps that can be improved.

  • When we send an email, we also send one to a designated google group, but that goes through a different codepath to the regular emails. This confused the initial diagnosis work, maybe those codepaths should be unified.

  • Furthermore, maybe we can impose email uniqueness with database constraints. This might or might not have prevented the duplicate emails, it’s hard to say.

You might wonder why there’s nothing about testing in this list. The problem is, we did test it! We checked that an email could be sent from our integration and staging environments, and we didn’t get any duplicates. The problem only manifested on production because there needed to be enough load on the email system for the worker processes to overlap.

GOV.UK records traffic in production and plays it back in staging, to help catch frontend issues. To catch this issue, we’d also need to record and replay publishing activity, which is a much harder problem.