Debugging Tips for Database Abstraction

Today I want to talk about database script debugging in large systems. The main problem is that in large applications, it becomes difficult to find the source of rogue queries that, for example, broke in a recent system update.This may not readily apply to most of you, but bear with me: some day it will.

Pretend for a moment you have a database architecture where you have 2 masters (dual replication) and 2 read-only slaves. Now pretend that you have a large application with 100 different pages/scripts. You have 5 web servers with mirror copies of the application. This would be a fairly typical setup for a small, but growing company.

One day, you come into work and find out that you had a bad transaction lock that caused your system to hang all weekend. So you look at the process list and you know what query is causing the problem (because it’s still stuck). The problem is that it looks suspiciously like the queries you’d find on virtually every page in your application. How do you fix this problem? An different (but related) problem is when an update initially executed on one master database server replicated to a slave and got stuck on the slave but executed fine elsewhere. What happened? Which master server got the initial query? This sort of debugging is very difficult to track down without more information such as where the query was initially sent and from what page it originated.

The primary challenge is figuring out which query came from what page in your application. The solution is to add logging straight into your queries. The implemented looks something like this:

//Get the current page or script file
//Replace out any comment tags and add in the database being connected to
$metaData = str_replace(array('/*', '*/'), array('/ *', '* /'), $source) . " ($databaseHost)");
//Escape the query so the URI can't be used to inject data
$metaData = mysql_real_escape_string($metaData);
//Execute the query
$result = mysql_query("/* $metaData */ " . $query, $connection);

This solution inserts a comment into your query that gives you useful information that can be seen when looking at the raw query. MySQL uses C++ style comment blocks (the /* */) which are ignored by the parsing engine. This means you can pass data to the engine which can be useful for debugging. These comments are also replicated down to the slaves, which can be useful when you find a slave having problems with a query that came from a master server. For those of you unaware, the “URI” refers to the full URL that was typed in the address bar to access a page.

But make sure that you correctly sanitize the URI so that somebody can’t arbitrarily end your comment block (with a */) and inject their own nonsense into your query. Also, considering issues like multi-byte character attacks, I don’t even want to take the risk of not further escaping the data with a call to mysql_real_escape_string.

The solution we use at my work logs the web server IP, database server IP, and script path/URI. Other potential ideas are local timestamps, version information, user IDs, and session IDs.

In conclusion, this solution will help you identify the source (and sometimes the destination) of queries that are causing problems. This has been used in our production environment at work often when trying to determine what pages are producing extremely slow queries. This solution should work with any database, although my example is written for MySQL.

Happy debugging!

PHP Best Practice: Don’t use INC extensions

I have been bad about updating, and this goes back to an old habit that probably has to do with human nature: as time between updates increases, there’s a desire to write a “big” update, which is increasingly difficult as news-worthy events happen and are ignored. There’s so many things for me to update about that I could touch on, such as the iPhone SDK update, news on IE8 passing the ACID2 test, my predictions from a year ago that were spot on (until about a week ago when all stocks tanked), and Sun buying MySQL. But I wont. Perhaps next time. So this post is small, but serves as a feeler post to help me get back into the routine. The truth is that I have several programming post drafts setting on my machine that could have been posted a long time ago if I had given them a final read-over. Those things take a lot longer than they look from the casual observer.

Today’s post is a best practices post. The tip is simple: When creating a naming convention, never rely on the .inc extension. The .inc is used in some shops to denote files that serve as libraries. This is a terrible practice for a number of reasons.

First, it means deploying your library ANYWHERE requires adding the extension to your server’s configurations so that it knows these files are for PHP executables. This isn’t a deal breaker in most cases, but beware that if you use shared hosting environments, this sort of thing can be annoying and stall development.

The second far more practical reason is for security. When these library files are moved to a new server which has yet to be configured, they are wide open for public viewing. Because the server doesn’t know they are PHP files, they are served up as text files, essentially exposing your code base for the world to see. I’ve seen this issue pop up in production environments where a new web server was brought online without being fully configured, causing pages to become exposed. This is the sort of business that helps cause source code leaks (remember the Facebook code leak late last year?).

Of course, this points to the greater issue that library files shouldn’t be web accessible, but I have also seen this paradigm used in common CMS applications where you have a .php file include a .inc file that contains the bulk of the page logic. Here, again, you would be exposing highly sensitive application logic to the world.

If you really want to denote files differently, I prefer to use file prefixes. As in, classes might get a prefix like “class.[rest-of-filename]”. Or perhaps “function.[rest-of-filename]”. There’s even “include.[rest-of-filename]”. The point is, a prefix can’t kill you because the files retain the .php extension. 🙂 Happy coding!