What is ACID and BASE in database theory?

by Daniel J. Power
Editor, DSSResources.COM

Data-driven and document-driven decision support systems derive functionality from data stores and databases. Beginning in the late 1990s, distributed computing facilitated deployment of new database architectures and led to post-relational databases. Storing and processing data across multiple computing nodes however creates potential problems in transaction processing. The expansion of the Internet and the need for managing larger data stores faster also led to innovation. In 2000, Eric Brewer popularized the acronym "BASE" in his keynote address at the ACM Symposium titled “Towards Robust Distributed Systems”. Brewer also explained the CAP Theorum. CAP refers to Consistency, Availability and Partition Tolerance. The theorum asserts a distributed, networked system can have only two of these three properties. How are these concepts relevant to decision support?

The traditional standard for reliable transaction processing is summarized by the acronym ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability). Decision support requires a less strict standard when static historical data is used. Real-time decision support can adhere to the eventual consistency provided by BASE. The CAP theorum explains the theoretical divide between ACID and BASE compliant databases. Understanding database theory can help decision support designers make good design choices.

Roe (2012; 2013) reviews CAP Theorum, ACID and Base. The CAP theorem states that there are three desirable system requirements for the successful design, implementation and deployment of applications in distributed computing systems. Attaining all three is not however possible. The three are:

  • Consistency refers to predictability and reliability of data in a database across all nodes. This is the same idea of consistency described in ACID.
  • Availability means the given system is available when needed.
  • Partition Tolerance refers to whether a given system continues to operate even when there is partial data loss or temporary system failure or interruption. Ideally a single node failure will not cause the entire system to stop functioning.

  • Let's examine the ACID requirement for a database transaction system in more detail.

  • Atomicity means either the task or tasks within a transaction are performed or none are performed (all or none rule).
  • Consistency means the transaction meets all rules defined by the system at all times. The transaction does not violate those rules and the database must remain in a consistent state at the beginning and end of a transaction. There are no half-completed transactions.
  • Isolation: No transaction has access to any other transaction that is in an intermediate or unfinished state. Each transaction is independent.
  • Finally, durability means the transaction is complete and it will persist. The completed transaction will survive system failure, power loss and other types of system breakdowns.

  • The standards of BASE challenge some of the long held expectations for transaction processing. That's ok because decision support is not transaction processing. Let's review those standards:

  • Basically Available: This constraint states that the system does guarantee the availability of the data as specified by the CAP Theorem -- there will be a response to any request. But, that response could still be a ‘failure’ to obtain the requested data or the data may be in an inconsistent or changing state.
  • Soft state: The state of the system could change over time, so even during times without input there may be changes going on due to ‘eventual consistency,’ thus the state of the system is always ‘soft.’
  • Eventual consistency: The system will eventually become consistent once it stops receiving input. The data will propagate to everywhere it should sooner or later, but the system will continue to receive input and is not checking the consistency of every transaction before it moves onto the next one.

  • Real-time decision support systems can perform satisfactorily is a BASE compliant database environment. Data warehouses have been built with denormalized, historical data for many years. In conclusion, data and document-driven DSS designers need to understand ACID and BASE and the CAP theorum, but historical data that is properly stored is ACID compliant by default. Streaming, real-time data used for decision support can meet BASE standards and that is a reasonable expectation. Decision support needs AP in CAP much more than consistency.


    Brewer, E. A. (July 2000). Towards Robust Distributed Systems. ACM Symposium on the Principles of Distributed Computing. Retrieved from

    Grey, J., “The Transaction Concept: Virtues and Limitations,” June 1981.

    Roe, C., "ACID vs. BASE: The Shifting pH of Database Transaction Processing," Dataversity, March 1, 2012 at URL

    Further Reading

    Bartels, D. Taking NoSQL 1.0 on a Journey into the Enterprise [1-part video]. Retrieved from

    Bloor, R. The Coming Database Revolution. Retrieved from

    DeCandia, G., Hastorun, D., Jampani, M., Kakulapati, G., Lakshman, A., Pilchin, A., Sivasubramanian, S., Vosshall, P., Vogels, W. Dynamo: Amazon’s Highly Available Key-value Store. Retrieved from

    Ingenthron, M. How AOL Advertising Uses NoSQL to Make Millions of Smart Targeting Decisions Every Hour [1-part video]. Retrieved from

    Kerner, S.M. Inside Facebook’s Open Source Infrastructure. Retrieved from

    Hsieh, J. Cloud Deployment of Hadoop and HBase [4-part video]. Retrieved from

    Meir-Huber, M. NoSQL – The Trend for Databases in the Cloud? Retrieved from

    Schireson, M. Re-inventing the Database: What to Keep and What to Throw Away [1-part video]. Retrieved from

    Thomas, G.J. Big Data on the Micro Scale. Retrieved from

    Thomas, G.J. Government Data in the Cloud: Things to Consider. Retrieved from

    Upton, T. A Conversation with Bruce Lindsay. Retrieved from

    Vogel, W. “Eventually Consistent – Revisited” covers this topic in detail.

    Last update: 2013-10-12 06:00
    Author: Daniel Power

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