What’s new in Apache Cassandra 4.1

Apache Cassandra 4.1 was a massive effort by the Cassandra community to build on what was released in 4.0, and it is the first of what we intend to be yearly releases. If you are using Cassandra and you want to know what’s new, or if you haven’t looked at Cassandra in a while and you wonder what the community is up to, then here’s what you need to know.

First off, let’s address why the Cassandra community is growing. Cassandra was built from the start to be a distributed database that could run across dispersed geographic locations, across different platforms, and to be continuously available despite whatever the world might throw at the service. If you asked ChatGPT to describe a database that today’s developer might need—and we did—the response would sound an awful lot like Cassandra.

Cassandra meets what developers need in availability, scalability, and reliability, which are things you just can’t bolt on afterward, however much you might try. The community has put a focused effort into producing tools that would define and validate the most stable and reliable database that they could, because it is what supports their businesses at scale. This effort supports everyone who wants to run Cassandra for their applications.

Guardrails for new Cassandra users

One of the new features in Cassandra 4.1 that should interest those new to the project is Guardrails, a new framework that makes it easier to set up and maintain a Cassandra cluster. Guardrails provide guidance on the best implementation settings for Cassandra. More importantly, Guardrails prevent anyone from selecting parameters or performing actions that would degrade performance or availability.

An example of this is secondary indexing. A good secondary index helps you improve performance, so having multiple secondary indexes should be even more beneficial, right? Wrong. Having too many can degrade performance. Similarly, you can design queries that might run across too many partitions and touch data across all of the nodes in a cluster, or use queries alongside replica-side filtering, which can lead to reading all the memory on all nodes in a cluster. For those experienced with Cassandra, these are known issues that you can avoid, but Guardrails make it easy for operators to prevent new users from making the same mistakes.

Guardrails are set up in the Cassandra YAML configuration files, based on settings including table warnings, secondary indexes per table, partition key selections, collection sizes, and more. You can set warning thresholds that can trigger alerts, and fail conditions that will prevent potentially harmful operations from happening.

Guardrails are intended to make managing Cassandra easier, and the community is already adding more options to this so that others can make use of them. Some of the newcomers to the community have already created their own Guardrails, and offered suggestions for others, which indicates how easy Guardrails are to work with.

To make things even easier to get right, the Cassandra project has spent time simplifying the configuration format with standardized names and units, while still supporting backwards compatibility. This provides an easier and more uniform way to add new parameters for Cassandra, while also reducing the risk of introducing any bugs. 

Improving Cassandra performance

Alongside making things easier for those getting started, Cassandra 4.1 has also seen many improvements in performance and extensibility. The biggest change here is pluggability. Cassandra 4.1 now enables feature plug-ins for the database, allowing you to add capabilities and features without changing the core code.

In practice, this allows you to make decisions on areas like data storage without affecting other services like networking or node coordination. One of the first examples of this came at Instagram, where the team added support for RocksDB as a storage engine for more efficient storage. This worked really well as a one-off, but the team at Instagram had to support it themselves. The community decided that this idea of supporting a choice in storage engines should be built into Cassandra itself.

By supporting different storage or memtable options, Cassandra allows users to tune their database to the types of queries they want to run and how they want to implement their storage as part of Cassandra. This can also support more long-lived or persistent storage options. Another area of choice given to operators is how Cassandra 4.1 now supports pluggable schema. Previously, cluster schema was stored in system tables alone. In order to support more global coordination in deployments like Kubernetes, the community added external schema storage such as etcd.

Cassandra also now supports more options for network encryption and authentication. Cassandra 4.1 removes the need to have SSL certificates co-located on the same node, and instead you can use external key providers like HashiCorp Vault. This makes it easier to manage large deployments with lots of developers. Similarly, adding more options for authentication makes it easier to manage at scale.

There are some other new features, like new SSTable identifiers, which will make managing and backing up multiple SSTables easier, while Partition Denylists will make it easier to either allow operators full access to entire datasets or to reduce the availability of that data to set areas to ensure performance is not affected.

The future for Cassandra is full ACID

One of the things that has always counted against Cassandra in the past is that it did not fully support ACID (atomic, consistent, isolated, durable) transactions. The reason for this is that it was hard to get consistent transactions in a fully distributed environment and still maintain performance. From version 2.0, Cassandra used the Paxos protocol for managing consistency with lightweight transactions, which provided transactions for a single partition of data. What was needed was a new consensus protocol to align better with how Cassandra works.

Cassandra has filled this gap using Accord (PDF), a protocol that can complete consensus in one round trip rather than multiple transactions, and that can achieve this without leader failover mechanisms. Heading toward Cassandra 5.0, the aim is to deliver ACID-compliant transactions without sacrificing any of the capabilities that make Cassandra what it is today. To make this work in practice, Cassandra will support both lightweight transactions and Accord, and make more options available to users based on the modular approach that is in place for other features.

Cassandra was built to meet the needs of internet companies. Today, every company has similarly large-scale data volumes to deal with, the same challenges around distributing their applications for resilience and availability, and the same desire to keep growing their services quickly. At the same time, Cassandra must be easier to use and meet the needs of today’s developers. The community’s work for this update has helped to make that happen. We hope to see you at the upcoming Cassandra Summit where all of these topics will be discussed and more!

Patrick McFadin is vice president of developer relations at DataStax.

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