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Mnesia is a heavy duty real-time distributed database management system.


Mnesia is a Database Management System (DBMS) that ships with the Erlang Runtime System which we can use naturally with Elixir. The Mnesia relational and object hybrid data model is what makes it suitable for developing distributed applications of any scale.

When to use

When to use a particular piece of technology is often a confusing pursuit. If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions, then this is a good indication to use Mnesia over ETS or DETS.


As Mnesia is part of the Erlang core, rather than Elixir, we have to access it with the colon syntax (See Lesson: Erlang Interoperability):

iex> :mnesia.create_schema([node()])

# or if you prefer the Elixir feel...

iex> alias :mnesia, as: Mnesia
iex> Mnesia.create_schema([node()])

For this lesson, we will take the latter approach when working with the Mnesia API. Mnesia.create_schema/1 initializes a new empty schema and passes in a Node List. In this case, we are passing in the node associated with our IEx session.


Once we run the Mnesia.create_schema([node()]) command via IEx, you should see a folder called Mnesia.nonode@nohost or similar in your present working directory. You may be wondering what the nonode@nohost means as we haven’t come across this before. Let’s have a look.

$ iex --help
Usage: iex [options] [.exs file] [data]

  -v                Prints version
  -e "command"      Evaluates the given command (*)
  -r "file"         Requires the given files/patterns (*)
  -S "script"       Finds and executes the given script
  -pr "file"        Requires the given files/patterns in parallel (*)
  -pa "path"        Prepends the given path to Erlang code path (*)
  -pz "path"        Appends the given path to Erlang code path (*)
  --app "app"       Start the given app and its dependencies (*)
  --erl "switches"  Switches to be passed down to Erlang (*)
  --name "name"     Makes and assigns a name to the distributed node
  --sname "name"    Makes and assigns a short name to the distributed node
  --cookie "cookie" Sets a cookie for this distributed node
  --hidden          Makes a hidden node
  --werl            Uses Erlang's Windows shell GUI (Windows only)
  --detached        Starts the Erlang VM detached from console
  --remsh "name"    Connects to a node using a remote shell
  --dot-iex "path"  Overrides default .iex.exs file and uses path instead;
                    path can be empty, then no file will be loaded

** Options marked with (*) can be given more than once
** Options given after the .exs file or -- are passed down to the executed code
** Options can be passed to the VM using ELIXIR_ERL_OPTIONS or --erl

When we pass in the --help option to IEx from the command line we are presented with all the possible options. We can see that there is a --name and --sname options for assigning information to nodes. A node is just a running Erlang Virtual Machine which handles it’s own communications, garbage collection, processing scheduling, memory and more. The node is being named as nonode@nohost simply by default.

$ iex --name

Erlang/OTP {{ site.erlang.OTP }} [erts-{{ site.erlang.erts }}] [source] [64-bit] [smp:4:4] [async-threads:10] [hipe] [kernel-poll:false] [dtrace]

Interactive Elixir ({{ site.elixir.version }}) - press Ctrl+C to exit (type h() ENTER for help)
iex(> Node.self

As we can now see, the node we are running is an atom called :"". If we run Mnesia.create_schema([node()]) again, we will see that it created another folder called The purpose of this is quite simple. Nodes in Erlang are used to connect to other nodes to share (distribute) information and resources. This doesn’t have to be restricted to the same machine and can communicate via LAN, the internet etc.

Starting Mnesia

Now we have the background basics out of the way and set up the database, we are now in a position to start the Mnesia DBMS with the Mnesia.start/0 command.

iex> alias :mnesia, as: Mnesia
iex> Mnesia.create_schema([node()])
iex> Mnesia.start()

The function Mnesia.start/0 is asynchronous. It starts the initialization of the existing tables and returns the :ok atom. In case we need to perform some actions on an existing table right after starting Mnesia, we need to call the Mnesia.wait_for_tables/2 function. It will suspend the caller until the tables are initialized. See the example in the section Data initialization and migration.

It is worth keeping in mind when running a distributed system with two or more participating nodes, the function Mnesia.start/1 must be executed on all participating nodes.

Creating Tables

The function Mnesia.create_table/2 is used to create tables within our database. Below we create a table called Person and then pass a keyword list defining the table schema.

iex> Mnesia.create_table(Person, [attributes: [:id, :name, :job]])
{:atomic, :ok}

We define the columns using the atoms :id, :name, and :job. The first atom (in this case :id) is the primary key. At least one additional attribute is required.

When we execute Mnesia.create_table/2, it will return either one of the following responses:

In particular, if the table already exists, the reason will be of the form {:already_exists, table} so if we try to create this table a second time, we will get:

iex> Mnesia.create_table(Person, [attributes: [:id, :name, :job]])
{:aborted, {:already_exists, Person}}

The Dirty Way

First of all we will look at the dirty way of reading and writing to a Mnesia table. This should generally be avoided as success is not guaranteed, but it should help us learn and become comfortable working with Mnesia. Let’s add some entries to our Person table.

iex> Mnesia.dirty_write({Person, 1, "Seymour Skinner", "Principal"})

iex> Mnesia.dirty_write({Person, 2, "Homer Simpson", "Safety Inspector"})

iex> Mnesia.dirty_write({Person, 3, "Moe Szyslak", "Bartender"})

…and to retrieve the entries we can use Mnesia.dirty_read/1:

iex> Mnesia.dirty_read({Person, 1})
[{Person, 1, "Seymour Skinner", "Principal"}]

iex> Mnesia.dirty_read({Person, 2})
[{Person, 2, "Homer Simpson", "Safety Inspector"}]

iex> Mnesia.dirty_read({Person, 3})
[{Person, 3, "Moe Szyslak", "Bartender"}]

iex> Mnesia.dirty_read({Person, 4})

If we try to query a record that doesn’t exist Mnesia will respond with an empty list.


Traditionally we use transactions to encapsulate our reads and writes to our database. Transactions are an important part of designing fault-tolerant, highly distributed systems. An Mnesia transaction is a mechanism by which a series of database operations can be executed as one functional block. First we create an anonymous function, in this case data_to_write and then pass it onto Mnesia.transaction.

iex> data_to_write = fn ->
...>   Mnesia.write({Person, 4, "Marge Simpson", "home maker"})
...>   Mnesia.write({Person, 5, "Hans Moleman", "unknown"})
...>   Mnesia.write({Person, 6, "Monty Burns", "Businessman"})
...>   Mnesia.write({Person, 7, "Waylon Smithers", "Executive assistant"})
...> end
#Function<20.54118792/0 in :erl_eval.expr/5>

iex> Mnesia.transaction(data_to_write)
{:atomic, :ok}

Based on this transaction message, we can safely assume that we have written the data to our Person table. Let’s use a transaction to read from the database now to make sure. We will use to read from the database, but again from within an anonymous function.

iex> data_to_read = fn ->
...>{Person, 6})
...> end
#Function<20.54118792/0 in :erl_eval.expr/5>

iex> Mnesia.transaction(data_to_read)
{:atomic, [{Person, 6, "Monty Burns", "Businessman"}]}

Note that if you want to update data, you just need to call Mnesia.write/1 with the same key as an existing record. Therefore, to update the record for Hans, you can do:

iex> Mnesia.transaction(
...>   fn ->
...>     Mnesia.write({Person, 5, "Hans Moleman", "Ex-Mayor"})
...>   end
...> )

Using indices

Mnesia support indices on non-key columns and data can then be queried against those indices. So we can add an index against the :job column of the Person table:

iex> Mnesia.add_table_index(Person, :job)
{:atomic, :ok}

The result is similar to the one returned by Mnesia.create_table/2:

In particular, if the index already exists, the reason will be of the form {:already_exists, table, attribute_index} so if we try to add this index a second time, we will get:

iex> Mnesia.add_table_index(Person, :job)
{:aborted, {:already_exists, Person, 4}}

Once the index is successfully created, we can read against it and retrieve a list of all principals:

iex> Mnesia.transaction(
...>   fn ->
...>     Mnesia.index_read(Person, "Principal", :job)
...>   end
...> )
{:atomic, [{Person, 1, "Seymour Skinner", "Principal"}]}

Match and select

Mnesia supports complex queries to retrieve data from a table in the form of matching and ad-hoc select functions.

The Mnesia.match_object/1 function returns all records that match the given pattern. If any of the columns in the table have indices, it can make use of them to make the query more efficient. Use the special atom :_ to identify columns that don’t participate in the match.

iex> Mnesia.transaction(
...>   fn ->
...>     Mnesia.match_object({Person, :_, "Marge Simpson", :_})
...>   end
...> )
{:atomic, [{Person, 4, "Marge Simpson", "home maker"}]}

The function allows you to specify a custom query using any operator or function in the Elixir language (or Erlang for that matter). Let’s look at an example to select all records that have a key that is greater than 3:

iex> Mnesia.transaction(
...>   fn ->
...>, [{{Person, :"$1", :"$2", :"$3"}, [{:>, :"$1", 3}], [:"$$"]}])
...>   end
...> )
{:atomic, [[7, "Waylon Smithers", "Executive assistant"], [4, "Marge Simpson", "home maker"], [6, "Monty Burns", "Businessman"], [5, "Hans Moleman", "unknown"]]}

Let’s unpack this. The first attribute is the table, Person, the second attribute is a triple of the form {match, [guard], [result]}:

For more details, see the Erlang Mnesia documentation for select/2.

Data initialization and migration

With every software solution, there will come a time when you need to upgrade the software and migrate the data stored in your database. For example, we may want to add an :age column to our Person table in v2 of our app. We can’t create the Person table once it’s been created but we can transform it. For this we need to know when to transform, which we can do when creating the table. To do this, we can use the Mnesia.table_info/2 function to retrieve the current structure of the table and the Mnesia.transform_table/3 function to transform it to the new structure.

The code below does this by implementing the following logic:

If we are performing any actions on the existing tables right after starting Mnesia with Mnesia.start/0, those tables may not be initialized and accessible. In that case, we should use the Mnesia.wait_for_tables/2 function. It will suspend the current process until the tables are initialized or until the timeout is reached.

The Mnesia.transform_table/3 function takes as attributes the name of the table, a function that transforms a record from the old to the new format and the list of new attributes.

case Mnesia.create_table(Person, [attributes: [:id, :name, :job, :age]]) do
  {:atomic, :ok} ->
    Mnesia.add_table_index(Person, :job)
    Mnesia.add_table_index(Person, :age)
  {:aborted, {:already_exists, Person}} ->
    case Mnesia.table_info(Person, :attributes) do
      [:id, :name, :job] ->
        Mnesia.wait_for_tables([Person], 5000)
          fn ({Person, id, name, job}) ->
            {Person, id, name, job, 21}
          [:id, :name, :job, :age]
        Mnesia.add_table_index(Person, :age)
      [:id, :name, :job, :age] ->
      other ->
        {:error, other}
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