Auto incrementing IDs for MongoDB

If you’re familiar with relational databases like MySQL or PostgreSQL, you’re probably also familiar with auto incrementing IDs. You select a primary key for a table and make it auto incrementing. Every row you insert afterwards, each of them gets a new ID, automatically incremented from the last one. We don’t have to keep track of what number comes next or ensure the atomic nature of this operation (what happens if two different client wants to insert a new row at the very same time? do they both get the same id?). This can be very useful where sequential, numeric IDs are essential. For example, let’s say we’re building a url shortener. We can base62 encode the ID of the url id to quickly generate a short slug for that long url.

Fast forward to MongoDB, the popular NoSQL database doesn’t have any equivalent to sequential IDs. It’s true that you can insert anything unique as the required _id¬†field of a mongodb document, so you can take things to your hand and try to insert unique ids yourselves. But you have to ensure the uniqueness and atomicity of the operation.

A very popular work around to this is to create a separate mongodb collection. Then maintain documents with a numeric value to keep track of your auto incrementing IDs. Now, every time we want to insert a new document that needs a unique ID, we come back to this collection, use the $inc operator to atomically increment this number and then use the incremented number as the unique id for our new document.

Let me give an example, say we have an messages collection. Each new message needs a new, sequential ID. We create a new collection named sequences. Each document in this sequences collection will hold the last used ID for a collection. So, for tracking the unique ID in the messages collection, we create a new document in the sequences collection like this:

{
    "_id" : "messages",
    "value" : 0
}

Next, we will write a function that can give us the next sequential ID for a collection by it’s name. The code is in Python, using PyMongo library.

def get_sequence(name):
    collection = db.sequences
    document = collection.find_one_and_update({"_id": name}, {"$inc": {"value": 1}}, return_document=True)

    return document["value"]

If we need the next auto incrementing ID for the messages collection, we can call it like this:

{"_id": get_sequence("messages")}
Find and Modify – Deprecated

If you have searched on Google, you might have come across many StackOverflow answers as well as individual blog posts which refer to findAndModify()¬†call (find_and_modify¬†in Pymongo). This was the way to do things. But it’s deprecated now, so please use the new find_one_and_update¬†function now.

(How) Does this scale?

We would only call the get_sequence function before inserting a new mongo document. The function uses the $inc operator which is atomic in nature. Mongo guarantees this. So even if 100s of different clients trying to increment the value for the same document, they will be all applied one after one. So each value they get will be unique, new IDs.

I personally haven’t been able to test this strategy at a larger scale but according to people on StackOverflow and other forums, people have scaled this to thousands and millions of users. So I guess it’s pretty safe.

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