XACT_ABORT and Query Timeout in Sql Server

In this blog I have explored how XACT_ABORT setting controls Sql Server behaviour when it interacts with Desktop and Web applications, in the situation of a query timeout runtime error. It is particularly interesting to see how Sequel works with the web applications that use the connection pooling mechanism in those conditions.  I also briefly covered MARS(Multiple Active Result Sets) technology and how it relates to XACT_ABORT.

The performed tests demonstrate the behaviour of a typical stored procedure when executed in a session with the XACT_ABORT set to ON/OFF and in the query timeout situation. The tests covered a Desktop -SSMS  and a web application.

Here is a bit of theory we need to know in order to understand the test results.

Is one of the parameters that define the current session behaviour.  The parameter belongs to the group of Transaction statements along with: IMPLICIT_TRANSACTIONS, TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL and REMOTE_PROC_TRANSACTIONS (deprecated in Sql Server 2014). More about the parameter can be found here.

Query Timeout

The queries executed on client side may be cancelled during the execution after a certain period of time. One of the reasons can be the “query timeout”, scenario in which the app. code decides to cancel the ongoing action, if the action takes more time to finish than expected(defined).

Query timeout is a client-side concept. After a certain period of time, a client, more specifically db provider will raise an Attention event which will signal the query timeout to the Db Server.  At the next available opportunity, Sql Server will stop/abort the currently executing query in the context of the current connection. The sudden stop will not raise any Sql server errors.
XACT_ABORT defines how Sql Server handles the ongoing transactions in these situations.
It is worth noting to mention the Remote query timeout(Exec sp_configure ‘remote query timeout’). This server scoped setting is related only to the queries executed by a remote source. e.g Linked server.

In a situation where Sql server is “instructed” to stop query execution during Update/Insert/Delete actions within an explicit transaction, there is a possibility that the ongoing transaction stays open(abandoned). As a result, a number of objects(sql server resources) may remain locked and not available to other queries. By default XACT_ABORT is set to OFF. This means that In the case of the timeout, SQL Server will let the caller(the app. code) to handle the uncommitted transactions.
The application code may be designed to handle the exceptions by rolling back or, if possible, committing  the interrupted transactions and closing the connection or it can just simply close the connection assuming that all the opened transactions in the scope of the connection will be automatically rolled back*.

*Just a small digression: From Sequel’s point of view, the scope of a transaction is a session, and from the clients’ point of view the scope of a transaction is a connection.
In Sql Server a session may have zero, one or more* related connections. Sql Server engine internal processes(SPID<=50) do not have related connections. In case of MARS (Multiple Active Result Sets) a session is related to multiple, hierarchical connections. The Client’s connection is parent connection and the child connections are logically scoped as “one per batch”. Consequently, the scope of a transaction within the MARS enabled connection is a batch – Batch scoped transactions. This is the case when the MARS Session is in the “Local Transaction Active” state – the state in which all the statements executed in a session run under an explicit or implicit transaction.
The hierarchical organisation of the transactions can be  examined by using dynamic views i.e sys.dm_exec_connections view. The significant columns would be: net_transport, parent_connection_id , connection_id.
MARS technology is interesting to research and to blog about and certainly cannot fit in a “small digression” 🙂

Session Ids’ are recyclable and are related to the unique transaction IDs.

Connection Pooling

Connecting to the database is resource intensive operation . Every time  a client wants to interact with a database it has to establish a new connection to it (to initiate a  new physical channel-socket, parse the connection string, perform db authentication etc). Because of the disconnected nature of the web based  applications, the connections are closed as soon as client is finished with the db request. Constant opening and closing connections wouldn’t  be a problem if there were a small number of clients who  don’t interact with the db often. In reality, there is a large number of concurrent clients fighting for the server resources.
The idea behind the Connection Pool(CP) mechanism is to allow already existing connections to be reused by the clients. Essentially, CP is a container object which contains a list of connections defined by the same connection string. A connection in this context is a pointer to the memory location where the connection object is stored.

Connection Pools are controlled and maintained by the database providers, like .NET Framework Data Provider for Sql Server or ADO.NET set of data access components based on the provider. Connection Pooling is active by default(even if not specified in the connection string). The Pool properties are a part of the connection string properties(key-value pairs).
More about connection pooling and pool fragmentation can be found here.

Another thing that would be interesting to explore is the sequence of events between a web application and Sql server during the connection pooling. The following is one of the typical scenarios.

  1. A Client requests data from SqlServer. There is no CP container defined based on a connection string that will be used to define the connection. Client calls the Open() method  of a connection object  e.g based on SlqConnection class if using .NET Data Provider for Sql Server)
  2. SqlServer authenticates the user and stores the connection/sql session data. The Audit Login event shows;  sessionid, EventSubClass =”1- Nonpooled”, Connection type  = “1- Non DAC” …etc. The requested connection is not part of the connection pool yet.
  3. Client executes the tsql batch and closes the connection (Close() method of the connection object). Even if enclosed e.g in the “using” structure, the connection object won’t be  destroyed but only referenced by a pointer now stored in a newly created connection pool object container. The object lives in the app. server memory. At this point,  Sql server is not aware that the client closed (returned) connection to the pool. From sql server point of view, the connection is still open. This also means that the abandoned(not committed) transactions, if any, will remain open – This will be a part of the following tests :)
  4. The same or a different client requests to open() the same connection. The code will not create(instantiate) a new connection object. Instead, the pool manager will provide the memory location of the exiting connection object. Again, Sql is not aware what’s happening on the client side and still keeps the information about the original connection.
  5. The client now executes tsql batch e.g using Sqlcommand /ExecuteNonQuery object/method   in the context of the connection. It is only at this point that Sql Server receives the information about the connection being reused by someone.
    • a) The event Audit Logout is fired indicating that the existing connection is pooled. The EventSubClass = “2 – Pooled”.
    • b) The data access API layer(in this case SqlClient) executes  system stored procedure sp_reset_connection (the sp is not available through tsql) to clean* the existing context of the connection and re-validate the authorisation of the  user-principal  through Audit Login and Audit Logout events.  In this context, cleaning a connection context means cleaning up SqlServer’s session context i.e rollback any active transaction that may have been left open through this session, dropping any local temporary table which has been left behind by the previous owner of the connection, closes any open cursors and deallocates the resources it has been using, resets the CONTEXT_INFO, etc);
    • c) The Audit Login event fires up, again indicating the nature of the connection (EventSubClass = “2- Pooled”)
  6.  SqlServer executes tsql batch.
  7. Client calls Close() method and the connection is again returned to the connection pool. (the pointer to the connection object is now available for the next client)
Test case scenarios:

I’ve performed the following tests to investigate how Sql Server reacts with different XACT_ABORT settings. The client applications will initiate a query timeout in the middle of an explicit, ongoing transaction encapsulated in a stored procedure.

Test 1: Desktop application query timeout. (MARS test included)
Test 2: ASP.NET application query timeout with connection pooling ON

Desktop based client application query timeout


For this test I used SSMS as a Windows  based client app. To prepare for the test, create a test environment using the script below:

Stored procedures:

SQL Server Profiler:
I’ll use SQL Server Profiler to capture the Attention event when sent by the client application.   Add Error And Warnings/Attention event to the Standard(default) set of the traced events.

SSMS will act as a Desktop client which will cause the query timeout. To simulate the scenario open(CTRL+N) three sessions.

  • Session1 – Change the Execution timeout from 0(unlimited) to 3s . The session will be used to run the sp that will cause query timeout (SSMS:RIght click/Connection/Change Connection)


The code below will be terminated by the timeout.

  • Session 2– The session will be used to run the second sp that will be reading from the same table used by the procedure initiated in session 1.

  • Session 3– Add the code below to monitor the transaction state and the locked resources.

To begin the test ,enable the Profiler trace and execute code in the session 1 and then in the session 2(sp that just selects data) and finally execute the code in the session 3.



The sp(Session 1) will take more time(~10s) to execute than the Client’s execution time allows (3s). After 3s, the client sends  an Attention event to Sql server which causes Sequel to immediately stop the sp execution, with no error. Because XACT_ABORT is set to OFF(default), Sql Server will leave the transaction open and let  the Client handle the commit/rollback.

The client’s event handler will send the following error message:

Msg -2, Level 11, State 0, Line 3
Timeout expired.  The timeout period elapsed prior to completion of the operation or the server is not responding.

Profiler -spids may be different (spid 55 is spid 60 on the previous image)profiler1

Now, the sp that runs in Session 2( reads all rows from dbo.Products) has to wait since the session 1’s active transaction(xactTest) holds X(Exclusive) lock on the KEY(the table is a clustered index) and  IX(Intent Exclusive) on the table(object) which is not compatible with the S(Shared Locks) requested by session 2.
The “SELECT” stored procedure will just wait indefinitely(the default execution time for that connection is unlimited).
Session 3 can be used to analyse the open transactions, locked resources etc..
If we now disconnect the Session 1(right click/Disconnect), Sql Server will automatically ROLLBACK all ongoing transactions within the closed connection scope, leaving the DB in the coexistent state – SSD price will not decrease by 10%   :). The stored procedure in the Session 2 will finish and if we re-run the code in the session 3 we’ll see that there are no abandoned transactions. All relevant resources will be freed.

Programmers usually use the “using” statement to “wrap” the objects used for the communication with Database. The structure ensures that all of the objects instantiated within the block will be removed, closed, flushed, disposed etc.(C devs won’t like this kind of a black box 🙂

The error handler will handle the timeout and the code will exit the structure closing the connection. Sql server will then automatically rollback all opened transactions(within the scope of the closed connection) leaving the db in the coexistent state. This will happen regardless of the XACT_ABORT setting.

To show the difference between XACT_ABORT set to ON/OFF  we can set a break-point at Line:21(any line inside the catch block). With the xact_abort set to OFF the uncommitted transaction will remain open until the code exits the structure. With ON, Sql server will rollback the opened transactions immediately after receiving the Attention signal and before the break-point. This can be monitored through the Session 3 code as mentioned earlier.


To test the same scenario with the xact_abort on, reconnect the Session 1(Right click/connect – now, the default execution timeout is 3s) and include the third input parameter

This time Sql server is set up to handle the uncommitted transactions, and when a run-time error occurs – query-timeout in this case, it will rollback the transactions. Session 2 will be able to execute its code. Session 3 will show the “empty resultsets” – no locked resources 🙂

MARS Enabled

Xact_Abort ON/OFF  setting has a different effect on the MARS-enabled connection in the example above.
To test this scenario change the Session 1 connection properties and add an additional connection parameter: MultipleActiveResultSets=True

If we run the test again the results will show that XACT_ABORT setting does not affect the sql Server behaviour* in case of the query timeout run time error. The explicit transaction will be automatically roll back. Session 2 shows us the MARS transactions hierarchy within the same session.
*The behaviour would be different if we executed the stored procedure logic as a script and with no explicit transaction. 

ASP.NET application query timeout with connection pooling ON/OFF

The following test demonstrates Sql server’s behaviour in case of application timeout when xact_abort is ON/OFF in combination with the Connection Pooling TRUE/FALSE

The test environment:

  1. Simple web application that can perform a) select and b) update actions on a database using one of two available connections – one connection authenticata using Integrated* security and the other one uses Sql Server authentication.
  2. Windows Performance Monitor (perfmon.msc) – to examine connection pool counters
  3. Sql Profiler – for tracking events triggered by the app and data provider.
  4. Sql Server tsql code to track active connections, locks etc – Session 3 code from the previous example.

Note: The integrated security will use ApplicationPoolIdentity(AP) to connect to the db. Execute the script below to create a Login for the AP identity and a Login for an sql server user:

The Web app.

The interface allows you to use two different connections to select and update the existing data. The update will cause the timeout run-time error.

The results of the select statements will be displayed in the Grid view

The error message will show under the grid view control.



The code is similar to the code used in the previous example.

Test: Two clients use the app. The first runs an expensive Update which causes the time-out, and the second one tries to Select data from the same table. Both clients use the same connection.Connection Pooling is enabled.

Test preparations:
Open two instances of the web application in two browsers. Run the tsql code from the previous example that selects the open transactions, Open SQL Profiler (standard trace + Errors/Attention event, Audit Login/ Audit Logout). Include Filter for ApplicationName in (WINXactAbort, SQLXactAbort). Open Performance Monitor and add .NET Data Provider for SqlServer Counters (example).


  1. Two different clients using the same connection type e.g Integrated Security authentication, performs the following actions:
    •  1.1  Client1 updates a product price(Update Products). 1st non-pooled connection established.
    • 1.2 During the execution Client2 tries to read the product prices (Show Products). 2nd non-pooled connection established(EventSubClass =”1- Nonpooled”,). Client2 has been blocked by the Client1’s update process. Client2 waits.
    • 1.3 Client1’s update action times-out (simulates a long running query) leaving the products table locked by an uncommitted-abandoned  transaction. Attention event raised. Close() method executed. A new CP container has been created. The client “returns” the connection to the newly created CP.  Sql Server thinks that the connection is still active. The CP now has one connection ready to be reused.
    • 1.4 Client2 still waits for Client1 to finish with the update and to unlock Products table. Eventually, Client2 times out (default command timeout = 30s). The connection is now returned(referenced by a pointer) to the CP. Connection pool now has 2 connections ready to be reused. The Sql Server resources(products table) is still locked by Client1.
    • 1.5 At this point, Connection Pool has two available (idle) connections. The first still has a non-committed transaction in its context. If a new client, Client3 tries to read the same data, CP will allocate the last connection available using the LIFO(Last In,First Out) algorithm. In this case, the allocated connection will be the one which originally belonged to Client2. As expected, Client3 will get blocked by the same abandoned transaction. Moreover,no client will not be able to access the Products table until the status of the transaction in question gets resolved (rollbacked/committed).

This scenario is common and can cause a lot of frustration since the effects can vary i.e sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t work 🙂

To add to the confusion, sometimes the situation can resolve itself e.g: CP will remove idle connections from the pool after 4 to 7min of inactivity by triggering the Audit Logout event which will,among other things, finally instruct SQL Server to rollback the outstanding transactions in the context of the destroyed connection(session). Another possible scenario is if the  “doomed” connection gets reused by a new Client. In that case the sp_reset_connection stored proc(mentioned earlier) will  instruct Sql Server to “clean the mess” and prepare the clean connection/session context for the new Client.

Profiler – the trace shows the above sequence of events

Connection, session and transaction metadata

The situation can be avoided using the following approaches:

  1. Setting XACT_ABORT to ON. This will instruct Sql server to take action of rolling back the ongoing transactions after receiving  the Attention event as a result of the command timeout issued by the client.
  2. More thorough data layer coding ie.  execute the queries within the properly defined transactions. Properly handle the uncommitted transactions within the catch block.

Both techniques will prevent the unpredictable behaviour explained above.


To set up the Xact_abort ON change the value of @SetXactAbort  parameter to 1 and repeat the test.

The same test shows that as soon as Client1 raises the Attention event, Sql Server stops the code execution and performs rollback on the ongoing transaction. All subsequent read requests(Client 2,3..) will be successful.

Using Connection Transactions 

To test the scenario change the bthUpdateProducts_Click  event to to include transactions. and set parameter @SetXactAbort back to 0.

This time the code will rollback the transaction within the catch block and the resources will not be blocked. If we now set XACT_ABORT  to ON, and repeat the same test, after the Attention event,  SQL Server will Rollback the transaction (@@Transccount = 0) and the code will skip to execute Rollback() method because the Connection property of the transaction object t1 returns null since the transaction is not longer valid.


It is important to understand the XACT_ABORT setting to be able to prevent and/or explain Sql server’s behaviour in case of a query timeout run-time error.  When set to OFF, the default value, Sql server will let the client to handle the timeout situation and to take care of the connection elements i.e ongoing transactions. Query timeouts are the Client-side concept only and Sql Server does not treat them as errors. As soon as possible, after receiving the Attention event, Sequel will stop the execution reporting no errors. If XACT_ABORT is set to ON, sql server will rollback unfinished transactions and then return to the Client.
Desktop applications may use different approaches when dealing with the db connections. Some applications may handle the query timeout and close the connection(dispose the connection object). This instructs Sql Server to rollback all unfinished transactions in the scope of the session/connection. In this context XACT_ABORT setting will not have direct effect to the execution. Other applications e.g SSMS, will keep connections open after handling query timeouts. In this case the abandoned transactions may cause other requests to wait to acquire required locks and the problem can escalate. In this context XACT_ABORT’s value “ON” will rollback the abandoned transactions preventing the resource locks.
Web applications usually use the Connection Pooling technology to optimize database authentication process. The connections(connection objects) will stay “live” and ready to be re-used by other clients. Every CP contains a collection of the similar Connections – connections with the same connection string. The connections availability follows the LIFO(Last In, First Out) algorithm. For example, if we have a Connection Pool CP1 with  4 connections in it and  ready to be reused CP1 = {c1,c2,c3,c4}. Connection c3 has left an abandoned transaction leaving table T1 locked. Scenario1: A client wants to read data from T2. CP1 will provide the client  with the connection c4. The client clears  the connection/session context left from the previous owner and reads the data with no problems. Scenario2: A client wants to read data from T1. CP1 provides connection c4. After clearing the c4 context the client gets blocked by the abandoned transaction left in the context of the c3. This can cause another timeout.   Scenario3. A client wants to read T1, gets c4, clear the previous context and ends up blocked. At the same time another client wants to read T1. Now CP1 serves c3 to the client. Client clears the connection’s previous context which includes the abandoned transaction rollback. The latest client now can read T1 as well as the previous one.

MARS Enabled Connections may affect SQL Server behaviour in the case of a query timeout since the technology changes the scope of transaction – Batch scoped transactions. This exiting technology is something I would like to blog about in one of the future posts.

There are many case scenarios in which the query timeout can cause confusion and the unwanted results. There are two main approaches to resolve this; a) more thorough coding on the client side which includes proper error handling and use of the connection transactions. b) using XACT_ABORT ON on the Sequel side which will handle the abandoned transactions.

My personal preference is not to rely on the Client’s code and to always use XACT_ABORT set to ON when needed. During more than 10 years of database programming, I have worked with only a handful web programmers who were interested in this matter. In most cases, their perception of a database is a simple data store, preferably “controlled” by an ORM framework. After a certain period of production life, these “Agile products” usually become slow, not responsive and sometimes unpredictable. The Connection pooling/query timeout problem is one of the unwanted scenarios. From our(DB Devs) perspective this may not necessarily be a “bad thing” since we all get a “good dollar value” for repairing the mess afterwards… but this can be an inspiration for another, more philosophical post  🙂

Thanks for reading.

Dean Mincic

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