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A deadlock occurs when two or more tasks permanently block each other by each task having a lock on a resource which the other tasks are trying to lock. For example:

  • Transaction A acquires a share lock on row 1.

  • Transaction B acquires a share lock on row 2.

  • Transaction A now requests an exclusive lock on row 2, and is blocked until transaction B finishes and releases the share lock it has on row 2.

  • Transaction B now requests an exclusive lock on row 1, and is blocked until transaction A finishes and releases the share lock it has on row 1.

Transaction A cannot complete until transaction B completes, but transaction B is blocked by transaction A. This condition is also called a cyclic dependency: Transaction A has a dependency on transaction B, and transaction B closes the circle by having a dependency on transaction A.

Both transactions in a deadlock will wait forever unless the deadlock is broken by an external process. The Microsoft SQL Server Database Engine deadlock monitor periodically checks for tasks that are in a deadlock. If the monitor detects a cyclic dependency, it chooses one of the tasks as a victim and terminates its transaction with an error. This allows the other task to complete its transaction. The application with the transaction that terminated with an error can retry the transaction, which usually completes after the other deadlocked transaction has finished.

Using certain coding conventions in applications reduces the chance that applications will cause deadlocks. For more information, see Minimizing Deadlocks.

Deadlocking is often confused with normal blocking. When a transaction requests a lock on a resource locked by another transaction, the requesting transaction waits until the lock is released. By default, SQL Server transactions do not time out, unless LOCK_TIMEOUT is set. The requesting transaction is blocked, not deadlocked, because the requesting transaction has not done anything to block the transaction owning the lock. Eventually, the owning transaction will complete and release the lock, and then the requesting transaction will be granted the lock and proceed.

Deadlocks are sometimes called a deadly embrace.

Deadlock is a condition that can occur on any system with multiple threads, not just on a relational database management system, and can occur for resources other than locks on database objects. For example, a thread in a multithreaded operating system might acquire one or more resources, such as blocks of memory. If the resource being acquired is currently owned by another thread, the first thread may have to wait for the owning thread to release the target resource. The waiting thread is said to have a dependency on the owning thread for that particular resource. In an instance of the Database Engine, sessions can deadlock when acquiring nondatabase resources, such as memory or threads.

Diagram showing transaction deadlock

In the illustration, transaction T1 has a dependency on transaction T2 for the Part table lock resource. Similarly, transaction T2 has a dependency on transaction T1 for the Supplier table lock resource. Because these dependencies form a cycle, there is a deadlock between transactions T1 and T2.

Deadlocks can also occur when a table is partitioned and the LOCK_ESCALATION setting of ALTER TABLE is set to AUTO. When LOCK_ESCALATION is set to AUTO, concurrency increases by allowing the Database Engine to lock table partitions at the HoBT level instead of at the TABLE level. However, when separate transactions hold partition locks in a table and want a lock somewhere on the other transactions partition, this causes a deadlock. This type of deadlock can be avoided by setting LOCK_ESCALATION to TABLE; although this setting will reduce concurrency by forcing large updates to a partition to wait for a table lock.