Basics and Terminology

Documents, Keys, Handles and Revisions

Documents in ArangoDB are JSON objects. These objects can be nested (to any depth) and may contain lists. Each document has a unique primary key which identifies it within its collection. Furthermore, each document is uniquely identified by its document handle across all collections in the same database. Different revisions of the same document (identified by its handle) can be distinguished by their document revision. Any transaction only ever sees a single revision of a document.

Here is an example document:

  "_id" : "myusers/3456789",
  "_key" : "3456789",
  "_rev" : "14253647",
  "firstName" : "John",
  "lastName" : "Doe",
  "address" : {
    "street" : "Road To Nowhere 1",
    "city" : "Gotham"
  "hobbies" : [
    {"name": "swimming", "howFavorite": 10},
    {"name": "biking", "howFavorite": 6},
    {"name": "programming", "howFavorite": 4}

All documents contain special attributes: the document handle is stored as a string in _id, the document’s primary key in _key and the document revision in _rev. The value of the _key attribute can be specified by the user when creating a document. _id and _key values are immutable once the document has been created. The _rev value is maintained by ArangoDB automatically.

Document Handle

A document handle uniquely identifies a document in the database. It is a string and consists of the collection’s name and the document key (_key attribute) separated by /.

Document Key

A document key uniquely identifies a document in the collection it is stored in. It can and should be used by clients when specific documents are queried. The document key is stored in the _key attribute of each document. The key values are automatically indexed by ArangoDB in a collection’s primary index. Thus looking up a document by its key is a fast operation. The _key value of a document is immutable once the document has been created. By default, ArangoDB generates a document key automatically if no _key attribute is specified, and uses the user-specified _key otherwise.

This behavior can be changed on a per-collection level by creating collections with the keyOptions attribute.

Using keyOptions it is possible to disallow user-specified keys completely, or to force a specific regime for auto-generating the _key values.

Document Revision

Every document in ArangoDB has a revision, stored in the system attribute _rev. It is fully managed by the server and read-only for the user.

Its value should be treated as opaque, no guarantees regarding its format and properties are given except that it will be different after a document update. More specifically, _rev values are unique across all documents and all collections in a single server setup. In a cluster setup, within one shard it is guaranteed that two different document revisions have a different _rev string, even if they are written in the same millisecond.

The _rev attribute can be used as a pre-condition for queries, to avoid lost update situations. That is, if a client fetches a document from the server, modifies it locally (but with the _rev attribute untouched) and sends it back to the server to update the document, but meanwhile the document was changed by another operation, then the revisions do not match anymore and the operation is cancelled by the server. Without this mechanism, the client would accidentally overwrite changes made to the document without knowing about it.

When an existing document is updated or replaced, ArangoDB will write a new version of this document to the write-ahead logfile (regardless of the storage engine). When the new version of the document has been written, the old version(s) will still be present, at least on disk. The same is true when an existing document (version) gets removed: the old version of the document plus the removal operation will be on disk for some time.

On disk it is therefore possible that multiple revisions of the same document (as identified by the same _key value) exist at the same time. However, stale revisions are not accessible. Once a document was updated or removed successfully, no query or other data retrieval operation done by the user will be able to see it any more. Furthermore, after some time, old revisions will be removed internally. This is to avoid ever-growing disk usage.

From a user perspective, there is just one single document revision present per different _key at every point in time. There is no built-in system to automatically keep a history of all changes done to a document and old versions of a document can not be restored via the _rev value.

Document Etag

ArangoDB tries to adhere to the existing HTTP standard as far as possible. To this end, results of single document queries have the HTTP header Etag set to the document revision enclosed in double quotes.

The basic operations (create, read, exists, replace, update, delete) for documents are mapped to the standard HTTP methods (POST, GET, HEAD, PUT, PATCH and DELETE).

If you modify a document, you can use the If-Match field to detect conflicts. The revision of a document can be checking using the HTTP method HEAD.

Multiple Documents in a single Request

The document API can handle not only single documents but multiple documents in a single request. This is crucial for performance, in particular in the cluster situation, in which a single request can involve multiple network hops within the cluster. Another advantage is that it reduces the overhead of the HTTP protocol and individual network round trips between the client and the server. The general idea to perform multiple document operations in a single request is to use a JSON array of objects in the place of a single document. As a consequence, document keys, handles and revisions for preconditions have to be supplied embedded in the individual documents given. Multiple document operations are restricted to a single document or edge collections. See the API descriptions for details.

Note that the GET, HEAD and DELETE HTTP operations generally do not allow to pass a message body. Thus, they cannot be used to perform multiple document operations in one request. However, there are other endpoints to request and delete multiple documents in one request. See Bulk Document Operations.

URI of a Document

Any document can be retrieved using its unique URI:


For example, assuming that the document handle is demo/362549736, then the URL of that document is:


The above URL schema does not specify a database name explicitly, so the default _system database is used. To explicitly specify the database context, use the following URL schema:




Note: The following examples use the short URL format for brevity.

The document revision is returned in the “Etag” HTTP header when requesting a document.

If you obtain a document using GET and you want to check whether a newer revision is available, then you can use the If-None-Match header. If the document is unchanged, a HTTP 412 (precondition failed) error is returned.

If you want to query, replace, update or delete a document, then you can use the If-Match header. If the document has changed, then the operation is aborted and an HTTP 412 error is returned.

Read from Followers

Introduced in: v3.10.0

Reading from followers in cluster deployments is only available in the Enterprise Edition, including the ArangoGraph Insights Platform.

In an ArangoDB cluster, all reads and writes are performed via the shard leaders. Shard replicas replicate all operations, but are only on hot standby to take over in case of a failure. This is to ensure consistency of reads and writes and allows giving a certain amount of transactional guarantees.

If high throughput is more important than consistency and transactional guarantees for you, then you may allow for so-called “dirty reads” or “reading from followers”, for certain read-only operations. In this case, Coordinators are allowed to read not only from leader shards but also from follower shards. This has a positive effect, because the reads can scale out to all DB-Servers which have copies of the data. Therefore, the read throughput is higher. Note however, that you still have to go through your Coordinators. To get the desired result, you have to have enough Coordinators, load balance your client requests across all of them, and then allow reads from followers.

You may observe the following data inconsistencies (dirty reads) when reading from followers:

  • It is possible to see old, obsolete revisions of documents. More exactly, it is possible that documents are already updated on the leader shard but the updates have not yet been replicated to the follower shard from which you are reading.

  • It is also possible to see changes to documents that have already happened on a replica, but are not yet officially committed on the leader shard.

When no writes are happening, allowing reading from followers is generally safe.

The following APIs support reading from followers:

  • Single document reads (GET /_api/document)
  • Batch document reads (PUT /_api/document?onlyget=true)
  • Read-only AQL queries (POST /_api/cursor)
  • The edge API (GET /_api/edges)
  • Read-only Stream Transactions and their sub-operations (POST /_api/transaction/begin etc.)

The following APIs do not support reading from followers:

  • The graph API (GET /_api/gharial etc.)
  • JavaScript Transactions (POST /_api/transaction)

You need to set the following HTTP header in API requests to ask for reads from followers:

x-arango-allow-dirty-read: true

This is in line with the older support to read from followers in the Active Failover deployment mode.

For single requests, you specify this header in the read request. For Stream Transactions, the header has to be set on the request that creates a read-only transaction.

The POST /_api/cursor endpoint also supports a query option that you can set instead of the HTTP header:

{ "query": "...", "options": { "allowDirtyReads": true } }

Every response to a request that could produce dirty reads has the following HTTP header:

x-arango-potential-dirty-read: true