pysyncml 0.1 documentation

Matching, Merging, and Conflict Resolution

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Matching, Merging, and Conflict Resolution

In an ideal world, SyncML peers would instantly synchronize globally whenever a change occurred on any client. This would mean that regardless of which device was accessing, displaying, and modifying data, it would always be the most recent version. In the real world, however, this rarely happens and certainly cannot be depended on. Instead, devices lose network connectivity, some devices may not auto-synchronize when there are pending changes, bugs cause synchronization software to fail and other conditions may arise that result in changes being made to distributed data that is out-of-sync. When changes are made to the exact same item, we have a SyncML conflict.

Certain kinds of conflicts can be resolved by the SyncML framework, others require a merging of the changes by the agent, and finally some kinds of changes cannot be automatically resolved at all.

There are two conditions in which the SyncML protocol can result in the necessity to merge items:

In either situation, pysyncml (when operating as the server) will call on special pysyncml.Agent methods to help negotiate the resolution - without these methods, pysyncml will err on the side of caution and will not automatically take any action that may result in the loss of data unless specified by the conflict resolution policy, see Conflicts for details.


The first time two SyncML peers synchronize, the pysyncml framework (when operating as the server role), will try to avoid duplicating items by associating matching items. It does this by first calling pysyncml.Agent.matchItem on an item (coming from the remote peer) being synchronized. If this yields an object, then it is compared using cmp(). If that comparison returns 0 (i.e. they are identical), then the two objects are assumed to be identical and are associated with each other and will by synchronized normally going forward.

If cmp() results in a non-zero value, then the items are assumed to represent the same item, but in different states or having different sub-properties. In this scenario, pysyncml will then call pysyncml.Agent.mergeItems to merge the state from the remote peer’s item into the local item. If, for any reason, the two items cannot be merged, then a pysyncml.ConflictError should be raised. When that happens, pysyncml will duplicate the items, and it is up to the user to perform a manual merge.

An example of when matched items may need to be merged: in the context of a contact manager, two devices may manage different aspects of the same contact: a phone may only store the telephone numbers and an address labeling device may only store addresses. As a result, pysyncml can be used to match the items on both devices using the contact name, and the server agent will then merge the phone numbers and the address into a single contact without duplication.


When two SyncML peers make changes to the same object without first synchronizing the object, there ensues a conflict. It is the SyncML peer that is operating as the server role that assumes the responsibility for managing such a conflict. Please note that change management and conflict resolution are difficult concepts to master, especially in distributed environments! For this reason, do not hesitate to ask questions on the pysyncml discussion forum if the following documentation is not clear!

The pysyncml server framework will first attempt to merge such conflicts (see below for details on how this is accomplished), then allow the agents to attempt a merge, and failing that, will take one of the following actions, based on the conflictPolicy setting (which can be set on a per-datastore basis as well as a default policy for the adapter):

  • pysyncml.POLICY_ERROR:

    The conflict will result in a terminal error, from which the pysyncml server will not be able recover. It is up to the client to remove the conflicting change and re-synchronize, or for the server’s conflictPolicy to be updated. This is the default policy.

  • pysyncml.POLICY_CLIENT_WINS:

    The conflict is resolved by ignoring the change on the server and overriding it with the change from the client.

  • pysyncml.POLICY_SERVER_WINS:

    The conflict is resolved by ignoring the change from the client and overriding it with the change on the server.

Merging with pysyncml

Matching, conflict resolution and merging are only performed by the server-side of a SyncML synchronization. When using pysyncml for the server implementation, the pysyncml.Agent provided by the calling environment must therefore be prepared to assist in this process. Although it is possible for the agent to not provide any merging functionality whatsoever, this is not recommended as it means that very limited conflict resolution will be possible.

To help in the process of conflict resolution, the agent must primarily help in the merging of modifications made to the same object – all other conflicting changes (such as simultaneous deletion and modification of the same object) are usually handled by the framework. The pysyncml framework helps agents with this merging by providing two features:

  • When an Agent.replaceItem() call is made and the flag reportChanges is set to True, then the framework will expect a “change-spec” to be returned.
  • When an Agent.mergeItems() is called, it will be provided an aggregation of all of the “change-spec”s that have accumulated since the last sync and are applicable to the current merging.

These “change-specs” are opaque strings that are agent-specific and should describe how the item was changed such that a merging of changes to unrelated sections of the item can be merged. With the exception that multiple change-specs are concatenated with a semicolon (”;”) as delimiting separator, the pysyncml framework treats these change-specs as opaque strings. Because of this, each agent is free to implement them as needed.

However, pysyncml does provide many helper classes to help with generating, parsing and applying change-spec strings, which is the recommended approach. Here follows a discussion of how to use the most common helper, the pysyncml.CompositeMergerFactory. If for any reason you need access to lower-level API’s, please see the more detailed discussion on Merging Helpers, Change Tracking Helpers, and Change-Spec Details sections.

The most common SyncML item merging requirements can usually be handled by the pysyncml.CompositeMerger. This class assumes that any given changes to an item can be broken down to changes to an independent set of fields, each of which can have different merging strategies. The CompositeMergerFactory is given a dictionary of which Merger to use for which field as well as a default merger for all unspecified fields. Currently, there exist the following types of mergers that can be used for this purpose:

  • pysyncml.AttributeMerger:

    which is used for atomic string-based fields, where it is assumed that any change to that field cannot be merged with another change to the exact same field.

  • pysyncml.TextMerger:

    which is used for text, i.e. sequences of words or lines, where multiple changes to the same field can be merged as long as they occur in different parts of the text.

An example of the “atomic” fields would be a contact’s phone number. If the number is changed from “555-1212” to “555-9999” on one client and to “111-1212” on another, it is unlikely that a merging of these two changes (e.g. “111-9999”) would result in the desired behavior.

An example of the “non-atomic” field would be a contact’s “comments” field, where the user could add multiple lines of free-form text. In that case, changes made to different parts of the comments may be merged. For example, if the comments for a fictional contact “Lionel” starts out with:

Lionel's sister went to some boarding school.
He owes me $150.00 (car rental).

Then, on one client, the comments’ first line is modified, as follows:

Lionel's sister went to the "The Governor's Academy" boarding school.
He owes me $150.00 (car rental).

And on another client, the second line is modified, as follows:

Lionel's sister went to some boarding school.
He owes me $50.00 (car rental - paid back $100 in August).

Then, since neither change is to the same line, the changes could be merged together to yield:

Lionel's sister went to the "The Governor's Academy" boarding school.
He owes me $50.00 (car rental - paid back $100 in August).

The following example agent demonstrates the code that would be used to implement these two examples with an item that has a “phone” and a “comments” attribute. The “phone” attribute is an atomic field and the “comments” attribute is a multi-line text field:

import pysyncml

class MyAgent(pysyncml.Agent):

  def __init__(self, ...):


    # construct a composite merger factory that uses an AttributeMerger for
    # all attributes except the "comments" field, which uses a TextMerger (in
    # mult-line mode). note that the "default" is redundant here since the
    # AttributeMerger is the fallback default if not specified.

    self.mergerFactory = pysyncml.CompositeMergerFactory(
      default  = pysyncml.AttributeMergerFactory(),
      comments = pysyncml.TextMergerFactory())


  def replaceItem(self, item, reportChanges):

    current = self.getItem(
    cspec   = None

    if reportChanges:
      merger = self.mergerFactory.newMerger()
      merger.pushChanges('comments', current.comments, item.comments)
      cspec = merger.getChangeSpec()

    # here, the local item would get updated with the new values

    return cspec

  def mergeItems(self, localItem, remoteItem, changeSpec):

    merger  = self.mergerFactory.newMerger(changeSpec)
    tmpItem = localItem.clone()

    # the following calls to mergeChanges() will raise a ConflictError if
    # there are unmergeable changes.    = merger.mergeChanges('phone',,
    tmpItem.comments = merger.mergeChanges('comments', localItem.comments, item.comments)

    return self.replaceItem(tmpItem, True)

Merging Helpers

Although the CompositeMerger is flexible enough to handle a very diverse set of requirements, there are inevitably scenarios that require more control. For those situations, it is possible to bypass the CompositeMerger and use lower-level APIs to manage changes and perform merges. The following sections document these APIs.

The pysyncml.Merger sub-classes are designed to opaquely generate and apply change-specs to several different situations:

  • pysyncml.Merger:

    The base class for all mergers – generally not directly useful, as it is primarily intended to be useful for aggregate merger factories, such as the pysyncml.CompositeMergerFactory.

  • pysyncml.AttributerMerger:

    Tracks changes to, and merges change-specs into, independent fields of an item. The merger expects the values to be strings.

  • pysyncml.TextMerger:

    Used with text-based content, either single-line or multi-line sequences. In single-line mode, changes are tracked with word-level granularity. In multi-line mode, changes are tracked with line-level granularity, which means that changes to the same line of the text will conflict and will not be auto-mergeable.

The TextMerger implements the entire process of comparing and merging blocks of text and uses the ListChangeTracker (see below) under the hood to keep track of these changes and detect conflicts. It can be used either with items that are entirely composed of a single text block (notes, for example), or with individual fields within an item that are text blocks (for example, a “comments” field in a contact), and is then usually combined with the CompositeMerger.

All of the Merger subclasses rely on having access to the entire field value to simplify change detection and merge application. This is not always feasible, for example when dealing with multi-terabyte files, and in such scenarios it may be necessary to use the Change Tracking Helpers, which is what the mergers use under the hood.

Change Tracking Helpers

The change tracking helpers provided by pysyncml offer low-level control over the generation, parsing, and utilization of change-specs. Unlike the Merging Helpers, the change tracking family of objects typically do not require the complete value of a field. Instead, they can be given the MD5 checksum of a field, which is most useful when the field values are very large or otherwise not accessible.

The following change trackers exist:

  • pysyncml.ChangeTracker:

    The base class for all low-level change-spec management classes.

  • pysyncml.AttributeChangeTracker:

    A change tracker that manages changes made to key-value based, independent attributes. For example, the attributes of a contact, such as “firstname”, “lastname”, etc.

  • pysyncml.ListChangeTracker:

    A change tracker that manages changes to an ordered sequence of values, where each element in that order can be added, modified or deleted atomically. An example application of this tracker is when detecting and merging changes to text blocks: when text is broken down into lines (in multi-line mode) or into words (in single-line mode).

These change trackers expose the following functionality:

  • Generating and parsing change-spec strings.
  • Appending a change, and collapsing multiple change-specs together.
  • Change collision detection.

An example usage of the AttributeChangeTracker: assuming that fields within an item are completely independent and that the item exposes a dict-like interface to the attributes, then the agent’s mergeItems() could look something similar to:

class MyAgent(pysyncml.Agent):


  def mergeItems(self, localItem, remoteItem, changeSpec):

    # create a change tracker primed with the current change-spec
    tracker = pysyncml.AttributeChangeTracker(changeSpec)

    # create a temporary item that will hold the result of the merging
    tmpItem = MyItem()

    for attr, value in remoteItem.items():

      # this call will raise pysyncml.ConflictErrer on conflict
      tmpItem[attr] = tracker.update(attr, localItem[attr], value)

    # search for deleted fields
    for attr in localItem.keys():

      if attr in remoteItem:
        # this will have been checked in the first loop

      # this call will raise pysyncml.ConflictErrer on conflict
      tmpItem[attr] = tracker.update(attr, localItem[attr], None)

      if tmpItem[attr] is None:
        del tmpItem[attr]

    return self.replaceItem(tmpItem, True)

Note that this example used the pysyncml.ChangeTracker.update method, which simplifies the value checking, but does result in potentially redundant changes to the item. If more granular information is required for optimization reasons, you can use the pysyncml.ChangeTracker.isChange method. This, however, requires that you check the values for equality before hand, and treat the return value dependent on what kind of tracker is being used.

Change-Spec Details

As mentioned above, a “change-spec” is an opaque string which may be concatenated with other change-specs and separated via a semicolon (”;”). Such a change-spec should be generated whenever a change is made to the server-side of an item during a SyncML transaction. These change-specs are intended to summarize and represent those changes and attached to the change event, such that when another change is made, it can be evaluated against the changes concurrently made by another peer.

Changes are typically used to only track which “field” within an item is changed so that merging of multiple changes to a single item can be done. These changes typically include a checksum for the initial value, not the actual changed value - this is used to minimize how much storage is required to track changes. The reason that a checksum of the initial value is needed is that the agent performing a merge must be able to identify fields with competing changes and which ones are actually a no-change change by comparing them to their initial value. Note that the checksum is not needed for added fields, only for modified and deleted fields.

For example, a contact agent may only record which fields of a contact were modified along with the MD5 (e.g. “mod:lastname@d3b07384d113edec49eaa6238ad5ff00”) and a file agent may only record which lines of a file changed (e.g. “mod:14@dd43af56ff406a8cf89fae4e1ac86722”). Note that in many cases the MD5 of a changed field may actually be longer than the actual value - it is up to the agent implementing the change-spec to detect this and to potentially make some relevant optimizations (such an optimization is already implemented by the Change Tracking Helpers).

Then, when resolving a conflict, the agent checks to see if the same field was modified, and if not, a merge can happen. If the same field was modified, then an automated merge is not possible, and the change request falls back to being handled by the conflictPolicy (as documented above).

When pysyncml is tracking changes (i.e. when running as the server role), the agent will be called with reportChanges set to True in the call to pysyncml.Agent.replaceItem. This indicates to the agent that it should (if possible) return a change-spec that will later be used when resolving conflicts. This change-spec should be a string (or an object that supports coercion via str()). If multiple changes accumulate for the same item, they will be concatenated and separated with a semicolon (”;”). Semicolons used in the change-spec will not be escaped – it is the responsibility of the change-spec generator to be aware of this. The reason is that this allows the change-spec generator to create pre-aggregated change-specs.

During a merge attempt, pysyncml will call the agent’s pysyncml.Agent.mergeItems method, with the current local item, the new conflicting remote item and the accumulated change-spec that is the source of the conflict. The agent must then analyze the change-spec in the context of the local and remote item states, and either refuse or perform the merge. If it cannot perform the merge, it should raise a pysyncml.ConflictError, detailing which field or fields caused the failure, such that the user can engage a manual correction.

Example Merge

To illustrate the general workflow, let us assume that we are implementing a contact agent, where each item is a contact that can have fields such as “firstname”, “lastname”, “tel-mobile”, “tel-home”, and “tel-pager”.

At some point, the pysyncml server and two clients are completely synchronized. Then, the first client modifies a particular record by updating both the “lastname” and the “tel-pager” fields, and synchronizes with the server. The server stores the new item and the contact agent running on the server reports the following change-spec for the item:


where the “MD5” is the MD5 checksum of the initial value before the change was made. Then, before the second client synchronizes, the first client modifies the record again, this time deleting the “tel-pager” and adding a “tel-home” field. The client synchronizes this change with the server, and the server contact agent reports the following change-spec:


The server then notices that there is still a pending change on this item for the second client, and concatenates the change-spec to:


Now, the second client makes some changes to the contact and synchronizes with the server. Now, the agent is provided with the above change-spec, analyzes the changes requested by the second client, and either applies them or cancels the operation.

For example, if the second client had modified “firstname” only, then there is no conflict, and the agent can perform the merge. If, however, there was a change to “lastname”, then new value provided by the remote client must be inspected. If the new value is not identical to either the initial value stored on the change-spec (i.e. no change) or the current value (i.e. it was changed the exact same way), then the merge should raise a pysyncml.ConflictError.

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