Oban Recipes Part 2: Recursive Jobs

This is the second in a series of "recipes", showing what you can accomplish with background jobs using Oban. The [first post][fp] details what Oban is, what you may use it for, and what inspired this series—it may be helpful to read that before jumping into the recipe here!

When to Reach for Recursive Jobs

Recursive jobs, like recursive functions, call themselves after they have have executed. Except unlike recursive functions, where recursion happens in a tight loop, a recursive job enqueues a new version of itself and may add a slight delay to alleviate pressure on the queue.

Recursive jobs are a great way to backfill large amounts of data where a database migration or a mix task may not be suitable. Here are a few reasons that a recursive job may be better suited for backfilling data:

  • Data can't be backfilled with a database migration, it may require talking to an external service
  • A task may fail partway through execution; resuming the task would mean starting over again, or tracking progress manually to resume where the failure occurred
  • A task may be computationally intensive or put heavy pressure on the database
  • A task may run for too long and would be interrupted by code releases or other node restarts
  • A task may interface with an external service and require some rate limiting
  • A job can be used directly for new records and to backfill existing records

Let's explore recursive jobs with a use case that builds on several of those reasons.

Use Case: Backfilling Timezone Data

Consider a worker that queries an external service to determine what timezone a user resides in. The external service has a rate limit and the response time is unpredictable. We have a lot of users in our database missing timezone information, and we need to backfill.

Our application has an existing TimezoneWorker that accepts a user's id, makes an external request and then updates the user's timezone. We can modify the worker to handle backfilling by adding a new clause to perform/1. The new clause explicitly checks for a backfill argument and will enqueue the next job after it executes:

defmodule MyApp.TimezoneWorker do
  use Oban.Worker

  import Ecto.Query

  @backfill_delay 1

  def perform(%{id: id, backfill: true}) do
    with :ok <- perform(%{id: id}),
         next_id when is_integer(next_id) <- fetch_next(id) do
      %{id: next_id, backfill: true}
      |> new(schedule_in: @backfill_delay)
      |> MyApp.Repo.insert!()

  def perform(%{id: id}) do

  defp fetch_next(current_id) do
    |> where([u], is_nil(u.timezone))
    |> order_by(asc: :id)
    |> limit(1)
    |> select([u],

There is a lot happening in the worker module, so let's unpack it a little bit.

  1. There are two clauses for perform/1, the first only matches when a job is marked as backfill: true, the second does the actual work of updating the timezone.
  2. The backfill clause checks that the timezone update succeeds and then uses fetch_next/1 to look for the id of the next user without a timezone.
  3. When another user needing a backfill is available it enqueues a new backfill job with a one second delay.

With the new perform/1 clause in place and our code deployed we can kick off the recursive backfill. Assuming the id of the first user is 1, you can start the job from an iex console:

iex> %{id: 1, backfill: true} |> |> MyApp.Repo.insert()

Now the jobs will chug along at a steady rate of one per second until the backfill is complete (or something fails). If there are any errors the backfill will pause until the failing job completes: especially useful for jobs relying on flaky external services. Finally, when there aren't any more user's without a timezone, the backfill is complete and recursion will stop.

Building On Recursive Jobs

This was a relatively simple example, and hopefully it illustrates the power and flexibility of recursive jobs. Recursive jobs are a general pattern and aren't specific to Oban. In fact, aside from the use Oban.Worker directive there isn't anything specific to Oban in the recipe!

In the next recipe we'll look at a specialized use case for recursive jobs: infinite recursion for scheduled jobs.

More Oban Recipes