Using standard AMQP 0-9-1, the only way to guarantee that a message isn't lost is by using transactions -- make the channel transactional, publish the message, commit. In this case, transactions are unnecessarily heavyweight and decrease throughput by a factor of 250. To remedy this, a confirmation mechanism was introduced.
To enable confirms, a client sends the confirm.select method. Depending on whether no-wait was set or not, the broker may respond with a confirm.select-ok. Once the confirm.select method is used on a channel, it is said to be in confirm mode. A transactional channel cannot be put into confirm mode and once a channel is in confirm mode, it cannot be made transactional.
Once a channel is in confirm mode, both the broker and the client count messages (counting starts at 1 on the first confirm.select). The broker then confirms messages as it handles them by sending a basic.ack on the same channel. The delivery-tag field contains the sequence number of the confirmed message. The broker may also set the multiple field in basic.ack to indicate that all messages up to and including the one with the sequence number have been handled.
An example in Java that publishes a large number of messages to a channel in confirm mode and waits for the acknowledgements can be found here.
In exceptional cases when the broker is unable to handle messages successfully, instead of a basic.ack, the broker will send a basic.nack. In this context, fields of the basic.nack have the same meaning as the corresponding ones in basic.ack and the requeue field should be ignored. By nack'ing one or more messages, the broker indicates that it was unable to process the messages and refuses responsibility for them; at that point, the client may choose to re-publish the messages.
After a channel is put into confirm mode, all subsequently published messages will be confirmed or nack'd once. No guarantees are made as to how soon a message is confirmed. No message will be both confirmed and nack'd.
basic.nack will only be delivered if an internal error occurs in the Erlang process responsible for a queue.
For unroutable messages, the broker will issue a confirm once the exchange verifies a message won't route to any queue (returns an empty list of queues). If the message is also published as mandatory, the basic.return is sent to the client before basic.ack. The same is true for negative acknowledgements (basic.nack).
For routable messages, the basic.ack is sent when a message has been accepted by all the queues. For persistent messages routed to durable queues, this means persisting to disk. For mirrored queues, this means that all mirrors have accepted the message.
basic.ack for a persistent message routed to a durable queue will be sent after persisting the message to disk. The RabbitMQ message store persists messages to disk in batches after an interval (a few hundred milliseconds) to minimise the number of fsync(2) calls, or when a queue is idle. This means that under a constant load, latency for basic.ack can reach a few hundred milliseconds. To improve throughput, applications are strongly advised to process acknowledgements asynchronously (as a stream) or publish batches of messages and wait for outstanding confirms. The exact API for this varies between client libraries.
The broker loses persistent messages if it crashes before said messages are written to disk. Under certain conditions, this causes the broker to behave in surprising ways.
For instance, consider this scenario:
Confirm delivery tag is a 64 bit long value, and thus its maximum value is 9223372036854775807.