Reading Group. ByShard: Sharding in a Byzantine Environment

Our 93rd paper in the reading group was “ByShard: Sharding in a Byzantine Environment” by Jelle Hellings, Mohammad Sadoghi. This VLDB’21 paper talks about sharded byzantine systems and proposes an approach that can implement 18 different multi-shard transaction algorithms. More specifically, the paper discusses two-phase commit (2PC) and two-phase locking (2PL) in a byzantine environment.

As usual, we had a presentation of the paper. Karolis Petrauskas did an excellent job explaining this work: 

The paper states that modern blockchain technology relies on full replication, making the systems slower and harder to scale. 

Sharding is a natural way to solve the problem and has been done countless times in the crash fault tolerance setting. Of course, a sharded system often needs to perform transactions that touch data in more than one shard. The usual way to solve this in CFT is to use some version of 2PC coupled with some concurrency control mechanism, like 2PL. ByShard follows this general recipe, but in the BFT setting, which complicates things a bit. The problem is making 2PC and 2PL work in a byzantine, adversarial environment without tightly coupling all shards back together into one “megashard.” So, we need a way to communicate between shards in a reliable way. 

Let’s look at a transaction lifecycle. When we have a transaction that spans multiple shards, the first step is to deliver this transaction to each shard and check whether a shard can run it. Then, if everything is ok, we need to run the transaction and provide some isolation from other ongoing transactions. ByShard implements all these actions with shard-steps. Each shard-step is a building block of all ByShard protocols and allows the shard to inspect a transaction, make changes to the local state, and send the message to start another shard-step on another shard. Overall, ByShard uses three distinct types of shard-steps: vote-step, commit-step, and abort-step. 

The message sending part is kind of important, as we need this communication to be reliable in the BFT setting. The paper gracefully ignores this problem and points to a few solutions in the literature. In short, ByShard requires a cluster-sending protocol that ensures reliable communication between shards, such that, all correct nodes of the receiver shard get the message, all the correct nodes of the sender shard get an acknowledgment, and that sending requires the sender shard to reach an agreement on what to send. The last point ensures that bad actors do not send malicious stuff, and I suspect on the receiver there needs to be a way to check that the received messages were indeed certified by the sender’s consensus. 

Vote-step is used to replicate the transaction between shards. When a shard receives the transaction, it starts the vote-step and checks whether it can proceed with the transaction. The shard may also perform local state changes if needed. At the end of the vote-step, a shard forwards some information to another shard to start a new shard-step. Since we only have three building blocks, the stuff vote-step sends can start another vote-step, commit-step, or abort-step at the receiving end. The purpose of commit-step and abort-step is self-evident from their name. One important thing to note on abort-step is that it needs to undo any local changes that a prior vote-step might have done to ensure that the aborted transaction leaves no side effects. 

Now we can look at how ByShard composes these three basics steps. The figure above provides a visual illustration of three different ways ByShard runs 2PC. One aspect of the figure that I fail to understand is why not all shards run vote-step and commit-step, and the text does not really provide an explanation.

In the linear orchestration, the transaction progresses from the coordinator one shard at a time. If any shard decides to abort, it needs to start the abort-step and notify all other shards involved in the transaction (or at least all other shards that voted earlier). If a shard decides to commit, it actually starts a vote-step in the next shard. If the vote-step successfully reaches and passes the last shard involved in the transaction, then that last shard can broadcast the commit-step to everyone. Centralized orchestration looks more like the traditional 2PC, and distributed orchestration cuts down on the number of sequential steps even further. The three strategies represent tradeoffs between the latency and number of communication exchanges and shard-steps. 

So with 2PC taken care of, we can briefly discuss the concurrency control. ByShard proposes a few different ways to implement it, starting with no concurrency control, thus allowing observation of partial results. Because of the side effect cleaning ability of abort-step, if some transaction partly executes and then reaches the abort-step, then its execution will be undone or rolled back. This reminds me of the sagas pattern. The other solution is to use locks to control isolation. The paper (or the presentation above) has more details on the nuances of locking and requiring different locks with a different type of orchestration. By combining different ways to orchestrate the transactions with different ways to execute them, ByShard presents 18 BFT transactional protocols with different isolation and consistency properties. 

Discussion

1) Comparison with Basil. An obvious discussion is a comparison with Basil, another transactional sharded BFT system. Basil is a lot closer to the Meerkat solution from the CFT world, while ByShard is a more classical 2PC+2PL approach. In Basil, the degree of fault of tolerance is smaller (i.e, it needs 5f+1 clusters). At the same time, ByShard is a lot underspecified compared to Basil. ByShard relies on existing BFT consensus and BFT cluster-broadcast mechanisms to work, while Basil provides a complete and contained solution. On the performance side of things, ByShard requires a lot of steps and a lot of consensus operations across all the involved shards to do all of the shard-steps. This must have a significant performance toll. While it is not correct to compare numbers straight between papers, Basil can run thousands of transactions per second, while ByShard’s throughput is in single digits. However, it is worth mentioning that ByShard’s experiments included more shards; ByShard’s transactions also involved large number of shards. 

2) (Distributed) Sagas Pattern. As I briefly mentioned in the summary above, ByShard, especially with linear orchestration and no isolation reminds me of Sagas patterns. Distributed sagas are used to orchestrate long-running requests in microservice-type applications. If we squint our eyes, we can see each shard as a separate microservice. As vote-steps propagate across shards, they perform local changes. And if an abort is needed, the abort causes these changes to be rolled back. However, when we add isolation to ByShard, the similarities with sagas start to disappear. 

3) Performance. An important motivation for sharding is performance, however, it does not seem like ByShard achieves stellar performance here. Of course, sharding is still useful for systems that operate with large amounts of data that otherwise would not fit into a single machine. Nevertheless, without strong performance, a solution like this has very few advantages over not using sharded/partitioned systems at all. 

Reading Group

Our reading groups takes place over Zoom every Wednesday at 2:00 pm EST. We have a slack group where we post papers, hold discussions and most importantly manage Zoom invites to the papers. Please join the slack group to get involved!