Recently I rediscovered the “The many faces of consistency” paper by Marcos Aguilera and Doug Terry. When I first read the paper two years ago, I largely dismissed it as trivial, and, oh boy, now I realized how wrong I was at that time. It is easy to read for sure, and may appear as some summary of various consistency models at first, but it is thought provoking and really makes you ask more questions and draw interesting parallels after giving it some quality time.
Murat gave a good summary of this paper recently in relation to his sabbatical. The questions he asks after the summary, however, provoke even more thoughts about consistency and how we classify, categorize and view it.
In a nutshell, the paper talks about consistency from different perspectives, namely state consistency as observed by a system itself and operational consistency that clients see. State consistency involves enforcing a system-state to hold some invariants. State consistency promotes invariant-based reasoning. The operational consistency is different, as it looks at the system from the client point of view. Outside clients do not directly observe the state of the system, instead they perform operations against it and can only see the results of these operations. So in short, state consistency is invariant-based and concerns with the internal state of the systems. Operational consistency deals with what clients observe from the outside of the system. These operational consistencies include various types sequential equivalence, such as linearizability and serializability, and other client-centric guarantees, like read-your-write or bounded-staleness.
“Strength” of state consistency.
What strikes me right away is how different the two types of consistency are described. Operational consistency gives us the framework for reasoning about systems without having too many details about the internals. We can gauge the relative “strength” of different consistency models and put them in perspective against each other. We know the serializability is weaker then session serializability. Or that linearizability is stronger than sequential equivalence.
But what about state consistency? There is no such reasoning framework. And in fact, it is not easy to even classify state consistency, yet along reason about the “strength” of different state consistency classes. The paper mentions a few state consistency models, such referential integrity for databases, or mutual consistency in primary-backup systems, or error bounds. But these are not generally applicable across the board. These examples of state consistency operate within the constraints of their specific domains or applications.
However, state consistency still comes at different “strength” levels. When reasoning about state consistency, we use invariant-based approach. The invariants on the state we need to enforce for an eventually consistent data-store and a strongly-consistent one are different. In the former case, we can be more relaxed, since we only need to make sure that at least one future state will have different nodes of the store to have the same data. The latter case is more complicated, as we need to hold stricter invariants (i.e. no two alive nodes have different committed value for the same slot in the log, and there can be only one active leader, and the leader must process the commands in the receive order, etc.).
It is the “tightness” of the invariants that makes state consistency strong or weak. But deciding which invariant is tighter or stricter is hard. We cannot simply compare various invariants on the merits of when they should hold, or how many parameters they cover or how many nodes they span, as all these (and other) metrics mean something only in the context of their systems/problems. Invariant that must hold at every state is not necessarily tighter than the eventual one, as it may simply be an invariant against some irrelevant or trivial parameter that holds all the time anyway and has no impact on the system.
And this is why we often translate these invariants and state consistency they represent into the operational consistency. The operational side of things allows us to observe the impact of the invariants on the system, albeit indirectly. Operational consistency levels the playing field and enables the comparison from the external point of view. It allows us to gauge how otherwise hard-to-compare invariants at the state-consistency level affect the outcome of operations.
Smart systems or smart clients
Does this mean that a system providing stronger operational consistency has stronger state consistency? Well, it would have been too simple if that was the case. It often happens, and more so recently, that systems have “misalignments” between their internal state consistency and the operational one exposed on the client side.
A system that provides stronger operational semantics may do so because it has a strong state that makes it easy to expose the strong operational consistency. These smart systems preserve strong state-consistency at all costs. They may need to run complicated algorithms (i.e. Paxos) to achieve that, but doing so makes the clients lean and simple with minimal or no state at all.
On the other hand, simple systems may forgo the complicated protocols needed to enforce a strong state. Instead they aim to run as lean as possible at the core system level and shift as much burden to the smart clients. These clients need to have more complex state and protocols if they are to provide stronger operational guarantees. There are systems that do exactly that.
Both “smart system – lean client” and “lean system – smart client” approaches have their advantages and drawbacks. Designing and maintaining a smart system may actually be simpler: all the things engineers need are readily available at the system level. Invariant-based reasoning and tools like TLA easily apply in this setting. Debugging is simpler too, since lean and stateless clients are likely not the cause of a problem, and internal logging can help collect all the necessary information. On the other hand, having a lean system may improve the performance by reducing the bottlenecks, spreading load more evenly across the nodes and even sharing the load with smart clients. But it comes at some engineering costs. Protocols now involve more state and state is even more distributed: both at the lean system nodes and smart clients. Modeling this state with TLA is still possible, but it will likely take more time to check and require a more complicated models that include clients and client interactions with the system nodes. Debugging may be slowed down due to the lack of necessary data, since many issues (especially on production) may happen at smart clients outside of the engineers’ reach.
Instead of Conclusion
State consistency is an interesting beast. It does not give us the same mental reasoning framework as operational consistency. We, the distributed systems people, often think about the consistency in operational terms. It is easy to understand why, since operational consistency allows for comparison between systems or protocols. But then we, the distributed systems people, also think in terms of state consistency. We model our systems at the state level, trying to give good invariants, try to see what states should always hold, or how a system needs to converge to certain states.
But now understand that there is no clear path from strong state to strong operational consistency. Strong state makes it easier to build operationally strong systems, but it is not a requirement. In fact, for example ZooKeeper, despite having a Paxos-like protocol at its heart is not all that operationally strong. And some systems, like TAPIR or OCCULT, may have weaker state, but with clever engineering and smart clients can provide stronger operational semantics. The world of distributed systems is not black-and-white. There are lots of gray in between.