Tag Archives: Raft

Reading Group. Fault-Tolerant Replication with Pull-Based Consensus in MongoDB

In the last reading group meeting, we discussed MongoDB‘s replication protocol, as described in the “Fault-Tolerant Replication with Pull-Based Consensus in MongoDB” NSDI’21 paper. Our reading group has a few regular members from MongoDB, and this time around, Siyuan Zhou, one of the paper authors, attended the discussion, so we had a perfect opportunity to ask questions and get answers from people directly involved.

Historically, MongoDB had a primary backup replication scheme, which worked fine most of the time, but had a few unresolved corner-cases, such as having more than one active primary at a time due to the failures and primary churn. Having a split-brain in systems is never a good idea, so engineers looked for a better solution. Luckily, there are many solutions for this problem — an entire family of consensus-based replication protocols, like Multi-Paxos and Raft. MongoDB adopted the latter protocol to drive MongoDB’s update replication scheme. 

At this time, I might have finished the summary, congratulated MongoDB on using Raft, and moved on. After all, Raft is a very well-known protocol, and using it poses very few surprises. However, Mongo DB had a couple of twists in their requirements that prevent using vanilla Raft. See, the original MongoDB primary backup scheme had a pull-based replication approach. Usually, the primary node (i.e., the leader) is active and directly prescribes operations/commands to the followers. This active-leader replication happens in traditional primary backup, in Multi-Paxos, Raft, and pretty much any other replication protocol aside from pub-sub systems that rely on subscribers pulling the data. In MongoDB, the primary is passive, and followers must request the data at some repeated intervals. In the figure below, I illustrate the difference between the push-based (active leader) and pull-based (active follower) approaches.  

In both cases, the followers can learn new data from the leader. The pull-based approach, however, requires a bit more work. The leader has to compute the data batch for each follower individually, because followers may all have slightly different progress due to the differences in polling schedule. Also, there is another problem with the pull solution: the primary has no way of knowing whether the followers have received the operations during the pull. And this is important since the primary needs to count replicas accepting each operation to figure out the quorum and ultimately commit the operations. In traditional Raft, the result of AppendEntry RPC carries an ack for a successful operation, allowing the primary to count successful nodes and figure out when the quorum is satisfied. With flipped pull-style communication, there is no reply to the primary, and so we need to add some additional mechanism to propagate this information, as shown in the figure here. Adding more communication is costly, but the extra message can be piggybacked into the consecutive pull request at the expense of latency.

Pull-based Raft. Note that the leader must know when a quorum has accepted an operation.

Now let’s diverge a bit and discuss why MongoDB picked a pull-based approach despite added complexity/cost. The traditional Pull-based solutions are centered around the primary or leader node, creating a star topology. In fact, unless you use something like Pig primitive from our PigPaxos paper, star topology is pretty much all you can have. This is not very good in some scenarios where links may be congested or cost a lot of money. Consider a WAN scenario where two nodes may exist in another region for geo-redundancy to minimize data loss in the event of regional failure. With star topology, the same payload will travel across WAN twice to each of the two replicas, consequently costing twice as much to replicate. With a pull-based approach, it is easier to orchestrate other replication topologies. All we have to do is to instruct one node to pull data from its regional peer instead of the leader across WAN. Naturally, this creates a longer replication chain but saves the WAN link bandwidth, cost, and potentially some resources at the primary.

MongoDB’s pull-based solution enables such chaining by allowing some non-primary nodes to act as sync sources. Sync source is a node that provides data to syncing servers in response to a pull request. Of course, the primary is always a sync source. The high-level overview of node interactions is a follow:

  • Syncing server asks for new log entries from its sync source.
  • Sync source replies with a sequence of log entries.
  • Syncing server appends the log items if items follow the same history. 
  • If source and server logs diverge, the syncing server may have uncommitted data and must clean the divergent suffix. The detection of log divergence is based on matching the last log entry of syncing server with the first entry of the log segment sent by the source. If they match, then the source has sent a continuation of the same history.
  • Syncing server notifies its sync source of how up-to-date it is, including syncing server’s term.

Unlike vanilla raft, the syncing server does not check the term of the source, so it may be possible for a server to accept log entries from a source in some previous term. Of course, this can only happen if the log entries follow the same history. I think MongoDB Raft does so to make sure that the syncing server learns about legit updates from the previous leader even if it has already participated in the new leader’s election round. What is important here, is that the syncing server sends its higher term back to the source (which should propagate to the source’s source, etc, until it reaches the leader for the source’s term). These term messages act as a rejection for the old leader, so it won’t count the syncing server as accepting the message and being a part of the quorum. As a result, if the data from the old-termed sync source was committed, the syncing server has received it and will eventually receive the commit notification from the new leader. If that data is uncommitted by the old leader (i.e., a split-brain situation), then no harm is done since the syncing server does not contribute to the quorum. The syncing server will eventually learn of proper operations instead.

Now speaking of performance, the paper does not provide any comparison between push- and pull-based solutions, so we are left wondering about the impact of such drastic change. However, some experiments illustrate the comparison of star topology and chained replication in a 2-regions WAN setup. While chaining does not seem to increase the performance (unless the cross-region bandwidth is severely restricted), it predictably lowers the WAN bandwidth requirements. As far as maximum performance, the paper mentions that the limiting factor is handling client requests and not replication, and this is why one fewer server pulling from the leader does not impact throughput. I am not sure I am very comfortable with this explanation, to be honest. 

The paper talks about a handful of other optimizations. I will mention just one that seemed the most interesting — speculative execution. With speculative execution, the nodes do not wait for a commitment notification to apply an operation, and speculatively apply it to the store right away. Since the underlying storage engine is multi-version, the system can still return strongly consistent reads by keeping track of the latest committed version. The multi-version store also allows rollbacks in case some operation fails to commit.

You can see my presentation of the paper on YouTube:

Discussion

1) Cost of pull-based replication. The performance cost of the pull-based solutions was the first big discussion topic that I raised in my presentation. As I mentioned, there is an extra communication step needed to allow the primary to learn of quorum acceptance. This step either adds additional message round/RPC call or adds latency if piggybacked to the next pull request. Another concern is pulling data when there is no new data, as this will be wasted communication cycles. 

Luckily, we had MongoDB people, including Siyuan Zhou, one of the paper authors, to shed some light on this. To make things a little better and not waste the communication cycles, the pulls have a rather long “shelf life” — if the source has no data to ship, it will hold on to the pull request for up to 5 seconds before replying with a blank batch. 

Another big optimization in the MongoDB system is a gradual shift to the push-based style! This somewhat makes the entire premise of the paper obsolete, however, this new “push-style” replication is still initiated by the syncing server with a pull, but after the initial pull, the source can push the data to the syncing server as it becomes available. So this allows building these complicated replication topologies while reducing the latency impact of a purely pull-based solution.

Another aspect of cost is the monetary cost, and this is where chained replication topologies can help a lot. Apparently, this was a big ask from clients initially and shaped a lot of the system architecture. 

2) Evolution vs Revolution. So, since the original unproven replication approach was pull-based to allow chained topologies, the new improved and model-checked solution had to evolve from the original replication. One might think that it would have been easier to slap a regular push-based Raft, but that would have been a drastic change for all other components (not to mention the features). This would have required a lot more engineering effort than trying to reuse as much of the existing code as possible. This brings an interesting point on how production software gradually evolves and almost never drastically revolves.

3) Evaluation. The evaluation is the biggest problem of the paper. It lacks any comparison with other replication approaches except old MongoDB’s primary backup scheme. This makes it hard to judge the impacts of the changes. Of course, as we have seen from the discussion with the authors, the actual implementation is even more complicated and evolved. It tries to bridge the gap between pull and push replication styles, so a clear comparison based on MongoDB’s implementation may not have been possible at all. 

That being said, I had some questions even about the provided self-comparisons. See, I would have expected to see a bit of throughput increase from chaining, similar to what I observe in PigPaxos, but there is none. The paper explains it by saying that replication at the sync source takes only 5% of a single core per syncing server, which would amount to just 20% of a core in star topology leader. Roughly, given the VMs used, this is around 5% of the total CPU used on replication, with the paper claiming that all remaining CPU is used to handle client requests. Assuming there is sync every 2 ms, we have about 2000 syncs per second at the leader for 12000 client requests. Doing some napkin math, we can see that there are 6 times more requests than replications per second, yet requests use 19 times the CPU, making each request roughly 3 times more expensive than each replication. Given that replication messages are not super cheap and require querying the log, and serializing the data, the performance cost difference sounds excessive to me, despite considering that client requests have a few writes in them (i.e., write to the log, and operation execution).

Siyuan explained that there is a bit more work on the request path as well. Not only the log is written (and persisted for durability), but there are also some additional writes for session maintenance and indexes. Moreover, the writes in the underlying WiredTiger engine are transactional, costing some performance as well. 

4) PigPaxos? Throwing this out here, but there are push-based solutions that can have more interesting replication topologies than a star. Our PigPaxos, in fact, solves a similar issue of cross-regional replication at a low network cost. 

5) Other pull-based systems. Finally, we try to look at other solutions that may use pull-based replication, but there are not many. Pub-Sub systems fit the pull model naturally as subscribers consume the data by pulling it from the queue/log/topic. Pull-based replication can be handy in disaster recovery when nodes try to catch up to the current state and must ask for updates/changes starting some cursor or point in history. 

6) Reliability/Safety. As the protocol makes one important change of not rejecting the data from the old-termed source, it is important to look at the safety of this change. The paper claims to model the protocol with TLA+ and model checking it. Intuitively, however, we know that even though the node takes the data from the old source, it actively rejects it by sending its higher term. This, intuitively, should be enough to ensure that the old leader does not reach a quorum of accepts (even though there can be a majority of nodes that copied the data) and does not reply to a client of commitment. The rest is taken care of by Raft’s commit procedure upon the term change.

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!

Reading Group. Protocol-Aware Recovery for Consensus-Based Storage

Our last reading group meeting was about storage faults in state machine replications. We looked at the “Protocol-Aware Recovery for Consensus-Based Storage” paper from FAST’18. 

The paper explores an interesting omission in most of the state machine replication (SMR) protocols. These protocols, such as (multi)-Paxos and Raft, are specified with the assumption of having a crash-resistant disk to write the operation log and voting metadata. This disk data allows crashed nodes to restart safely. However, the real-life gets in a way a bit, as infallible storage is as real as unicorns. 

Storage may fail in peculiar ways, when some data may get corrupted, while most other data is correct and the server itself continues working. The problem here is handling such failures. The simplest way is to treat the server as crashed. However, the server must remain crashed, as restarting may get into even more severe state corruption, as the server replays the operations from a faulty log. The paper talks about a variety of other approaches taken to deal with these data issues. The authors state that all the mechanisms they have explored were faulty and led to liveness or safety issues. I personally do not buy such a blanket statement, but a few of the examples in the paper were really interesting. 

The paper then suggests a solution – Protocol-Aware Recovery (PAR). The main point here is to avoid ad-hoc solutions because they are either slow, unsafe, complicated, or all of the above. This makes sense since such a big omission (potential for data-corrupting disk failures) in protocols should be addressed at the protocol level. The paper draws heavily on the Raft state machine protocol and develops the recovery procedure for it.

The log recovery is leader-based and can be broken down into two sub-protocols: follower recovery and leader recovery. The followers are recovered by restoring the data from the leader who always knows of all the committed history. Leader recovery is a bit more tricky and occurs as part of a leader election. Of course, if a non-faulty node can be elected a leader, then recovering faulty nodes is easy with the follower recovery. However, the leader election requires a node to have the most up-to-date log to become a leader, limiting a selection of nodes for the job. That being said, the node can be elected with a corrupted log, but it needs to recover the corrupted entries from the followers. If the entry is not available on any of the followers, the state machine becomes stuck (as it should). The protocol only recovers committed log entries and follows Raft logic to discard non-committed log suffix if it has corrupted entries. 

In addition, to log recovery, the paper also talks about snapshot recovery. The idea behind snapshot recovery is to make sure all nodes take the same snapshots at the same index in the log, break them into “chunks” and recover chunks as needed from other nodes. 

Here is the presentation by Rohan Puri:

Discussion

1) The need for logs? The paper assumes that a state machine takes periodic snapshots to a disk/drive, and such snapshot in combination with a log can be used for node recovery later. This implies that the actual current state of the state machine can be lost due to a server restart. However, some state machines are directly backed by the disk, in essence, representing a rolling snapshot that gets updated every time an operation from the log applies. Recovery of such disk-backed state machine can be quicker and require only log entries happening after the crash/restart. Of course, this does not mean that the disk-backed state machine itself cannot be corrupted. In any case, the log entries are required for recovery and can be garbage collected once all nodes have persisted the state machine to disk (either as part of normal operation or a snapshot), making the time-frame for the log entries to remain useful to be relatively small. 

A more interesting problem may arise in trying to recover the corrupted state machine. If we rely on this “rolling-snapshot” disk-backed state machine, the mechanism the paper uses for snapshot recovery won’t work, since different copies of the state machine may be misaligned ever-so-slightly. Of course, one can always do the costly node restore procedure — restore to some prior snapshot and replay the log, but this is wasteful and requires keeping an extra snapshot and log from the snapshot onwards. In the spirit of the paper, we should rely on distributed copies instead and be able to restore the corruption without relying on storing redundant copies on the same server

2) Persistent memory vs RAM and recovery for in-memory SMR. If we build a state machine replication (SMR) to work purely off RAM, then we do not have the luxury of retaining any state after a restart. As such, in-memory state machines must have different mechanisms to ensure safety. For example, in traditional Multi-Paxos with a disk, a node always remembers the current term/ballot and past votes it has participated in. Without durable memory, a node restart erases the previous voting state, allowing a node to vote on something it has already voted on before, but with a lower term/ballot. This is not safe and may lead to a double-commit on the same log entry when a node promises to some new leader, and then after restart makes a second promise in the same log index to some older leader. 

Allowing for corruption in persistent memory is somewhat similar to not having persistent memory at all, at least when dealing with crashes/restarts. The very piece of data/metadata we need to ensure safety and avoid double voting as in the example above may be corrupted and cannot be used after a restart. However, the same precautions used for in-memory replicated state machines will work with corrupted storage as well and allow for safe recovery. For example, to prevent the double-voting example, a recovering node needs to run a “mock” leader election (or a leader election with a term guaranteed to not succeed). Such leader election will ensure the node gets a proper view of the current ballot/term in the cluster to make sure it no longer accepts votes from prior leaders. After such a mock election, the node can start accepting/voting for log entries while recovering any prior log and/or state machine from any of the replicas. Of course, the full recovery completes when enough data is shipped from other nodes (i.e. snapshots + missing log entries). 

There are a few differences between RAM and persistent storage when it comes to recovery. First of all, while it seems like both can lose data (one due to a reboot, another due to some random corruption), persistent storage still has a hint of data being missing. This is like not remembering what the node has voted for or who was the leader, but still having a 6th sense that something was voted upon. This extra piece of information may be useful in recovery, and indeed the protocol from the paper takes advantage of that to improve fault tolerance and safety. The recovery protocol preserves safety when the majority of nodes fail at the same log index, as the protocol knows something is missing entirely and will halt for safety. In the RAM setting, a mass reboot (i.e. majority of nodes) leads to a collective loss of memory without any hint that something may have been agreed upon, leading to a rewrite of the log. 

The second difference is that persistent memory may not lose all the data, so fewer items must be shipped from the followers. 

3) Leader-bound recovery. The paper suggests recovering followers from the leader node. This can put more load on the leader, who is already a bottleneck in the protocol. It seems like it may be possible to recover committed log entries from followers (the paper already does so for leader recovery) to make the recovery procedure less demanding for the leader.

4) Byzantine. The paper touches a bit on this topic. Data corruption on disk can be viewed through the lens of Byzantine fault tolerance. The corruption causes a node to act outside of the protocol specs, and byzantine-tolerant protocols are designed to handle such “out-of-spec” behaviors. The paper is a good example of how we can often solve some specific types of byzantine behaviors without resorting to the full-blown PBFT-style solutions. This is very practical, as we want the state machine to handle data corruptions, but we do not want to pay the performance penalty associated with BFT protocols. 

5) Luckilyhood of data corruption. Another point of discussion was around the likelihood of such data-faults happening. It does not seem like these are too frequent, but they do happen. We touched on a few anecdotal occurrences. For example, some firmware issues causing the disk to not write some large buffers of data. 

It is also worth noting error correction. Error correction is standard for server-grade memory, and it comes at a relatively small monetary/performance cost. Similar error-correction technologies are used in disks and drives, allowing for small errors (i.e. a bit-flip) to be fixed by the drive. In fact, NAND flash SSDs rely on error correction in normal operation.

6) Infallible disk. Protocols assume disk is always correct. Why? Even on the surface, this does not come as a super tight assumption. And especially on the scale of millions of SMR instances deployed across millions of machines.

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!

Reading Group. Paxos vs Raft: Have we reached consensus on distributed consensus?

In our 54th reading group meeting, we were looking for an answer to an important question in the distributed systems community: “What about Raft?” We looked at the “Paxos vs Raft: Have we reached consensus on distributed consensus?” paper to try to find the answer. As always, we had an excellent presentation, this time by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

The paper compares Multi-Paxos and Raft protocols, but it does so through the lens of Raft and uses Raft terminology to describe Paxos. This can be very handy for people who first learned consensus through Raft. The paper mentions that the two protocols are very similar, especially in the “happy-case” operations. The important differences come in the leader-election phases of the protocols. In Raft, a new leader must be a fully caught-up replica with the longest log, while Multi-Paxos can pick any node as a leader and recover missing log entries. The authors argue that this Raft behavior is good for efficiency — the new leader can start quickly since it does not need to learn any missing entries. 

When it comes to understandability, the paper says that Raft is “slightly more understandable than Paxos.” I suppose this comparison comes after expressing/explaining Paxos in Raft terminology, and not based on the original explanations. 

Personally, Paxos is more understandable to me, since I absolutely hate the quirk of Raft when a majority-accepted but not committed value may get “chopped off” upon some intricate leader churn (See Figure 8 in the original paper). This ties to the sequential commit requirement in the normal case, and different commit rules that apply upon leader churn, which all tie to the leader election procedure itself. How is it more understandable? In contrast, Paxos never loses a majority-accepted value and has one commit rule, although it allows committing out-of-order (the execution of committed operations still must follow the log order). 

I won’t go further into summarizing the paper, it is a good educational read, so I do not want to spoil it.

Discussion.

1) Orignal Paxos Papers as a Source of Confusion? Needless to say, Lamport’s Paxos original paper does not have the clearest description of the algorithm. This somewhat extends to Lamport’s Paxos Made Simple paper, and Paxos Made Moderately Complex by Robbert van Renesse. However, the relative difficulty of understanding Paxos from these later papers may not lie in the algorithm’s description itself, but in the language used. Raft paper is written with an engineering audience in mind, and operates with primitives, like RPCs, that can be used in programming languages right away. Raft is described in operational concepts, such as server states with clear boundaries and transitions between states — first, do leader election, then do log replication, and finally, go back to leader election if needed. These may have a great appeal to students and professionals. We teach computer science from the code first (it is a separate discussion whether this is the right way to approach distributed systems though), and describing protocol closer to code has a certain appeal. 

Multi-Paxos is described in more abstract terms. Multi-Paxos is not as “operational.” For example, the leader election gets blurred a bit with replication as the leader may need to fill some slots before becoming fully active. Transitions back to leader election are also a bit murkier compared to Raft.

I think it is great to have this abstract Paxos algorithm that we can shape and implement in a variety of ways. This leads us to uncover new ways it can be refined and/or implemented — take a look at Flexible Paxos result.

2) Reference Implementation(s). To continue the previous point, a great appeal of Raft are many (reference) implementations. This again appeals greatly to engineers, who can look at the code and run it, trace through breakpoints, and learn it hands-on. Another point that was mention in the discussion is a kind of herd effect. Once a good production-grade implementation is available, more people will just take it and use it. 

3) Leader election efficiency. We spent a bit of time discussing the leader election efficiency point from the paper. This is an important feature that may come in handy in disaster recovery performance. The question is how realistic it is to have followers that significantly lag behind. These lagging followers may put pressure on the leader, as the leader cannot compact the log while some follower is struggling behind and consumes it, which may cause higher memory and/or storage consumption. But of course, this applies only to severely lagging machines, and the performance hit from catch up after the leader election can be noticeable even with a less severe staleness. In the discussion, it was mentioned that having hours of staleness is possible on some systems!

On the other hand, the Cloudflare outage is a good illustration of how Raft’s leader election fails at liveness unless we add a bit more complexity to the protocol (and removing understandability?). So its good performance may get compromised under some conditions. Here is the paper on this too: “Examining Raft’s behaviour during partial network failures.” And no surprise, it is by Heidi Howard.

4) Is Raft an Implementation of Multi-Paxos? Given a more abstract description of Multi-Paxos and a more direct (and less flexible?) approach taken by Raft, one may think that Raft is, in a sense, an implementation of Multi-Paxos. Both protocols operate on Majority quorums, have a stable leader. They have the same communication pattern as the leader talks to followers. Differences appear in the leader election, but are these big enough differences? Can one implement something Raft-like from an abstract Paxos blueprint? 

The differences may appear big, but they also may appear as a refinement of Paxos. 

  • Can I elect a leader without having to copy data from followers? Sure, if you pick the most up-to-date follower to be the leader. 
  • How do I know which one is the most up-to-date? Well, look at the latest committed log item. 
  • Wait a sec, in Paxos I can commit out of order, so which one is the latest committed log item? Just don’t commit out of order… 

5) Porting Paxos Optimizations to Raft. As mentioned in our presentation, another paper tried to answer Paxos vs Raft question. That paper, titled “On the Parallels between Paxos and Raft, and how to PortOptimizations“, looked at a number of Paxos optimizations and tried to figure out if they can apply to Raft. The authors there concluded that for the most part, they apply. And they also noted how the two protocols are similar and can be made more similar by tweaking the implementation of Multi-Paxos to be more Raft-like (which goes back to point (4) above).

6) Industry Use of Raft vs Multi-Paxos. The industry loves Raft. For the reasons I already mentioned above: reference code, good existing libraries, the description that is closer to the code. One notable company that has been using Multi-Paxos is Google. Their Spanner database is based on Multi-Paxos. However, its open-source cousins (CockroachDB and YugabyteDB) rely on Raft. We were wondering how much more difficult it was to implement Multi-Paxos in production compared to Raft in this similar databases.  

Easy adoption is a great point for use in the industry, especially when businesses lack the expertise to use formal methods to check their protocols or protocol variants. However, this may be changing now, as formal methods, like TLA+, are picking up more widespread adoption. We see that companies start to modify their Raft protocols in a variety of ways, and remain confident in their safety and liveness properties through model-checking. This adoption of formal methods may bring Multi-Paxos and Raft closer together, as a more abstract way of thinking about these protocols may highlight their similarities. For example, Jesse mentioned how they use TLA+ to build confidence in their variant of Raft.

7) Other Consensus Protocols. Another important topic we discussed relates to other consensus protocols. There are plenty of consensus-based replicated state machines, yet we still pretty much use Paxos or Raft. Solutions like EPaxos and its extension have been around for some time. Is the problem that they are hard to implement? Are they difficult to understand as well? EPaxos is not an easy protocol for sure, but it has a reference implementation. Or maybe these protocols are not as good in practice as the papers promise…

8) Teachability. If the community has a good understanding and description of Paxos, why not use it in classrooms and textbooks? There are not that many good distributed systems textbooks, and it seems like a lot of faculty prefer to teach from papers and their own notes. The same goes for engineering folks who have to pick up on distributed systems state-of-the-art through an extensive literature survey. 

We have mentioned a few sources to help with distributed systems such as the “Designing Data-Intensive Applications” book by Martin Kleppmann or MIT distributed systems course.

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!

Consensus with Raft Algorithm

When we talk about consensus in a distributed system, we talk about a system consisting of multiple machines that act as one state machine yet capable of surviving failures of some of the system nodes. Consensus algorithms are designed to enforce all distributed nodes have the same state so that the distributed system can tolerate failures. Paxos family of algorithms are probably the most widely used consensus mechanism currently used in practice, but according to many researcher in the community  it is fairly difficult for implementation and understanding. The authors of Raft claim to have designed an efficient, reliable consensus algorithm that is easy to understand. In fact, the ease of comprehension was at the cornerstone of the algorithm development and influenced many decisions.

Consensus

In the very basic terms, the need to establish consensus arises when a set of clients send requests to the replicated state machines. Such machines need to keep the same state and same log of state changes.  In case some nodes of such replicated system fail, an uninterrupted operation is still going to be possible with leftover machines. Once the machines recover from the failure, their state can be brought up to date with the rest of the cluster.

consensus

Figure 1. Simplified view of distributed system

An oversimplified view of a distributed system is shown in Figure 1. As the clients send requests to the system, at handles the requests, and replicates state and log changes across the cluster to make sure each node has the correct information. It is the job of a consensus algorithm to keep replicated state machines in agreement with each other.

Raft

Raft is a fairly new consensus algorithm, and as have been mentioned earlier one of the requirement was the ease of understanding. I will not go into much details describing the algorithm, and will provide only the basics of the approach.

Each server in the Raft system can take one of the three possible roles: leader, follower and candidate. The role each server takes determines how it reacts to the messages and requests received. For example, on leader can receive requests form the client, while the follower nodes must relay any client communication to the leader. Follower servers listen and respond to the leader server. A follower node may become a candidate node when it believes that no leader is available.

Leader Election

The first step in the Raft algorithm is a leader election. Once a server starts up, it enters the follower mode, if no leader is present, the node will timeout and change its role to the candidate, thus starting the election process. In the election process, a candidate sends out requests to other nodes, and if other nodes acknowledge such requests, a candidate becomes a leader. A leader failure can occur while the system is operating, but such case is no different than the startup of the cluster, since the followers will timeout and start the election process.

The concept of a term is used as a logical time for the system. Term is used to count how many leaders has been observed by the system. Term information is used to determine stale server with no up-to-date information about the current state of the system.  For instance, is a node believes it is in term x, while other nodes are in term x+1, then such stale node needs to be updated with correct log and state machine. Term is also important for leader election, as the system needs to make sure no stale node can become the leader.

Log Replication

Consensus algorithms needs to enforce the replication of state change log. In Raft, only a leader can serve client requests, reducing possible requests entry points down to one machine. Once a leader receives a request, it communicates the change to the follower servers and after receiving acknowledgement of such communication from the majority of the followers, the leader applies or commits the request to its state machine and serves the result to the client.  In case some followers do not respond with an acknowledgement, the leader will be trying to update the log of such follower until it receives a successful ack.

Figure 2 show the log entries for a hypothetical cluster of 5 machines. In this scenario, we have some followers who significantly lack behind, but it does not stop the system to advance as long as the majority of servers acknowledge that they received the log entry from the leader. As can be seen, log entries up to log #7 are committed, because the majority of machines accepted that entry.

log

Figure 2. Log structure in Raft. (Source: “In Search of an understandable Consensus Algorithm

There are a few key safety properties Raft algorithm enforces:

  • Only one leader can be elected at a time.
  • A leader can only add new entries to the log, but not modify the existing ones.
  • When logs have an entry with the same ID and term, such entry and all entries prior to it must contain the same data.
  • No two distinct entries can exist with the same id.

More to Read and Think

I am leaving out a lot of details about the algorithm, but I think the basic gist of it can be understood. Of course the paper provides more information and mentions a few optimizations to the algorithm.

One thing that caught my attention when looking at the algorithm is the need to have a single entry point for all client requests. I may be wrong since it is probable the case for all other algorithms with a strong leader, but it seems like this can be a limited factor, if a leader, who serves as such entry point runs out of compute resources or network bandwidth. Imagine a scenario when a leader is so overloaded with serving clients and communicating with all the follower that it causes network latency to go up and eventually severs the connection entirely. A new leader is then elected and it has to deal with even more client requests, more log replications and eventually fails too…