From the Ground Up: Reasoning About Distributed Systems in the Real World

The rabbit hole is deep. Down and down it goes. Where it ends, nobody knows. But as we traverse it, patterns appear. They give us hope, they quell the fear.

Distributed systems literature is abundant, but as a practitioner, I often find it difficult to know where to start or how to synthesize this knowledge without a more formal background. This is a non-academic’s attempt to provide a line of thought for rationalizing design decisions. This piece doesn’t necessarily contribute any new ideas but rather tries to provide a holistic framework by studying some influential existing ones. It includes references which provide a good starting point for thinking about distributed systems. Specifically, we look at a few formal results and slightly less formal design principles to provide a basis from which we can argue about system design.

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. I wish I could say there is no red-pill/blue-pill scenario at play here, but the world of distributed systems is complex. In order to make sense of it, we reason from the ground up while simultaneously stumbling down the deep and cavernous rabbit hole.

Guiding Principles

In order to reason about distributed system design, it’s important to lay out some guiding principles or theorems used to establish an argument. Perhaps the most fundamental of which is the Two Generals Problem originally introduced by Akkoyunlu et al. in Some Constraints and Trade-offs in the Design of Network Communications and popularized by Jim Gray in Notes on Data Base Operating Systems in 1975 and 1978, respectively. The Two Generals Problem demonstrates that it’s impossible for two processes to agree on a decision over an unreliable network. It’s closely related to the binary consensus problem (“attack” or “don’t attack”) where the following conditions must hold:

  • Termination: all correct processes decide some value (liveness property).
  • Validity: if all correct processes decide v, then v must have been proposed by some correct process (non-triviality property).
  • Integrity: all correct processes decide at most one value v, and is the “right” value (safety property).
  • Agreement: all correct processes must agree on the same value (safety property).

It becomes quickly apparent that any useful distributed algorithm consists of some intersection of both liveness and safety properties. The problem becomes more complicated when we consider an asynchronous network with crash failures:

  • Asynchronous: messages may be delayed arbitrarily long but will eventually be delivered.
  • Crash failure: processes can halt indefinitely.

Considering this environment actually leads us to what is arguably one of the most important results in distributed systems theory: the FLP impossibility result introduced by Fischer, Lynch, and Patterson in their 1985 paper Impossibility of Distributed Consensus with One Faulty Process. This result shows that the Two Generals Problem is provably impossible. When we do not consider an upper bound on the time a process takes to complete its work and respond in a crash-failure model, it’s impossible to make the distinction between a process that is crashed and one that is taking a long time to respond. FLP shows there is no algorithm which deterministically solves the consensus problem in an asynchronous environment when it’s possible for at least one process to crash. Equivalently, we say it’s impossible to have a perfect failure detector in an asynchronous system with crash failures.

When talking about fault-tolerant systems, it’s also important to consider Byzantine faults, which are essentially arbitrary faults. These include, but are not limited to, attacks which might try to subvert the system. For example, a security attack might try to generate or falsify messages. The Byzantine Generals Problem is a generalized version of the Two Generals Problem which describes this fault model. Byzantine fault tolerance attempts to protect against these threats by detecting or masking a bounded number of Byzantine faults.

Why do we care about consensus? The reason is it’s central to so many important problems in system design. Leader election implements consensus allowing you to dynamically promote a coordinator to avoid single points of failure. Distributed databases implement consensus to ensure data consistency across nodes. Message queues implement consensus to provide transactional or ordered delivery. Distributed init systems implement consensus to coordinate processes. Consensus is fundamentally an important problem in distributed programming.

It has been shown time and time again that networks, whether local-area or wide-area, are often unreliable and largely asynchronous. As a result, these proofs impose real and significant challenges to system design.

The implications of these results are not simply academic: these impossibility results have motivated a proliferation of systems and designs offering a range of alternative guarantees in the event of network failures.

L. Peter Deutsch’s fallacies of distributed computing are a key jumping-off point in the theory of distributed systems. It presents a set of incorrect assumptions which many new to the space frequently make, of which the first is “the network is reliable.”

  1. The network is reliable.
  2. Latency is zero.
  3. Bandwidth is infinite.
  4. The network is secure.
  5. Topology doesn’t change.
  6. There is one administrator.
  7. Transport cost is zero.
  8. The network is homogeneous.

The CAP theorem, while recently the subject of scrutiny and debate over whether it’s overstated or not, is a useful tool for establishing fundamental trade-offs in distributed systems and detecting vendor sleight of hand. Gilbert and Lynch’s Perspectives on the CAP Theorem lays out the intrinsic trade-off between safety and liveness in a fault-prone system, while Fox and Brewer’s Harvest, Yield, and Scalable Tolerant Systems characterizes it in a more pragmatic light. I will continue to say unequivocally that the CAP theorem is important within the field of distributed systems and of significance to system designers and practitioners.

A Renewed Hope

Following from the results detailed earlier would imply many distributed algorithms, including those which implement linearizable operations, serializable transactions, and leader election, are a hopeless endeavor. Is it game over? Fortunately, no. Carefully designed distributed systems can maintain correctness without relying on pure coincidence.

First, it’s important to point out that the FLP result does not indicate consensus is unreachable, just that it’s not always reachable in bounded time. Second, the system model FLP uses is, in some ways, a pathological one. Synchronous systems place a known upper bound on message delivery between processes and on process computation. Asynchronous systems have no fixed upper bounds. In practice, systems tend to exhibit partial synchrony, which is described as one of two models by Dwork and Lynch in Consensus in the Presence of Partial Synchrony. In the first model of partial synchrony, fixed bounds exist but they are not known a priori. In the second model, the bounds are known but are only guaranteed to hold starting at unknown time T. Dwork and Lynch present fault-tolerant consensus protocols for both partial-synchrony models combined with various fault models.

Chandra and Toueg introduce the concept of unreliable failure detectors in Unreliable Failure Detectors for Reliable Distributed Systems. Each process has a local, external failure detector which can make mistakes. The detector monitors a subset of the processes in the system and maintains a list of those it suspects to have crashed. Failures are detected by simply pinging each process periodically and suspecting any process which doesn’t respond to the ping within twice the maximum round-trip time for any previous ping. The detector makes a mistake when it erroneously suspects a correct process, but it may later correct the mistake by removing the process from its list of suspects. The presence of failure detectors, even unreliable ones, makes consensus solvable in a slightly relaxed system model.

While consensus ensures processes agree on a value, atomic broadcast ensures processes deliver the same messages in the same order. This same paper shows that the problems of consensus and atomic broadcast are reducible to each other, meaning they are equivalent. Thus, the FLP result and others apply equally to atomic broadcast, which is used in coordination services like Apache ZooKeeper.

In Introduction to Reliable and Secure Distributed Programming, Cachin, Guerraoui, and Rodrigues suggest most practical systems can be described as partially synchronous:

Generally, distributed systems appear to be synchronous. More precisely, for most systems that we know of, it is relatively easy to define physical time bounds that are respected most of the time. There are, however, periods where the timing assumptions do not hold, i.e., periods during which the system is asynchronous. These are periods where the network is overloaded, for instance, or some process has a shortage of memory that slows it down. Typically, the buffer that a process uses to store incoming and outgoing messages may overflow, and messages may thus get lost, violating the time bound on the delivery. The retransmission of the messages may help ensure the reliability of the communication links but introduce unpredictable delays. In this sense, practical systems are partially synchronous.

We capture partial synchrony by assuming timing assumptions only hold eventually without stating exactly when. Similarly, we call the system eventually synchronous. However, this does not guarantee the system is synchronous forever after a certain time, nor does it require the system to be initially asynchronous then after a period of time become synchronous. Instead it implies the system has periods of asynchrony which are not bounded, but there are periods where the system is synchronous long enough for an algorithm to do something useful or terminate. The key thing to remember with asynchronous systems is that they contain no timing assumptions.

Lastly, On the Minimal Synchronism Needed for Distributed Consensus by Dolev, Dwork, and Stockmeyer describes a consensus protocol as t-resilient if it operates correctly when at most t processes fail. In the paper, several critical system parameters and synchronicity conditions are identified, and it’s shown how varying them affects the t-resiliency of an algorithm. Consensus is shown to be provably possible for some models and impossible for others.

Fault-tolerant consensus is made possible by relying on quorums. The intuition is that as long as a majority of processes agree on every decision, there is at least one process which knows about the complete history in the presence of faults.

Deterministic consensus, and by extension a number of other useful algorithms, is impossible in certain system models, but we can model most real-world systems in a way that circumvents this. Nevertheless, it shows the inherent complexities involved with distributed systems and the rigor needed to solve certain problems.

Theory to Practice

What does all of this mean for us in practice? For starters, it means distributed systems are usually a harder problem than they let on. Unfortunately, this is often the cause of improperly documented trade-offs or, in many cases, data loss and safety violations. It also suggests we need to rethink the way we design systems by shifting the focus from system properties and guarantees to business rules and application invariants.

One of my favorite papers is End-To-End Arguments in System Design by Saltzer, Reed, and Clark. It’s an easy read, but it presents a compelling design principle for determining where to place functionality in a distributed system. The principle idea behind the end-to-end argument is that functions placed at a low level in a system may be redundant or of little value when compared to the cost of providing them at that low level. It follows that, in many situations, it makes more sense to flip guarantees “inside out”—pushing them outwards rather than relying on subsystems, middleware, or low-level layers of the stack to maintain them.

To illustrate this, we consider the problem of “careful file transfer.” A file is stored by a file system on the disk of computer A, which is linked by a communication network to computer B. The goal is to move the file from computer A’s storage to computer B’s storage without damage and in the face of various failures along the way. The application in this case is the file-transfer program which relies on storage and network abstractions. We can enumerate just a few of the potential problems an application designer might be concerned with:

  1. The file, though originally written correctly onto the disk at host A, if read now may contain incorrect data, perhaps because of hardware faults in the disk storage system.
  2. The software of the file system, the file transfer program, or the data communication system might make a mistake in buffering and copying the data of the file, either at host A or host B.
  3. The hardware processor or its local memory might have a transient error while doing the buffering and copying, either at host A or host B.
  4. The communication system might drop or change the bits in a packet, or lose a packet or deliver a packet more than once.
  5. Either of the hosts may crash part way through the transaction after performing an unknown amount (perhaps all) of the transaction.

Many of these problems are Byzantine in nature. When we consider each threat one by one, it becomes abundantly clear that even if we place countermeasures in the low-level subsystems, there will still be checks required in the high-level application. For example, we might place checksums, retries, and sequencing of packets in the communication system to provide reliable data transmission, but this really only eliminates threat four. An end-to-end checksum and retry mechanism at the file-transfer level is needed to guard against the remaining threats.

Building reliability into the low level has a number of costs involved. It takes a non-trivial amount of effort to build it. It’s redundant and, in fact, hinders performance by reducing the frequency of application retries and adding unneeded overhead. It also has no actual effect on correctness because correctness is determined and enforced by the end-to-end checksum and retries. The reliability and correctness of the communication system is of little importance, so going out of its way to ensure resiliency does not reduce any burden on the application. In fact, ensuring correctness by relying on the low level might be altogether impossible since threat number two requires writing correct programs, but not all programs involved may be written by the file-transfer application programmer.

Fundamentally, there are two problems with placing functionality at the lower level. First, the lower level is not aware of the application needs or semantics, which means logic placed there is often insufficient. This leads to duplication of logic as seen in the example earlier. Second, other applications which rely on the lower level pay the cost of the added functionality even when they don’t necessarily need it.

Saltzer, Reed, and Clark propose the end-to-end principle as a sort of “Occam’s razor” for system design, arguing that it helps guide the placement of functionality and organization of layers in a system.

Because the communication subsystem is frequently specified before applications that use the subsystem are known, the designer may be tempted to “help” the users by taking on more function than necessary. Awareness of end-to end arguments can help to reduce such temptations.

However, it’s important to note that the end-to-end principle is not a panacea. Rather, it’s a guideline to help get designers to think about their solutions end to end, acknowledge their application requirements, and consider their failure modes. Ultimately, it provides a rationale for moving function upward in a layered system, closer to the application that uses the function, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Low-level mechanisms might be built as a performance optimization. Regardless, the end-to-end argument contends that lower levels should avoid taking on any more responsibility than necessary. The “lessons” section from Google’s Bigtable paper echoes some of these same sentiments:

Another lesson we learned is that it is important to delay adding new features until it is clear how the new features will be used. For example, we initially planned to support general-purpose transactions in our API. Because we did not have an immediate use for them, however, we did not implement them. Now that we have many real applications running on Bigtable, we have been able to examine their actual needs, and have discovered that most applications require only single-row transactions. Where people have requested distributed transactions, the most important use is for maintaining secondary indices, and we plan to add a specialized mechanism to satisfy this need. The new mechanism will be less general than distributed transactions, but will be more efficient (especially for updates that span hundreds of rows or more) and will also interact better with our scheme for optimistic cross-datacenter replication.

We’ll see the end-to-end argument as a common theme throughout the remainder of this piece.

Whose Guarantee Is It Anyway?

Generally, we rely on robust algorithms, transaction managers, and coordination services to maintain consistency and application correctness. The problem with these is twofold: they are often unreliable and they impose a massive performance bottleneck.

Distributed coordination algorithms are difficult to get right. Even tried-and-true protocols like two-phase commit are susceptible to crash failures and network partitions. Protocols which are more fault tolerant like Paxos and Raft generally don’t scale well beyond small clusters or across wide-area networks. Consensus systems like ZooKeeper own your availability, meaning if you depend on one and it goes down, you’re up a creek. Since quorums are often kept small for performance reasons, this might be less rare than you think.

Coordination systems become a fragile and complex piece of your infrastructure, which seems ironic considering they are usually employed to reduce fragility. On the other hand, message-oriented middleware largely use coordination to provide developers with strong guarantees: exactly-once, ordered, transactional delivery and the like.

From transmission protocols to enterprise message brokers, relying on delivery guarantees is an anti-pattern in distributed system design. Delivery semantics are a tricky business. As such, when it comes to distributed messaging, what you want is often not what you need. It’s important to look at the trade-offs involved, how they impact system design (and UX!), and how we can cope with them to make better decisions.

Subtle and not-so-subtle failure modes make providing strong guarantees exceedingly difficult. In fact, some guarantees, like exactly-once delivery, aren’t even really possible to achieve when we consider things like the Two Generals Problem and the FLP result. When we try to provide semantics like guaranteed, exactly-once, and ordered message delivery, we usually end up with something that’s over-engineered, difficult to deploy and operate, fragile, and slow. What is the upside to all of this? Something that makes your life easier as a developer when things go perfectly well, but the reality is things don’t go perfectly well most of the time. Instead, you end up getting paged at 1 a.m. trying to figure out why RabbitMQ told your monitoring everything is awesome while proceeding to take a dump in your front yard.

If you have something that relies on these types of guarantees in production, know that this will happen to you at least once sooner or later (and probably much more than that). Eventually, a guarantee is going to break down. It might be inconsequential, it might not. Not only is this a precarious way to go about designing things, but if you operate at a large scale, care about throughput, or have sensitive SLAs, it’s probably a nonstarter.

The performance implications of distributed transactions are obvious. Coordination is expensive because processes can’t make progress independently, which in turn limits throughput, availability, and scalability. Peter Bailis gave an excellent talk called Silence is Golden: Coordination-Avoiding Systems Design which explains this in great detail and how coordination can be avoided. In it, he explains how distributed transactions can result in nearly a 400x decrease in throughput in certain situations.

Avoiding coordination enables infinite scale-out while drastically improving throughput and availability, but in some cases coordination is unavoidable. In Coordination Avoidance in Database Systems, Bailis et al. answer a key question: when is coordination necessary for correctness? They present a property, invariant confluence (I-confluence), which is necessary and sufficient for safe, coordination-free, available, and convergent execution. I-confluence essentially works by pushing invariants up into the business layer where we specify correctness in terms of application semantics rather than low-level database operations.

Without knowledge of what “correctness” means to your app (e.g., the invariants used in I-confluence), the best you can do to preserve correctness under a read/write model is serializability.

I-confluence can be determined given a set of transactions and a merge function used to reconcile divergent states. If I-confluence holds, there exists a coordination-free execution strategy that preserves invariants. If it doesn’t hold, no such strategy exists—coordination is required. I-confluence allows us to identify when we can and can’t give up coordination, and by pushing invariants up, we remove a lot of potential bottlenecks from areas which don’t require it.

If we recall, “synchrony” within the context of distributed computing is really just making assumptions about time, so synchronization is basically two or more processes coordinating around time. As we saw, a system which performs no coordination will have optimal performance and availability since everyone can proceed independently. However, a distributed system which performs zero coordination isn’t particularly useful or possible as I-confluence shows. Christopher Meiklejohn’s Strange Loop talk, Distributed, Eventually Consistent Computations, provides an interesting take on coordination with the parable of the car. A car requires friction to drive, but that friction is limited to very small contact points. Any other friction on the car causes problems or inefficiencies. If we think about physical time as friction, we know we can’t eliminate it altogether because it’s essential to the problem, but we want to reduce the use of it in our systems as much as possible. We can typically avoid relying on physical time by instead using logical time, for example, with the use of Lamport clocks or other conflict-resolution techniques. Lamport’s Time, Clocks, and the Ordering of Events in a Distributed System is the classical introduction to this idea.

Often, systems simply forgo coordination altogether for latency-sensitive operations, a perfectly reasonable thing to do provided the trade-off is explicit and well-documented. Sadly, this is frequently not the case. But we can do better. I-confluence provides a useful framework for avoiding coordination, but there’s a seemingly larger lesson to be learned here. What it really advocates is reexamining how we design systems, which seems in some ways to closely parallel our end-to-end argument.

When we think low level, we pay the upfront cost of entry—serializable transactions, linearizable reads and writes, coordination. This seems contradictory to the end-to-end principle. Our application doesn’t really care about atomicity or isolation levels or linearizability. It cares about two users sharing the same ID or two reservations booking the same room or a negative balance in a bank account, but the database doesn’t know that. Sometimes these rules don’t even require any expensive coordination.

If all we do is code our business rules and constraints into the language our infrastructure understands, we end up with a few problems. First, we have to know how to translate our application semantics into these low-level operations while avoiding any impedance mismatch. In the context of messaging, guaranteed delivery doesn’t really mean anything to our application which cares about what’s done with the messages. Second, we preclude ourselves from using a lot of generalized solutions and, in some cases, we end up having to engineer specialized ones ourselves. It’s not clear how well this scales in practice. Third, we pay a performance penalty that could otherwise be avoided (as I-confluence shows). Lastly, we put ourselves at the mercy of our infrastructure and hope it makes good on its promises—it often doesn’t.

Working on a messaging platform team, I’ve had countless conversations which resemble the following exchange:

Developer: “We need fast messaging.”
Me: “Is it okay if messages get dropped occasionally?”
Developer: “What? Of course not! We need it to be reliable.”
Me: “Okay, we’ll add a delivery ack, but what happens if your application crashes before it processes the message?”
Developer: “We’ll ack after processing.”
Me: “What happens if you crash after processing but before acking?”
Developer: “We’ll just retry.”
Me: “So duplicate delivery is okay?”
Developer: “Well, it should really be exactly-once.”
Me: “But you want it to be fast?”
Developer: “Yep. Oh, and it should maintain message ordering.”
Me: “Here’s TCP.”

If, instead, we reevaluate the interactions between our systems, their APIs, their semantics, and move some of that responsibility off of our infrastructure and onto our applications, then maybe we can start to build more robust, resilient, and performant systems. With messaging, does our infrastructure really need to enforce FIFO ordering? Preserving order with distributed messaging in the presence of failure while trying to simultaneously maintain high availability is difficult and expensive. Why rely on it when it can be avoided with commutativity? Likewise, transactional delivery requires coordination which is slow and brittle while still not providing application guarantees. Why rely on it when it can be avoided with idempotence and retries? If you need application-level guarantees, build them into the application level. The infrastructure can’t provide it.

I really like Gregor Hohpe’s “Your Coffee Shop Doesn’t Use Two-Phase Commit” because it shows how simple solutions can be if we just model them off of the real world. It gives me hope we can design better systems, sometimes by just turning things on their head. There’s usually a reason things work the way they do, and it often doesn’t even involve the use of computers or complicated algorithms.

Rather than try to hide complexities by using flaky and heavy abstractions, we should engage directly by recognizing them in our design decisions and thinking end to end. It may be a long and winding path to distributed systems zen, but the best place to start is from the beginning.

I’d like to thank Tom Santero for reviewing an early draft of this writing. Any inaccuracies or opinions expressed are mine alone.

You Own Your Availability

There’s been a lot of discussion around “availability” lately. It’s often trumpeted with phrases like “you own your availability,” meaning there is no buck-passing when it comes to service uptime. The AWS outage earlier this week served as a stark reminder that, while owning your availability is a commendable ambition, for many it’s still largely owned by Amazon and the like.

In order to “own” your availability, it’s important to first understand what “availability” really means. Within the context of distributed-systems theory, availability is usually discussed in relation to the CAP theorem. Formally, CAP defines availability as a liveness property: “every request received by a non-failing node in the system must result in a response.” This is a weak definition for two reasons. First, the proviso “every request received by a non-failing node” means that a system in which all nodes have failed is trivially available.  Second, Gilbert and Lynch stipulate no upper bound on latency, only that operations eventually return a response. This means an operation could take weeks to complete and availability would not be violated.

Martin Kleppmann points out these issues in his recent paper “A Critique of the CAP Theorem.” I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with the formalizations made by CAP, just a matter of engineering practicality. Kleppmann’s critique recalls a pertinent quote from Leslie Lamport on the topic of liveness:

Liveness properties are inherently problematic. The question of whether a real system satisfies a liveness property is meaningless; it can be answered only by observing the system for an infinite length of time, and real systems don’t run forever. Liveness is always an approximation to the property we really care about. We want a program to terminate within 100 years, but proving that it does would require the addition of distracting timing assumptions. So, we prove the weaker condition that the program eventually terminates. This doesn’t prove that the program will terminate within our lifetimes, but it does demonstrate the absence of infinite loops.

Despite the pop culture surrounding it, CAP is not meant to neatly classify systems. It’s meant to serve as a jumping-off point from which we can reason from the ground up about distributed systems and the inherent limitations associated with them. It’s a reality check.

Practically speaking, availability is typically described in terms of “uptime” or the proportion of time which requests are successfully served. Brewer refers to this as “yield,” which is the probability of completing a request. This is the metric that is normally measured in “nines,” such as “five-nines availability.”

In the presence of faults there is typically a tradeoff between providing no answer (reducing yield) and providing an imperfect answer (maintaining yield, but reducing harvest).

However, this definition is only marginally more useful than CAP’s since it still doesn’t provide an upper bound on computation.

CAP is better used as a starting point for system design and understanding trade-offs than as a tool for reasoning about availability because it doesn’t really account for real availability. “Harvest” and “yield” show that availability is really a probabilistic property and that the trade with consistency is usually a gradient. But availability is much more nuanced than CAP’s “are we serving requests?” and harvest/yield’s “how many requests?” In practice, availability equates to SLAs. How many requests are we serving? At what rate? At what latency? At what percentiles? These things can’t really be formalized into a theorem like CAP because they are empirically observed, not properties of an algorithm.

Availability is specified by an SLA but observed by outside users. Unlike consistency, which is a property of the system and maintained by algorithm invariants, availability is determined by the client. For example, one user’s requests are served but another user’s are not. To the first user, the system is completely available.

To truly own your availability, you have to own every piece of infrastructure from the client to you, in addition to the infrastructure your system uses. Therefore, you can’t own your availability anymore than you can own Comcast’s fiber or Verizon’s 4G network. This is obviously impractical, if not impossible, but it might also be taking “own your availability” a bit too literally.

What “you own your availability” actually means is “you own your decisions.” Plain and simple. You own the decision to use AWS. You own the decision to use DynamoDB. You own the decision to not use multiple vendors. Owning your availability means making informed decisions about technology and vendors. “What is the risk/reward for using this database?” “Does using a PaaS/IaaS incur vendor lock-in? What happens when that service goes down?” It also means making informed decisions about the business. “What is the cost of our providers not meeting their SLAs? Is it cost-effective to have redundant providers?”

An SLA is not an insurance policy or a hedge against the business impact of an outage, it’s merely a refund policy. Use them to set expectations and make intelligent decisions, but don’t bank the business on them. Availability is not a timeshare. It’s not at will. You can’t just pawn it off, just like you can’t redirect your tech support to Amazon or Google.

It’s impossible to own your availability because there are too many things left to probability, too many unknowns, and too many variables outside of our control. Own as much as you can predict, as much as you can control, and as much as you can afford. The rest comes down to making informed decisions, hoping for the best, and planning for the worst.

Service-Disoriented Architecture

“You can have a second computer once you’ve shown you know how to use the first one.” -Paul Barham

The first rule of distributed systems is don’t distribute your system until you have an observable reason to. Teams break this rule on the regular. People have been talking about service-oriented architecture for a long time, but only recently have microservices been receiving the hype.

The problem, as Martin Fowler observes, is that teams are becoming too eager to adopt a microservice architecture without first understanding the inherent overheads. A contributing factor, I think, is you only hear the success stories from companies who did it right, like Netflix. However, what folks often fail to realize is that these companies—in almost all cases—didn’t start out that way. There was a long and winding path which led them to where they are today. The inverse of this, which some refer to as microservice envy, is causing teams to rush into microservice hell. I call this service-disoriented architecture (or sometimes disservice-oriented architecture when the architecture is DOA).

The term “monolith” has a very negative connotation—unscalable, unmaintainable, unresilient. These things are not intrinsically tied to each other, however, and there’s no reason a single system can’t be modular, maintainable, and fault tolerant at reasonable scale. It’s just less sexy. Refactoring modular code is much easier than refactoring architecture, and refactoring across service boundaries is equally difficult. Fowler describes this as monolith-first, and I think it’s the right approach (with some exceptions, of course).

Don’t even consider microservices unless you have a system that’s too complex to manage as a monolith. The majority of software systems should be built as a single monolithic application. Do pay attention to good modularity within that monolith, but don’t try to separate it into separate services.

Service-oriented architecture is about organizational complexity and system complexity. If you have both, you have a case to distribute. If you have one of the two, you might have a case (although if you have organizational complexity without system complexity, you’ve probably scaled your organization improperly). If you have neither, you do not have a case to distribute. State, specifically distributed state, is hell, and some pundits argue SOA is satan—perhaps a necessary evil.

There are a lot of motivations for microservices: anti-fragility, fault tolerance, independent deployment and scaling, architectural abstraction, and technology isolation. When services are loosely coupled, the system as a whole tends to be less fragile. When instances are disposable and stateless, services tend to be more fault tolerant because we can spin them up and down, balance traffic, and failover. When responsibility is divided across domain boundaries, services can be independently developed, deployed, and scaled while allowing the right tools to be used for each.

We also need to acknowledge the disadvantages. Adopting a microservice architecture does not automatically buy you anti-fragility. Distributed systems are incredibly precarious. We have to be aware of things like asynchrony, network partitions, node failures, and the trade-off between availability and data consistency. We have to think about resiliency but also the business and UX implications. We have to consider the boundaries of distributed systems like CAP and exactly-once delivery.

When distributing, the emphasis should be on resilience engineering and adopting loosely coupled, stateless components—not microservices for microservices’ sake. We need to view eventual consistency as a tool, not a side effect. The problem I see is that teams often end up with what is essentially a complex, distributed monolith. Now you have two problems. If you’re building a microservice which doesn’t make sense outside the context of another system or isn’t useful on its own, stop and re-evaluate. If you’re designing something to be fast and correct, realize that distributing it will frequently take away both.

Like anti-fragility, microservices do not automatically buy you better maintainability or even scalability. Adopting them requires the proper infrastructure and organization to be in place. Without these, you are bound to fail. In theory, they are intended to increase development velocity, but in many cases the microservice premium ends up slowing it down while creating organizational dependencies and bottlenecks.

There are some key things which must be in place in order for a microservice architecture to be successful: a proper continuous-delivery pipeline, competent DevOps and Ops teams, and prudent service boundaries, to name a few. Good monitoring is essential. It’s also important we have a thorough testing and integration story. This isn’t even considering the fundamental development complexities associated with SOA mentioned earlier.

The better strategy is a bottom-up approach. Start with a monolith or small set of coarse-grained services and work your way up. Make sure you have the data model right. Break out new, finer-grained services as you need to and as you become more confident in your ability to maintain and deploy discrete services. It’s largely about organizational momentum. A young company jumping straight to a microservice architecture is like a golf cart getting on the freeway.

Microservices offer a number of advantages, but for many companies they are a bit of a Holy Grail. Developers are always looking for a silver bullet, but there is always a cost. What we need to do is minimize this cost, and with microservices, this typically means easing our way into it rather than diving into the deep end. Team autonomy and rapid iteration are noble goals, but if we’re not careful, we can end up creating an impedance. Microservices require organization and system maturity. Otherwise, they end up being a premature architectural optimization with a lot of baggage. They end up creating a service-disoriented architecture.

Distributed Systems Are a UX Problem

Distributed systems are not strictly an engineering problem. It’s far too easy to assume a “backend” development concern, but the reality is there are implications at every point in the stack. Often the trade-offs we make lower in the stack in order to buy responsiveness bubble up to the top—so much, in fact, that it rarely doesn’t impact the application in some way. Distributed systems affect the user. We need to shift the focus from system properties and guarantees to business rules and application behavior. We need to understand the limitations and trade-offs at each level in the stack and why they exist. We need to assume failure and plan for recovery. We need to start thinking of distributed systems as a UX problem.

The Truth is Prohibitively Expensive

Stop relying on strong consistency. Coordination and distributed transactions are slow and inhibit availability. The cost of knowing the “truth” is prohibitively expensive for many applications. For that matter, what you think is the truth is likely just a partial or outdated version of it.

Instead, choose availability over consistency by making local decisions with the knowledge at hand and design the UX accordingly. By making this trade-off, we can dramatically improve the user’s experience—most of the time.

Failure Is an Option

There are a lot of problems with simultaneity in distributed computing. As Justin Sheehy describes it, there is no “now” when it comes to distributed systems—that article, by the way, is a must-read for every engineer, regardless of where they work in the stack.

While some things about computers are “virtual,” they still must operate in the physical world and cannot ignore the challenges of that world.

Even though computers operate in the real world, they are disconnected from it. Imagine an inventory system. It may place orders to its artificial heart’s desire, but if the warehouse burns down, there’s no fulfilling them. Even if the system is perfect, its state may be impossible. But the system is typically not perfect because the truth is prohibitively expensive. And not only do warehouses catch fire or forklifts break down, as rare as this may be, but computers fail and networks partition—and that’s far less rare.

The point is, stop trying to build perfect systems because one of two things will happen:

1. You have a false sense of security because you think the system is perfect, and it’s not.


2. You will never ship because perfection is out of reach or exorbitantly expensive.

Either case can be catastrophic, depending on the situation. With systems, failure is not only an option, it’s an inevitability, so let’s plan for it as such. We have a lot to gain by embracing failure. Eric Brewer articulated this idea in a recent interview:

So the general answer is you allow things to be inconsistent and then you find ways to compensate for mistakes, versus trying to prevent mistakes altogether. In fact, the financial system is actually not based on consistency, it’s based on auditing and compensation. They didn’t know anything about the CAP theorem, that was just the decision they made in figuring out what they wanted, and that’s actually, I think, the right decision.

We can look to ATMs, and banks in general, as the canonical example for how this works. When you withdraw money, the bank could choose to first coordinate your account, calculating your available balance at that moment in time, before issuing the withdrawal. But what happens when the ATM is temporarily disconnected from the bank? The bank loses out on revenue.

Instead, they make a calculated risk. They choose availability and compensate the risk of overdraft with interest and charges. Likewise, banks use double-entry bookkeeping to provide an audit trail. Every credit has a corresponding debit. Mistakes happen—accounts are debited twice, an account is credited without another being debited—the failure modes are virtually endless. But we audit and compensate, detect and recover. Banks are loosely coupled systems. Accountants don’t use erasers. Why should programmers?

When you find yourself saying “this is important data or people’s money, it has to be correct,” consider how the problem was solved before computers. Building on Quicksand by Dave Campbell and Pat Helland is a great read on this topic:

Whenever the authors struggle with explaining how to implement loosely-coupled solutions, we look to how things were done before computers. In almost every case, we can find inspiration in paper forms, pneumatic tubes, and forms filed in triplicate.

Consider the lost request and its idempotent execution. In the past, a form would have multiple carbon copies with a printed serial number on top of them. When a purchase-order request was submitted, a copy was kept in the file of the submitter and placed in a folder with the expected date of the response. If the form and its work were not completed by the expected date, the submitter would initiate an inquiry and ask to locate the purchase-order form in question. Even if the work was lost, the purchase-order would be resubmitted without modification to ensure a lack of confusion in the processing of the work. You wouldn’t change the number of items being ordered as that may cause confusion. The unique serial number on the top would act as a mechanism to ensure the work was not performed twice.

Computers allow us to greatly improve the user experience, but many of the same fail-safes still exist, just slightly rethought.

The idea of compensation is actually a common theme within distributed systems. The Saga pattern is a great example of this. Large-scale systems often have to coordinate resources across disparate services.  Traditionally, we might solve this problem using distributed transactions like two-phase commit. The problem with this approach is it doesn’t scale very well, it’s slow, and it’s not particularly fault tolerant. With 2PC, we have deadlock problems and even 3PC is still susceptible to network partitions.

Sagas split a long-lived transaction into individual, interleaved sub-transactions. Each sub-transaction in the sequence has a corresponding compensating transaction which reverses its effects. The compensating transactions must be idempotent so they can be safely retried. In the event of a partial execution, the compensating transactions are run and the Saga is effectively rolled back.

The commonly used example for Sagas is booking a trip. We need to ensure flight, car rental, and hotel are all booked or none are booked. If booking the flight fails, we cancel the hotel and car, etc. Sagas trade off atomicity for availability while still allowing us to manage failure, a common occurrence in distributed systems.

Compensation has a lot of applications as a UX principle because it’s really the only way to build loosely coupled, highly available services.

Calculated Recovery

Pat Helland describes computing as nothing more than “memories, guesses, and apologies.” Computers always have partial knowledge. Either there is a disconnect with the real world (warehouse is on fire) or there is a disconnect between systems (System A sold a Foo Widget but, unbeknownst to it, System B just sold the last one in inventory—oops!). Systems don’t make decisions, they make guesses. The guess might be good or it might be bad, but rarely is there certainty. We can wait to collect as much information as possible before making a guess, but it means progress can’t be made until the system is confident enough to do so.

Computers have memory. This means they remember facts they have learned and guesses they have made. Memories help systems make better guesses in the future, and they can share those memories with other systems to help in their guesses. We can store more memories at the cost of more money, and we can survey other systems’ memories at the cost of more latency.

It is a business decision how much money, latency, and energy should be spent on reducing forgetfulness. To make this decision, the costs of the increased probability of remembering should be weighed against the costs of occasionally forgetting stuff.

Generally speaking, the more forgetfulness we can tolerate, the more responsive our systems will be, provided we know how to handle the situations where something is forgotten.

Sooner or later, a system guesses wrong. It sucks. It might mean we lose out on revenue; the business isn’t happy. It might mean the user loses out on what they want; the customer isn’t happy. But we calculate the impact of these wrong guesses, we determine when the trade-offs do and don’t make sense, we compensate, and—when shit hits the fan—we apologize.

Business realities force apologies.  To cope with these difficult realities, we need code and, frequently, we need human beings to apologize. It is essential that businesses have both code and people to manage these apologies.

Distributed systems are as much about failure modes and recovery as they are about being operationally correct. It’s critical that we can recover gracefully when something goes wrong, and often that affects the UX.

We could choose to spend extraordinary amounts of money and countless man-hours laboring over a system which provides the reliability we want. We could construct a data center. We could deploy big, expensive machines. We could install redundant fiber and switches. We could drudge over infallible code. Or we could stop, think for a moment, and realize maybe “sorry” is a more effective alternative. Knowing when to make that distinction can be the difference between a successful business and a failed one. The implications of distributed systems may be wider reaching than you thought.

CAP and the Illusion of Choice

The CAP theorem is widely discussed and often misunderstood within the world of distributed systems. It states that any networked, shared-data system can, at most, guarantee two of three properties: consistency, availability, and partition tolerance. I won’t go into detail on CAP since the literature is abundant, but the notion of “two of three”—while conceptually accessible—is utterly misleading. Brewer has indicated this, echoed by many more, but there still seems to be a lot of confusion when the topic is brought up. The bottom line is you can’t sacrifice partition tolerance, but it seems CAP is a bit more nuanced than that.

On the surface, CAP presents three categories of systems. CA implies one which maintains consistency and availability given a perfectly reliable network. CP provides consistency and partition tolerance at the expense of availability, and AP gives us availability and partition tolerance without linearizability. Clearly, CA suggests that the system guarantees consistency and availability only when there are no network partitions. However, to say that there will never be network partitions is blatantly dishonest. This is where the source of much confusion lies.

Partitions happen. They happen for countless reasons. Switches fail, NICs fail, link layers fail, servers fail, processes fail. Partitions happen even when systems don’t fail due to GC pauses or prolonged I/O latency for example. Let’s accept this as fact and move on. What this means is that a “CA” system is CA only until it’s not. Once that partition happens, all your assumptions and all your guarantees hit the fan in spectacular fashion. Where does this leave us?

At its core, CAP is about trade-offs, but it’s an exclusion principle. It tells us what our systems cannot do given the nature of reality. The distinction here is that not all systems fit nicely into these archetypes. If Jepsen has taught us anything, it’s that the majority of systems don’t fit into any of these categories, even when the designers state otherwise. CAP isn’t as black and white as people paint it.

There’s a really nice series on CAP written recently by Nicolas Liochon. It does an excellent job of explaining the terminology (far better than I could), which is often overloaded and misused, and it makes some interesting points. Nicolas suggests that CA should really be thought of as a specification for an operating range, while CP and AP are descriptions of behavior. I would tend to agree, but my concern is that this eschews the trade-off that must be made.

We know that we cannot avoid network partition. What if we specify our application like this: “this application does not handle network partition. If it happens, the application will be partly unavailable, the data may be corrupted, and you may have to fix the data manually.” In other words, we’re really asking to be CA here, but if a partition occurs we may be CP, or, if we are unlucky, both not available and not consistent.

As an operating range, CA basically means when a partition occurs, the system throws up its hands and says, “welp, see ya later!” If we specify that the system does not work well under network partitions, we’re saying partitions are outside its operating range. What good is a specification for a spaceship designed to fly the upper atmosphere of planet Terah when we’re down here on Earth? We live in a world where partitions are the norm, so surely we need to include them in our operating range. CA does specify an operating range, but it’s not one you can put in an SLA and hand to a customer. Colloquially, it’s just a mode of “undefined behavior”—the system is consistent and available—until it’s not.

CAP isn’t a perfect metaphor, but in my mind, it does a decent job of highlighting the fundamental trade-offs involved in building distributed systems. Either we have linearizable writes or we don’t. If we do, we can’t guarantee availability. It’s true that CAP seems to imply a binary choice between consistency and availability in the face of partitions. In fact, it’s not a binary choice. You have AP, CP, or None of the Above. The problem with None of the Above is that it’s difficult to reason about and even more difficult to define. Ultimately, it ends up being more an illusion of choice since we cannot sacrifice partition tolerance.

You Cannot Have Exactly-Once Delivery

I’m often surprised that people continually have fundamental misconceptions about how distributed systems behave. I myself shared many of these misconceptions, so I try not to demean or dismiss but rather educate and enlighten, hopefully while sounding less preachy than that just did. I continue to learn only by following in the footsteps of others. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that folks buy into these fallacies as I once did, but it can be frustrating when trying to communicate certain design decisions and constraints.

Within the context of a distributed system, you cannot have exactly-once message delivery. Web browser and server? Distributed. Server and database? Distributed. Server and message queue? Distributed. You cannot have exactly-once delivery semantics in any of these situations.

As I’ve described in the past, distributed systems are all about trade-offs. This is one of them. There are essentially three types of delivery semantics: at-most-once, at-least-once, and exactly-once. Of the three, the first two are feasible and widely used. If you want to be super anal, you might say at-least-once delivery is also impossible because, technically speaking, network partitions are not strictly time-bound. If the connection from you to the server is interrupted indefinitely, you can’t deliver anything. Practically speaking, you have bigger fish to fry at that point—like calling your ISP—so we consider at-least-once delivery, for all intents and purposes, possible. With this model of thinking, network partitions are finitely bounded in time, however arbitrary this may be.

So where does the trade-off come into play, and why is exactly-once delivery impossible? The answer lies in the Two Generals thought experiment or the more generalized Byzantine Generals Problem, which I’ve looked at extensively. We must also consider the FLP result, which basically says, given the possibility of a faulty process, it’s impossible for a system of processes to agree on a decision.

In the letter I mail you, I ask you to call me once you receive it. You never do. Either you really didn’t care for my letter or it got lost in the mail. That’s the cost of doing business. I can send the one letter and hope you get it, or I can send 10 letters and assume you’ll get at least one of them. The trade-off here is quite clear (postage is expensive!), but sending 10 letters doesn’t really provide any additional guarantees. In a distributed system, we try to guarantee the delivery of a message by waiting for an acknowledgement that it was received, but all sorts of things can go wrong. Did the message get dropped? Did the ack get dropped? Did the receiver crash? Are they just slow? Is the network slow? Am slow? FLP and the Two Generals Problem are not design complexities, they are impossibility results.

People often bend the meaning of “delivery” in order to make their system fit the semantics of exactly-once, or in other cases, the term is overloaded to mean something entirely different. State-machine replication is a good example of this. Atomic broadcast protocols ensure messages are delivered reliably and in order. The truth is, we can’t deliver messages reliably and in order in the face of network partitions and crashes without a high degree of coordination. This coordination, of course, comes at a cost (latency and availability), while still relying on at-least-once semantics. Zab, the atomic broadcast protocol which lays the foundation for ZooKeeper, enforces idempotent operations.

State changes are idempotent and applying the same state change multiple times does not lead to inconsistencies as long as the application order is consistent with the delivery order. Consequently, guaranteeing at-least once semantics is sufficient and simplifies the implementation.

“Simplifies the implementation” is the authors’ attempt at subtlety. State-machine replication is just that, replicating state. If our messages have side effects, all of this goes out the window.

We’re left with a few options, all equally tenuous. When a message is delivered, it’s acknowledged immediately before processing. The sender receives the ack and calls it a day. However, if the receiver crashes before or during its processing, that data is lost forever. Customer transaction? Sorry, looks like you’re not getting your order. This is the worldview of at-most-once delivery. To be honest, implementing at-most-once semantics is more complicated than this depending on the situation. If there are multiple workers processing tasks or the work queues are replicated, the broker must be strongly consistent (or CP in CAP theorem parlance) so as to ensure a task is not delivered to any other workers once it’s been acked. Apache Kafka uses ZooKeeper to handle this coordination.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge messages after they are processed. If the process crashes after handling a message but before acking (or the ack isn’t delivered), the sender will redeliver. Hello, at-least-once delivery. Furthermore, if you want to deliver messages in order to more than one site, you need an atomic broadcast which is a huge burden on throughput. Fast or consistent. Welcome to the world of distributed systems.

Every major message queue in existence which provides any guarantees will market itself as at-least-once delivery. If it claims exactly-once, it’s because they are lying to your face in hopes that you will buy it or they themselves do not understand distributed systems. Either way, it’s not a good indicator.

RabbitMQ attempts to provide guarantees along these lines:

When using confirms, producers recovering from a channel or connection failure should retransmit any messages for which an acknowledgement has not been received from the broker. There is a possibility of message duplication here, because the broker might have sent a confirmation that never reached the producer (due to network failures, etc). Therefore consumer applications will need to perform deduplication or handle incoming messages in an idempotent manner.

The way we achieve exactly-once delivery in practice is by faking it. Either the messages themselves should be idempotent, meaning they can be applied more than once without adverse effects, or we remove the need for idempotency through deduplication. Ideally, our messages don’t require strict ordering and are commutative instead. There are design implications and trade-offs involved with whichever route you take, but this is the reality in which we must live.

Rethinking operations as idempotent actions might be easier said than done, but it mostly requires a change in the way we think about state. This is best described by revisiting the replicated state machine. Rather than distributing operations to apply at various nodes, what if we just distribute the state changes themselves? Rather than mutating state, let’s just report facts at various points in time. This is effectively how Zab works.

Imagine we want to tell a friend to come pick us up. We send him a series of text messages with turn-by-turn directions, but one of the messages is delivered twice! Our friend isn’t too happy when he finds himself in the bad part of town. Instead, let’s just tell him where we are and let him figure it out. If the message gets delivered more than once, it won’t matter. The implications are wider reaching than this, since we’re still concerned with the ordering of messages, which is why solutions like commutative and convergent replicated data types are becoming more popular. That said, we can typically solve this problem through extrinsic means like sequencing, vector clocks, or other partial-ordering mechanisms. It’s usually causal ordering that we’re after anyway. People who say otherwise don’t quite realize that there is no now in a distributed system.

To reiterate, there is no such thing as exactly-once delivery. We must choose between the lesser of two evils, which is at-least-once delivery in most cases. This can be used to simulate exactly-once semantics by ensuring idempotency or otherwise eliminating side effects from operations. Once again, it’s important to understand the trade-offs involved when designing distributed systems. There is asynchrony abound, which means you cannot expect synchronous, guaranteed behavior. Design for failure and resiliency against this asynchronous nature.

If State Is Hell, SOA Is Satan

More and more companies are describing their success stories regarding the switch to a service-oriented architecture. As with any technological upswing, there’s a clear and palpable hype factor involved (Big Data™ or The Cloud™ anyone?), but obviously it’s not just puff.

While microservices and SOA have seen a staggering rate of adoption in recent years, the mindset of developers often seems to be stuck in the past. I think this is, at least in part, because we seek a mental model we can reason about. It’s why we build abstractions in the first place. In a sense, I would argue there’s a comparison to be made between the explosion of OOP in the early 90’s and today’s SOA trend. After all, SOA is as much about people scale as it is about workload scale, so it makes sense from an organizational perspective.

The Perils of Good Abstractions

While systems are becoming more and more distributed, abstractions are attempting to make them less and less complex. Mesosphere is a perfect example of this, attempting to provide the “datacenter operating system.” Apache Mesos allows you to “program against your datacenter like it’s a single pool of resources.” It’s an appealing proposition to say the least. PaaS like Google App Engine and Heroku offer similar abstractions—write your code without thinking about scale. The problem is you absolutely have to think about scale or you’re bound to run into problems down the road. And while these abstractions are nice, they can be dangerous just the same. Welcome to the perils of good abstractions.

I like to talk about App Engine because I have firsthand experience with it. It’s an easy sell for startups. It handles spinning up instances when you need them, turning them down when you don’t. It’s your app server, database, caching, job scheduler, task queue all in one, and it does it at scale. There’s vendor lock-in, sure, yet it means no ops, no sysadmins, no overhead. Push to deploy. But it’s a leaky abstraction. It has to be. App Engine scales because it’s distributed, but it allows—no, encourages—you to write your system as a monolith. The datastore, memcache, and task queue accesses are masked as RPCs. This is great for our developer mental model, but it will bite you if you’re not careful. App Engine imposes certain limitations to encourage good design; for instance, front-end requests and datastore calls are limited to 60 seconds (it used to be much less), but the leakiness goes beyond that.

RPC is consistently at odds with distributed systems. I would go so far as to say it’s an anti-pattern in many cases. RPC encourages writing synchronous code, but distributed systems are inherently asynchronous. The network is not reliable. The network is not fast. The network is not your friend. Developers who either don’t understand this or don’t realize what’s happening when they make an RPC will write code as if they were calling a function. It will sure as hell look like just calling a function. When we think synchronously, we end up with systems that are slow, fault intolerant, and generally not scalable. To be quite honest, however, this is perfectly acceptable for 90% of startups as they are getting off the ground because they don’t have workloads at meaningful scale.

There’s certainly some irony here. One of the selling points of App Engine is its ability to scale to large amounts of traffic, yet the vast majority of startups would be perfectly suited to scaling up rather than out, perhaps with some failover in place for good measure. Stack Overflow is the poster child of scale-up architecture. In truth, your architecture should be a function of your access patterns, not the other way around (and App Engine is very much tailored to a specific set of access patterns). Nonetheless, it shows that vertical scaling can work. I would bet a lot of startups could sufficiently run on a large, adequately specced machine or maybe a small handful of them.

The cruel irony is that once you hit a certain scale with App Engine, both in terms of your development organization and user base, you’ve reached a point where you have to migrate off it. And if your data model isn’t properly thought out, you will without a doubt hit scale problems. It’s to the point where you need someone with deep knowledge of how App Engine works in order to build quality systems on it. Good luck hiring a team of engineers who understand it. GAE is great at accelerating you to 100 mph, but you better have some nice airbags for the brick wall it launches you into. In fairness, this is a problem every org hits—Conway’s law is very much a reality and every startup has growing pains. To be clear, this isn’t a jab at GAE, which is actually very effective at accelerating a product using little capital and can sustain long-term success given the right use case. Instead, I use it to illustrate a point.

Peering Through the Abstraction

Eventually SOA makes sense, but our abstractions can cause problems if we don’t understand what’s going on behind the curtain (hence the leakiness). Partial failure is all but guaranteed, and latency, partitioning, and other network pressure happens all the time.

Ken Arnold is famed with once saying “state is hell” in reference to designing distributed systems. In the past, I’ve written how scaling shared data is hard, but with SOA it’s practically a requirement. Ken is right though—state is hell, and SOA is fundamentally competing with consistency. The FLP Impossibility result and the CAP theorem can prove it formally, but really this should be intuitively obvious if we accept the laws of physics.

On the other hand, if you store information that I can’t reconstruct, then a whole host of questions suddenly surface. One question is, “Are you now a single point of failure?” I have to talk to you now. I can’t talk to anyone else. So what happens if you go down?

To deal with that, you could be replicated. But now you have to worry about replication strategies. What if I talk to one replicant and modify some data, then I talk to another? Is that modification guaranteed to have already arrived there? What is the replication strategy? What kind of consistency do you need—tight or loose? What happens if the network gets partitioned and the replicants can’t talk to each other? Can anybody proceed?

Essentially, the more stateful your system is, the harder it’s going to be to scale it because distributing that state introduces a rich tapestry of problems. In practice, we often can’t eliminate state wholesale, but basically everything that can be stateless should be stateless.

Making servers disposable allows you a great deal of flexibility. Former Netflix Cloud Architect Adrian Cockcroft articulates this idea well:

You want to think of servers like cattle, not pets. If you have a machine in production that performs a specialized function, and you know it by name, and everyone gets sad when it goes down, it’s a pet. Instead you should think of your servers like a herd of cows. What you care about is how many gallons of milk you get. If one day you notice you’re getting less milk than usual, you find out which cows aren’t producing well and replace them.

This is effectively how App Engine achieves its scalability. With lightweight, stateless, and disposable instances, it can spin them up and down on the fly without worrying about being in an invalid state.

App Engine also relies on eventual consistency as the default model for datastore interactions. This makes queries fast and highly available, while snapshot isolation can be achieved using entity-group transactions if necessary. The latter, of course, can result in a lot of contention and latency. Yet, people seem to have a hard time grappling with the reality of eventual consistency in distributed systems. State is hell, but calling SOA “satan” is clearly a hyperbole. It is a tough problem nevertheless.

A State of Mind

In the situations where we need state, we have to reconcile with the realities of distributed systems. This means understanding the limitations and accepting the complexities, not papering over them. It doesn’t mean throwing away abstractions. Fortunately, distributed computing is the focus of a lot of great research, so there are primitives with which we can build: immutability, causal ordering, eventual consistency, CRDTs, and other ideas.

As long as we recognize the trade-offs, we can design around them. The crux is knowing they exist in the first place. We can’t have ACID semantics while remaining highly available, but we can use Highly Available Transactions to provide strong-enough guarantees. At the same time, not all operations require coordination or concurrency control. The sooner we view eventual consistency as a solution and not a consequence, the sooner we can let go of this existential crisis. Other interesting research includes BOOM, which seeks to provide a high-level, declarative approach to distributed programming.

State might be hell, but it’s a hell we have to live. I don’t advocate an all-out microservice architecture for a company just getting its start. The complications far outweigh any benefits to be gained, but it becomes a necessity at a certain point. The key is having an exit strategy. PaaS providers make this difficult due to vendor lock-in and architectural constraints. Weigh their advantages carefully.

Once you do transition to a SOA, make as many of those services, or the pieces backing them, as stateless as possible. For those which aren’t stateless, know that the problem typically isn’t novel. These problems have been solved or are continuing to be solved in new and interesting ways. Academic research is naturally at the bleeding edge with industry often lagging behind. OOP concepts date back to as early as the 60’s but didn’t gain widespread adoption until several decades later. Distributed computing is no different. SOA is just a state of mind.

From Mainframe to Microservice: An Introduction to Distributed Systems

I gave a talk at Iowa Code Camp this weekend on distributed systems. It was primarily an introduction to them, so it explored some core concepts at a high level.  We looked at why distributed systems are difficult to build (right), the CAP theorem, consensus, scaling shared data and CRDTs.

There was some interest in making the slides available online. I’m not sure how useful they are without narration, but here they are anyway for posterity.

Scaling Shared Data in Distributed Systems

Sharing mutable data at large scale is an exceedingly difficult problem. In their seminal paper CRDTs: Consistency without concurrency control, Shapiro et al. describe why the CAP theorem demands a give and take between scalability and consistency. In general, CAP requires us to choose between CP and AP. The former requires serializing every write, which doesn’t scale beyond a small cluster. The latter ensures scalability by giving up consistency.

Sharing Data in Centralized Systems

We tend to prefer weaker consistency models because they mean lower latency and higher availability. To highlight this point, consider the fact that the memory models for most programming languages are not serializable by default. More concisely, programs with shared memory are not inherently thread-safe. This is a conscious design decision because enforcing memory serializability incurs a significant latency penalty. Instead, programming languages require explicit memory barriers which can be used around the critical sections which need this property.

For example, the Java memory model uses within-thread as-if-serial semantics. This means the execution of a thread in isolation, regardless of runtime optimizations, is guaranteed to be the same as it would have been had all statements been run in program order. The implication of as-if-serial semantics is that it gives up consistency—different threads can and will have different views of the data. Java requires the use of memory barriers, either through explicit locking or the volatile keyword, in order to establish a happens-before relationship between statements in different threads.

This can be thought of as scaling shared data! We have multiple threads (systems) accessing the same data. While not distributed, many of the same ideas apply. Consistency, by definition, requires linearizability. In multi-threaded programs, we achieve this with mutexes. In distributed systems, we use transactions and distributed locking. Intuitively, both involve performance trade-offs.

Sharing Data in Distributed Systems

Consider a shared, global counter used to measure ad impressions on a website accessed by millions of users around the world.


Traditionally, we might implement this using transactions—get the value, increment it by one, then save it back atomically. The problem is transactions will not scale. In order to guarantee consistency, they must be serialized. This results in high latency and low availability if a lot of writes are occurring. We lose some of the key advantages of distributed systems: parallel computation and availability.

So CAP makes it difficult to scale mutable, shared data. How do we do it then? There are several different strategies, each with their own pros and cons.

Immutable Data

Scaling shared read-only data is easy using replication techniques. This means the simplest solution for sharing data in a distributed system is to use immutable data. If we don’t have to worry about writes, then scaling is trivial. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, but if your use case allows for it, it’s the best option.

Last-Write Wins

From a set of conflicting writes, LWW selects the one with the most recent timestamp. Clock drift happens, so LWW will inevitably lead to data loss with enough concurrent writes. It’s critical to accept this reality, but it’s often acceptable for some use cases. LWW trades consistency for availability.

Application-Level Conflict Resolution

Often times, the best way to ensure safety is by resolving write conflicts at the application level. When there are conflicting writes on a piece of data, applications can apply business rules to determine the canonical update. An example of this is Riak’s application-side conflict resolution strategy.

Causal Ordering

Rather than relying on LWW, which has a high probability of data loss, we can use the causal relationships between writes in order to determine which one to apply. Unlike timestamps, which attempt to provide a total order, causal ordering establishes a partial order. We can approximate a causal ordering by using techniques like Lamport timestamps or vector clocks. By storing a causal history with each write and reading that history before each write, we can make informed decisions on the correctness of updates. The trade-off here is the added overhead of storing this additional metadata and the extra round trip.

Distributed Data Types

CRDTs, or convergent/commutative replicated data types, are the new, up-and-coming solution for scaling shared data, but they aren’t at all new. In fact, the theory behind CRDTs has been in use for hundreds of years. CRDTs are grounded in mathematics. Operations or updates on a CRDT always converge. Because the operations must be commutative, associative, and idempotent, they can be applied in any order and the outcome will always be the same. This means we don’t care about causal ordering—it doesn’t matter.

CRDTs are generally modeled after common data structures like sets, maps, lists, and counters, just in a distributed sense. What they provide us are highly available, eventually consistent data structures in which we don’t have to worry about write coordination.

Aside from the operation requirements, the other drawback of CRDTs is that they require knowledge of all clients. Each client has a replica of the CRDT, so the global state is determined by merging them. And although CRDTs can be applied to a wide variety of use cases, they typically require some interpretation and specialization of common data structures. These interpretations tend to be more limited in capability.

In Summary

Scaling mutable data is hard. On the other hand, scaling immutable data is easy, so if you can get away with it, do it. There are a number of ways to approach the problem, but as with anything, it all comes down to your use case. The solutions are all about trade-offs—namely the trade-off between consistency and availability. Use weakly consistent models when you can because they afford you high availability and low latency, and rely on stronger models only when absolutely necessary. Do what makes sense for your system.

Understanding Consensus

A classical problem presented within the field of distributed systems is the Byzantine Generals Problem. In it, we observe two allied armies positioned on either side of a valley. Within the valley is a fortified city. Each army has a general with one acting as commander. Both armies must attack at the same time or face defeat by the city’s defenders. In order to come to an agreement on when to attack, messengers must be sent through the valley, risking capture by the city’s patrols. Consider the diagram below illustrating this problem.


In the above scenario, Army A has sent a messenger to Army B with a message saying “Attack at 0700.” Army B receives this message and dispatches a messenger carrying an acknowledgement of the attack plans; however, our ill-fated messenger has been intercepted by the city’s defenders.

How do our armies come to an agreement on when to attack? Perhaps Army A sends 100 messengers and attacks regardless. Unfortunately, if all of the messengers are captured, this would result in a swift defeat because A would attack without B. What if, instead, A sends 100 messengers, waits for acknowledgements of those messages, and only attacks if it reaches a certain level of confidence, say receiving 75 or more confirmations? Yet again, this could very well end in defeat, this time with B attacking without A.

We also need to bear in mind that sending messages has a certain amount of overhead. We can’t, in good conscience, send a million messengers to their potential demise. Or maybe we can, but it’s more than the number of soldiers in our army.

In fact, we can’t reliably make a decision. It’s provenly impossible. In the face of a Byzantine failure, it becomes even more complicated by the possibility of traitors or forged messages.

Now replace two generals with N generals. Coming to a perfectly reliable agreement between two generals was already impossible but becomes dramatically more complicated. It’s a problem more commonly referred to as distributed consensus, and it’s the focus of an army of researchers.

The problem of consensus is blissfully simple, but the solution is far from trivial. Consensus is the basis of distributed coordination services, locking protocols, and databases. A monolithic system (think a MySQL server) can enforce ACID constraints with consistent reads but exhibits generally poor availability and fault tolerance. The original Google App Engine datastore relied on a master/slave architecture where a single data center held the primary copy of data which was replicated to backup sites asynchronously. This offered applications strong consistency and low latency with the implied trade-off of availability. The health of an application was directly tied to the health of a data center. Beyond transient losses, it also meant periods of planned unavailability and read-only access while Google performed data center maintenance. App Engine has since transitioned to a high-replication datastore which relies on distributed consensus to replicate data across sites. This allows the datastore to continue operating in the presence of failures and at greater availability. In agreement with CAP, this naturally means higher latency on writes.

There are a number of solutions to distributed consensus, but most of them tend to be pretty characteristic of each other. We will look at some of these solutions, including multi-phase commit and state-replication approaches.

Two-Phase Commit

Two-phase commit (2PC) is the simplest multi-phase commit protocol. In two-phase commit, all transactions go through a coordinator who is responsible for ensuring a transaction occurs across one or more remote sites (cohorts).


When the coordinator receives a request, it asks each of its cohorts to vote yes or no. During this phase, each cohort performs the transaction up to the point of committing it. The coordinator then waits for all votes. If the vote is unanimously “yes,” it sends a message to its cohorts to commit the transaction. If one or more vote is “no,” a message is sent to rollback. The cohorts then acknowledge whether the transaction was committed or rolled back and the process is complete.

Two-phase commit is a blocking protocol. The coordinator blocks waiting for votes from its cohorts, and cohorts block waiting for a commit/rollback message from the coordinator. Unfortunately, this means 2PC can, in some circumstances, result in a deadlock, e.g. the coordinator dies while cohorts wait or a cohort dies while the coordinator waits. Another problematic scenario is when a coordinator and cohort simultaneously fail. Even if another coordinator takes its place, it won’t be able to determine whether to commit or rollback.

Three-Phase Commit

Three-phase commit (3PC) is designed to solve the problems identified in two-phase by implementing a non-blocking protocol with an added “prepare” phase. Like 2PC, it relies on a coordinator which relays messages to its cohorts.


Unlike 2PC, cohorts do not execute a transaction during the voting phase. Rather, they simply indicate if they are prepared to perform the transaction. If cohorts timeout during this phase or there is one or more “no” vote, the transaction is aborted. If the vote is unanimously “yes,” the coordinator moves on to the “prepare” phase, sending a message to its cohorts to acknowledge the transaction will be committed. Again, if an ack times out, the transaction is aborted. Once all cohorts have acknowledged the commit, we are guaranteed to be in a state where all cohorts have agreed to commit. At this point, if the commit message from the coordinator is not received in the third phase, the cohort will go ahead and commit anyway. This solves the deadlocking problems described earlier. However, 3PC is still susceptible to network partitions. If a partition occurs, the coordinator will timeout and progress will not be made.

State Replication

Protocols like Raft, Paxos, and Zab are popular and widely used solutions to the problem of distributed consensus. These implement state replication or primary-backup using leaders, quorums, and replicas of operation logs or incremental delta states.

consensus quorum

These protocols work by electing a leader (coordinator). Like multi-phase commit, all changes must go through that leader, who then broadcasts the changes to the group. Changes occur by appending a log entry, and each node has its own log replica. Where multi-phase commit falls down in the face of network partitions, these protocols are able to continue working by relying on a quorum (majority). The leader commits the change once the quorum has acknowledged it.

The use of quorums provide partition tolerance by fencing minority partitions while the majority continues to operate. This is the pessimistic approach to solving split-brain, so it comes with an inherent availability trade-off. This problem is mitigated by the fact that each node hosts a replicated state machine which can be rebuilt or reconciled once the partition is healed.

Google relies on Paxos for its high-replication datastore in App Engine as well as its Chubby lock service. The distributed key-value store etcd uses Raft to manage highly available replicated logs. Zab, which differentiates itself from the former by implementing a primary-backup protocol, was designed for the ZooKeeper coordination service. In general, there are several different implementations of these protocols, such as the Go implementation of Raft.

Distributed consensus is a difficult thing to get right, but it’s important to frame it within the context of CAP. We can ensure stronger consistency at the cost of higher latency and lower availability. On the other hand, we can achieve higher availability with decreased latency while giving up strong consistency. The trade-offs really depend on what your needs are.