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Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Replication

An important detail of a replicated system is whether the replication happens synchronously or asynchronously. (In relational databases, this is often a configurable option; other systems are often hardcoded to be either one or the other.)

Think about what happens in Figure 5-1, where the user of a website updates their profile image. At some point in time, the client sends the update request to the leader; shortly afterward, it is received by the leader. At some point, the leader forwards the data change to the followers. Eventually, the leader notifies the client that the update was successful.

Figure 5-2 shows the communication between various components of the system: the user’s client, the leader, and two followers. Time flows from left to right. A request or response message is shown as a thick arrow.

Leader-based replication with one synchronous and one asynchronous follower

Figure 5-2. Leader-based replication with one synchronous and one asynchronous follower.

In the example of Figure 5-2, the replication to follower 1 is synchronous: the leader waits until follower 1 has confirmed that it received the write before reporting success to the user, and before making the write visible to other clients. The replication to follower 2 is asynchronous: the leader sends the message, but doesn’t wait for a response from the follower.

The diagram shows that there is a substantial delay before follower 2 processes the message. Normally, replication is quite fast: most database systems apply changes to followers in less than a second. However, there is no guarantee of how long it might take. There are circumstances when followers might fall behind the leader by several minutes or more; for example, if a follower is recovering from a failure, if the system is operating near maximum capacity, or if there are network problems between the nodes.

The advantage of synchronous replication is that the follower is guaranteed to have an up-to-date copy of the data that is consistent with the leader. If the leader suddenly fails, we can be sure that the data is still available on the follower. The disadvantage is that if the synchronous follower doesn’t respond (because it has crashed, or there is a network fault, or for any other reason), the write cannot be processed. The leader must block all writes and wait until the synchronous replica is available again.

For that reason, it is impractical for all followers to be synchronous: any one node outage would cause the whole system to grind to a halt. In practice, if you enable synchronous replication on a database, it usually means that one of the followers is synchronous, and the others are asynchronous. If the synchronous follower becomes unavailable or slow, one of the asynchronous followers is made synchronous. This guarantees that you have an up-to-date copy of the data on at least two nodes: the leader and one synchronous follower. This configuration is sometimes also called semi-synchronous [7].

Often, leader-based replication is configured to be completely asynchronous. In this case, if the leader fails and is not recoverable, any writes that have not yet been replicated to followers are lost. This means that a write is not guaranteed to be durable, even if it has been confirmed to the client. However, a fully asynchronous configuration has the advantage that the leader can continue processing writes, even if all of its followers have fallen behind.

Weakening durability may sound like a bad trade-off, but asynchronous replication is nevertheless widely used, especially if there are many followers or if they are geographically distributed. We will return to this issue in “Problems with Replication Lag” on page 161.

Research on Replication

It can be a serious problem for asynchronously replicated systems to lose data if the leader fails, so researchers have continued investigating replication methods that do not lose data but still provide good performance and availability. For example, chain replication [8, 9] is a variant of synchronous replication that has been successfully implemented in a few systems such as Microsoft Azure Storage [10, 11].

There is a strong connection between consistency of replication and consensus (getting several nodes to agree on a value), and we will explore this area of theory in more detail in Chapter 9. In this chapter we will concentrate on the simpler forms of replication that are most commonly used in databases in practice.

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