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Reading Your Own Writes

Many applications let the user submit some data and then view what they have submitted. This might be a record in a customer database, or a comment on a discussion thread, or something else of that sort. When new data is submitted, it must be sent to the leader, but when the user views the data, it can be read from a follower. This is especially appropriate if data is frequently viewed but only occasionally written.

With asynchronous replication, there is a problem, illustrated in Figure 5-3: if the user views the data shortly after making a write, the new data may not yet have reached the replica. To the user, it looks as though the data they submitted was lost, so they will be understandably unhappy. [1]

A user makes a write, followed by a read from a stale replica. To prevent this anomaly, we need read-after-write consistency

Figure 5-3. A user makes a write, followed by a read from a stale replica. To prevent this anomaly, we need read-after-write consistency.

In this situation, we need read-after-write consistency, also known as read-your-writes consistency [24]. This is a guarantee that if the user reloads the page, they will always see any updates they submitted themselves. It makes no promises about other users: other users’ updates may not be visible until some later time. However, it reassures the user that their own input has been saved correctly.

How can we implement read-after-write consistency in a system with leader-based replication? There are various possible techniques. To mention a few:

  • • When reading something that the user may have modified, read it from the leader; otherwise, read it from a follower. This requires that you have some way of knowing whether something might have been modified, without actually querying it. For example, user profile information on a social network is normally only editable by the owner of the profile, not by anybody else. Thus, a simple rule is: always read the user’s own profile from the leader, and any other users’ profiles from a follower.
  • • If most things in the application are potentially editable by the user, that approach won’t be effective, as most things would have to be read from the leader (negating the benefit of read scaling). In that case, other criteria may be used to decide whether to read from the leader. For example, you could track the time of the last update and, for one minute after the last update, make all reads from the leader. You could also monitor the replication lag on followers and prevent queries on any follower that is more than one minute behind the leader.
  • • The client can remember the timestamp of its most recent write—then the system can ensure that the replica serving any reads for that user reflects updates at least until that timestamp. If a replica is not sufficiently up to date, either the read can be handled by another replica or the query can wait until the replica has caught up. The timestamp could be a logical timestamp (something that indicates ordering of writes, such as the log sequence number) or the actual system clock (in which case clock synchronization becomes critical; see “Unreliable Clocks” on page 287).
  • • If your replicas are distributed across multiple datacenters (for geographical proximity to users or for availability), there is additional complexity. Any request that needs to be served by the leader must be routed to the datacenter that contains the leader.

Another complication arises when the same user is accessing your service from multiple devices, for example a desktop web browser and a mobile app. In this case you may want to provide cross-device read-after-write consistency: if the user enters some information on one device and then views it on another device, they should see the information they just entered.

In this case, there are some additional issues to consider:

  • • Approaches that require remembering the timestamp of the user’s last update become more difficult, because the code running on one device doesn’t know what updates have happened on the other device. This metadata will need to be centralized.
  • • If your replicas are distributed across different datacenters, there is no guarantee that connections from different devices will be routed to the same datacenter. (For example, if the user’s desktop computer uses the home broadband connection and their mobile device uses the cellular data network, the devices’ network routes may be completely different.) If your approach requires reading from the leader, you may first need to route requests from all of a user’s devices to the same datacenter.

  • [1] The term eventual consistency was coined by Douglas Terry et al. [24], popularized by Werner Vogels[22], and became the battle cry of many NoSQL projects. However, not only NoSQL databases are eventuallyconsistent: followers in an asynchronously replicated relational database have the same characteristics.
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