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Sloppy Quorums and Hinted Handoff

Databases with appropriately configured quorums can tolerate the failure of individual nodes without the need for failover. They can also tolerate individual nodes going slow, because requests don’t have to wait for all n nodes to respond—they can return when w or r nodes have responded. These characteristics make databases with leaderless replication appealing for use cases that require high availability and low latency, and that can tolerate occasional stale reads.

However, quorums (as described so far) are not as fault-tolerant as they could be. A network interruption can easily cut off a client from a large number of database nodes. Although those nodes are alive, and other clients may be able to connect to them, to a client that is cut off from the database nodes, they might as well be dead. In this situation, it’s likely that fewer than w or r reachable nodes remain, so the client can no longer reach a quorum.

In a large cluster (with significantly more than n nodes) it’s likely that the client can connect to some database nodes during the network interruption, just not to the nodes that it needs to assemble a quorum for a particular value. In that case, database designers face a trade-off:

  • • Is it better to return errors to all requests for which we cannot reach a quorum of w or r nodes?
  • • Or should we accept writes anyway, and write them to some nodes that are reachable but aren’t among the n nodes on which the value usually lives?

The latter is known as a sloppy quorum [37]: writes and reads still require w and r successful responses, but those may include nodes that are not among the designated n “home” nodes for a value. By analogy, if you lock yourself out of your house, you may knock on the neighbor’s door and ask whether you may stay on their couch temporarily.

Once the network interruption is fixed, any writes that one node temporarily accepted on behalf of another node are sent to the appropriate “home” nodes. This is called hinted handoff. (Once you find the keys to your house again, your neighbor politely asks you to get off their couch and go home.)

Sloppy quorums are particularly useful for increasing write availability: as long as any w nodes are available, the database can accept writes. However, this means that even when w + r > n, you cannot be sure to read the latest value for a key, because the latest value may have been temporarily written to some nodes outside of n [47].

Thus, a sloppy quorum actually isn’t a quorum at all in the traditional sense. It’s only an assurance of durability, namely that the data is stored on w nodes somewhere. There is no guarantee that a read of r nodes will see it until the hinted handoff has completed.

Sloppy quorums are optional in all common Dynamo implementations. In Riak they are enabled by default, and in Cassandra and Voldemort they are disabled by default [46, 49, 50].

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