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Capturing the happens-before relationship

Let’s look at an algorithm that determines whether two operations are concurrent, or whether one happened before another. To keep things simple, let’s start with a database that has only one replica. Once we have worked out how to do this on a single replica, we can generalize the approach to a leaderless database with multiple replicas.

Figure 5-13 shows two clients concurrently adding items to the same shopping cart. (If that example strikes you as too inane, imagine instead two air traffic controllers concurrently adding aircraft to the sector they are tracking.) Initially, the cart is empty. Between them, the clients make five writes to the database:

  • 1. Client 1 adds milk to the cart. This is the first write to that key, so the server successfully stores it and assigns it version 1. The server also echoes the value back to the client, along with the version number.
  • 2. Client 2 adds eggs to the cart, not knowing that client 1 concurrently added milk (client 2 thought that its eggs were the only item in the cart). The server assigns version 2 to this write, and stores eggs and milk as two separate values. It then returns both values to the client, along with the version number of 2.
  • 3. Client 1, oblivious to client 2’s write, wants to add flour to the cart, so it thinks the current cart contents should be [milk, flour]. It sends this value to the server, along with the version number 1 that the server gave client 1 previously. The server can tell from the version number that the write of [milk, flour] supersedes the prior value of [milk] but that it is concurrent with [eggs]. Thus, the server assigns version 3 to [milk, flour], overwrites the version 1 value [milk], but keeps the version 2 value [eggs] and returns both remaining values to the client.
  • 4. Meanwhile, client 2 wants to add ham to the cart, unaware that client 1 just added flour. Client 2 received the two values [milk] and [eggs] from the server in the last response, so the client now merges those values and adds ham to form a new value, [eggs, milk, ham]. It sends that value to the server, along with the previous version number 2. The server detects that version 2 overwrites [eggs] but is concurrent with [milk, flour], so the two remaining values are [milk, flour] with version 3, and [eggs, milk, ham] with version 4.
  • 5. Finally, client 1 wants to add bacon. It previously received [milk, flour] and [eggs] from the server at version 3, so it merges those, adds bacon, and sends the final value [milk, flour, eggs, bacon] to the server, along with the version number 3. This overwrites [milk, flour] (note that [eggs] was already overwritten in the last step) but is concurrent with [eggs, milk, ham], so the server keeps those two concurrent values.
Capturing causal dependencies between two clients concurrently editing a shopping cart

Figure 5-13. Capturing causal dependencies between two clients concurrently editing a shopping cart.

The dataflow between the operations in Figure 5-13 is illustrated graphically in Figure 5-14. The arrows indicate which operation happened before which other operation, in the sense that the later operation knew about or depended on the earlier one. In this example, the clients are never fully up to date with the data on the server, since there is always another operation going on concurrently. But old versions of the value do get overwritten eventually, and no writes are lost.

Graph of causal dependencies in Figure 5-13

Figure 5-14. Graph of causal dependencies in Figure 5-13.

Note that the server can determine whether two operations are concurrent by looking at the version numbers—it does not need to interpret the value itself (so the value could be any data structure). The algorithm works as follows:

Leaderless Replication | 189

  • • The server maintains a version number for every key, increments the version number every time that key is written, and stores the new version number along with the value written.
  • • When a client reads a key, the server returns all values that have not been overwritten, as well as the latest version number. A client must read a key before writing.
  • • When a client writes a key, it must include the version number from the prior read, and it must merge together all values that it received in the prior read. (The response from a write request can be like a read, returning all current values, which allows us to chain several writes like in the shopping cart example.)
  • • When the server receives a write with a particular version number, it can overwrite all values with that version number or below (since it knows that they have been merged into the new value), but it must keep all values with a higher version number (because those values are concurrent with the incoming write).

When a write includes the version number from a prior read, that tells us which previous state the write is based on. If you make a write without including a version number, it is concurrent with all other writes, so it will not overwrite anything—it will just be returned as one of the values on subsequent reads.

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