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Version vectors

The example in Figure 5-13 used only a single replica. How does the algorithm change when there are multiple replicas, but no leader?

Figure 5-13 uses a single version number to capture dependencies between operations, but that is not sufficient when there are multiple replicas accepting writes concurrently. Instead, we need to use a version number per replica as well as per key. Each replica increments its own version number when processing a write, and also keeps track of the version numbers it has seen from each of the other replicas. This information indicates which values to overwrite and which values to keep as siblings.

The collection of version numbers from all the replicas is called a version vector [56]. A few variants of this idea are in use, but the most interesting is probably the dotted version vector [57], which is used in Riak 2.0 [58, 59]. We won’t go into the details, but the way it works is quite similar to what we saw in our cart example.

Like the version numbers in Figure 5-13, version vectors are sent from the database replicas to clients when values are read, and need to be sent back to the database when a value is subsequently written. (Riak encodes the version vector as a string that it calls causal context.) The version vector allows the database to distinguish between overwrites and concurrent writes.

Also, like in the single-replica example, the application may need to merge siblings. The version vector structure ensures that it is safe to read from one replica and subsequently write back to another replica. Doing so may result in siblings being created, but no data is lost as long as siblings are merged correctly.

Version vectors and vector clocks

A version vector is sometimes also called a vector clock, even though they are not quite the same. The difference is subtle—please see the references for details [57, 60, 61]. In brief, when comparing the state of replicas, version vectors are the right data structure to use.

 
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