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Home arrow Computer Science arrow Designing Data-Intensive Applications. The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable and Maintainable Systems


In this chapter we looked at the issue of replication. Replication can serve several purposes:

High availability

Keeping the system running, even when one machine (or several machines, or an entire datacenter) goes down

Disconnected operation

Allowing an application to continue working when there is a network interruption


Placing data geographically close to users, so that users can interact with it faster Scalability

Being able to handle a higher volume of reads than a single machine could handle, by performing reads on replicas

Despite being a simple goal—keeping a copy of the same data on several machines— replication turns out to be a remarkably tricky problem. It requires carefully thinking about concurrency and about all the things that can go wrong, and dealing with the consequences of those faults. At a minimum, we need to deal with unavailable nodes and network interruptions (and that’s not even considering the more insidious kinds of fault, such as silent data corruption due to software bugs).

We discussed three main approaches to replication:

Single-leader replication

Clients send all writes to a single node (the leader), which sends a stream of data change events to the other replicas (followers). Reads can be performed on any replica, but reads from followers might be stale.

Multi-leader replication

Clients send each write to one of several leader nodes, any of which can accept writes. The leaders send streams of data change events to each other and to any follower nodes.

Leaderless replication

Clients send each write to several nodes, and read from several nodes in parallel in order to detect and correct nodes with stale data.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Single-leader replication is popular because it is fairly easy to understand and there is no conflict resolution to worry about. Multi-leader and leaderless replication can be more robust in the presence of faulty nodes, network interruptions, and latency spikes—at the cost of being harder to reason about and providing only very weak consistency guarantees.

Replication can be synchronous or asynchronous, which has a profound effect on the system behavior when there is a fault. Although asynchronous replication can be fast when the system is running smoothly, it’s important to figure out what happens when replication lag increases and servers fail. If a leader fails and you promote an asynchronously updated follower to be the new leader, recently committed data may be lost.

We looked at some strange effects that can be caused by replication lag, and we discussed a few consistency models which are helpful for deciding how an application should behave under replication lag:

Read-after-write consistency

Users should always see data that they submitted themselves.

Monotonic reads

After users have seen the data at one point in time, they shouldn’t later see the data from some earlier point in time.

Consistent prefix reads

Users should see the data in a state that makes causal sense: for example, seeing a question and its reply in the correct order.

Finally, we discussed the concurrency issues that are inherent in multi-leader and leaderless replication approaches: because they allow multiple writes to happen concurrently, conflicts may occur. We examined an algorithm that a database might use to determine whether one operation happened before another, or whether they happened concurrently. We also touched on methods for resolving conflicts by merging together concurrent updates.

In the next chapter we will continue looking at data that is distributed across multiple machines, through the counterpart of replication: splitting a large dataset into partitions.

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