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Timeouts and Unbounded Delays

If a timeout is the only sure way of detecting a fault, then how long should the timeout be? There is unfortunately no simple answer.

A long timeout means a long wait until a node is declared dead (and during this time, users may have to wait or see error messages). A short timeout detects faults faster, but carries a higher risk of incorrectly declaring a node dead when in fact it has only suffered a temporary slowdown (e.g., due to a load spike on the node or the network).

Prematurely declaring a node dead is problematic: if the node is actually alive and in the middle of performing some action (for example, sending an email), and another node takes over, the action may end up being performed twice. We will discuss this issue in more detail in “Knowledge, Truth, and Lies” on page 300, and in Chapters 9 and 11.

When a node is declared dead, its responsibilities need to be transferred to other nodes, which places additional load on other nodes and the network. If the system is already struggling with high load, declaring nodes dead prematurely can make the problem worse. In particular, it could happen that the node actually wasn’t dead but only slow to respond due to overload; transferring its load to other nodes can cause a cascading failure (in the extreme case, all nodes declare each other dead, and everything stops working).

Imagine a fictitious system with a network that guaranteed a maximum delay for packets—every packet is either delivered within some time d, or it is lost, but delivery never takes longer than d. Furthermore, assume that you can guarantee that a non- failed node always handles a request within some time r. In this case, you could guarantee that every successful request receives a response within time 2d + r—and if you don’t receive a response within that time, you know that either the network or the remote node is not working. If this was true, 2d + r would be a reasonable timeout to use.

Unfortunately, most systems we work with have neither of those guarantees: asynchronous networks have unbounded delays (that is, they try to deliver packets as quickly as possible, but there is no upper limit on the time it may take for a packet to arrive), and most server implementations cannot guarantee that they can handle requests within some maximum time (see “Response time guarantees” on page 298). For failure detection, it’s not sufficient for the system to be fast most of the time: if your timeout is low, it only takes a transient spike in round-trip times to throw the system off-balance.

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