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Relying on Synchronized Clocks

The problem with clocks is that while they seem simple and easy to use, they have a surprising number of pitfalls: a day may not have exactly 86,400 seconds, time-of-day clocks may move backward in time, and the time on one node may be quite different from the time on another node.

Earlier in this chapter we discussed networks dropping and arbitrarily delaying packets. Even though networks are well behaved most of the time, software must be designed on the assumption that the network will occasionally be faulty, and the software must handle such faults gracefully. The same is true with clocks: although they work quite well most of the time, robust software needs to be prepared to deal with incorrect clocks.

Part of the problem is that incorrect clocks easily go unnoticed. If a machine’s CPU is defective or its network is misconfigured, it most likely won’t work at all, so it will quickly be noticed and fixed. On the other hand, if its quartz clock is defective or its NTP client is misconfigured, most things will seem to work fine, even though its clock gradually drifts further and further away from reality. If some piece of software is relying on an accurately synchronized clock, the result is more likely to be silent and subtle data loss than a dramatic crash [53, 54].

Thus, if you use software that requires synchronized clocks, it is essential that you also carefully monitor the clock offsets between all the machines. Any node whose clock drifts too far from the others should be declared dead and removed from the cluster. Such monitoring ensures that you notice the broken clocks before they can cause too much damage.

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