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The leader and the lock

Frequently, a system requires there to be only one of some thing. For example:

  • • Only one node is allowed to be the leader for a database partition, to avoid split brain (see “Handling Node Outages” on page 156).
  • • Only one transaction or client is allowed to hold the lock for a particular resource or object, to prevent concurrently writing to it and corrupting it.

• Only one user is allowed to register a particular username, because a username must uniquely identify a user.

Implementing this in a distributed system requires care: even if a node believes that it is “the chosen one” (the leader of the partition, the holder of the lock, the request handler of the user who successfully grabbed the username), that doesn’t necessarily mean a quorum of nodes agrees! A node may have formerly been the leader, but if the other nodes declared it dead in the meantime (e.g., due to a network interruption or GC pause), it may have been demoted and another leader may have already been elected.

If a node continues acting as the chosen one, even though the majority of nodes have declared it dead, it could cause problems in a system that is not carefully designed. Such a node could send messages to other nodes in its self-appointed capacity, and if other nodes believe it, the system as a whole may do something incorrect.

For example, Figure 8-4 shows a data corruption bug due to an incorrect implementation of locking. (The bug is not theoretical: HBase used to have this problem [74, 75].) Say you want to ensure that a file in a storage service can only be accessed by one client at a time, because if multiple clients tried to write to it, the file would become corrupted. You try to implement this by requiring a client to obtain a lease from a lock service before accessing the file.

Incorrect implementation of a distributed lock

Figure 8-4. Incorrect implementation of a distributed lock: client 1 believes that it still has a valid lease, even though it has expired, and thus corrupts a file in storage.

The problem is an example of what we discussed in “Process Pauses” on page 295: if the client holding the lease is paused for too long, its lease expires. Another client can obtain a lease for the same file, and start writing to the file. When the paused client comes back, it believes (incorrectly) that it still has a valid lease and proceeds to also write to the file. As a result, the clients’ writes clash and corrupt the file.

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