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Using total order broadcast

Consensus services such as ZooKeeper and etcd actually implement total order broadcast. This fact is a hint that there is a strong connection between total order broadcast and consensus, which we will explore later in this chapter.

Total order broadcast is exactly what you need for database replication: if every message represents a write to the database, and every replica processes the same writes in the same order, then the replicas will remain consistent with each other (aside from any temporary replication lag). This principle is known as state machine replication [60], and we will return to it in Chapter 11.

Similarly, total order broadcast can be used to implement serializable transactions: as discussed in “Actual Serial Execution” on page 252, if every message represents a deterministic transaction to be executed as a stored procedure, and if every node processes those messages in the same order, then the partitions and replicas of the database are kept consistent with each other [61].

An important aspect of total order broadcast is that the order is fixed at the time the messages are delivered: a node is not allowed to retroactively insert a message into an earlier position in the order if subsequent messages have already been delivered. This fact makes total order broadcast stronger than timestamp ordering.

Another way of looking at total order broadcast is that it is a way of creating a log (as in a replication log, transaction log, or write-ahead log): delivering a message is like appending to the log. Since all nodes must deliver the same messages in the same order, all nodes can read the log and see the same sequence of messages.

Total order broadcast is also useful for implementing a lock service that provides fencing tokens (see “Fencing tokens” on page 303). Every request to acquire the lock is appended as a message to the log, and all messages are sequentially numbered in the order they appear in the log. The sequence number can then serve as a fencing token, because it is monotonically increasing. In ZooKeeper, this sequence number is called zxid [15].

As illustrated in Figure 9-4, in a linearizable system there is a total order of operations. Does that mean linearizability is the same as total order broadcast? Not quite, but there are close links between the two.[1]

Total order broadcast is asynchronous: messages are guaranteed to be delivered reliably in a fixed order, but there is no guarantee about when a message will be delivered (so one recipient may lag behind the others). By contrast, linearizability is a recency guarantee: a read is guaranteed to see the latest value written.

However, if you have total order broadcast, you can build linearizable storage on top of it. For example, you can ensure that usernames uniquely identify user accounts.

Imagine that for every possible username, you can have a linearizable register with an atomic compare-and-set operation. Every register initially has the value null (indicating that the username is not taken). When a user wants to create a username, you execute a compare-and-set operation on the register for that username, setting it to the user account ID, under the condition that the previous register value is null. If multiple users try to concurrently grab the same username, only one of the compare- and-set operations will succeed, because the others will see a value other than null (due to linearizability).

You can implement such a linearizable compare-and-set operation as follows by using total order broadcast as an append-only log [62, 63]:

  • 1. Append a message to the log, tentatively indicating the username you want to claim.
  • 2. Read the log, and wait for the message you appended to be delivered back to


3. Check for any messages claiming the username that you want. If the first message for your desired username is your own message, then you are successful: you can commit the username claim (perhaps by appending another message to the log) and acknowledge it to the client. If the first message for your desired username is from another user, you abort the operation.

Because log entries are delivered to all nodes in the same order, if there are several concurrent writes, all nodes will agree on which one came first. Choosing the first of the conflicting writes as the winner and aborting later ones ensures that all nodes agree on whether a write was committed or aborted. A similar approach can be used to implement serializable multi-object transactions on top of a log [62].

While this procedure ensures linearizable writes, it doesn’t guarantee linearizable reads—if you read from a store that is asynchronously updated from the log, it may be stale. (To be precise, the procedure described here provides sequential consistency [47, 64], sometimes also known as timeline consistency [65, 66], a slightly weaker guarantee than linearizability.) To make reads linearizable, there are a few options:

  • • You can sequence reads through the log by appending a message, reading the log, and performing the actual read when the message is delivered back to you. The message’s position in the log thus defines the point in time at which the read happens. (Quorum reads in etcd work somewhat like this [16].)
  • • If the log allows you to fetch the position of the latest log message in a lineariza- ble way, you can query that position, wait for all entries up to that position to be delivered to you, and then perform the read. (This is the idea behind ZooKeeper’s sync() operation [15].)
  • • You can make your read from a replica that is synchronously updated on writes, and is thus sure to be up to date. (This technique is used in chain replication [63]; see also “Research on Replication” on page 155.)

  • [1] In a formal sense, a linearizable read-write register is an “easier” problem. Total order broadcast is equivalent to consensus [67], which has no deterministic solution in the asynchronous crash-stop model [68],whereas a linearizable read-write register can be implemented in the same system model [23, 24, 25]. However, supporting atomic operations such as compare-and-set or increment-and-get in a register makes itequivalent to consensus [28]. Thus, the problems of consensus and a linearizable register are closely related.
  • [2] If you don’t wait, but acknowledge the write immediately after it has been enqueued, you get somethingsimilar to the memory consistency model of multi-core x86 processors [43]. That model is neither lineariza-ble nor sequentially consistent.
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