Chapter 8: The Trouble with Distributed Systems

Aditi Lonhari
11 min readJun 12, 2023


A recurring theme in the last few chapters has been how systems handle things going wrong. For example, we discussed replica failover, replication lag and concurrency control for transactions. As we come to understand various edge cases that can occur in real systems, we get better at handling them.

However, even though we have talked a lot about faults, the last few chapters have still been too optimistic. The reality is even darker. We will now turn our pessimism to the maximum and assume that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Faults and Partial Failures

A CPU instruction always does the same thing; if you write some data to memory or disk, that data remains intact and doesn’t get randomly corrupted. This design goal of always-correct computation goes all the way back to the very first digital computer.

When you are writing software that runs on several computers, connected by a network, the situation is fundamentally different. In distributed systems, we are no longer operating in an idealized system model — we have no choice but to confront the messy reality of the physical world. And in the physical world, a remarkably wide range of things can go wrong.

In a distributed system, there may well be some parts of the system that are broken in some unpredictable way, even though other parts of the system are working fine. This is known as a partial failure. The difficulty is that partial failures are nondeterministic: if you try to do anything involving multiple nodes and the network, it may sometimes work and sometimes unpredictably fail.

Cloud Computing and Supercomputing

There is a spectrum of philosophies on how to build large-scale computing systems:

  • At one end of the scale is the field of high-performance computing (HPC). Super‐computers with thousands of CPUs are typically used for computationally intensive scientific computing tasks, such as weather forecasting or molecular dynamics (simulating the movement of atoms and molecules).
  • At the other extreme is cloud computing, which is not very well defined but is often associated with multi-tenant data-centers, commodity computers connected with an IP network (often Ethernet), elastic/on-demand resource allocation, and metered billing.
  • Traditional enterprise data-centers lie somewhere between these extremes.

With these philosophies come very different approaches to handling faults. In a supercomputer, a job typically checkpoints the state of its computation to durable storage from time to time. If one node fails, a common solution is to simply stop the entire cluster workload. After the faulty node is repaired, the computation is restarted from the last checkpoint. Thus, a supercomputer is more like a single-node computer than a distributed system: it deals with partial failure by letting it escalate into total failure — if any part of the system fails, just let everything crash (like a kernel panic on a single machine).

If we want to make distributed systems work, we must accept the possibility of partial failure and build fault-tolerance mechanisms into the software. In other words, we need to build a reliable system from unreliable components.

Unreliable Networks

The distributed systems we focus on in this book are shared-nothing systems: i.e., a bunch of machines connected by a network. The network is the only way those machines can communicate — we assume that each machine has its own memory and disk, and one machine cannot access another machine’s memory or disk (except by making requests to a service over the network).

Shared-nothing is not the only way of building systems, but it has become the dominant approach for building internet services, for several reasons: it’s comparatively cheap because it requires no special hardware, it can make use of commoditized cloud computing services, and it can achieve high reliability through redundancy across multiple geographically distributed data-centers.

Here the sender can’t even tell whether the packet was delivered: the only option is for the recipient to send a response message, which may in turn be lost or delayed. These issues are indistinguishable in an asynchronous network: the only information you have is that you haven’t received a response yet. If you send a request to another node and don’t receive a response, it is impossible to tell why. The usual way of handling this issue is a timeout: after some time you give up waiting and assume that the response is not going to arrive.

Network Faults in Practice

Nobody is immune from network problems: for example, a problem during a software upgrade for a switch could trigger a network topology reconfiguration, during which network packets could be delayed for more than a minute. Sharks might bite undersea cables and damage them. Other surprising faults include a network interface that sometimes drops all inbound packets but sends outbound packets successfully: just because a network link works in one direction doesn’t guarantee it’s also working in the opposite direction.

Even if network faults are rare in your environment, the fact that faults can occur means that your software needs to be able to handle them. Whenever any communication happens over a network, it may fail — there is no way around it. If software is put in an unanticipated situation, it may do arbitrary unexpected things.

Detecting Faults

Many systems need to automatically detect faulty nodes. Unfortunately, the uncertainty about the network makes it difficult to tell whether a node is working or not. In some specific circumstances you might get some feedback to explicitly tell you that something is not working.

If you want to be sure that a request was successful, you need a positive response from the application itself. Conversely, if something has gone wrong, you may get an error response at some level of the stack, but in general you have to assume that you will get no response at all.

Timeouts and Unbounded Delays

If a timeout is the only sure way of detecting a fault, then how long should the time‐out 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. 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 every‐ thing stops working).

Unfortunately, most systems we work with have neither of minimum or maximum response time 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. 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.

Network congestion and queueing

Variability of packet delays on computer networks is most often due to queueing.

  • If several different nodes simultaneously try to send packets to the same destination, the network switch must queue them up and feed them into the destination network link one by one. On a busy network link, a packet may have to wait a while until it can get a slot (this is called network congestion). If there is so much incoming data that the switch queue fills up, the packet is dropped, so it needs to be resent — even though the network is functioning fine.
  • When a packet reaches the destination machine, if all CPU cores are currently busy, the incoming request from the network is queued by the operating system until the application is ready to handle it. Depending on the load on the machine, this may take an arbitrary length of time.
  • In virtualized environments, a running operating system is often paused for tens of milliseconds while another virtual machine uses a CPU core. During this time, the VM cannot consume any data from the network, so the incoming data is queued (buffered) by the virtual machine monitor, further increasing the variability of network delays.
  • TCP performs flow control (also known as congestion avoidance or backpressure), in which a node limits its own rate of sending in order to avoid overloading a network link or the receiving node. This means additional queueing at the sender before the data even enters the network. Moreover, TCP considers a packet to be lost if it is not acknowledged within some timeout, and lost packets are automatically retransmitted.

In such variable environments, you can only choose timeouts experimentally: measure the distribution of network round-trip times over an extended period, and over many machines, to determine the expected variability of delays. Then, taking into account your application’s characteristics, you can determine an appropriate trade-off between failure detection delay and risk of premature timeouts.

Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Networks

Distributed systems would be a lot simpler if we could rely on the network to deliver packets with some fixed maximum delay, and not to drop packets.

The packets of a TCP connection opportunistically use whatever network bandwidth is available. You can give TCP a variable-sized block of data (e.g., an email or a web page), and it will try to transfer it in the shortest time possible. While a TCP connection is idle, it doesn’t use any bandwidth. Ethernet and IP are packet-switched protocols, which suffer from queueing and thus unbounded delays in the network.

Why do datacenter networks and the internet use packet switching? The answer is that they are optimized for bursty traffic. A circuit is good for an audio or video call, which needs to transfer a fairly constant number of bits per second for the duration of the call. On the other hand, requesting a web page, sending an email, or transfer‐ ring a file doesn’t have any particular bandwidth requirement — we just want it to complete as quickly as possible. TCP dynamically adapts the rate of data transfer to the available network capacity.

With careful use of quality of service (QoS, prioritization and scheduling of packets) and admission control (rate-limiting senders), it is possible to emulate circuit switching on packet networks, or provide statistically bounded delay.

However, such quality of service is currently not enabled in multi-tenant datacenters and public clouds, or when communicating via the internet.iv Currently deployed technology does not allow us to make any guarantees about delays or reliability of the network: we have to assume that network congestion, queueing, and unbounded delays will happen. Consequently, there’s no “correct” value for timeouts — they need to be determined experimentally.

Unreliable Clocks

In a distributed system, time is a tricky business, because communication is not instantaneous: it takes time for a message to travel across the network from one machine to another. The time the message is received, order, network delays, individual clocks — all this make it very unreliable.

It is possible to synchronize clocks to some degree: the most commonly used mechanism is the Network Time Protocol (NTP), which allows the computer clock to be adjusted according to the time reported by a group of servers. The servers in turn get their time from a more accurate time source, such as a GPS receiver.

Monotonic Versus Time-of-Day Clocks

A time-of-day clock does what you intuitively expect of a clock: it returns the current date and time according to some calendar (also known as wall-clock time). Time-of-day clocks are usually synchronized with NTP, which means that a time‐ stamp from one machine (ideally) means the same as a timestamp on another machine.

A monotonic clock is suitable for measuring a duration (time interval), such as a timeout or a service’s response time. The name comes from the fact that they are guaranteed to always move forward (whereas a time-ofday clock may jump back in time).

In a distributed system, using a monotonic clock for measuring elapsed time (e.g., timeouts) is usually fine, because it doesn’t assume any synchronization between different nodes’ clocks and is not sensitive to slight inaccuracies of measurement.

Relying on Synchronized Clocks

Monotonic clocks don’t need synchronization, but time-of-day clocks need to be set according to an NTP server or other external time source in order to be useful.

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. Thus, if you use software that requires synchronized clocks, it is essential that you also carefully monitor the clock offsets between all the machines.

Knowledge, Truth, and Lies

So far in this chapter we have explored the ways in which distributed systems are different from programs running on a single computer: there is no shared memory, only message passing via an unreliable network with variable delays, and the systems may suffer from partial failures, unreliable clocks, and processing pauses.

The Truth Is Defined by the Majority

Imagine a network with an asymmetric fault: a node is able to receive all messages sent to it, but any outgoing messages from that node are dropped or delayed.

A distributed system cannot exclusively rely on a single node, because a node may fail at any time, potentially leaving the system stuck and unable to recover. Instead, many distributed algorithms rely on a quorum, that is, voting among the nodes: decisions require some minimum number of votes from several nodes in order to reduce the dependence on any one particular node.

System Model and Reality

We should somehow formalize the kinds of faults that we expect to happen in a system. We do this by defining a system model, which is an abstraction that describes what things an algorithm may assume.

With regard to timing assumptions, three system models are in common use:

  • Synchronous model (bounded network delay, bounded process pauses, and bounded clock error)
  • Partially synchronous model (sometimes exceeds the bounds for network delay, process pauses, and clock drift)
  • Asynchronous model (an algorithm is not allowed to make any timing assumptions — in fact, it does not even have a clock so it cannot use timeouts)

Besides timing issues, we have to consider node failures. The three most common system models for nodes are:

  • Crash-stop faults (a node can fail in only one way — crashing)
  • Crash-recovery faults (nodes may crash at any moment, and perhaps start responding again after some unknown time)
  • Byzantine (arbitrary) faults (Nodes may do absolutely anything, including trying to trick and deceive other nodes)

For modeling real systems, the partially synchronous model with crash-recovery faults is generally the most useful model.

Correctness of an algorithm

To define what it means for an algorithm to be correct, we can describe its properties. The properties we want of a distributed algorithm:

  • Uniqueness (no two requests for a fencing token return the same value)
  • Monotonic sequence (if request x returned token tx , and request y returned token ty , and x completed before y began, then tx < ty )
  • Availability (a node that requests a fencing token and does not crash eventually receives a response)

An algorithm is correct in some system model if it always satisfies its properties in all situations that we assume may occur in that system model. In this case, uniqueness and monotonic sequence are safety properties, but availability is a liveness property. Safety is often informally defined as nothing bad happens, and liveness as something good eventually happens.