Introduction to distributed systems

What is a distributed system?

According to Wikipedia: A distributed system is a software system in which components located on networked computers communicate and coordinate their actions by passing messages.

Parallel and distributed systems

  • Parallel systems use shared memory
    • Distributed parallel systems still use the notion of shared memory, but this is co-ordinated with special HW/SW that unifies memory accesses accross multiple computers

Parallel system

  • Distributed systems use no shared components

Distributed system

Why distributed systems?

  • Scalability
    • Moore’s law: The number of transistors on a single chip doubles about every two year.
    • The advancement has slowed since around 2010.
    • Distribution provides massive performance.
  • Distribution of tasks and collaboration
  • Reduced Latency
  • Fault tolerance
  • Mobility

Distributed system characteristics

  • Computational entities each with own memory
    • Need to synchronize distributed state
  • Entities communicate with message passing
  • Each entity maintains parts of the complete picture
  • Need to tolerate failure

Building distributed systems is hard

  • They fail often (and failure is difficult to spot!)
    • Split-brain scenarios
  • Maintaining order/consistency is hard
  • Coordination is hard
  • Partial operation must be possible
  • Testing is hard
  • Profiling is hard: “it’s slow” might be due to 1000s of factors

Fallacies of distributed systems

By Peter Deutsch

  • The network is reliable
  • Latency is zero
  • Bandwidth is infinite
  • The network is secure
  • Topology does not change
  • Transport cost is zero
  • The network is homogeneous

Five main problems

We will focus on the following four issues with distributed systems

  • Partial failures: Some parts of the system may fail nondeterministically, while other parts work fine.
  • Unreliable networks: Distributed systems communicate over unreliable networks.
  • Unreliable time: Time is a universal coordination principle. However, we cannot use time determine order.
  • No single source of truth: Distributed systems need to co-ordinate and agree upon a (version of) truth.
  • Different opinions: Distributed systems need to provide guarantees for consistency in query answers.

Partial failures

Partial failures

Distributed systems must tolerate partial failures: Any one point in the system can fail, yet the system must continue to correctly function as a whole.

Partial failures occur frequently in large distributed systems and they may cause real-world outages.

Hard to detect whether something failed or not, as the time it takes for a message to travel across a network.

Unreliable networks

Unreliable networks

How can a network fail?

Q: Imagine a client server application. The client sents a message to the server, but receives no response. What might have gone wrong?

A: Has the service failed? Is the request or response message lost in the network?

Asynchronous vs synchronous Systems

Two types of network systems:

  • Synchronous system: Process execution speeds or message delivery times are bounded.

  • Asynchronous system: No assumptions about process execution speeds or message delivery times are made.

Purely synchronous systems only exist in theory.

Most distributed systems use some form of asynchronous networking to communicate.

Failures in asynchronous systems

Upon waiting for a response to a requests in an asynchronous system, it is not possible to distinguish whether:

  1. the request was lost
  2. the remote node is down
  3. the response was lost

The usual remedy is to set timeouts and retry the request until it succeeds.

Network failures in practice

In a study of network failures by Microsoft Research[1], they found that:

  • 5 devices per day fail
  • 41 links per day fail
  • Load balancers fail with a probability >20% once per year
  • MMTR 5 mins
  • Redundancy is not very effective
  • Most failures are due to misconfiguration

The data is for a professionally managed data centre by a single company.

On the public cloud, failures may affect thousands of systems in parallel.


Timeouts is a fundamental design choice in asynchronous networks: Ethernet, TCP and most application protocols work with timeouts.

The problem with timeouts is that delays in asynchronous systems are unbounded. This can be due to:

  • Queueing of packets at the network level, due to high or spiking traffic
  • Queueing of requests at the application level, e.g. because the application is busy processing other requests

Queues also experience a snowball effect; queues are getting bigger on busy systems.

Timeouts usually follow the exponential back-off rule; we double the time we check for an answer up to an upper bound. More fine-grained approaches use successful request response times to calibrate appropriate timeouts.

Unreliable time

Soft Watch At The Moment Of First Explosion, by Salvador Dali

Time is essential

In a distributed system, time is the only global constant nodes can rely on to make distributed decisions on ordering problems.

When do we need to order?

  • Sequencing items in memory (e.g., with a mutex)
  • Encoding history (“happens before” relationships)
  • Mutual exclusion of access to a shared resource
  • Transactions in a database
  • Debugging (finding the root cause of a bug)

Time in computer systems

Time in computers is kept in two ways:

  • “Real” time clocks (RTCs): Capture our intuition about time and are kept in sync with the NTP protocol with centralised servers. (e.g. System.getCurrentTimeMillis).
  • Monotonic clocks: Those clocks only move forward. (e.g. System.nanoTime)

Q: Which clock type would you use to benchmark a routine? Why?

The trouble with computer clocks

Monotonic clocks are maintained by the OS and rely on HW counters exposed by CPUs. They are (usually!) good for determining order within a node, but each node only has its own notion of time.

NTP can synchronize time across nodes with an accuracy of ms. A modern CPU can execute \(10^6\) instructions (\(\times\) number of cores) in an ms!

Moreover, leap seconds are introduced every now and then; minutes may last for 61 or 59 seconds on occasion

\(\mu s\) accuracy is possible with GPS clocks, but expensive

Logical Time

Logical time abstracts the notion of time and orders events based on causality.

If some event possibly causes another event, then the first event happened-before the other.

Lamport introduced the eponymous logical timestamps in 1978[2] to capture happened-before relation.

Logical time


What is order? A way of arranging items in a set so that the following properties are maintained.

Strict partial order:

  • Irreflexivity: \(\forall a. \neg a < a\) (items not comparable with self)
  • Transitivity: if \(a \le b\) and \(b \le c\) then \(a \le c\)
  • Antisymmetry: if \(a \le b\) and \(b \le a\) \(a = b\)

Strict total order:

  • An additional property: \(\forall a, b, a \le b \vee b \le a \vee a = b\)

When do we need to order?

  • Sequencing items in memory (e.g. with a mutex)
  • Encoding history (“happens before” relationships)
  • Mutual exclusion of access to a shared resource
  • Transactions in a database

Order and time

  • FIFO is enough to maintain order with a single sender
  • Time at the receiver end is enough to maintain order at the receiver end
  • When multiple senders/receivers are involved, we need external ordering scheme
    • Total order: If our message rate is globally bounded (e.g. 1 msg/sec/receiver), and less fine-grained than our clock accuracy (e.g. ms range), then synchronized RTCs are enough to guarantee order.
    • Causal order: Otherwise, we need to rely on happens before (\(\rightarrow\)) relationships.

Happens-before relation

Lamport introduced happens-before relation to capture dependencies between events:

  • If \(a\) and \(b\) are events in the same node, and \(a\) occurs before \(b\), then \(a \rightarrow b\).
  • If \(a\) is the event of sending a message and \(b\) is the event of receiving that message, then \(a \rightarrow b\).
  • The relation is transitive.

It is a strict partial order: it is irreflexive, antisymmetric and transitive.

Two events not related to happened-before are concurrent.

Logical time

Lamport timestamps: How they work

Lamport introduced the eponymous logical timestamps in 1978[2]:

  • Each individual process \(p\) maintains a counter: \(LT(p)\).
  • When a process \(p\) performs an action, it increments \(LT(p)\).
  • When a process \(p\) sends a message, it includes \(LT(p)\) in the message.
  • When a process \(p\) receives a message from a process \(q\), that message includes the value of \(LT(q)\); \(p\) updates its \(LT(p)\) to the \(\max(LT(p), LT(q))+1\)

For two events \(a\) and \(b\), if \(a \rightarrow b\), then \(LT(a) < LT(b)\).

Q: The reverse is not true: If \(LT(a) < LT(b)\), then it does not mean that \(a \rightarrow b\)! Why?

Why is the LT invariant not symmetric?

4 nodes exchange events.

Initial state of timestamps: \([A(0), B(0), C(0), D(0)]\)

E1. \(A\) sends to \(C\): \([A(1), B(0), C(0), D(0)]\)

E2. \(C\) receives from \(A\): \([A(1), B(0), C(2), D(0)]\)

E3. \(C\) sends to \(A\): \([A(1), B(0), C(3), D(0)]\)

E4. \(A\) receives from \(C\): \([A(4), B(0), C(3), D(0)]\)

E5. \(B\) sends to \(D\): \([A(4), B(1), C(3), D(0)]\)

E6. \(D\) receives from \(B\): \([A(4), B(1), C(3), D(2)]\)

At this point, \(LT(E6) < LT(E4)\), but it does not mean that \(E6 \rightarrow E4\)! Events 4 and 6 are independent.

Vector clocks

Vector clocks[3] can maintain causal order.

On a system with \(N\) nodes, each node \(i\) maintains a vector \(V_i\) of size \(N\).

  • \(V_i[i]\) is the number of events that occurred at node \(i\)
  • \(V_i[j]\) is the number of events that node \(i\) knows occurred at node \(j\)

They are updated as follows:

  • Local events increment \(V_i[i]\)
  • When \(i\) sends a message to \(j\), it includes \(V_i\)
  • When \(j\) receives \(V_i\), it updates all elements of \(V_j\) to \(V_j[a] = \max(V_i[a], V_j[a])\)

Vector clocks guarantees

  • if \(a \rightarrow b\), then \(VC(a) < VC(b)\)
  • if \(VC(a) < VC(b)\), then \(a \rightarrow b\)
  • if \(VC(a) < VC(b)\) and VC(b) < VC(c) then \(a \rightarrow c\)
  • if \(VC(a) < VC(b)\), then \(RT(a) < RT(b)\), where RT is the clock time of events \(a\) and \(b\)

Vector clocks are expensive to maintain: they require \(O(n)\) timestamps to be exchanged with each communication.

However, it has been shown[4] that we cannot do better than vector clocks!

Distributed decision making

What is true in a distributed setting?

  • Nodes in distributed systems cannot know anything for sure
    • Only make guesses
  • Individual nodes cannot rely on their own information
    • Clocks can be unsynchronized
    • Other nodes may be unresponsive when updating state
  • “Split-brain” scenarios: Parts of the system know a different version of the truth than the other part(s)

In distributed settings, the truth is determined by concensus, which is reached through voting mechanisms.


Making a decision in the presence of faulty nodes.

  • Committing a transaction
  • Synchronizing state machines
  • Leader election
  • Atomic broadcasts

The 2 generals problem

The two generals problem setting

  • 2 armies camped in opposing hills (A1 and A2)
  • The are only able to communicate with messengers
  • They need to decide on a time to attack
  • Enemy (B) is camped between the two hills and can at any time intercept the messengers

Q How can the generals decide when to attack?

A It is impossible to make a reliable decision.

The 2 generals problem solution

  • The problem cannot be solved without loss of information
  • Approximately:
    • Pre-agree on timeouts
    • Send \(n\) labeled messages
    • Receiver calculates received messages within time window, then decides how many messages to send for ack.

Consequences: we can only make distributed decisions using either reliable communication or more than 2 parties.

The Byzantine generals problem

Formulated by Lamport et al.[5], the Byzantine generals problem shaped distributed systems research for the next 40 years.

The formulation is simple:

  • \(n\) generals need to make unanimous decision
  • they communicate with unreliable messages
  • \(m\) (\(n > m\)) generals vote suboptimally (i.e., lie) or do not vote