Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Replication and the latency-consistency tradeoff

As 24/7 availability becomes increasingly important for modern applications, database systems are frequently replicated in order to stay up and running in the face of database server failure. It is no longer acceptable for an application to wait for a database to recover from a log on disk --- most mission-critical applications need immediate failover to a replica.

There are several important tradeoffs to consider when it comes to system design for replicated database systems. The most famous one is CAP --- you have to trade off consistency vs. availability in the event of a network partition. In this post, I will go into detail about a lesser-known but equally important tradeoff --- between latency and consistency. Unlike CAP, where consistency and availability are only traded off in the event of a network partition, the latency vs. consistency tradeoff is present even during normal operations of the system. (Note: the latency-consistency tradeoff discussed in this post is the same as the "ELC" case in my PACELC post).

The intuition behind the tradeoff is the following: there's no way to perform consistent replication across database replicas without some level of synchronous network communication. This communication takes time and introduces latency. For replicas that are physically close to each other (e.g., on the same switch), this latency is not necessarily onerous. But replication over a WAN will introduce significant latency.

The rest of this post adds more meat to the above intuition. I will discuss several general techniques for performing replication, and show how each technique trades off latency or consistency. I will then discuss several modern implementations of distributed database systems and show how they fit into the general replication techniques that are outlined in this post.

There are only three alternatives for implementing replication (each with several variations): (1) data updates are sent to all replicas at the same time, (2) data updates are sent to an agreed upon master node first, or (3) data updates are sent to a single (arbitrary) node first. Each of these three cases can be implemented in various ways; however each implementation comes with a consistency-latency tradeoff. This is described in detail below.

  1. Data updates are sent to all replicas at the same time. If updates are not first passed through a preprocessing layer or some other agreement protocol, replica divergence (a clear lack of consistency) could ensue (assuming there are multiple updates to the system that are submitted concurrently, e.g., from different clients), since each replica might choose a different order with which to apply the updates . On the other hand, if updates are first passed through a preprocessing layer, or all nodes involved in the write use an agreement protocol to decide on the order of operations, then it is possible to ensure that all replicas will agree on the order in which to process the updates, but this leads to several sources of increased latency. For the case of the agreement protocol, the protocol itself is the additional source of latency. For the case of the preprocessor, the additional sources of latency are:

    1. Routing updates through an additional system component (the preprocessor) increases latency

    2. The preprocessor either consists of multiple machines or a single machine. If it consists of multiple machines, an agreement protocol to decide on operation ordering is still needed across machines. Alternatively, if it runs on a single machine, all updates, no matter where they are initiated (potentially anywhere in the world) are forced to route all the way to the single preprocessor first, even if there is a data replica that is nearer to the update initiation location.

  2. Data updates are sent to an agreed upon location first (this location can be dependent on the actual data being updated) --- we will call this the “master node” for a particular data item. This master node resolves all requests to update the same data item, and the order that it picks to perform these updates will determine the order that all replicas perform the updates. After it resolves updates, it replicates them to all replica locations. There are three options for this replication:

    1. The replication is done synchronously, meaning that the master node waits until all updates have made it to the replica(s) before "committing" the update. This ensures that the replicas remain consistent, but synchronous actions across independent entities (especially if this occurs over a WAN) increases latency due to the requirement to pass messages between these entities, and the fact that latency is limited by the speed of the slowest entity.

    2. The replication is done asynchronously, meaning that the update is treated as if it were completed before it has been replicated. Typically the update has at least made it to stable storage somewhere before the initiator of the update is told that it has completed (in case the master node fails), but there are no guarantees that the update has been propagated to replicas. The consistency-latency tradeoff in this case is dependent on how reads are dealt with:
      1. If all reads are routed to the master node and served from there, then there is no reduction in consistency. However, there are several latency problems with this approach:
        1. Even if there is a replica close to the initiator of the read request, the request must still be routed to the master node which could potentially be physically much farther away.

        2. If the master node is overloaded with other requests or has failed, there is no option to serve the read from a different node. Rather, the request must wait for the master node to become free or recover. In other words, there is a potential for increased latency due to lack of load balancing options.

      2. If reads can be served from any node, read latency is much better, but this can result in inconsistent reads of the same data item, since different locations have different versions of a data item while its updates are still being propagated, and a read can potentially be sent to any of these locations. Although the level of reduced consistency can be bounded by keeping track of update sequence numbers and using them to implement “sequential/timeline consistency” or “read-your-writes consistency”, these options are nonetheless reduced consistency options. Furthermore, write latency can be high if the master for a write operation is geographically far away from the requester of the write.

    3. A combination of (a) and (b) are possible. Updates are sent to some subset of replicas synchronously, and the rest asynchronously. The consistency-latency tradeoff in this case again is determined by how reads are dealt with. If reads are routed to at least one node that had been synchronously updated (e.g. when R + W > N in a quorum protocol, where R is the number of nodes involved in a synchronous read, W is the number of nodes involved in a synchronous write, and N is the number of replicas), then consistency can be preserved, but the latency problems of (a), (b)(i)(1), and (b)(i)(2) are all present (though to somewhat lower degrees, since the number of nodes involved in the synchronization is smaller, and there is potentially more than one node that can serve read requests). If it is possible for reads to be served from nodes that have not been synchronously updated (e.g. when R + W <= N), then inconsistent reads are possible, as in (b)(ii) above .

  3. Data updates are sent to an arbitrary location first, the updates are performed there, and are then propagated to the other replicas. The difference between this case and case (2) above is that the location that updates are sent to for a particular data item is not always the same. For example, two different updates for a particular data item can be initiated at two different locations simultaneously. The consistency-latency tradeoff again depends on two options:
    1. If replication is done synchronously, then the latency problems of case (2)(a) above are present. Additionally, extra latency can be incurred in order to detect and resolve cases of simultaneous updates to the same data item initiated at two different locations.

    2. If replication is done asynchronously, then similar consistency problems as described in case (1) and (2b) above present themselves.

Therefore, no matter how the replication is performed, there is a tradeoff between consistency and latency. For carefully controlled replication across short distances, there exists reasonable options (e.g. choice 2(a) above, since network communication latency is small in local data centers); however, for replication over a WAN, there exists no way around the significant consistency-latency tradeoff.

To more fully understand the tradeoff, it is helpful to consider how several well-known distributed systems are placed into the categories outlined above. Dynamo, Riak, and Cassandra choose a combination of (2)(c) and (3) from the replication alternatives described above. In particular, updates generally go to the same node, and are then propagated synchronously to W other nodes (case (2)(c)). Reads are synchronously sent to R nodes with R + W typically being set to a number less than or equal to N, leading to a possibility of inconsistent reads. However, the system does not always send updates to the same node for a particular data item (e.g., this can happen in various failure cases, or due to rerouting by a load balancer), which leads to the situation described in alternative (3) above, and the potentially more substantial types of consistency shortfalls. PNUTS chooses option (2)(b)(ii) above, for excellent latency at reduced consistency. HBase chooses (2) (a) within a cluster, but gives up consistency for lower latency for replication across different clusters (using option (2)(b)).

In conclusion, there are two major reasons to reduce consistency in modern distributed database systems, and only one of them is CAP. Ignoring the consistency-latency tradeoff of replicated systems is a great oversight, since it is present at all times during system operation, whereas CAP is only relevant in the (arguably) rare case of a network partition. In fact, the consistency-latency tradeoff is potentially more significant than CAP, since it has a more direct effect of the baseline operations of modern distributed database systems.