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In-memory Paxos in pure-JavaScript. No disk writes necessary.

Sketch of what to say.

  • Reproducable events for unit testing, but still a true Paxos.
  • In-memory so that no disk writes are necessary.
  • Blindingly fast.

TK: Documentation.


Concerns and Decisions:

  • Work on making this algorithm ever more deterministic and replayable, so that we can run test this using a pseudo-random number generator.
  • What needs to be most deterministic is the pulse, can you make it so that you can replay the actions of each member of a government individually, so that you can log and replay the actions of each individual member?
  • How does a participant in the island know that they have become isolated? I've given a lot of thought to how a government would vote a participant off the island, but no thought to how a participant would know that they have been ostracized. (The metaphor gets sad over here.)

Decided versus Uniform

Do we need to decide matters or mark them uniform before we can act on them. I believe that we should only act as clients when we mark uniform, but we do need to not always be uniform when acting as parliament. The majority can catch up by sending synchronization messages in the pulse.

Oh, but there is the guarantee that we can recover, and we are diskless, so no, wait the point is that so long as no one learns besides our majority, it doesn't matter. Only when we mark uniform do we teach the minority, so we can form new governments using a pulse, get caught up during the pulses, and we're not going to wait too long anyway.

Diskless Paxos

Some thoughts on the process of deciphering Paxos. Thoughts on why it has become notorious when it is really very simple.

The Paxos algorithm as it is described in most places makes it sound like Paxos tames chaos, allowing any participant in a parliament of any size propose a change in state. There is talk of proposers, acceptors and learners, and then lots of discussion of who can be what, the many different ways in which you can configure these three roles. But these three roles are not interesting. The only really interesting thing is process of deciding on a round of Paxos, and whats interesting are the messages passed, not the roles of the participants.

What's more, these roles, proposer, acceptor and learner are accompanied by a lot of talk of which participants should be what sort of role, which participants should share these roles, and so on. There is talk of how there could be a leader, but the reality is that there absolutely must be a leader, or else you are always in a race condition. For the most part, you only use the mechanics of Paxos to deal with the loss of a participant.

I use chaos monkey to simulate that loss in my Paxos, but I understand that actually having to decide between two proposals is a major event and the crux of the implementation.

In reality, these roles of proposer, acceptor and learner are fixed. Any change to these roles is a big deal. If they change too quickly, the implementation becomes impossible to trust. There is only so much complexity that working programmer is willing to absorb in an are where said programmer has already decided that replication, that is durability and consistency, is critical. TK: Wha? English please

The Paxos algorithm insists that acceptors write to disk (WHA!?!?! No it doesn't.) to recover from a crash, but why trust a disk? They fail. In today's hosting environments networks are the focus, not disk. Machines are cheap. The come in and out of service quickly. They are disposable and their persistent storage reflects that disposability. I'd rather that a crash-stop meant we relied on the replication built into Paxos. I'd rather wait for two network calls to complete than for a disk to flush, especially when that disk flush is itself going to be a network call to storage area network.

Thus, this is a Paxos that is both practical and inflexible. When one reads the Paxos literature, one gets the impression that a good Paxos library would allow you to have Paxos, multi-Paxos, fast-Paxos, this-Paxos and that-Paxos. A good Paxos library would would UDP as easily as TCP, you could stream or multicast, or if you are using a particular network protocol with particular guarantees, it would be bad form to rely on the those guarantees. You imagine that a good Paxos library should scale, adding participants, and the different roles are all abstractions, and everything is dynamically adjusting itself.

The literature makes leadership seem like a nice to have. You could do this, you could do that, as if these architectural decisions would be made a run time. Certainly not by the Paxos library, it should be a garden of algorithmic purity.

But, you cannot express Paxos as a library. It needs to be expressed as an implementation. That's what this is.

To explain Alan's Paxos, we use the parliament analogy. (I'm an American, we have no parliament, so feel free to correct my analogy where it goes wrong.)

We will call the system Alan's Paxos. If you have a better name, please suggest it. It will be rejected.

An instance of the system is a Paxos.

Alan's Paxos can be used in two configurations. It can be used as a primary application, building a service like a lease service. It can be built on top of an existing service, used to create an atomic broadcast log for control messages on an internal network.

Alan's Paxos is not a Byzantine Paxos. You must trust your participants.

To describe Paxos we return to the Lamport analogy of the legislature, but we are going to speak more plainly. Some of what we say is almost as tongue-in-cheek as the original Lamport paper, but not quite.

Let's just call a running instance our system an community. A computer participating in our community is a citizen. A computer requesting something of our community is outside of our analogy, so we'll call it a client.

Our community has a parliament where decisions are made. The parliament produces a log of it's decisions. Each citizen has a copy of the log. Each citizen's copy of the log is always identical, with the same decisions in the same order. Some citizens might not have the full log, but the decisions that they do not yet have they will have eventually.

A citizen can be member of the parliament. In this case, the citizen is called a legislator. A parliament can have as few as one and as many as five legislators.

A one legislator parliament does not provide redundancy or durability. It is permitted so that our community can bootstrap, staring with one citizen, then adding others as part of start up procedure. We may even decide to leave it at one citizen if all we're doing is running a unit test, or hacking on development copy of our application. We can use the algorithm as part of our control flow during development, knowing it will be durable when we're ready to go into production.

With a parliament of five legislators, two can fail without losing data or stopping operations. With a parliament of three legislators one machine can fail without losing data or stopping operations. Our implementation can downgrade, so that a parliament of five legislators can lose two legislators for good without losing data, then reconstitute as a parliament of three legislators and lose yet another legislator for good without losing data.

Our legislator makes decisions for all the citizens. Before citizens learn about decisions a majority of the legislators in the parliament will have written the decision in their log. Until a majority of the legislators in parliament, no citizen, neither legislator nor constituent will take action on that decision. Thus we have decisions and we have actionable decisions.

The distinction is how we run without a disk. A citizen does not take action on a decision that has not been logged by a majority of the parliament because that decision may be forgotten by parliament. Which brings us to another point.

A legislator cannot copy the log of a constituent. If a constituent becomes a legislator, then they can use their log in their duties as a legislator, but the parliament cannot use the constituents logs as backup. Ed: Not an important point. Talk about legislative authority and message flow.

Our parliament will have a leader. The leader is a strong leader. The leader will guide the entire operation of the parliament. The other legislators will only ever replace their leader if they can no longer reach their leader.

State is changed by making a proposal through the leader. Any citizen or client wanting to change state will do so by submitting a proposal to the leader. The leader is the bottleneck in this regard. There is no attempt to spread the load among the legislators in the parliament. That's not why we have multiple machines participating in our community. It's not for load balancing, it is for durability. Ed: Great point. I can't believe I was smart back then.

If a citizen, any citizen, legislator or constituent wants to change the state, they make a proposal to the leader. A client is allowed to do the same. In this sense, anyone wanting to make a change is really just a client.

So, a client needs to find the leader. They do so by asking any citizen. The citizen will direct them to the leader. The citizen might not know the latest leader, so the client might get shuffled about, with redirects and not founds, but the leader is there and the leader can be found, eventually.

The leader will remain leader for as long as possible, so under happy circumstances clients will not have to search for the leader frequently.

Ed: Actually, we like to break up the record by having periodic elections for no reason, but things are generally durable, yes.

Now let's let you in our how Alan's Paxos works. We'll first look at normal operation with an established leader. Then we will talk about how a leader is chosen and how citizens become legislators.

If you don't know the basics of multi-Paxos, I'll wait while you go off and read one of the many overviews of Paxos and multi-Paxos. Get to the point where you say to yourself, "This is really simple, what's the big deal?", followed by, "Wait, what about..."

The Paxos literature does not get into a lot of detail about the structure of what we're calling a parliament, making it seem like it's just as good an idea to have all the legislators trying to shout over each other, each proposing and counter-proposing the next round of Paxos. While this might be healthy in a real democracy, it is not very healthy in our consensus algorithm.

If you've read your Paxos literature, you know about proposers, acceptors and learners. You also know that with a leader, you can use the same proposal id again and again on new instances, skipping the initial exchange of propose and promise messages.

All of our legislators can perform the roles of proposer, acceptor and learner.

Who plays what role is what makes this Alan's Paxos.

A reminder that the examples here assume a parliament of five legislators. You can use any odd number greater than two.

We use multi-Paxos. Our established leader will form a government with a majority of legislators. Within a government, the legislators in the majority will all act as proposers, acceptors and learners. The legislators in the minority will act as learners. Our leader can form any government it sees fit, choosing any of the available legislators for its majority.

The choice of the majority is arbitrary in the current implementation of Alan's Paxos.

When the leader begins a new government with a proposal to the majority. When it receives promises from the majority it can then start to send accept messages on behalf of clients.

How does it send these messages? We send them in bulk, in a checksummed transcript, using HTTP/S. That's how messaging is performed in Alan's Paxos. The transcript is sent in the body of a POST a single HTTP/S end point for each citizen.

You know HTTP/S, so we don't have to talk about it much more, except to say that although we have actors and we've taken care in naming them, we are not manipulating objects so we are not going to contort our application to fit RESTful endpoints. No PUT legislator or DELETE majority. Just a POST of our checksummed transcript that we want our Paxos implementation to PLAY.

Because we're using HTTP/S POSTs we're going to build on what you know to be true about HTTP/S POST. Key to this is that when you get a 200 response, your POST has been accepted. You also get a message body that is associated with the 200 response, so you know it has been accepted and you have a response in regards to your message. We can be certain of success and we can be certain of the response to our request.

You'll notice, however, that this module has no HTTP in it. That's because the networking is down stream. Paxos is built to be deterministic and...

Ed: Picking at this bit here. Want to talk in terms of HTTP, without making people think that we're going to be RESTful and use HTTP error codes.

We are not so certain of failure, but we do know one thing...

Because we're using HTTP/S we can expose ourselves to the world through HTTP/S clients, we'll know success for certain, but not failure, so we'll build our system around retries, and we can host ourselves where ever fine HTTP/S is served.

For the purpose of our algorithm, a transcript is either entirely received or entirely lost. We know that if we send a collection of messages the recipient will either receive and play all messages or receive no messages.

Determinism is the name of the game.

The transcript is checksummed. We don't play a transcript unless we get the full transcript and it passes its checksum.

Many messages are forwarded between citizens. They do not always have to come from the originating citizen. Another citizen can relay what another citizen has told it. (Once a decision has become actionable.)

We bundle all of the Paxos messages that are due to be sent to another citizen in a single transcript.

Ed: Getting repetitive here. Start reading three paragraphs up when you're clear headed, see if you can tidy this.

When our leader sends an accept message on behalf of the client, it POSTs it first to one legislator in the majority then who POSTs it to the other legislator in the majority in what we call a pulse. The participants in a pulse are the members of the majority. Ed: describe using a five member parliament. The leader POSTs to one legislator in the majority, that member POSTs to the next before returning, and so on until all the members of the majority are reached. When the POST returns for the leader returns 200 it will have sent a message to all the members of the majority.

We first have an accept pulse. With a parliament of five legislators, the leader first accepts the proposal instance itself and responds to it's own accept message. Then it POSTs the accept message along with its accepted method to the first legislator in the accept pulse. The first legislator accepts the proposal instance and then sends the accept message along with both accepted messages to the second and last legislator in the accept pulse. The last legislator responds to the accept message.

We have an accept pulse. The leader starts an instance of Paxos with an accept message to itself. It then sends the accept message along with its accepted message to the proxy. The proxy accepts the accept message and sends it along with accepted message of both the leader and the proxy to the terminal legislator. The terminal legislator accepts the accept message.

Ed: Totally repeating myself here. Must have been trying to chose nomenclature.

At this point the terminal legislator has learned the instance of Paxos, or in our wider analogy, it has learned the decision. It knows that two other legislators know of the decision, but this is the first legislator to know that it has been decided.

Ed: Okay, let's do this instead. We have to pulses, the first one the legislators agree, the second they decide. Or it could be be accepted and decided.

At this point the terminal legislator has an accept message from all three members of the majority, so it knows that the all three members of the majority now agree to the message.

Although a majority of legislators agree on the message, the message is not actionable until the majority of legislators know that they are in agreement.

To inform the majority of the agreement, the terminal legislator returns an agreed message to it's caller along with an accept message, the second legislator. The second legislator gets the accept message from the return from the terminal legislator and now has an accept message from all three members of the majority, therefore it too can see that the majority is in agreement on the message.

The second legislator now returns the POST from the leader legislator sending in the POST body the accepted and agreed tokens from the terminal legislator and the accepted and agreed tokens from itself.

Now the leader legislator has an accepted token from all three members of the majority so it generates an agreed token. With that freshly generated agreed token, it now an agreed token from all three members of the majority. When a legislator receives a majority of agreed tokens, it can then mark the message (proposal?) as decided.

The moment a message has been decided it can then be broadcast to all the citizens of the island. The decision has been ...

Ed: Ah, yes, I like leader, proxy and terminal.

Ed: Was that better?

Ed: Nope, it is really this...

It has been decided, but it has not been recorded. We may forget that we made his decision unless we can record that decision in such a way that it can be recovered in the event of a failure.

Ed: And so, recorded is like learned, but learned is so, well, I believe it gets the reader thinking in too clever terms. Why not say recorded, if that is what it is meant to be? Why say learned and deal with the overloading of learning as it pertains to computer science? My heuristic is to only use analogies if they are odd ball analogies that have not already been employed in the history of computing. I wouldn't use the work "panic," for example, to describe anything other than an immediate shutdown in response to an unrecoverable error, not to describe, say, the reelection in the Paxos algorithm in this way; the legislators are now in a tizzy to they panic and try each tried to elect itself leader, we call this a panic. Horrible, yes, and also a horrible example, but the point is that although learn comes from the existing literature it is a bad choice for my revised Alan's Paxos, given the intensity of the existing literature, learning, well, some knucklehead post-modernist could go on about words and what they mean. I suppose I'm saying, speak plainly or speak goofy.

Ed: On it's way.

However, the decision will not be actionable until a majority of the parliament also knows that the decision has been made.

The terminal legislator returns a learned message addressed to the leader along with its accept message. The proxy legislator accepts the accept message and now it has a majority of accept messages. The proxy legislator has now also learned of the decision.

So long as a majority of the legislators do not stop-crash, we will be able to eventually resume after a network failure. If a majority of the legislators stop-crash we will know definitively that our community has failed.

Note: We only ever use the proposal resolution of Paxos to form a new government. We are not going to proceed until we resolve the business of the last government. We have an interim government who's business is to resolve the business of the last continual government. When a government resolves the business of the last continual government, it becomes a continual government. If the government is unable to resolve the business of the previous continual government, it becomes a failed government. There is no need to resolve the business of a failed government.

A failed legislator can only form a government with a majority of failed legislators. Wait, how does a legislator know that was a legislator? The id is persistent. Ed: Old note. What follows is an admonishment. No, no, no. No. If you crash-stop you're dead. There has to be a point where things recover. At this stage in adoption, it would be enough to raise an alarm and have an administrator crash-stop and recover. Let's gear Alan's Paxos for operation in a hosted environment where we want crash-stop.

Note: Attempting to write in a lazy fashion so that you can recover from crash-stop is a race condition. If you're okay with that race condition, then you can get ROFLscale. Ed: Another old note. We can recover from memory, not from write, but there are still reasons to write.

When we lose confidence in our government, any of the legislators will call for a vote of confidence.

Ed: Getting really crufty, older revisions.

Rougher notes:

Okay, here it is. The strong leader, if at any point the strong leader detects a failure, the strong leader fails the round by starting a new round. That will mean that the proposal will never reach a quorum that will allow it to be actionable. The strong leader can veto the round.

The shape is a strong leader and two acceptors. There is proxy acceptor and final acceptor. It takes two pulses of the proxy to get a round actionable. At any point, these can talk to the other two legislators, they are delegates, they learn before the constituents learn. We do not send messages to the constituents, we have the delegates relay the messages for us.

In normal operation, the strong leader will know after the second pulse that the round is actionable can can tell whatever client. The acceptors can only teach the delegates and the strong leader.

This is the shape of government. A government has an id. We know for a certain government that we are producing a chain of entries and that they will all have the same three acceptors accepting them. And accepted message includes the id of the previously accepted round. We can always walk back through this chain to see the integrity of the chain. Thus, a log entry is only actionable when you have received a majority of learned messages and when the preceding log entry is actionable.

After the first pulse, the strong leader has an actionable entry. After the second pulse the acceptors have an actionable entry. The first is the learn pulse and the second is the action pulse. A pulse can be both an action pulse for the current instance and a learn pulse for the prior instance.

If a learn pulse fails, the strong leader starts a new proposal number, invalidating item being learned. The strong leader then takes the actionable data and broadcasts it to all legislators.

Once the strong leader has an actionable entry, the strong leaders next action is to make the entry actionable for a majority of the parliament. Once it is actionable by a majority of the parliament it can be enforced.

SOMEWHERE NOTE: Actionable means that previous messages can be replayed for a certain audience. The acceptors can replay accepted and learners for the delegates, the delegates can replay them for the constituents, the strong leader can play them for any other legislator.

If the pulse fails because one or both of the acceptors have gone, the strong leader invalids the learn pulse by starting a new round and accepting it. It takes its actionable entry and broadcasts it, so that it arrives at the delegates so that there are at least three copies still.

It then forms a new government.

If the pulse fails because one acceptor and one delegate is gone, the strong leader invalids the learn pulse by starting a new round and accepting it. It takes its actionable entry and broadcasts it, so that it arrives at the delegates so that there are at least three copies still.

It then forms a new government.

The strong leader choses two new acceptors and one delegate. It forms a new government in a government round. It then chooses a constituent, if available, to become a legislator, or else it reduces the size of the parliament by one and adjusts the quorum. It then arbitrarily chooses acceptors to form a majority. The minority become disseminates.

If the strong leader fails then we have a leadership election. The round is flagged for leadership. We are using Paxos here, but it is not important that the log be up to date before we act. If we detect that a leader has failed, then any one of the legislators will attempt to seize control of parliament by nominating itself as the strong leader and calling a round of Paxos.


This can go in the release notes:

Removing the notion of prefer which adds state when this can be done just as easily externally by calling newGovernment with a light adjustment. Indeed, how do you suggest a new government for the sake of creating a break to flush the logs? The user needs the ability to call elections. I'm sure it is already there, I just can't see it. We can add to that ability the ability to appoint a constituent to the minority, move a minority member to the majority, and make a member of the majority the leader.