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1.4 Distributed State

Large systems often store or process large amounts of state. State consists of data, such as a database, that is frequently updated. Contrast this with a corpus, which is relatively static or is updated only periodically when a new edition is published. For example, a system that searches the U.S. Library of Congress may receive a new corpus each week. By comparison, an email system is in constant churn with new data arriving constantly, current data being updated (email messages being marked as “read” or moved between folders), and data being deleted.

Distributed computing systems have many ways to deal with state. However, they all involve some kind of replication and sharding, which brings about problems of consistency, availability, and partitioning.

The easiest way to store state is to put it on one machine, as depicted in Figure 1.4. Unfortunately, that method reaches its limit quite quickly: an individual machine can store only a limited amount of state and if the one machine dies we lose access to 100 percent of the state. The machine has only a certain amount of processing power, which means the number of simultaneous reads and writes it can process is limited.

Figure 1.4

Figure 1.4: State kept in one location; not distributed computing

In distributed computing we store state by storing fractions or shards of the whole on individual machines. This way the amount of state we can store is limited only by the number of machines we can acquire. In addition, each shard is stored on multiple machines; thus a single machine failure does not lose access to any state. Each replica can process a certain number of queries per second, so we can design the system to process any number of simultaneous read and write requests by increasing the number of replicas. This is illustrated in Figure 1.5, where N QPS are received and distributed among three shards, each replicated three ways. As a result, on average one ninth of all queries reach a particular replica server.

Figure 1.5

Figure 1.5: This distributed state is sharded and replicated.

Writes or requests that update state require all replicas to be updated. While this update process is happening, it is possible that some clients will read from stale replicas that have not yet been updated. Figure 1.6 illustrates how a write can be confounded by reads to an out-of-date cache. This will be discussed further in the next section.

Figure 1.6

Figure 1.6: State updates using cached data lead to an inconsistent view.

In the most simple pattern, a root server receives requests to store or retrieve state. It determines which shard contains that part of the state and forwards the request to the appropriate leaf server. The reply then flows up the tree. This looks similar to the server tree pattern described in the previous section but there are two differences. First, queries go to a single leaf instead of all leaves. Second, requests can be update (write) requests, not just read requests. Updates are more complex when a shard is stored on many replicas. When one shard is updated, all of the replicas must be updated, too. This may be done by having the root update all leaves or by the leaves communicating updates among themselves.

A variation of that pattern is more appropriate when large amounts of data are being transferred. In this case, the root replies with instructions on how to get the data rather than the data itself. The requestor then requests the data from the source directly.

For example, imagine a distributed file system with petabytes of data spread out over thousands of machines. Each file is split into gigabyte-sized chunks. Each chunk is stored on multiple machines for redundancy. This scheme also permits the creation of files larger than those that would fit on one machine. A master server tracks the list of files and identifies where their chunks are. If you are familiar with the UNIX file system, the master can be thought of as storing the inodes, or per-file lists of data blocks, and the other machine as storing the actual blocks of data. File system operations go through a master server that uses the inode-like information to determine which machines to involve in the operation.

Imagine that a large read request comes in. The master determines that the file has a few terabytes stored on one machine and a few terabytes stored on another machine. It could request the data from each machine and relay it to the system that made the request, but the master would quickly become overloaded while receiving and relaying huge chunks of data. Instead, it replies with a list of which machines have the data, and the requestor contacts those machines directly for the data. This way the master is not the middle man for those large data transfers. This situation is illustrated in Figure 1.7.

Figure 1.7

Figure 1.7: This master server delegates replies to other servers.

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