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Alternating Bit Protocol

A distributed system is a concurrent system in which a collection of threads communicate by message passing, much the same as in the actor model. The most important difference between distributed and concurrent systems is that the former takes failures into account, including failures of threads and failures of shared memory. In this chapter, we will consider two actors, Alice and Bob. Alice wants to send a sequence of application messages to Bob, but the underlying network may lose messages. The network does not re-order messages: when sending messages \(m_1\) and \(m_2\) in that order, then if both messages are received, \(m_1\) is received before \(m_2\). Also, the network does not create messages out of nothing: if message m is received, then message m was sent.

It is useful to create an abstract network that reliably sends messages between threads, much like the FIFO queue in the synch module. For this, we need a network protocol that Alice and Bob can run. In particular, it has to be the case that if Alice sends application messages \(m_1, ..., m_n\) in that order, then if Bob receives an application message m, then \(m = m_i\) for some i and, unless \(m\) is the very first message, Bob will already have received application messages \(m_1, ..., m_{i-1}\) (safety). Also, if the network is fair and Alice sends application message m, then eventually Bob should deliver m (liveness).

sequential s_chan, r_chan

s_chan = r_chan = ()
s_seq = r_seq = 0

def net_send(pchan, m, reliable):
    !pchan = m if (reliable or choose({ False, True })) else ()

def net_recv(pchan):
    result = !pchan

def app_send(payload):
    s_seq = 1 - s_seq
    let m = { .seq: s_seq, .payload: payload }:
        var blocked = True
        while blocked:
            net_send(?s_chan, m, False)
            let response = net_recv(?r_chan):
                blocked = (response == ()) or (response.ack != s_seq)

def app_recv(reliable):
    r_seq = 1 - r_seq
    var blocked = True
    while blocked:
        let m = net_recv(?s_chan):
            if m != ():
                net_send(?r_chan, { .ack: m.seq }, reliable)
                if m.seq == r_seq:
                    result = m.payload
                    blocked = False
Figure 24.1 (code/abp.hny): Alternating Bit Protocol

The Alternating Bit Protocol is suitable for our purposes. We assume that there are two unreliable network channels: one from Alice to Bob and one from Bob to Alice. Alice and Bob each maintain a zero-initialized sequence number, s_seq and r_seq resp. Alice sends a network message to Bob containing an application message as payload and Alice's sequence number as header. When Bob receives such a network message, Bob returns an acknowledgment to Alice, which is a network message containing the same sequence number as in the message that Bob received.

In the protocol, Alice keeps sending the same network message until she receives an acknowledgment with the same sequence number. This is called retransmission. When she receives the desired sequence number, Alice increments her sequence number. She is now ready to send the next message she wants to send to Bob. Bob, on the other hand, waits until he receives a message matching Bob's sequence number. If so, Bob delivers the payload in the message and increments his sequence number. Because of the network properties, a one-bit sequence number suffices.

We can model each channel as a variable that either contains a network message or nothing (we use () in the model). Let s_chan be the channel from Alice to Bob and r_chan the channel from Bob to Alice. net_send(pchan, m, reliable) models sending a message m to !pchan, where pchan is either ?s_chan or ?r_chan. The method places either m (to model a successful send) or () (to model loss) in !pchan. The use of the reliable flag will be explained later. net_recv(pchan) models checking !pchan for the next message.

import abp

const NMSGS = 5

def sender():
    for i in {1..NMSGS}:

def receiver():
    for i in {1..NMSGS}:
        let payload = abp.app_recv(i == NMSGS):
            assert payload == i

spawn sender()
spawn receiver()
Figure 24.2 (code/abptest.hny): Test code for alternating bit protocol

Method app_send(m) retransmits m until an acknowledgment is received. Method app_recv(reliable) returns the next successfully received message. Figure 24.2 shows how the methods may be used to send and receive a stream of NMSGS messages reliably. It has to be bounded, because model checking requires a finite model.

Only the last invocation of app_recv(reliable) is invoked with reliable = True. It causes the last acknowledgment to be sent reliably. It allows the receiver (Bob) to stop, as well as the sender (Alice) once the last acknowledgment has been received. Without something like this, either the sender may be left hanging waiting for the last acknowledgment, or the receiver waiting for the last message.


24.1 Chapter 20 explored the client/server model. It is popular in distributed systems as well. Develop a protocol for a single client and server using the same network model as for the ABP protocol. Hint: the response to a request can contain the same sequence number as the request.

24.2 Generalize the solution in the previous exercise to multiple clients. Each client is uniquely identified. You may either use separate channel pairs for each client, or solve the problem using a single pair of channels.