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Distributed Consensus

Distributed consensus is the problem of having a collection of processors agree on a single value over a network. For example, in state machine replication, the state machines have to agree on which operation to apply next. Without failures, this can be solved using leader election: first elect a leader, then have that leader decide a value. But consensus often has to be done in adverse circumstances, for example in the face of processor failures.

Each processor proposes a value, which we assume here to be from the set { 0, 1 }. By the usual definition of consensus, we want the following three properties:

  1. Validity: a processor can only decide a value that has been proposed;

  2. Agreement: if two processors decide, then they decide the same value.

  3. Termination: each processor eventually decides.

The consensus problem is impossible to solve in the face of processor failures and without making assumptions about how long it takes to send and receive a message. Here we will not worry about Termination.

consensus.hny
const N = 4

proposals = [ choose({0, 1}) for i in {0..N-1} ]
decision = choose { x for x in proposals }

def processor(proposal):
    if choose { False, True }:
        print decision

print proposals
for i in {0..N-1}:
    spawn processor(proposals[i])
Figure 29.1 (code/consensus.hny): Distributed consensus code and behavior DFA

Figure 29.1 presents a specification for binary consensus---the proposals are from the set {0, 2} In this case there are four processors. The proposal of processor i is in proposals[i]. The decision is chosen from the set of proposals. Each processor may or may not print the decision---capturing the absence of the Termination property. It may be that no decisions are made, but that does not violate either Validity or Agreement. Thus the behavior of the program is to first print the array of proposals, followed by some subset of processors printing their decision. Notice the following properties:

  • there are \(16 = 2^4\) possible proposal configurations;

  • all processors that decide decide the same value;

  • if all processors propose 0, then all processors that decide decide 0;

  • if all processors propose 1, then all processors that decide decide 1.

This is just the specification---in practice we do not have a shared variable in which we can store the decision a priori. We will present a simple consensus algorithm that can tolerate fewer than \(1/3^{rd}\) of processors failing by crashing. More precisely, constant F contains the maximum number of failures, and we will assume there are N = 3F + 1 processors.

bosco.hny
import bag

const F = 1
const N = (3 * F) + 1
const NROUNDS = 3

proposals = [ choose({0, 1}) for i in {0..N-1} ]
network = bag.empty()

def broadcast(msg):
    atomically network = bag.add(network, msg)

def receive(round, k):
    let msgs = { e:c for (r,e):c in network where r == round }:
        result = bag.combinations(msgs, k)

def processor(proposal):
    var estimate, decided = proposal, False
    broadcast(0, estimate)
    for round in {0..NROUNDS-1}:
        atomically when exists quorum in receive(round, N - F):
            let count = [ bag.multiplicity(quorum, i) for i in { 0..1 } ]:
                assert count[0] != count[1]
                estimate = 0 if count[0] > count[1] else 1
                if count[estimate] == (N - F):
                    if not decided:
                        print estimate
                        decided = True
                    assert estimate in proposals   # check validity
                broadcast(round + 1, estimate)

print proposals
for i in {0..N-1}:
    spawn processor(proposals[i])
Figure 29.2 (code/bosco.hny): A crash-tolerant consensus protocol

Figure 29.3: The behavior DFA for Figure 29.2

Figure 29.2 presents our algorithm. Besides the network variable, it uses a shared list of proposals and a shared set of decisions. In this particular algorithm, all messages are broadcast to all processors, so they do not require a destination address. The N processors go through a sequence of rounds in which they wait for N -- F messages, update their state based on the messages, and broadcast messages containing their new state. The reason that a processor waits for N -- F rather than N messages is because of failures: up to F processors may never send a message and so it would be unwise to wait for all N. You might be tempted to use a timer and time out on waiting for a particular processor. But how would you initialize that timer? While we will assume that the network is reliable, there is no guarantee that messages arrive within a particular time. We call a set of N -- F processors a quorum. A quorum must suffice for the algorithm to make progress.

The state of a processor consists of its current round number (initially 0) and an estimate (initially the proposal). Therefore, messages contain a round number and an estimate. To start things, each processor first broadcasts its initial round number and initial estimate. The number of rounds that are necessary to achieve consensus is not bounded. But Harmony can only check finite models, so there is a constant NROUNDS that limits the number of rounds.

In LineĀ 21, a processor waits for N -- F messages using the Harmony atomically when exists statement. Since Harmony has to check all possible executions of the protocol, the receive(round, k) method returns all subbags of messages for the given round that have size k = N -- F. The method uses a dictionary comprehension to filter out all messages for the given round and then uses the bag.combinations method to find all combinations of size k. The atomically when exists statement waits until there is at least one such combination and then chooses an element, which is bound to the quorum variable. The body of the statement is then executed atomically. This is usually how distributed algorithms are modeled, because they can only interact through the network. There is no need to interleave the different processes other than when messages are delivered. By executing the body atomically, a lot of unnecessary interleavings are avoided and this reduces the state space that must be explored by the model checker significantly.

The body of the atomically when exists statement contains the core of the algorithm. Note that N -- F = 2F + 1, so that the number of messages is guaranteed to be odd. Also, because there are only 0 and 1 values, there must exist a majority of zeroes or ones. Variable count[0] stores the number of zeroes and count[1] stores the number of ones received in the round. The rules of the algorithm are simple:

  • update estimate to be the majority value;

  • if the quorum is unanimous, decide the value.

After that, proceed with the next round.

To check for correct behavior, run the following two commands:

$ harmony -o consensus.hfa code/consensus.hny
$ harmony -B consensus.hfa code/bosco.hny

Note that the second command prints a warning: "behavior warning: strict subset of specified behavior." Thus, the set of behaviors that our algorithm generates is a subset of the behavior that the specification allows. Figure 29.3 shows the behavior, and indeed it is not the same as the behavior of Figure 29.1. This is because in our algorithm the outcome is decided a priori if more than twothirds of the processors have the same proposal, whereas in the consensus specification the outcome is only decided a priori if the processors are initially unanimous. Another difference is that if the outcome is decided a priori, all processors are guaranteed to decide.

bosco2.hny
import bag

const F = 1
const N = (3 * F) + 1
const NROUNDS = 3

let n_zeroes = choose { 0 .. N / 2 }:
    proposals = ([0,] * n_zeroes) + ([1,] * (N - n_zeroes))
network = bag.empty()

def broadcast(msg):
    atomically network = bag.add(network, msg)

def receive(round):
    let msgs = { e:c for (r,e):c in network where r == round }:
        result = {} if bag.size(msgs) < N else { msgs }

def processor(proposal):
    var estimate, decided = proposal, False
    broadcast(0, estimate)
    for round in {0..NROUNDS-1}:
        atomically when exists msgs in receive(round):
            let choices = bag.combinations(msgs, N - F)
            let quorum = choose(choices)
            let count = [ bag.multiplicity(quorum, i) for i in { 0..1 } ]:
                assert count[0] != count[1]
                estimate = 0 if count[0] > count[1] else 1
                if count[estimate] == (N - F):
                    if not decided:
                        print estimate
                        decided = True
                    assert estimate in proposals           # validity
                broadcast(round + 1, estimate)

print proposals
for i in {0..N-1}:
    spawn processor(proposals[i])
Figure 29.4 (code/bosco2.hny): Reducing the state space

While one can run this code within little time for F = 1, for F = 2 the state space to explore is already quite large. One way to reduce the state space to explore is the following realization: each processor only considers messages for the round that it is in. If a message is for an old round, the processor will ignore it; if a message is for a future round, the processor will buffer it. So, one can simplify the model and have each processor wait for all N messages in a round instead of N -- F. It would still have to choose to consider just N -- F out of those N messages, but executions in which some processors are left behind in all rounds are no longer considered. It still includes executions where some subset of N -- F processors only choose each other messages and essentially ignore the messages of the remaining F processors, so the resulting model is just as good.

Another way to reduce the state space to explore is to leverage symmetry. First of all, it does not matter who proposes a particular value. Also, the values 0 and 1 are not important to how the protocol operates. So, with 5 processors (F = 2), say, we only need to explore the cases where no processors propose 1, where exactly one processors proposes 1, and where 2 processors proposes 1.

Figure 29.4 shows the code for this optimized model. Running this with F = 2 does not take very long and this approach is a good blueprint for testing other round-based protocols (of which there are many).

Exercises

29.1 The algorithm as given works in the face of crash failures. A more challenging class to tolerate are arbitrary failures in which up to F processors may send arbitrary messages, including conflicting messages to different peers (equivocation). The algorithm can tolerate those failures if you use \(\texttt{N} = 5\texttt{F} - 1\) processors instead of \(\texttt{N} = 3\texttt{F} - 1\). Check that.

29.2 In 1983, Michael Ben-Or presented a randomized algorithm that can tolerate crash failures with just \(\texttt{N} = 2\texttt{F} - 1\) processors. Implement this algorithm.