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Leader Election

Leader election is the problem of electing a unique leader in a network of processors. Typically this is challenging because the processors have only limited information. In the version that we present, each processor has a unique identifier. The processors are organized in a ring, but each processor only knows its own identifier and the identifier of its successor on the ring. Having already looked into the problem of how to make the network reliable, we assume here that each processor can reliably send messages to its successor.

The protocol that we present elects as leader the processor with the highest identifier and works in two phases: in the first phase, each processor sends its identifier to its successor. When a processor receives an identifier that is larger than its own identifier, it forwards that identifier to its successor as well. If a processor receives its own identifier, it discovers that it is the leader. That processor then starts the second phase by sending a message around the ring notifying the other processors of the leader's identifier.

const NIDS = 5      # number of identifiers

network = {}        # the network is a set of messages
leader = 0          # used for checking correctness

def send(m):
    atomically network |= { m }

def receive(self):
    result = { (id, found) for (dst, id, found) in network where dst == self }

def processor(self, succ):
    send(succ, self, False)
    var working = True
    while working:
        atomically when exists (id, found) in receive(self):
            if id == self:
                assert self == leader
                send(succ, id, True)
            elif id > self:
                assert self != leader
                send(succ, id, found)
            if found:
                working = False

var ids, nprocs, procs = { 1 .. NIDS }, choose({ 1 .. NIDS }), []
for i in { 0 .. nprocs - 1 }:
    let next = choose(ids):
        ids -= { next }
        procs += [ next, ]
        if next > leader:
            leader = next
for i in { 0 .. nprocs - 1 }:
    spawn processor(procs[i], procs[(i + 1) % nprocs])
Figure 25.1 ( code/leader.hny): A leader election protocol on a ring

Figure 25.1 describes the protocol and its test cases in Harmony. In Harmony, processors can be modeled by threads and there are a variety of ways in which one can model a network using shared variables. Here, we model the network as a set of messages. The send method atomically adds a message to this set. Messages are tuples with three fields: (dst, id, found). dst is the identifier of the destination processor; id is the identifier that is being forwarded; and found is a boolean indicating the second phase of the protocol. The receive(self) method looks for all messages destined for the processor with identifier self.

To test the protocol, the code first chooses the number of processors and generates an identifier for each processor, chosen non-deterministically from a set of NIDS identifiers. It also keeps track in the variable leader of what the highest identifier is, so it can later be checked.

Method processor(self, succ) is the code for a processor with identifier self and successor succ. It starts simply by sending its own identifier to its successor. The processor then loops until it discovers the identifier of the leader in the second phase of the protocol. A processor waits for a message using the Harmony atomically when exists statement. This statement takes the form

atomically when exists v in s: statement block

where s is a set and v is variable that is bound to an element of s. The properties of the statement are as follows:

  • it waits until s is non-empty;

  • it is executed atomically;

  • v is selected non-deterministically, like in the choose operator.

If a processor receives its own identifier, it knows its the leader. The Harmony code checks this using an assertion. In real code the processor could not do this as it does not know the identifier of the leader, but assertions are only there to check correctness. The processor then sends a message to its successor that the leader has been found. If the processor receives an identifier higher than its own, the processor knows that it cannot be the leader. In that case, it simply forwards the message. A processor stops when it receives a message that indicates that the leader has been identified.

Note that there is a lot of non-determinism in the specification, leading to a lot of executions that must be checked. First, every possible permutation of identifiers for the processors is tried. When there are multiple messages to receive by a processor, every possible order is tried (including receiving the same message multiple times). Fortunately, the atomically when exists statement is executed atomically, otherwise the body of the statement could lead to additional thread interleavings. Because in practice the different processors do not share memory, it is not necessary to check those interleavings.


25.1 Check if the code finds a unique leader if identifiers are not unique.

25.2 Messages are added atomically to the network. Is this necessary? What happens if you remove the atomically keyword? Explain what happens.