tl;dr: handling event ordering correctly in distributed systems is tricky.
In this post I cover 7 approaches to coping with concurrency.
Robust distributed systems are notoriously difficult to build. The difficulty
arises from two properties in particular:
Limited knowledge: each node knows its own state, and it knows what state
the other nodes were in recently, but it can’t know their current state.
(Partial) failures: individual nodes can fail at any time, and the network can delay or drop
Why are these properties difficult to grapple with? Suppose you’re writing
code for a single node. You’re deep in a nested conditional statement, and you
need to deal with a message arrival. How do you react? What if the message
you’re seeing was actually delayed by the network and is no longer relevant? What if some of the nodes you need to coordinate with have
failed, but you aren’t aware of it yet? The set of possible event sequences you need to reason about is huge,
and it’s all too easy to forget about the one nasty corner case that will
eventually bring your system to a screeching halt.
To make the discussion more concrete, let’s look at an example.
The figure above depicts a race condition  in
Floodlight, a distributed controller for
software-defined networks. With Floodlight, switches maintain one hot
connection to a master controller and
one or more cold connections to replica controllers. The master holds the
authority to modify the configuration of the switches, while the other
controllers are in slave mode and do not perform any changes to the
switch configurations unless they detect that the master has crashed .
The race condition is triggered when a link fails (E1), and the switch
attempts to notify the controllers (E2,E4) shortly after the master has
died (E3), but before a new master has been selected (E6). In this case,
all live controllers are in
the slave role and will not take responsibility for updating the switch
flow table (E5). At some point, heartbeat messages time out and one of the
elevates itself to the master role (E6). The new master will proceed to
the switch, but without ever clearing the routing entries for
the failed link (resulting in a persistent blackhole) .
If we take a step back, we see that there are two problems involved:
leader election (“Who is the master at any point in time?”), and
replication (“How should the backups behave?”). Let’s assume that leader
election is handled by a separate consensus algorithm (e.g.
Paxos), and focus our attention on replication.
Now that we have a concrete example to think about, let’s go over a few
solutions this problem. The first four share the same philosophy: “get
the ordering right”.
Take it case-by-case
The straightforward fix here is to add a conditional statement for this event
ordering: if you’re a slave, and the next message is a link failure
notification, store the notification in memory in case you become master
This fix seems easy in retrospect. But recall how the bug came about in the
first place: the programmer had some set of event orderings in mind when
writing the code, but didn’t implement one corner case. How do we know
there isn’t another race condition lurking somewhere else in the code? 
The number of event orderings you need to consider in a distributed system is
truly huge; it scales combinatorially with the number of nodes you’re
communicating with. For the rest of this post, let’s see if we can avoid the
need to reason on a case-by-case basis altogether.
Replicate the computation
Consider a system consisting of only one node. In this world,
there is a single, global order (with no race conditions)!
How can we obtain a global event order, yet still achieve fault tolerance? One way  is to have the backup nodes mimic every step of the master node: forward all
inputs to the master, have the master choose a serial order for those events, issue the appriopriate commands to the switches, and replicate the decision to the backups . The key here is that each
backup should execute the computation in the exact same order as the master.
For the Floodlight bug, the backup would still need to hold the link failure
message in memory until it detects that the master has crashed. But we’ve
gained a powerful guarantee over the previous approach: when the backup takes
over for the master, it will be in a up-to-date state, and know exactly what
commands it needs to send to the switches to get them into a correct
Make your event handlers transactional
Transactions allow us to make a group of operations appear either as if they
happened simultaneously, or not at all. This is a powerful idea!
How could transactions help us here? Suppose we did the following: whenever a
message arrives, find the event handler
for that message, wrap it in a transaction, run the event handler, and hand
the result of the transaction to the master controller. The master
decides on a global order, checks whether any concurrent transactions
conflict with each other (and aborts one of them if they do), updates the switches, sends the
serialized transactions to the backups, and waits for ACKs before logging
a commit message.
This is very similar to the previous solution, but it gives us two benefits over the previous approach:
- We can potentially handle more events in parallel; most of the transactions will
not conflict with each other, and we can simply abort and retry the ones
- We can now roll back operations. Suppose a network operator issues a
policy change to the controller, but realizes that she made a mistake.
No problem – she can simply roll back the previous transaction and start
again where she began.
Compared to the first approach, this is a significant improvement! Each
event is handled in isolation from the other events, so there’s need to
reason about event interleavings; if a conflicting transaction was
committed before we get to commit, just abort and retry!
Reorder events when no one will notice
It turns out that we can achieve even better throughput if we use a
replication model called virtual synchrony. In short, virtual synchrony
provides a library with three operations:
- join() a process group
- register() an event handler
- send() an atomic multicast message to the rest of your process
These primitives provide two crucial guarentees:
- Atomic multicast means that if any correct node gets the message, every live
node will eventually get the message. That implies that if any live
node ever gets the link failure notification, you can rest assure that
one of your future masters will get it.
- The join() protocol ensures that every node always know who’s a member of its group,
and that everyone has the same view of who is alive
and who is not. Failures results in a group change, but everyone will agree on the order in which the failure occured.
With virtual synchrony, we no longer need a single master; atomic multicast
means that there is a single order of events observed by all members of the
group, regardless of who initiated the message. And with multiple masters, we
aren’t constrained by the speed of a single node.
The virtual part of virtual synchrony is that when the library detects
that two operations are not causally related to each other, it can reorder
them in whatever way it believes most efficient. Since those operations aren’t
causally related, we’re guaranteed that the final output won’t be noticeably
OK, let’s move on to the final three approaches, which take a different tack
than the first four: “avoid having to reason about event ordering
Make yourself stateless
In a database, the “ground truth” is stored on disk. In a network, the “ground
truth” is stored in the routing tables of the switches themselves. This
implies that the controllers’ view of the network is just soft state; we can
always recover it simply by querying the switches for their current
How does this observation relate to the Floodlight bug? Suppose we didn’t even
attempt to keep the backup controllers in sync with the master. Instead, just
have them recompute the entire network configuration whenever they realize
they need to take over for the master. Their only job in the meantime is to
monitor the liveness of the master!
Of course, the tradeoff here is that it may take significantly longer for the newly elected master to get up to speed.
We can apply the same trick to avoid race conditions between concurrent events
at the master: instead of maintaining locks between threads, just restart
computation of the entire network configuration whenever a new event comes in.
Race conditions don’t happen if there is no shared state!
Incidentally, Google’s wide-area network
is almost entirely stateless, presumably for many of the same reasons.
Force yourself to be stateless
In the spirit stateless computation, why not write your code in a language
that doesn’t allow you to keep state at all? Programs written in declarative
languages such as Overlog have no
explicit ordering whatsoever. Programmers simply declare rules such as “If the
switch has a link failure, then flush the routing entries that go over that
link”, and the language runtime handles the order in which the computation
is carried out.
With a declarative language, as the long as the same set of events is fed
to the controller (regardless of their order), the same result will come
out. This makes replication really easy: send inputs to all controllers,
have each node compute the resulting configuration, and only allow the
master node to send out commands to the switches once the computation has
completed. The tradeoff is that without an explicit ordering.
the performance of declarative languages is difficult to reason about.
The previous solutions were designed to always guarantee correct behavior
despite failures of the other nodes. This final solution, my personal
favorite, is much more optimistic.
The idea behind self-stabilizing algorithms is to have a provable guarantee
that no matter what configuration the system starts in, and no matter what
failures occur, all nodes will eventually stabilize to a configuration where
safety properties are met. This eliminates the need to worry about correct
initialization, or detect whether the algorithm has terminated. As a nice side
benefit, self-stabilizing algorithms are usually considerably simpler than
their order-aware counterparts.
What do self-stabilizing algorithms look like? Self-stabilizing algorithms are
actually everywhere in networking – routing algorithms are the most canonical
How would a self-stabilizing algorithm help with the Floodlight bug? The
answer really depends on what network invariants the control application needs
to maintain. If it’s just to provide connectivity , we could simply run a
traditional link-state algorithm: have each switch periodically send port
status messages to the controllers, have the controllers compute shortest
paths using Dijkstra’s, and have the master push the appropriate updates to
the switches. Even if there are transient failures, we’re guaranteed that the
network will eventually converge to a configuration with no loops and
Ultimately, the best replication choice depends on your workload and
network policies. In any case, I hope this post has convinced you that
there’s more than one way to skin a cat!
 Note that this issue was originally discovered by the developers of
Floodlight. (We don’t mean to pick on BigSwitch here; we chose this bug
because it’s a great example of the difficulties that come up in distributed
systems). For more information, see line 605 of
 This invariant is crucial to maintain. Think of the switches’ routing
tables as shared variables between threads (controllers). We need to ensure
mutual exclusion over those shared variables, otherwise we could end up with
internally inconsistent routing tables.
 The Floodlight bug noted in  actually involves neglecting to clear the
routing tables of newly connected switches, but the same flavor of race
condition could occur for link failures. We chose to focus on link failures
because they’re likely to occur much more often than switch connects.
 It’s possible in some cases to use a model checker to automatically find race conditions, but the runtime complexity is often intractable and very few systems do this in practice.
 There are actually a handful of ways to implement state machine replication. Ours depend on a concensus algorithm to choose the master, but you could also run the concensus algorithm itself to achieve replication. There are also cheaper algorithms such as reliable broadcast. You can also get significantly better read throughput with chain replication, which doesn’t require quorum for reads, but writes become more complicated.
 We still need to maintain the invariant that only the master modifies the
the switch configurations. Nonetheless, with state machine replication the
backup will always know what commands need to be sent to switches if and when
it takes over for the master.
 Although if your goal is only to provide connectivity, it’s not clear
why you’re using SDN in the first place.