Distributed systems have two distinguishing features:

  • Asynchrony, or “absence of synchrony”: messages from one process to another do not arrive immediately. In a fully asynchronous system, messages may be delayed for unbounded periods of time. In contrast, synchronous networks always provide bounded message delays.
  • Partial failure: some processes in the system may fail while other processes continue executing.

It’s the combination of these two features that make distributed systems really hard; the crux of many impossibility proofs is that nodes in a fully asynchronous system can’t distinguish message delays from failures.

In practice, networks are somewhere between fully asynchronous and synchronous. That is, most (but not all!) of the time, networks give us sufficiently predictable message delays to allow nodes to coordinate successfully in the face of failures.

When designing a distributed algorithm however, common wisdom says that you should try to make as few assumptions about the network as possible. The motivation for this principle is that minimizing your algorithm’s assumptions about message delays maximizes the likelihood that it will work when placed in a real network (which may, in practice, fail to meet bounds on message delays).

On the other hand, if your network does in fact provide bounds on message delays, you can often design simpler and more performant algorithms on top of it. An example of this observation that I find particularly compelling is Speculative Paxos, which co-designs a consensus algorithm and the underlying network to improve overall performance.

At the risk of making unsubstantiated generalizations, I get the sense that theorists (who have dominated the field of distributed computing until somewhat recently) tend to worry a lot about corner cases that jeopardize correctness properties. That is, it’s the theorist who’s telling us to minimize our assumptions. In contrast, practitioners are often willing to sacrifice correctness in favor of simplicity and performance, as long as the corner cases that cause the system to violate correctness are sufficiently rare.

To resolve the tension between the theorists’ and the practitioners’ principles, my half-baked idea is that we should attempt to answer the following question: “How asynchronous are our networks in practice”?

Before outlining how one might answer this question, I need to provide a bit of background.

Failure Detectors

In reaction to the overly pessimistic asynchrony assumptions made by impossibility proofs, theorists spent about a decade [1] developing distributed algorithms for “partially synchronous” network models. The key property of the partially synchronous model is that at some point in the execution of the distributed system, the network will start to provide bounds on message delays, but the algorithm won’t know when that point occurs.

The problem with the partial asynchrony model is that algorithms built on top of it (and their corresponding correctness proofs) are messy: the timing assumptions of the algorithm are strewn throughout the code, and proving the algorithm correct requires you to pull those timing assumptions through the entire proof until you can finally check at the end whether they match up with the network model.

To make reasoning about asynchrony easier, a theorist named Sam Toueg along with a few others at Cornell proposed the concept of failure detectors. Failure detectors allow algorithms to encapsulate timing assumptions: instead of manually setting timers to detect failures, we design our algorithms to ask an oracle about the presence of failures [2]. To implement the oracle, we still use timers, but now we have all of our timing assumptions collected cleanly in one place.

Failure detectors form a hierarchy. The strongest failure detector has perfect accuracy (it never falsely accuses nodes of failing) and perfect completeness (it always informs all nodes of all failures). Weaker failure detectors might make mistakes, either by falsely accusing nodes of having crashed, or by neglecting to detect some failures. The different failure detectors correspond to different points on the asynchrony spectrum: perfect failure detectors can only be implemented in a fully synchronous network [3], whereas imperfect failure detectors correspond to partial synchrony.

Measuring Asynchrony

One way to get a handle on our question is to measure the behavior of failure detectors in practice. That is, one could implement imperfect failure detectors, place them in networks of different kinds, and measure how often they falsely accuse nodes of failing. If we have ground truth on when nodes actually fail in a controlled experiment, we can quantify how often those corner cases theorists are worried about come up.

Anyone interested in getting their hands dirty?


[1] Starting in 1988 and dwindling after 1996.

[2] Side note: failures detectors aren’t widely used in practice. Instead, most distributed systems use ad-hoc network timeouts strewn throughout the code. At best, distributed systems use adaptive timers, again strewn throughout the code. A library or language that encourages programmers to encapsulate timing assumptions and explicitly handle failure detection information could go a long way towards improving the simplicity, amenability to automated tools, and robustness of distributed systems.

[3] Which is equivalent to saying that they can’t be implemented. Unless you can ensure that the network itself never suffers from any failures or congestion, you can’t guarantee perfect synchrony. Nonetheless, some of the most recent network designs get us pretty close.