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November 4, 2010 (Lecture 21)

What is a Distributed System?

A Distributed System as an abstraction. It is a way of organizing and thinking about a collection of independent and possibly distant or weakly connected resources as if they were all part of the same tightly coupled package.

In his textbook, Andrew Tannenbaum, a famous pioneer in distributed systems, defines it this way:

"A distributed system is a collection of independent computers that appear to the users of the systems as a single computer.

--Andrew Tannenbaum, Distributed Operating Systems (1995), Pg 2.

Distributed Systems vs. Parallel Systems

Often we hear the terms "Distributed System" and "Parallel System." What is the difference?

Not a whole lot and a tremendous amount -- all at the same time. "Distributed System" often refers to a systems that is to be used by multiple (distributed) users. "Parallel System" often has the connotation of a system that is designed to have only a single user or user process. Along the same lines, we often hear about "Parallel Systems" for scientific applications, but "Distributed Systems" in e-commerce or business applications.

"Distributed Systems" generally refer to a cooperative work environment, whereas "Parallel Systems" typically refer to an environment designed to provide the maximum parallelization and speed-up for a single task. But from a technology perspective, there is very little distinction.

Does that suggest that they are the same? Well, not exactly. There are some differences. Security, for example, is much more of a concern in "Distributed Systems" than in "Parallel Systems". If the only goal of a super computer is to rapidly solve a complex task, it can be locked in a secure facility, physically and logically inaccessible -- security problem solved. This is not an option, for example, in the design of a distributed database for e-commerce. By its very nature, this system must be accessible to the real world -- and as a consequence must be designed with security in mind.

System Model

When I taught Operating Systems, I begin with a picture that looked like the one below. If you didn't take OS, please don't worry -- everything on the picture, almost, should be familiar to you. It contains the insides of a computer: memory and memory controllers, storage devices and their controllers, processors, and the bus that ties them all together.

This time however, the bus isn't magical. It isn't a fast, reliable, predictable communication channel called that always works and maintains a low latency and high bandwidth. Instead, it is a simple, cheap, far-reaching commodity network that may become slow and bogged down and/or lose things outright. It might become partitions. And, it might not deliver messages in the same order that they were sent.

To reinforce the idea that this is a commodity network, like the Internet, I added a few PDAs to the picture this time. Remember, the network isn't necessarily wired -- and all of the components aren't necessarily of the same type. But, in all honesty, PDAs are unlikely to be part of a distributed data base, beyond, possibly, serving as hosts for users.

Furthermore, there is no global clock or hardware support for synchronization. And, to make things worse, thr processors aren't necessarily reliable, and nor is the RAM or anything else. For those that are familiar with them, snoopy caches aren't practical, either.

In other words, all of the components are independent, unreliable devices connected by an unreliable, slow, narrow, and disorganized network.

What's the Good News?

The bottom line is that, despite the failure, uncertainty, and lack of specialized hardware support, we can build and effectively use systems that are an order of magnitude more powerful. In fact we can do this while providing a more available, more robust, more convenient solution. This semester, we'll learn how.

Measures of Quality

In building a distributed system to attack a particular problem, what are our specific measures of quality? What are the characteristics of a good system?

Just as there isn't one "perfect fod" for all people and all occasions, our goals in implementing a distributed system may vary with the particular problem. But, the following are some very typical and common measures of quality in distributed systems:

Consistency vs. Coherency

Although these two terms actually mean very different things, they are often interchanged or used as synonyms. Although this practice isn't descriptive, it is common place -- please don't be surprised.

Different processes are said to have a consistent view of data, if each process sees the same value. If different processes see different values, they are said to have an inconsistent view of the data. Inconsistencies often arise as the result of replication. For example, if each process uses its own private replica of the data, one process might not see another process's changes. This could result in an inconsistent view.

Later we'll see that constantly maintaining atomic consistency, a.k.a. perfect consistency, is very, very expensive, and often not required in a particular application. For this reason, we often will select a more relaxed consistency model that describes when the data values can diverge, without generating incorrect results. But more on this later in the semester...

Data is said to be incoherent if it is the result of a collection of operations that make sense sense individually, but not collectively.


A distributed system should hide the machinery from the user and present a unified interface that provides the features and hides the complexity. To the extent that this illusion is achieved, we say that transparency is achieved. No useful real-world system achieves complete transparency, so we often talk about the transparency of particular characteristics or features of a system. And even when discussing a particular feature or characteristic, there are many shades of gray. A few examples are given below:

Transactions in a Distributed Environment and Atomic Commit Protocols

Think back to yesterday's discussion of transactions -- packages of operations that, as a whole, need to be executed with the ACID properties. Now, imaging that a transaction is to be executed across a distributed data base, where the tables, or portions thereof, are spread across multiple systems. This might be the case if several replicas of a database must remain uniform.

We've got a few hurdles. The first, is finding the objects that we want to access and manipulate. Our distributed data base needs to know who has what. Another, perhaps more interesting question, is how do we ensure the ACID properties across otherwise weakly systems?

To achieve this we need some way of ensuring that the distributed transaction will be valid on all of the systems or none of them. To achieve this, we will need an atomic commit protocol. Or a set of rules, that if followed, will ensure that the transaction commits everywhere or aborts everwhere.

Two Phase Commit (2PC)

The most commonly used atomic commit protocol is two-phase commit. You may notice that is is very similar to the protocol that we used for total order multicast. Whereas the multicast protocol used a two-phase approach to allow the coordinator to select a commit time based on information from the participants, two-phase commit lets the coordinator select whether or not a transaction will be committed or aborted based on information from the participants.

----------------------- Phase 1 -----------------------
  • Precommit (write to log and.or atomic storage)
  • Send request to all participants
  • Wait for request
  • Upon request, if ready:
    • Precommit
    • Send coordinator YES
  • Upon request, if not ready:
    • Send coordinator NO
Coordinator blocks waiting for ALL replies
(A time out is possible -- that would mandate an ABORT)
----------------------- Phase 2 -----------------------
This is the point of no return!

  • If all participants voted YES then send commit to each participant
  • Otherwise send ABORT to each participant
Wait for "the word" from the coordinator

  • If COMMIT, then COMMIT (transaction becomes visible)
  • If ABORT, then ABORT (gone for good)

Three-phase Commit

Another real-world atomic commit protocol is three-pahse commit (3PC). This protocol can reduce the amount of blocking and provide for more flexible recovery in the event of failure. Although it is a better choice in unusually failure-prone enviornments, its complexity makes 2PC the more popular choice.

Recovery in 3PC

If the participant finds itself in the (R)ecovery state, it assumes that the coordinator did not respond, because it failed. Although this isn't a good thing, it may not prove to be fatal. If a majority of the participants are in the uncertain and/or commitable states, it may be possible to elect a new coordinator and continue.

We'll discuss how to elect a new coordinator in a few classes. So, for now, let's just assume that this happens auto-magically. Once we have a new coordinator, it polls the participants and acts accordingly:

"Cloud Computing"

In the past, the focus of distributed databases has been this type of projection of traditional databases onto distributed systems. But, in recent years, things have shifted a bit. "Cloud computing", which is closely related to "Utility computing" has become a hot topic.

The basic idea here is that service providers offer farms of relatively interchangeable compute nodes and storage nodes. Clients dispatch their work across these machines using virtual machines, whether JVMs or VMWare/KVM/VirtualBox VMs. The work is agnostic about which nodes it runs on and mkaes use of the provided storage. The client gets billed for the services used and has the ability to rapdily scale those services up or down to meed demand and economic need.

Cloud computing is similar to parallel compuitng in that the cloud is often maintained by one administrative organization and is often organized such that large chunks of the cloud are nearby, both physically and in network space. But, it departs from traditional parallel computing into traditional distributed systems space in that the components are generally closer to commodity equipment than highly specialized, high-cost super computers, and in that multiple users are using the cloud for multiple purposes, with the resulting conflicting demand for resources.

One important class of problem that can be addressed through cloud computing is Data Intensive Scalable Computing (DISC). One of the prevelant techniques for addressing this problem was originally published by our friends at Google, MapReduce: Simplified Data Processing on Large Clusters.

There are, perhaps, two key ideas the paradigm that they published. The first is that the compute nodes are location aware and generally operate on nearby data. In order to achieve this, and to allow for the most parallelism in accessing the data, it is, in effect, hashed, spreading the blocks of large files across many systems. Multiple copies of the blocks are stored, both to allow for redundancy, and also to allow for more opportunities for parallel access. This is somewhat of a departure from the traditional distributed systems model that favored location transparency.

The second key idea is that the processing is perofrmed using phases of relatively simple map and reduce operations, similar to the map and fold operations in some functional programming languges, e.g. ML.

Two distributed databases have recently come to prominence in the Open Source community, Cassandra and HBase. HBase is an open implementation of a database, BigTable, originally described by Google, and built above a cloud described, as above. Cassandra offers similar services to the end user, but is built above a distributed system that uses a different underlying organization. Cassandra comes to use from our friends at Amazon.

Next class
We'll talk more about the details of these systems in a couple of classes. Next class, we'll talk about techniques for distributed hashing.