Distributed Systems and Scalable Databases

The simplest of applications we can write and maintain are the ones that run within a single thread on a single processor. We know why we don’t do that, because there is only so much we can achieve with such a system.

The main concerns with this set up are:

  • Scale : We need more resources (CPU, memory, or storage) than what is available on single server. Buying bigger server, even if available, is not efficient in terms of cost and server utilisation. Different functionalities might require different combination of resources and resource characteristics.
  • Resilience : Any software and hardware can fail/crash. Running an application on single machine is single point of failure. We prefer to have our application be available for users and work as expected even under cases of hardware and/or software failures.

A Distributed System provides an alternative approach to scaling and makes our system resilient to hardware and software failures.

Distributed System

A distributed system is a collection of independent computers that appears to its users as a single coherent system.

Andrew S. Tanenbaum

For example, amazon.com appears to us as a single computer even though many computers are working together behind the scene.

This simple definition focuses on two important factors:

  • the system consists of components (computers) that are autonomous.
  • to its users, humans or programs, the system appears as though they are dealing with single system/computer.

For independent component to work as a coherent system, the components must collaborate among themselves. Effective collaboration among components lies at the heart of distributed system.

Characteristics of Distributed Systems

  • The computers operate concurrently
  • The computers fail independently

Since all the computers function concurrently, and independently, we can scale easily by adding more computers (or remove computers when not required). Even if one or more of those computers fail, it will not affect the entire system and all the features of our system will be available all the time.

Even though Distributed System overcome the concerns of scaling and resiliency, complexity of such a system greatly increases. Even the simplest of application, when distributed across computers, becomes complex. Simple things like storing data, computing, and passing data across components becomes hard.

Scaling Database

We will see many approaches to scale data storage and the challenges that arise because of that.

Single Master Storage

We all are aware of this simple data storage model. The database runs on a single server. If you wanted to scale you run the database on a much bigger server. At some point, the single server fails to perform as best as did due to lack of resources.

Read Replication

This, in many ways, was the first approach to scaling horizontally. We realised that most of web application traffic was read and we thought of splitting read and write requests to different servers (called nodes).

The concept is simple. All writes still go to a single master and then the writes are propagated to the followers. The read requests are handled by the follower nodes. This allows for master to handle much more write traffic and multiple follower nodes can handle a lot of read request and it is a matter of adding new follower node to cater for increased read requests.

Even though this seemingly simple arrangement allows us to handle more load by distributing read and write request to different nodes, we have broken the consistency. The database is no longer consistent (even if the database we are using is a relational database). When we write to master node the write has to propagate to the follower nodes before it can be read. There is a small time window during which the write has completed but the read operation fails. There is, however small, a delay for follower nodes to have the latest data. This is Eventually Consistent since the write will be propagated to followers at some point without fail.

So, we lost consistency for a while but hey!, everything else is fine now, right? NO! This may work for a while but ultimately the master is still handling all the write requests. At some point the master can not handle the amount of writes it has to do. What do we do?


With Sharding we split our data across nodes. Each node is called a shard. Each shard holds different data. We decide how the data is segregated. For example, we can segregate our user data based on user’s name. All the data of users with name starting with letters A to F are in shard 1 and user data with name starting with letters from G to N are in shard 2 and similarly O to Z in shard 3.

The rules of sharding the data are very important as the database will choose which shard to go to for reading and writing data based on the rule. Each of the shard will have its own set of replicated followers as in read-replicated databases.

Now, we can handle as much write as we want by making the shards smaller and smaller and also by having replicated followers for handling read traffic.

We had already lost consistency by having replicated followers but now we split our data across nodes which means we can no longer have the same data model we had earlier. We can not, for example, read data of two users residing in separate shards at a time!. Our joins are no longer useful as they can only work with partial data residing in that particular shard. To overcome this, the SQL joins have to work with all the shards and then some more to combine them all.

One way to overcome this problem with joins is to Denormalize the data. By denormalising data we have improved read performance at the cost of write performance. At this point we lost many of the features that our databases provided. We no longer have consistency, joins are slower and we reduced write performance by denormalizing data.

Distributed Databases

From what we have seen up until now, we create some new problem every time we have to scale beyond what our current model helps with. We now have a sharded, replicated system that scales. What are the concerns here? Consistency, availability and performance.

We now have more than one server in the network. When a database write occurs, we now need to decide when to consider it complete: as soon as it is persisted on the master, or only after it is persisted on a replica (or even two or more replicas if we want higher availability). If we decide that persisting it on the master is enough, we risk losing data if the master fails before replicating the data. If we decide to wait until the data is replicated, we incur latency penalty.

Thus, from a world of consistency by default, we have entered a world where consistency is a choice. In this world, we could choose to have eventual consistency, where the state is replicated across multiple nodes, but not every node has a complete view of the entire state.

There is still a way to make our distributed database strongly consistent. We decide on number of replicas that need to acknowledge the success of read or write operation. The number of replicas we decide is also called consistency level or Quorum. For a system to be considered strongly consistent, it has to follow the rule R + W > N. Here R and W are the consistency level of read and write operations and N is the total number of replicas.

The CAP theorem

The CAP theorem was introduced by Dr. Eric Brewer in 2000. Given a distributed system, it is impossible to guarantee the three following properties:

  • Consistency: All nodes share the same states, that is, they all have the same data. In an informal manner, a system is consistent if a write is successful, all the components of the system can read the new value.
  • Availability: The system remains operative to take care of every client request, managing it and answering it. Furthermore, it also means that the system is still awake even if a node fails (or crashes).
  • Partition Tolerance: The systems keeps attending client requests even though it has been divided into at least two different parts, also called partition, that cannot communicate between them.

Dr. Brewer issued a clarification stating that his original “pick two out of three” concept was greatly simplified in order to open up a discussion and help move it beyond ACID

For example, when two of the nodes cannot communicate with each other (network reasons, lets say), there is a partition. At that point our system can choose either to be consistent and unavailable (fail instead of returning stale data) or be inconsistent and available (return stale data). It cannot choose to be both consistent and available.

Partition tolerance is a must for any distributed data store.

Eventual Consistency And BASE Properties

As it turns out many applications (or part of the application) prefer high availability more than strong consistency. And network latency is an issue in keeping nodes in sync for consistency bringing the system performance down.

These applications settle for a highly available, eventually consistent system. These systems offer BASE properties (as opposed to ACID)

  • __B__asically __A__vailable – High Availability
  • __S__oft state – State of the system might change even when nothing external happens due to eventual consistency
  • __E__ventual Consistency – Eventually consistent system

The most famous systems that appeared and took this option are the NoSQL databases.