Paxos Made Simpler

An intuitive explanation of consensus

Posted by Ashwin Madavan on April 10, 2018

The only certainty in distributed systems is that machines will fail. The key challenge in building fault-tolerant distributed systems is constructing reliable systems from unreliable components. Distributed databases replicate data across a cluster of machines. By storing copies in different places, distributed databases are tolerant of individual machine failures.

Replication solves the problem of fault-tolerance, but creates another; the various replicas must be kept consistent with each other. A naïve approach is to require all replicas to first agree to apply any modifications made to the database. This would ensure that all replicas remained identical. However, this approach is not fault-tolerant. If any replica were to fail, then no modifications could ever be made to the database until it recovered. Instead, fault-tolerant distributed databases require only a majority of replicas to reach agreement before modifications can be safely applied. This ensures that any majority of replicas will contain at least one that has the latest copy of the database while remaining tolerant of a minority of individual machine failures. Reaching majority agreement in a distributed system is known as consensus, and it is a relatively well-studied problem. In this section, we explore different consensus algorithms culminating with the approach taken in Beaker.


We define a proposal as a candidate operation on a group of replicas and a proposer as the replica that initiates consensus on a proposal. Over the course of this discussion, we will gradually refine this definition of a proposal until we arrive at the one used by Beaker.

Replicas communicate by sending messages. We assume that delivered messages cannot be reordered; if message \(A\) was delivered before message \(B\), then \(A\) was sent before \(B\). In practice, this assumption is satisfied by most networking protocols including TCP.

Two-Phase Commit

In Two-Phase Commit, the proposer prepares a proposal by first acquring locks on a majority of replicas. If it successfully acquires all locks, the proposer informs all replicas to learn the proposal. When a proposal is learned, its operation is applied and all locks are subsequently released.

Two-Phase Commit is not fault-tolerant. If the proposer were to fail after it successfully prepared a proposal but before it requested that it be learned, the locks that it acquired would never be released and no new proposals could ever be learned. We will see in Paxos how we can modify the protocol to guarantee fault-tolerance.


Paxos makes two modifications to Two-Phase Commit to address its fault-intolerance. First, it associates each proposal with a monotonically-increasing, globally-unique ballot number. Proposals are totally-ordered and uniquely-identified by their ballot. Each replica keeps track of the latest ballot that it has seen. Second, it introduces an intermediate accept phase to the protocol. We will see that this additional phase allows the system to recover from proposer failure.

In Paxos, the proposer prepares a proposal by assigning it a ballot greater than any it has seen and sending it to all replicas. If the ballot is greater than the latest it has seen, a replica promises not to accept any proposal less than it and returns any proposal that it has already accepted. Otherwise, the replica ignores the request. Intuitively, ballots function as a kind of a lock that the proposer holds until another proposer prepares a greater ballot. If a majority of replicas do not respond to its prepare request, the proposer retries with a greater ballot. Otherwise, the proposer selects a proposal to be accepted. If any replica returned an accepted proposal, then the proposer must select the latest accepted proposal and set its ballot to the one that it prepared. Otherwise, the proposer selects its own proposal. Intuitively, this allows the system to pick up where it left off when a proposer fails after convinced a majority to accept its proposal but before it could be learned. A replica accepts a proposal if and only if it has not promised not to. When a replica accepts a proposal, it requests that all replicas learn it. A replica learns a proposal when a majority of replicas have requested that it be learned. When a replica is learned, its operation is applied and any accepted proposals are removed. Intuitively, this allows the system to reset and begin consensus on another proposal.

Paxos guarantees that all non-faulty replicas will learn proposals in the same order. Often, this guarantee is unnecessary because a large number of operations on a distributed system are commutative and so they may be performed in any order. For example, reads and writes to different keys in a database may be performed in any order without compromising consistency. We will see in Generalized Paxos that we can exploit commutativity to improve performance.

It is known that no deterministic fault-tolerant consensus protocol can guarantee progress in an asynchronous network. Paxos is no exception. If a higher ballot is continuously prepared before any proposal can be accepted, no proposal will ever be learned. Implementations of Paxos typically elect a distinguished replica, called a leader, to which all other replicas forward their proposals to guarantee liveness. Whenever leaders fail, replicas run an instance of Paxos to acquire leadership of the cluster. The reliance on the existence of a single, stable leader is both a important simplifying assumption and a performance limitation. If there exists a leader, then prepare messages are superfluous. Intuitively, the leader implicitly holds a lock on all replicas because no other replica can initiate proposals. This allows proposals to be learned in just two message delays. However, the reliance on the leader to initiate all proposals is also a significant bottleneck at scale. The entire system moves at the rate of the leader. In fact, this is the fundamental limitation in implementations of Paxos like ZooKeeper and Chubby. We will see in Egalitarian Paxos that we can remove the dependence on a leader to improve performance.

Generalized Paxos

Generalized Paxos addresses the scalability of Paxos by exploiting commutativity. An operation \(A\) commutes with \(B\) if performing \(A\) after \(B\) has the same effect as performing \(B\) after \(A\). For example, addition is commutative but division is not; \(4 + 3 = 3 + 4\) but \(\frac{4}{3} \ne \frac{3}{4}\). In fact, most operations on a distributed database are commutative. Reads commute with each other and reads and writes to different keys commute.

Generalized Paxos associates each proposal with a sequence of operations. We say that proposal \(A\) is equivalent to proposal \(B\) if all non-commutative operations in \(A\) and \(B\) are in the same order. All equivalent proposals have the same effect. Generalized Paxos permits replicas to learn different proposals as long as they are equivalent.

In Generalized Paxos, proposers do not forward their requests to leader. Instead, they immediately request that all replicas accept their proposed operation. A replica appends the operation to their currently accepted proposal and requests that all replicas learn it. A proposal is learned when a replica a majority of replicas have requested that it or an equivalent proposal be learned. If no majority of replicas can agree on the ordering of non-commutative operations, it is the responsibility of the leader to select one and to run an instance of Paxos to convince the other replicas to accept its choice before resuming normal operation.

Like Paxos, Generalized Paxos relies on the existence of a single, stable leader to mediate ordering disagreements between replicas and guarantees that all commutative operations will be learned in two message delays. Unlike Paxos, it does not require all proposals to originate from the leader. If most operations are commutative, the leader will rarely be required to arbitrate. However, the existence of a leader can still be a scalability bottleneck. We will see in Egalitarian Paxos that we can remove the dependence on a leader to improve the performance of the system.

Egalitarian Paxos

Egalitarian Paxos makes a subtle modification to Generalized Paxos to remove its dependence on a leader. Egalitarian Paxos associates with proposal with a directed acyclic graph of operations. The benefit of using a directed acyclic graph is its various strongly connected components can be performed in parallel. This has huge ramifications for performance, particularly in databases because reads and writes are relatively expensive operations.

In Egalitarian Paxos, an operation depends on all accepted proposals for which it does not commute. The proposer builds a dependency graph for a proposal from any proposals that it has already accepted and requests that all replicas accept it. A replica supplements the dependency graph of the proposal with any proposals that it has accepted and requests that the result be learned. If no majority of replicas can agree on the dependency graph of a proposal, it is the responsibility of the proposer to select one and to run an instance of Paxos to convince the other replicas to accept its choice before resuming normal operation.

Egalitarian Paxos implicitly assumes that operations are idempotent. An operation \(A\) is idempotent if repeated non-sequential applications of \(A\) have the same effect as a single application of \(A\). For example, multiplication by one is idempotent but by two is not; \(4 * 1 = 4 * 1 * 1\) but \(4 * 2 \ne 4 * 2 * 2\). In Beaker, we show how Egalitarian Paxos can be modified to implement a distributed, fault-tolerant database.