Consensus Protocols: Three-phase Commit

Last time we looked extensively at two-phase commit, a consensus algorithm that has the benefit of low latency but which is offset by fragility in the face of participant machine crashes. In this short note, I’m going to explain how the addition of an extra phase to the protocol can shore things up a bit, at the cost of a greater latency.

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Consensus Protocols: Two-Phase Commit

For the next few articles here, I’m going to write about one of the most fundamental concepts in distributed computing - of equal importance to the theory and practice communities. The consensus problem is the problem of getting a set of nodes in a distributed system to agree on something - it might be a value, a course of action or a decision. Achieving consensus allows a distributed system to act as a single entity, with every individual node aware of and in agreement with the actions of the whole of the network.

 For example, some possible uses of consensus are:

  • deciding whether or not to commit a transaction to a database
  • synchronising clocks by agreeing on the current time
  • agreeing to move to the next stage of a distributed algorithm (this is the famous replicated state machine approach)
  • electing a leader node to coordinate some higher-level protocol

Such a simple-sounding problem has surprisingly been at the core particularly of theoretical distributed systems research for over twenty years. How come? As I see it, the answers are threefold.

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