If you write software, I encourage you to learn about Paxos!

Whether you’re getting your feet wet in distributed programming, or digging deeper, Paxos is a great way to gain insight and experience. Paxos is one of those few algorithms which manage to be important to both theory and practice: it’s not only a key result in distributed systems research, but also an underpinning of many state-of-the-art production systems.

If you’ve already heard of Paxos, you probably already know about its reputation. Many think Paxos is a complicated thing, implemented by researchers stuffed away in secret rooms, so that mortals may build distributed systems they may never truly understand.

Luckily, those people are wrong! Having taken some time to parse Paxos out of the papers, I believe anyone who has successfully learned Dijkstra’s algorithm can learn Paxos. Paxos may not be the most intuitive or obvious of algorithms, but it’s far from incomprehensible. I believe most of the confusion actually comes from the presentation, rather than the algorithm itself. In this article I will try to rememdy that.

This is the first of a series of posts covering Paxos. Consider this series the introduction to Paxos I never had, but wish I did. We will start with a discussion of computer networks, and how they make consensus tricky. Once we better understand the problem, we’ll see Paxos’s solution. Then we’ll progressively build Paxos’s consensus primitive into more powerful algorithms, discovering along the way what Paxos doesn’t handle well, or at all. Finally, we’ll use all of this to build a demo implementing a toy distributed state-replication algorithm with Paxos.

Our demo will be written in Go. If you like, you can download and run it ahead of time with the following commands:

$ go get github.com/davekilian/paxos-demo
$ $GOROOT/bin/paxos-demo

I don’t plan for this series to teach you everything there is to know about Paxos; rather, I want to provide you with enough general intuition that you can figure out the rest easily enough. If you like these articles, I encourage you to employ your newfound understanding by tackling some of the seminal papers, which I’ll list at the end of the series. The papers are easier to follow once you get the basic idea.

Zero to Paxos

Paxos is a system of algorithms which implement distributed consensus. That is, if we have a network of nodes, each running an instance of the same program, then Paxos synchronizes those programs, so they all store the same value for a particular variable (the consensus variable). Replicating values this way allows systems to work even when some nodes crash or get disconnected (a property called fault-tolerance).

To explain how Paxos implements distributed consensus, we must first examine what challenges it overcomes. After all, as Paxos’s own creator once wrote,

[Paxos] is among the simplest and most obvious of distributed algorithms. … [T]his consensus algorithm follows almost unavoidably from the properties we want it to satisfy.

Paxos Made Simple, Lamport ‘01

A natural first question is: what problem is there even to solve? People don’t seem to have much trouble with consensus: otherwise much of society wouldn’t function. If people have solved consensus, can’t we just make computers do whatever we’re doing?

Consensus is harder for computers because of the way we designed the Internet Protocol (IP), which underpins nearly all modern computer networks. In particular, IP makes a couple of key omissions:

  1. If one node sends multiple packets to another node, IP does not require both packets to be sent along the same path.

  2. In the event a router is overloaded, IP allows it to simply ignore new incoming packets, without notifying anyone.

These omissions in the IP specification are purposeful: the flexibility they provide eases the work of bringing up IP on existing computer networks. That was particularly important to IP during its early days, as it was originally designed to link together disparate networks into a single grand unified network, which we today know as the Internet.

Nonetheless, these properties of IP make it hard to implement consensus, even for human beings. To see why, let’s consider a famous thought experiment called the Two Generals’ Problem:

Imagine two ancient armies sieging a city. Both armies are led by generals; let’s call them Alice and Bob. Because the city is heavily fortified, Alice and Bob can only take the city of they attack together. Thus Alice and Bob need to agree on when to mount their attack.

The two armies are stationed on opposite sides of the city, so Alice and Bob can only communicate via written messages delivered by couriers. The terrain is dangerous, however, so there’s a chance any courier can be delayed or captured, before or after delivering their message.

To peek past the metaphor for a moment, Alice and Bob are like network nodes. They need to reach consensus for a particular variable – i.e. the time to mount the attack. The couriers are like packets on the network: they can be delayed or altogether prevented from reaching their destination. Like network nodes and their packets, Alice and Bob can only communicate using couriers. If the sender expects a response but never gets one, there’s no way to tell whether or not the message was actually delivered.

What would you do in this situation? Most obvious approaches don’t work. For example, say Alice sends Bob a message directing him to attack at dawn. If Alice receives a reply from Bob acknowledging, then all is well. But if Alice never hears back from Bob, what should she do?

  • If Alice’s courier was captured before delivering the message, Bob doesn’t know when to attack. So Alice should not attack at dawn, as she would be attacking alone.

  • If Alice’s courier was captured after delivering the message, Bob thinks Alice is attacking at dawn. So Alice should attack at dawn; otherwise, Bob would be attacking alone.

Now Alice is stuck. To decide what to do, she needs to know whether Bob got the message, but she doesn’t have a reliable way to figure out whether he did. She can try sending more couriers, but the same thing can happen to them too. So we reach an impasse.

In the next section, we’ll see how Paxos sidesteps this issue. But before moving on, this would be a good time to pause and consider how you might try to solve this problem.

The Core Negotiation Algorithm

In any distributed consensus algorithm, we’re going to start with several candidate values and then whittle them down to a single value all nodes agree upon. Inevitably that will require some kind of “negotiation” process, by which a node abandons its own candidate value in favor of some other node’s value. Paxos defines such a negotiation protocol.

The Two Generals’ Problem tells us that, when a node ‘wins’ a negotiation, our consensus algorithm must not require it to find out whether it won. Otherwise, if the winner did wait for a final acknowledgement from the loser and that packet was dropped by the network, the winner would get stuck just like Alice. So we conclude the winner must actually move on without knowing the outcome of the negotiation.

By applying this principle to every interaction in the algorithm, we find:

In distributed consensus, it must be possible for every node in the system to reach consensus without any single node knowing consensus has been reached.

It might sound magical, but this is precisely what Paxos’s negotiation algorithm does. This is a good time to stop and think how you might design an algorithm of your own to do this. If that sounds daunting, don’t worry: you’re not the first to think so. In fact, Paxos itself was discovered out of an attempt to prove such a consensus algorithm could not exist. (Instead of an impossibility proof, Leslie Lamport ended up with a viable algorithm, which he dubbed Paxos.)

Ready? Then let’s see how Paxos’s negotiation algorithm works:

We will employ two types of nodes to participate in the algorithm: negotiators and storage nodes. Negotiators each have a candidate value; storage nodes each have a consensus variable. Negotiators negotiate with each other indirectly, by changing the values the storage nodes store. Consensus is reached when all storage nodes store the same value.

The key question is how negotiators negotiate. If every negotiator just repeatedly broadcasted its candidate value to all storage nodes in a loop, the network clearly would never reach consensus. Each storage node would be constantly switching back and forth between different negotiators’ candidate values. Even if all storage nodes happened to agree for a time, eventually some negotiator would come back in and change everything all over again.

So instead, Paxos makes negotiators back off as soon as they discover another negotiator is winning. Thus when a winner starts to emerge, all other negotiators immediately fall in line to help it succeed. This process of negotiation is cordial indeed :-)

The negotiation algorithm runs in a loop. Each iteration is called a round. During each round, each negotiator runs the following algorithm:

Query each storage node for its current value, then wait for a majority of the storage nodes to respond with their values.

Select the most recent of the values returned. If all values were null, select this negotiator’s candidate value instead.

Assign the selected value to all storage nodes.

More explicitly, this means each negotiator will:

Send requests to all storage nodes, asking each for (a) the current value of its consensus variable, and (b) which round it was last updated.

Wait for a majority of the storage nodes to reply. So if there are $N$ storage nodes, wait for $\frac{N}{2} + 1$ replies.

Use the replies to select a value:

  • If some replies had a non-null value, find the reply with the most recent round number, and select that reply’s value.
  • Else (in case all replies have null values), select this negotiator’s candidate value.

Finally, broadcast an update command to all storage nodes, telling each to set its consensus variable to the value we just selected. (This means all storage nodes, including ones that did not reply to the query we sent at the beginning of the round.)

Then the round is over; the negotiator proceeds to the next round and repeats these steps. Note that the negotiator does not receive acknowledgements from the storage nodes after sending update commands; it just proceeds to the next round.

This algorithm is designed for an interesting property: once a majority of the storage nodes have adopted the same value, the negotiation is over. We can prove that from that point onward, every negotiator always selects the value which the majority agrees upon. Thus, once a majority is reached, every negotiator helps the majority value propagate further, and the system converges.

For the rest of this discussion we need to name this property – let’s call it majority convergence. Now we’re getting into the fancy-sounding terminology!

To see why majority convergence works, consider an example network containing 1 negotiator and 7 storage nodes. Imagine we just completed round #1, during which 4 of those storage nodes adopted the same value. The other 3 somehow didn’t get the round #1 “update” command, so their consensus variable instances are still null. Our network looks like this:

Storage Node Value Last Update
A null null
B null null
C null null
D “value” Round 1
E “value” Round 1
F “value” Round 1
G “value” Round 1

Now imagine we’re starting round #2. Per the negotiation algorithm, the negotiator will query all 7 storage nodes for their current values, then wait for a majority (4 of them) to reply. Looking at the example above, it should be apparent that of those 4 replies, at least 1 will come from a node that was updated during round #1.

Say the negotiator receives these 4 replies:

Storage Node A: Value: <nil>   Last update: <never>
Storage Node B: Value: <nil>   Last update: <never>
Storage Node C: Value: <nil>   Last update: <never>
Storage Node D: Value: "value" Last update: Round #1

According to the negotiation algorithm, the negotiator sees that it has at least one reply with a non-null value, and must therefore choose the most recent of them. In this example, that’s storage node D’s reply ("value"). Thus, as we predicted, the negotiator propagates "value" in an update command broadcasted to all storage nodes. This satisifes the convergence property for round #2.

You should be able to convince yourself that it doesn’t matter which 4 replies the negotiator receives; no matter what, once the network is in this state the negotiator is guaranteed to broadcast "value" on round #2. Feel free to try it out if you’re not convinced.

Things won’t be any different on round #3. Say after round #2, only a few storage nodes get the update command from the negotiator, so the system lands in the following state:

Storage Node Value Last Update
A null null
B “value” Round 2
C “value” Round 2
D “value” Round 2
E “value” Round 1
F “value” Round 1
G “value” Round 1

Once again, the negotiator will ask all storage nodes for their current state, and wait for at least 4 to reply. There is now only 1 storage node which hasn’t been set to "value", so the other 3 replies must come from nodes which were updated during round #1 or #2. So just like in round #2, in round #3 the negotiator will see "value" is the most recent existing value, so it will broadcast "value" to all storage nodes. Thus the majority convergence property is upheld.

We can repeat this analysis for any round, to show the majortiy convergence property will always hold. If you are so inclined, you can use this analysis to build a formal proof, by induction, this algorithm implements the property.

Multiple Negotiators

We’re not out of the woods yet!

So far we have only considered networks with one negotiator. While one negotiator makes analysis easy, it isn’t very interesting in practice: if we were happy deploying a production system with just one negotiator, we could design the algorithm so the negotiator just repeatedly broadcasts its candidate value to all storage nodes, forever. There’d be no reason to go through the trouble of requesting data from the storage nodes and using the responses to select a value.

So let’s consider a network with two negotiators. Let’s call our two negotiators Alice and Bob, and let’s keep the 7 storage nodes from before.

Consider the following execution:

  1. Alice and Bob each query all storage nodes
  2. Alice and Bob each wait for a majority to reply
  3. Alice and Bob each receive 4 responses with value=null
  4. Alice broadcasts an update with value=Alice's value
  5. All storage store Alice's value in the consensus variable

Meanwhile, let’s say Bob is having some problem that prevents him from making progress. Maybe his CPU is under high load due to another process on the machine, or say he has rebooted to install an update, or maybe a router between him and the network has a long queue of packets to get through before it can deliver packets to or from Bob. Or maybe it’s our fault, and Bob has a bug :-)

It’s perfectly fine for Bob to be out of the picture for a while; while he’s busy, Alice runs the network herself and guides it to reach consensus on her value.

But consider what happens when Bob finally gets unstuck. He still has those replies from step #3 of the execution above, and even though we know those replies are stale, Bob does not. Seeing all the replies he received are null, Bob selects his candidate value (Bob's value) in step #4. Then in step #5, he broadcasts an update with value=Bob's value to all storage nodes. Whichever storage nodes receive that broadcast promptly accept it, thereby backtracking on a previous consensus.


We can’t have our network abandoning the value it reached conensus on after consensus was reached. This is especially true if Bob had been offline for a long time: in the meantime, Alice was running the network, and was probably accepting customer data. So Bob coming along and backtracking the state of the network probably caused permanent loss of that data.

We could try to write this off as an uncommon failure or something we don’t handle, but at scale all rare problems become common. For example we could say Bob’s failure was literally “one in a million” (happens once every 1,000,000 rounds), but if we run one round of Paxos every second, then Bob will fail this way every 11 days. If you built a distributed database that lost new data about once every two weeks, you wouldn’t have customers for very long :-)

So if we accept this is a problem that needs to be fixed, how do we fix it?

We can’t prevent Bob from going offline, or having bugs. (If you have ways to make IP networks reliable AND prevent software from having bugs, stop reading this post and go get rich of your ideas!) If we accept sometimes Bob will go offline for a while, we need to design our algorithm so Bob cannot roll back the system state when he returns.

In Paxos, we do this by extracting a promise from the storage nodes: at the start of each round, each negotiator tells each storage node the number of the round it is starting. Upon learning this, the storage node promises not to accept update commands for previous rounds. This fixes the case where Bob goes offline and comes back online later, because while Bob was offline Alice was able to extract newer promises from the storage nodes. When Bob comes back, his update command will be for some old round number that storage nodes have already promised to ignore. So Bob’s stale update command has no effect on the network. During later rounds, Bob will see the effects of Alice’s update and catch up with the rest of the network.

To keep things simple, we can work promises into our existing algorithm without passing any additional messages. That gives us the following two algorithms:

For negotiators:

Run a loop consisting of rounds. In each round, do the following:

Send a promise command containing the current round number to all storage nodes. The promise command doubles as a request for (a) the current value of the storage node’s consensus variable, and (b) which round it was last updated.

Wait for a majority of the storage nodes to reply. So if there are $N$ storage nodes, wait for $\frac{N}{2} + 1$ replies.

Use the replies to select a value:

  • If some replies had a non-null value, find the reply with the most recent round number, and select that reply’s value.
  • Else (in case all replies have null values), select this negotiator’s candidate value.

Finally, broadcast an update command to all storage nodes, telling each to set its consensus variable to the value we just selected.

For storage nodes:

On start, allocate local storage for:

  • var: an instance of the consensus variable
  • lastUpdate: the round number var was last changed
  • promise: the highest promised round number

Upon receiving a promise command from a negotiator, examine its round number. If the command is older than this.promise, drop the command. Otherwise, update this.promise to the command’s round number, and send a reply containing var and lastUpdate.

Upon receiving an update command from a negotiator, examine its round number. If the command is older than this.promise, drop the command. Otherwise, update this.promise and this.lastUpdate to the command’s round number, and update this.var to the command’s value.

In an example network with a single negotiator and a single storage node, a successful execution of both algorithms might look like this:

Both nodes come online. The negotiator chooses its candidate value (we don’t care how) The storage node initializes its local variables.

The negotiator sends Command: Promise, Round: 1 to the storage node. The storage node receives this command.

On the storage node, since this.promise is 0 and command.round is 1, it decides not to drop this promise command.

The storage node sets this.promise := 1

The storage node sends Reply: Value: <null>, LastUpdate: <never>. The negotiator receives this reply.

The negotiator now has 1 of 1 replies, which is a majority, so it may now proceed with the rest of the round.

The negotiator examines its replies and finds all have Value: <null>, meaning no storage node has a value yet. So the negotiator selects its own candidate value.

The negotiator sends Command: Update, Round: 1, Value: Example. The storage node receives the command.

On the storage node, since this.promise is 1 and command.round is also 1, it decides not to drop this promise command.

The storage node sets this.promise := 1, this.lastUpdate := 1, and this.val := "Example"

Meanwhile, the negotiator has progressed to the next round, and has probably already started sending out the next set of promise commands.

As an exercise, try spelling out the next round of this execution. Then try adding more storage nodes. Then try adding more negotiators. You should find that, once you get a majority, there’s never a case where any storage node updates to any value except the majority value. If you think you’ve found such a case, re-read the algorithms above closely :-)

Recap and Next Steps

Now we have the full version of Paxos’s core negotiation algorithm. It satisifes the majority convergence property:

Once a majority of the storage nodes have adopted the same value, every negotiator always opts to broadcast that same value, propagating it further.

This works because:

  • The negotiators’ value-selection rule ensures all subsequent rounds propagate the same value

  • The storage nodes’ promises ensure the system can never execute previous rounds

Even so, we don’t yet have a full distributed consensus algorithm. The majority convergence property doesn’t guarantee consensus; it only guarantees consensus once a majority is reached. Actually reaching a majority in the first place is up to the consensus algorithm, and we have yet to see how to do that.

We’ll cover all of that and more later in the series. Coming up next, we’ll depart from our metaphors and terminology and rebuild them in a formal definition, using the standard terminology from the Paxos papers.

To continue this discussion, head on over to: Paxos II: Formalized


After re-examining the flow of the posts, now I’m thinking we should finish building the basic algorithm before moving on. The next section can cover synod and beyond.