Make any algorithm lock-free with this one crazy trick

Lock-free algorithms often operate by having several versions of a data structure in use at one time. The general pattern is that you can prepare an update to a data structure, and then use a machine primitive to atomically install the update by changing a pointer. This means that all subsequent readers will follow the pointer to its new location – for example, to a new node in a linked-list – but this pattern can’t do anything about readers that have already followed the old pointer value, and are traversing the previous version of the data structure.

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Distributed systems theory for the distributed systems engineer

Gwen Shapira, SA superstar and now full-time engineer at Cloudera, asked a question on Twitter that got me thinking.

My response of old might have been “well, here’s the FLP paper, and here’s the Paxos paper, and here’s the Byzantine generals paper…”, and I’d have prescribed a laundry list of primary source material which would have taken at least six months to get through if you rushed. But I’ve come to thinking that recommending a ton of theoretical papers is often precisely the wrong way to go about learning distributed systems theory (unless you are in a PhD program). Papers are usually deep, usually complex, and require both serious study, and usually significant experience to glean their important contributions and to place them in context. What good is requiring that level of expertise of engineers?

And yet, unfortunately, there’s a paucity of good ‘bridge’ material that summarises, distills and contextualises the important results and ideas in distributed systems theory; particularly material that does so without condescending. Considering that gap lead me to another interesting question:

What distributed systems theory should a distributed systems engineer know?

A little theory is, in this case, not such a dangerous thing. So I tried to come up with a list of what I consider the basic concepts that are applicable to my every-day job as a distributed systems engineer; what I consider ‘table stakes’ for distributed systems engineers competent enough to design a new system. Let me know what you think I missed!

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The Elephant was a Trojan Horse: On the Death of Map-Reduce at Google

Note: this is a personal blog post, and doesn’t reflect the views of my employers at Cloudera

Map-Reduce is on its way out. But we shouldn’t measure its importance in the number of bytes it crunches, but the fundamental shift in data processing architectures it helped popularise.

This morning, at their I/O Conference, Google revealed that they’re not using Map-Reduce to process data internally at all any more.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The writing has been on the wall for Map-Reduce for some time. The truth is that Map-Reduce as a processing paradigm continues to be severely restrictive, and is no more than a subset of richer processing systems.

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Paper notes: MemC3, a better Memcached

MemC3: Compact and Concurrent MemCache with Dumber Caching and Smarter Hashing


Fan and Andersen, NSDI 2013

The big idea: This is a paper about choosing your data structures and algorithms carefully. By paying careful attention to the workload and functional requirements, the authors reimplement memcached to achieve a) better concurrency and b) better space efficiency. Specifically, they introduce a variant of cuckoo hashing that is highly amenable to concurrent workloads, and integrate the venerable CLOCK cache eviction algorithm with the hash table for space-efficient approximate LRU.

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Paper notes: Anti-Caching

Anti-Caching: A New Approach to Database Management System Architecture


DeBrabant et. al., VLDB 2013

The big idea: Traditional databases typically rely on the OS page cache to bring hot tuples into memory and keep them there. This suffers from a number of problems:

  • No control over granularity of caching or eviction (so keeping a tuple in memory might keep all the tuples in its page as well, even though there’s not necessarily a usage correlation between them)
  • No control over when fetches are performed (fetches are typically slow, and transactions may hold onto locks or latches while the access is being made)
  • Duplication of resources – tuples can occupy both disk blocks and memory pages.

Instead, this paper proposes a DB-controlled mechanism for tuple caching and eviction called anti-caching. The idea is that the DB chooses exactly what to evict and when. The ‘anti’ aspect arises when you consider that the disk is now the place to store recently unused tuples, not the source of ground truth for the entire database. The disk, in fact, can’t easily store the tuples that are in memory because, as we shall see, the anti-caching mechanism may choose to write tuples into arbitrary blocks upon eviction, which will not correspond to the pages that are already on disk, giving rise to a complex rewrite / compaction problem on eviction. The benefits are realised partly in IO: only tuples that are cold are evicted (rather than those that are unluckily sitting in the same page), and fetches and evictions may be batched.

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