Consensus with lossy links: Establishing a TCP connection

After a hiatus for the Christmas break, during which I travelled to the States, had a job interview, went to Vegas, became an uncle and got a cold, I’m back on a more regular posting schedule now. And I’ve got lots to post about.

Before I talk about other theoretical consensus protocols such as Paxos, I want to illustrate a consensus protocol running in the wild, and show how different modelling assumptions can lead to protocols that are rather different to the *PC variants we’ve looked at in the last couple of posts. We’ve been considering situations like database commit, where many participants agree en-masse to the result of a transaction. We’ve assumed that all participants may communicate reliably, without fear of packet loss (or if the packets are lost then the situation is the same as if the host that had sent the packet had failed).

The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) gives us at least some approximation to a reliable link due to the use of sequence numbers and acknowledgements. However before we can use TCP both hosts involved in a point to point communication have to establish a connection: that is, they must both agree that a connection is established. This is a two-party consensus problem. Neither party can rely on reliable transmission, and can instead only use the IP stack and below to negotiate a connection. IP does not give reliable transmission semantics to packets and works only on a best-effort principle. If the network is noisy or prone to outages then packets will be lost. How can we achieve consensus in this scenario?

Those who have been reading this blog as far back as my explanation of FLP impossibility will probably be thinking that this is a trick question. FLP impossibility shows that if there is an unbounded delay in the transmission of a packet (i.e. an asynchronous network model) then consensus is, in general, unsolvable. Lossy links can be regarded as delaying packet delivery infinitely – therefore it seems very likely that consensus is unsolvable with packet loss.

In fact, this is completely true. Consensus with arbitrary packet loss is an unsolvable problem, even in an otherwise synchronous network. In this post I want to demonstrate the short and intuitive proof that this is the case, then show how this impossibility is avoided where possible in TCP connection establishment.

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