Programming Replicated, Distributed Systems

Concurrency makes everything hard

For many programmers, writing efficient concurrent datastructures is an exercise in scouring github and hoping that code quality and number of “stars” really do correlate. When it comes time to write your own concurrent datastructures, queue many sleepless nights spent worrying about whether this or that particular concurrency primitive is fast enough, or correct enough, to make the code work at the speeds you need. If there is any solace felt, it comes from the once-safe assumption of strong consistency; that, no matter how many races we might have missed, at least the result of the program will be some valid interleaving of concurrent threads.

This assumption is wrong.

Because hardware isn’t as helpful as it once was. Modern processor and language memory models reduce the available consistency assumptions so much that it’s possible to read values which were never written, justify your own reads, and arbitrarily miss updates from concurrent threads. Simple patterns, like initializing an object and then handing it off directly to a newly-spawned thread, are simply not guaranteed to work.

And distribution makes it harder.

In a distributed setting, the costs of using stronger consistency models grow exponentially with the number of replicas in your system (essential for fault-tolerance) and the distance between these replicas (essential for global performance and availability). While there are a lot of good people doing excellent work to try and bring strongly-consistent shared data to a geo-distributed setting, the fundamentals are still not in our favor. And, far more urgently, major parts of the web have already moved to weaker consistency models.

We’re going to fix that. Or at least help.

This project aims to bring the power of programming languages to bear on the world of weakly-consistent distributed programming. Our secret sauce is information flow, a key technology borrowed from the security literature and applied with new life here. Using information flow, it’s possible to ensure that weakly-consistent observations can never unduly influence strongly-consistent computations; it makes the points of crossover explicit, statically requiring that programmers upgrade the consistency of their observations when appropriate.

This technique is powerful; for more details, see our paper from PLDI 2018.

And we’re not done yet.

Our new project Gallifrey continues this legacy with a new programming language for the distributed world. Ready more at its project page!

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Mae Milano
PhD, Programming Languages and Systems

Posts

My dissertation is now available here

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Presenting MixT, our language for sanely mixing distinct consistency levels within a single transaction. Now in Tech Report form!

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Publications

Despite decades of research and practical experience, developers have few tools for programming reliable distributed applications without resorting to expensive coordination techniques. Conflict-free replicated datatypes (CRDTs) are a promising line of work that enable coordination-free replication and offer certain eventual consistency guarantees in a relatively simple object-oriented API. Yet CRDT guarantees extend only to data updates; observations of CRDT state are unconstrained and unsafe. We propose an agenda that embraces the simplicity of CRDTs, but provides richer, more uniform guarantees. We extend CRDTs with a query model that reasons about which queries are safe without coordination by applying monotonicity results from the CALM Theorem, and lay out a larger agenda for developing CRDT data stores that let developers safely and efficiently interact with replicated application state.
Proceedings of the VLDB endowment, Vol. 16 No. 4, 2023

Conflict-free replicated data types (CRDTs) are a promising tool for designing scalable, coordination-free distributed systems. However, constructing correct CRDTs is difficult, posing a challenge for even seasoned developers. As a result, CRDT development is still largely the domain of academics, with new designs often awaiting peer review and a manual proof of correctness. In this paper, we present Katara, a program synthesis-based system that takes sequential data type implementations and automatically synthesizes verified CRDT designs from them. Key to this process is a new formal definition of CRDT correctness that combines a reference sequential type with a lightweight ordering constraint that resolves conflicts between noncommutative operations. Our process follows the tradition of work in verified lifting, including an encoding of correctness into SMT logic using synthesized inductive invariants and hand-crafted grammars for the CRDT state and runtime. Katara is able to automatically synthesize CRDTs for a wide variety of scenarios, from reproducing classic CRDTs to synthesizing novel designs based on specifications in existing literature. Crucially, our synthesized CRDTs are fully, automatically verified, eliminating entire classes of common errors and reducing the process of producing a new CRDT from a painstaking paper proof of correctness to a lightweight specification.
Proceedings of the ACM in Programming Languages, Vol. 6, No. OOPSLA2, Article 173, 2022

Nearly twenty years after the launch of AWS, it remains difficult for most developers to harness the enormous potential of the cloud. In this paper we lay out an agenda for a new generation of cloud programming research aimed at bringing research ideas to programmers in an evolutionary fashion. Key to our approach is a separation of distributed programs into a PACT of four facets: Program semantics, Availablity, Consistency and Targets of optimization. We propose to migrate developers gradually to PACT programming by lifting familiar code into our more declarative level of abstraction. We then propose a multi-stage compiler that emits humanreadable code at each stage that can be hand-tuned by developers seeking more control. Our agenda raises numerous research challenges across multiple areas including language design, query optimization, transactions, distributed consistency, compilers and program synthesis.
The 11th Conference on Innovative Data Systems Research (CIDR ‘21), 2021

Programming efficient distributed, concurrent systems requires new abstractions that go beyond traditional sequential programming. But programmers already have trouble getting sequential code right, so simplicity is essential. The core problem is that low-latency, high-availability access to data requires replication of mutable state. Keeping replicas fully consistent is expensive, so the question is how to expose asynchronously replicated objects to programmers in a way that allows them to reason simply about their code. We propose an answer to this question in our ongoing work designing a new language, Gallifrey, which provides orthogonal replication through restrictions with merge strategies, contingencies for conflicts arising from concurrency, and branches, a novel concurrency control construct inspired by version control, to contain provisional behavior.
3rd Summit on Advances in Programming Languages (SNAPL 2019), 2019

Programming concurrent, distributed systems is hard—especially when these systems mutate shared, persistent state replicated at geographic scale. To enable high availability and scalability, a new class of weakly consistent data stores has become popular. However, some data needs strong consistency. To manipulate both weakly and strongly consistent data in a single transaction, we introduce a new abstraction: mixed-consistency transactions, embodied in a new embedded language, MixT. Programmers explicitly associate consistency models with remote storage sites; each atomic, isolated transaction can access a mixture of data with different consistency models. Compile-time information-flow checking, applied to consistency models, ensures that these models are mixed safely and enables the compiler to automatically partition transactions. New run-time mechanisms ensure that consistency models can also be mixed safely, even when the data used by a transaction resides on separate, mutually unaware stores. Performance measurements show that despite their stronger guarantees, mixed-consistency transactions retain much of the speed of weak consistency, significantly outperforming traditional serializable transactions.
Proceedings of the 39th ACM SIGPLAN Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation, 2018

Talks

Presenting MixT, a domain-specific programming language for mixed-consistency transactions
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