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Consistency Models for Data-Intensive Applications

March 22, 2023



Consistency models are like friendly referees that keep your data in harmony across distributed systems. They define the expected behavior of a distributed system in terms of data access, update propagation, and synchronization. Different consistency models offer various trade-offs between data consistency, availability, and system performance. In this blog post, we’re covering the four most common consistency models: strong consistency, eventual consistency, read-your-writes consistency, and monotonic reads consistency. Choosing the right model for your application depends on your specific requirements and constraints. By understanding these models and their trade-offs, you can make informed decisions about system architecture, data storage mechanisms, and synchronization techniques to build robust data-intensive applications.

Why are Consistency Models important?

Imagine you and a friend are working on a shared shopping list on your phones. You're both adding and crossing off items in real-time while wandering around the store. To make sure you both know what's still needed, it's important that your list stays in sync and you both see the most recent version. Without any rules to keep your list consistent, you could end up with duplicate items, missing items, or just a messy shopping experience. This is pretty much what consistency models do for data-intensive applications. They're like the friendly referees that keep your data in harmony, so everyone sees the same, up-to-date information.

In our modern, data-driven world, building data-intensive applications is more important than ever. And using consistency models is essential to keep your data on a straight and narrow path, avoid mix-ups, and ensure that data is always available across distributed systems. In this blog post, we'll dive into various consistency models in an easy and digestible way. We'll give you real-life examples and wrap up with some tips on how to pick the best model for your application based on its unique needs. So, let's jump in! 

Using consistency models to balance consistency and availability

What are Consistency Models?

Consistency models are formal specifications that define the expected behavior of a distributed system in terms of data access, update propagation, and synchronization. They establish a set of properties and guarantees that dictate how the system should handle concurrent read and write operations while maintaining a coherent and predictable view of the data across multiple nodes. By doing so, consistency models allow developers to reason about the trade-offs between data consistency, availability, and system performance, as well as the implications of these trade-offs on the correctness and reliability of the application.

In distributed systems, consistency models are crucial for addressing challenges such as data replication, fault tolerance, and network latency. They provide a foundation for understanding and analyzing the behavior of various system components, such as storage systems, caching mechanisms, and communication protocols, in the presence of concurrent operations and potential failures. 

There are numerous consistency models, each with its own set of guarantees and trade-offs. These models differ in their assumptions about the system, the constraints they impose on data access and updates, and the level of consistency they provide to the users. 

A deep understanding of consistency models is essential if you’re planning on designing and implementing robust data-intensive applications, as it allows you to make informed choices about the system architecture, data storage mechanisms, and synchronization techniques that best suit their application's specific requirements and constraints. In the following sections, we will explore 4 of the most commonly used consistency models, discuss their benefits and drawbacks, and provide real-world examples to illustrate their implementation.

Strong Consistency

The Strong Consistency model guarantees that all nodes in a distributed system see the same version of the data at the same time. This means that once a write operation is completed, all subsequent read operations will return the updated value, regardless of the node from which the data is read.

However, the requirements of strong consistency often come at the cost of reduced system performance, increased latency, and limited scalability. In particular, achieving strong consistency in a distributed system may require extensive communication and synchronization between nodes, which can result in increased network overhead and reduced availability in the presence of failures or network partitions.

A typical implementation of strong consistency is using a relational database with transactions, as shown in the following SQL example:

This code snippet demonstrates an example of a transaction in SQL, which ensures strong consistency by applying multiple updates atomically and maintaining data correctness.

When the transaction is committed, the SQL database ensures that all changes made within the transaction are applied together, and no intermediate states are visible to other transactions or operations. This guarantees that all nodes see the same version of the data at the same time, providing the highest level of consistency.

Eventual Consistency

Eventual consistency is a weaker consistency model that prioritizes availability and scalability over strict consistency. Under this model, the system allows for temporary inconsistencies between nodes, with the expectation that these inconsistencies will be resolved eventually as updates propagate through the system. This means that different nodes may see different versions of the data for a short period of time, but they will all converge to the same value once all updates have been propagated.

This consistency is particularly well-suited for distributed systems that require high levels of availability, fault tolerance, and partition resilience. However, the applications must be designed to handle potential inconsistencies and conflicts between updates.

A common use case is a social media platform with a distributed architecture, where users can post status updates. When a user posts a new update, the application writes it to one server, and with eventual consistency, it may take some time for the update to propagate to all other servers. During this brief period, users connected to different servers may see different versions of the data. Eventually, once the update reaches all servers, all users will see the same data, including the new status update. The platform prioritizes availability and scalability over strict consistency, allowing continued interaction even when updates are still propagating.

Here’s an example of a typical implementation of eventual consistency:

This code snippet is an example of an update operation using MongoDB, a popular NoSQL database that often employs eventual consistency. The update operation is performed on a collection named myCollection in the MongoDB database.

In an eventual consistency model, this update operation may take some time to propagate across all nodes in the database cluster. During this propagation period, different nodes might temporarily have different versions of the data for the same document. However, once the update has been propagated to all nodes, they will eventually converge to the same version of the data. In this example, the status field for all documents named “Alice” will be set to “active.”

Read-your-writes Consistency

Read-your-writes consistency is a consistency model that ensures that once a write operation has been performed, any subsequent read operations by the same user or process will always return the updated value. This model is particularly useful for applications where data is frequently updated and read by the same user, such as collaborative editing tools.

Think of a collaborative document editing tool where multiple users can make changes to a document simultaneously. When a user makes an edit, the application ensures that any subsequent reads by that user display the updated content. However, other users may not immediately see the edit due to network latency or other factors.  

To implement read-your-writes consistency, systems often use techniques such as session-based caching, versioning, or write-through caches to guarantee that users always see their own updates, even if other nodes in the system have not yet received those updates. 

This code snippet demonstrates an example of implementing the read-your-writes consistency model using Flask, a web framework for Python, along with the Flask-Caching library for caching data.

It implements the model by using a cache layer between the application and the database. When a user requests data, the application first checks the cache to see if the data is already available. If it is, the cached data is returned, ensuring that the user sees their latest update. If the data is not in the cache, the application fetches it from the database, stores it in the cache, and then returns it to the user. By doing this, the application guarantees that a user will always see their own updates, even if other nodes in the system have not yet received those updates.

Monotonic Reads Consistency

Monotonic reads consistency is a consistency model that guarantees that if a user or process reads the latest version of a data item, all subsequent reads from that user or process will return at least the same version or a more recent version of the data. This model is particularly useful for applications that require a consistent view of the data over time, such as real-time monitoring systems or event processing applications.

To achieve monotonic reads consistency, systems may employ techniques like versioning, timestamp-based ordering, or vector clocks to ensure that users always receive a consistent and non-decreasing view of the data, even in the presence of concurrent updates and network latency.

Here's an example of how to use a timestamp to implement monotonic reads consistency in Java using the Cassandra database:

This code snippet demonstrates an example of implementing the monotonic reads consistency model using Java with the Apache Cassandra database. Cassandra is a highly scalable and distributed NoSQL database that often employs tunable consistency levels. 

By retrieving the timestamp value from the current row, the ‘previousTimestamp’ variable is continuously updated to represent the most recent timestamp. This ensures that subsequent reads will only retrieve rows with timestamps greater than the last observed timestamp.

It's important to note that the implementation of monotonic reads consistency in this example relies on the assumption that the timestamp column in the ‘myTable’ table accurately represents the order of updates, and that the database system (in this case, Apache Cassandra) is configured to provide the desired level of consistency.

Final Remarks

A thorough understanding of consistency models and their trade-offs is essential for designing and implementing effective data-intensive applications. Each consistency model offers different levels of consistency, availability, and performance, and it is crucial to choose the model that best suits your application's specific requirements and constraints.

By carefully evaluating your application's read and write patterns, data consistency and availability requirements, and system performance needs, you can select the most appropriate consistency model

To level up your skills and knowledge in building robust and scalable applications, don’t forget to check out the Shakudo platform. Shakudo acts as the operational system for your data stack, offering a variety of features and open-source tools to help you delve deeper into constructing data projects quickly and efficiently. Learn more about us or book a demo.

Sabrina Aquino

Sabrina is a creative Software Developer who has managed to create a huge community by sharing her personal experiences with technologies and products. A great problem solver, an above average Age of Empires II player and a mediocre Linux user. Sabrina is currently an undergraduate in Computer Engineering at UFRN (Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte).

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