Anant Jain

In Search of an Understandable Consensus Algorithm (Raft)

Paper Review


Raft is a consensus algorithm for managing a replicated log. It produces a result equivalent to (multi-)Paxos, and it is as efficient as Paxos, but its structure is different from Paxos; this makes Raft more understandable than Paxos and also provides a better foundation for building practical systems. In order to enhance understandability, Raft separates the key elements of consensus, such as leader election, log replication, and safety, and it enforces a stronger degree of coherency to reduce the number of states that must be considered. Results from a user study demonstrate that Raft is easier for students to learn than Paxos. Raft also includes a new mechanism for changing the cluster membership, which uses overlapping majorities to guarantee safety.


  • Raft separates the key elements of consensus, such as leader election, log replication, and safety, and it enforces a stronger degree of coherency to reduce the number of states that must be considered.

  • Unfortunately, Paxos is quite difficult to understand, in spite of numerous attempts to make it more approachable. Furthermore, its architecture requires complex changes to support practical systems. As a result, both system builders and students struggle with Paxos.

  • Our approach was unusual in that our primary goal was understandability.

  • In designing Raft we applied specific techniques to improve understandability, including decomposition (Raft separates leader election, log replication, and safety) and state space reduction (relative to Paxos, Raft reduces the degree of nondeterminism and the ways servers can be inconsistent with each other).

Replicated state machines

  • Consensus algorithms typically arise in the context of replicated state machines

  • Replicated state machines are used to solve a variety of fault tolerance problems in distributed systems. Single cluster leader, such as GFS, HDFS, and RAMCloud, typically use a separate replicated state machine to manage leader election and store configuration information that must survive leader crashes. Examples of replicated state machines include Chubby and ZooKeeper.

  • Each server stores a log containing a series of commands, which its state machine executes in order. Each log contains the same commands in the same order, so each state machine processes the same sequence of commands. Since the state machines are deterministic, each computes the same state and the same sequence of outputs.

  • The consensus module on a server receives commands from clients and adds them to its log. It communicates with the consensus modules on other servers to ensure that every log eventually contains the same requests in the same order, even if some servers fail.

  • Consensus algorithms for practical systems typically have the following properties: They ensure safety (never returning an incorrect result) under all non-Byzantine conditions, including network delays, partitions, and packet loss, duplication, and reordering. They are fully functional (available) as long as any majority of the servers are operational and can communicate with each other and with clients. They do not depend on timing to ensure the consistency of the logs: faulty clocks and extreme message delays can, at worst, cause availability problems.

What's wrong with Paxos?

  • We refer to this subset as single-decree Paxos. Paxos then combines multiple instances of this protocol to facilitate a series of decisions such as a log (multi-Paxos).

  • In an informal survey of attendees at NSDI 2012, we found few people who were comfortable with Paxos, even among seasoned researchers.

  • We hypothesize that Paxos’ opaqueness derives from its choice of the single-decree subset as its foundation.

  • We believe that the overall problem of reaching consensus on multiple decisions (i.e., a log instead of a single entry) can be decomposed in other ways that are more direct and obvious.

  • The second problem with Paxos is that it does not provide a good foundation for building practical implementations.

  • Furthermore, the Paxos architecture is a poor one for building practical systems; this is another consequence of the single-decree decomposition.

  • Another problem is that Paxos uses a symmetric peer-to-peer approach at its core (though it eventually suggests a weak form of leadership as a performance optimization). This makes sense in a simplified world where only one decision will be made, but few practical systems use this approach.

Designing for understandability

  • It must be possible to develop intuitions about the algorithm, so that system builders can make the extensions that are inevitable in real-world implementations.

  • The first technique is the well-known approach of problem decomposition.

  • In Raft we separated leader election, log replication, safety, and membership changes.

  • Our second approach was to simplify the state space by reducing the number of states to consider, making the system more coherent and eliminating nondeterminism where possible. Specifically, logs are not allowed to have holes, and Raft limits the ways in which logs can become inconsistent with each other.

  • In particular, randomized approaches introduce nondeterminism, but they tend to reduce the state space by handling all possible choices in a similar fashion (“choose any; it doesn’t matter”). We used randomization to simplify the Raft leader election algorithm.

The Raft consensus algorithm

  • The leader accepts log entries from clients, replicates them on other servers, and tells servers when it is safe to apply log entries to their state machines.

  • At any given time each server is in one of three states: leader, follower, or candidate.

  • Followers are passive: they issue no requests on their own but simply respond to requests from leaders and candidates.

  • Terms, which act as a logical clock, are of arbitrary length.

  • If a server receives a request with a stale term number, it rejects the request.

  • The consensus algorithm requires only two types of RPCs. RequestVote RPCs are initiated by candidates during elections, and AppendEntries RPCs are initiated by leaders to replicate log entries and to provide a form of heartbeat. Servers retry RPCs if they do not receive a response in a timely manner, and they issue RPCs in parallel for best performance.

  • Leader election: If a follower receives no communication over a period of time called the election timeout, then it assumes there is no viable leader and begins an election to choose a new leader.

  • A candidate continues in this state until one of three things happens: (a) it wins the election, (b) another server establishes itself as leader, or (c) a period of time goes by with no winner.

  • Each server will vote for at most one candidate in a given term, on a first-come-first-served basis.

  • While waiting for votes, a candidate may receive an AppendEntries RPC from another server claiming to be leader. If the leader’s term (included in its RPC) is at least as large as the candidate’s current term, then the candidate recognizes the leader as legitimate and returns to follower state.

  • However, without extra measures split votes could repeat indefinitely. Raft uses randomized election timeouts to ensure that split votes are rare and that they are resolved quickly. To prevent split votes in the first place, election timeouts are chosen randomly from a fixed interval (e.g., 150–300ms).

  • Log replication: When the entry has been safely replicated, the leader applies the entry to its state machine and returns the result of that execution to the client. If followers crash or run slowly, or if network packets are lost, the leader retries AppendEntries RPCs indefinitely (even after it has responded to the client) until all followers eventually store all log entries.

  • The leader decides when it is safe to apply a log entry to the state machines; such an entry is called committed. Raft guarantees that committed entries are durable and will eventually be executed by all of the available state machines. A log entry is committed once the leader that created the entry has replicated it on a majority of the servers.

  • The leader keeps track of the highest index it knows to be committed, and it includes that index in future AppendEntries RPCs (including heartbeats) so that the other servers eventually find out. Once a follower learns that a log entry is committed, it applies the entry to its local state machine (in log order).

  • When sending an AppendEntries RPC, the leader includes the index and term of the entry in its log that immediately precedes the new entries. If the follower does not find an entry in its log with the same index and term, then it refuses the new entries.

  • However, leader crashes can leave the logs inconsistent (the old leader may not have fully replicated all of the entries in its log). These inconsistencies can compound over a series of leader and follower crashes.

  • In Raft, the leader handles inconsistencies by forcing the followers’ logs to duplicate its own. This means that conflicting entries in follower logs will be overwritten with entries from the leader’s log.

  • To bring a follower’s log into consistency with its own, the leader must find the latest log entry where the two logs agree, delete any entries in the follower’s log after that point, and send the follower all of the leader’s entries after that point.

  • The leader maintains a nextIndex for each follower, which is the index of the next log entry the leader will send to that follower. When a leader first comes to power, it initializes all nextIndex values to the index just after the last one in its log.

  • The protocol can be optimized to reduce the number of rejected AppendEntries RPCs.

  • A leader never overwrites or deletes entries in its own log.

  • Election restriction: Raft uses a simpler approach where it guarantees that all the committed entries from previous terms are present on each new leader from the moment of its election, without the need to transfer those entries to the leader. This means that log entries only flow in one direction, from leaders to followers, and leaders never overwrite existing entries in their logs. Raft uses the voting process to prevent a candidate from winning an election unless its log contains all committed entries. The RequestVote RPC implements this restriction: the RPC includes information about the candidate’s log, and the voter denies its vote if its own log is more up-to-date than that of the candidate.

  • Follower and candidate crashes: Raft RPCs are idempotent, so this causes no harm.

  • Timing and availability: If message exchanges take longer than the typical time between server crashes, candidates will not stay up long enough to win an election; without a steady leader, Raft cannot make progress. Raft will be able to elect and maintain a steady leader as long as the system satisfies the following timing requirement:

broadcastTime ≪ electionTimeout ≪ MTBF
  • The broadcast time should be an order of magnitude less than the election timeout so that leaders can reliably send the heartbeat messages required to keep followers from starting elections

  • The election timeout should be a few orders of magnitude less than MTBF so that the system makes steady progress

  • The broadcast time and MTBF are properties of the underlying system, while the election timeout is something we must choose. Raft’s RPCs typically require the recipient to persist information to stable storage, so the broadcast time may range from 0.5ms to 20ms, depending on storage technology.

  • As a result, the election timeout is likely to be somewhere between 10ms and 500ms. Typical server MTBFs are several months or more, which easily satisfies the timing requirement.

Cluster membership changes

  • Although this can be done by taking the entire cluster off-line, updating configuration files, and then restarting the cluster, this would leave the cluster unavailable during the changeover.

  • For the configuration change mechanism to be safe, there must be no point during the transition where it is possible for two leaders to be elected for the same term. Unfortunately, any approach where servers switch directly from the old configuration to the new configuration is unsafe. It isn’t possible to atomically switch all of the servers at once, so the cluster can potentially split into two independent majorities during the transition.

  • In order to ensure safety, configuration changes must use a two-phase approach. In Raft the cluster first switches to a transitional configuration we call joint consensus; once the joint consensus has been committed, the system then transitions to the new configuration. The joint consensus combines both the old and new configurations.

  • Cluster configurations are stored and communicated using special entries in the replicated log.

  • Once a given server adds the new configuration entry to its log, it uses that configuration for all future decisions (a server always uses the latest configuration in its log, regardless of whether the entry is committed).

  • When the new configuration has been committed under the rules of Cnew, the old configuration is irrelevant and servers not in the new configuration can be shut down.

  • There are three more issues to address for reconfiguration. The first issue is that new servers may not initially store any log entries. In order to avoid availability gaps, Raft introduces an additional phase before the configuration change, in which the new servers join the cluster as non-voting members (the leader replicates log entries to them, but they are not considered for majorities). Once the new servers have caught up with the rest of the cluster, the reconfiguration can proceed as described above.

  • The second issue is that the cluster leader may not be part of the new configuration. This means that there will be a period of time (while it is committing Cnew) when the leader is managing a cluster that does not include itself; it replicates log entries but does not count itself in majorities.

  • The third issue is that removed servers (those not in Cnew) can disrupt the cluster. These servers will not receive heartbeats, so they will time out and start new elections. They will then send RequestVote RPCs with new term numbers, and this will cause the current leader to revert to follower state.

  • To prevent this problem, servers disregard RequestVote RPCs when they believe a current leader exists. Specifically, if a server receives a RequestVote RPC within the minimum election timeout of hearing from a current leader, it does not update its term or grant its vote.

  • This does not affect normal elections, where each server waits at least a minimum election timeout before starting an election. However, it helps avoid disruptions from removed servers: if a leader is able to get heartbeats to its cluster, then it will not be deposed by larger term numbers.

Implementation and evaluation

  • The Raft implementation contains roughly 2000 lines of C++ code, not including tests, comments, or blank lines.

  • TLA+ specification language: It is about 400 lines long and serves as the subject of the proof. It is also useful on its own for anyone implementing Raft. We have mechanically proven the Log Completeness Property using the TLA proof system.

  • It is also possible to further improve Raft’s performance. For example, it easily supports batching and pipelining requests for higher throughput and lower latency.

  • The smallest possible downtime was about half of the minimum election timeout. We recommend using a conservative election timeout such as 150–300ms; such timeouts are unlikely to cause unnecessary leader changes and will still provide good availability.

  • Oki and Liskov’s Viewstamped Replication (VR), an alternative approach to consensus developed around the same time as Paxos uses a leader-based approach with many similarities to Raft.


  • The greatest difference between Raft and Paxos is Raft’s strong leadership.

  • Paxos includes both a two-phase protocol for basic consensus and a separate mechanism for leader election. In contrast, Raft incorporates leader election directly into the consensus algorithm and uses it as the first of the two phases of consensus.

  • Raft has less mechanism that VR or ZooKeeper because it minimizes the functionality in non-leaders.

  • Raft has fewer message types than any other algorithm for consensus-based log replication that we are aware of.

  • In addition, VR and ZooKeeper are described in terms of transmitting entire logs during leader changes; additional message types will be required to optimize these mechanisms so that they are practical.

  • We chose the joint consensus approach for Raft because it leverages the rest of the consensus protocol, so that very little additional mechanism is required for membership changes

  • Unless developers have a deep understanding of the algorithm and can create intuitions about it, it will be difficult for them to retain its desirable properties in their implementation.

  • As the design progressed we found ourselves reusing a few techniques repeatedly, such as decomposing the problem and simplifying the state space.


Over the next few Saturdays, I'll be going through some of the foundational papers in Computer Science, and publishing my notes here. This is #34 in this series.