Notes on Raft, the consensus protocol

By Indradhanush Gupta Comment

During my RC batch, I read through the Raft paper, In Search of an Understandable Consensus Algorithm while taking a lot of notes. Raft is a distributed consensus protocol. All that culminated in me writing my own implementation in Erlang. The project is a work in progress and is available here on Github.

Following are my notes from reading the paper. Some points might repeat themselves, but that is okay.


  • Each node has three possible states: follower, candidate or leader.
  • A follower is a node that accepts writes from a leader.
  • A candidate has the same responsibilities of a follower but is also a potential leader.
  • A leader runs the cluster by serving requests from clients and sending updates to other nodes in the cluster.
  • An write requests from a client is known as a log entry. The collection of log entries is known as the log. Each node maintains its own log.
  • Strong leader - Log entries only flow from leader to other servers.
  • Leader election - Randomized timers to elect leaders.
  • Membership changes - Joint consensus is used.

Replicated State Machines (RSM)

  • State machines create identical copies on a cluster of servers.
  • Systems with a single leader (GFS, HDFS, RAMCloud) use a separate RSM for managing leader elections and storing configurations (Zookeeper).
  • A replicated log is used to build RSM.
  • Servers store a log of commands in order. This is the same log that is stored on each server. Thus the machines can remain consistent and arrive at the same state. This is possible since the state machines are deterministic.
  • The replicated log must remain consistent. This is the job of the consensus algorithm.

Consensus Algorithms

  • Each node receives commands that get added to the replicated log.
  • Each node talks to the other nodes to ensure that the log remains consistent (eventually) even if some nodes have failed.
  • When the commands have been replicated in the log, the state machine in each server runs the command in the log order.
  • The output of running the commands is returned to the server by the algorithm module.

Properties of systems using the consensus algorithm

  • Safety is ensured. Never returns an incorrect result under non-byzantine conditions.
  • The system remains functional as log as the majority of the servers are up. For \( N \) servers, at \( N/2 + 1 \) servers must remain up.
  • Servers fail if they,
    • stop.
    • cannot communicate with the other nodes or clients.
  • Servers do not depend on timing to ensure log consistency.
  • A command is consdered to e complete if the majority of the servers have responded. This means that the slower nodes do not impact the system’s (cluster) performance.

Raft consensus algorithm

  • It elects a leader as the first thing before everything else.
  • The leader has full responsibility to manage the replicated log.
  • Client sends log entries to the leader. The leader replicates it to the other servers.
  • The leader tells the server when it is safe to apply the log entires ot their state machines.
  • Leader decides the position fo a log entry without having to ask anyone else.
  • A leader can fail or get disconnected from other servers.
  • As a result the current term ends, a new one begins and a new leader is elected.

Three independent subproblems

  • Leader Election - Must elect on if the current leader has failed.
  • Log replication - The leader must accept entries from clients and replicate it to the servers. It should also force its decision on the servers.
  • State machine safety - If any server has applied a log entry to its state machine, then all the servers must also apply the same log entry for that log index.

Raft guarantees that the following properties are true at all times:

  • Election safety - There can only be one leader elected for a given term. A term is a phase between elections and is valid until a leader fails.
  • Leader Append-Only - A leader will never overwrite or delete entries. It can only append new entries to the log.
  • Log matching - If two logs contain an entry with the same index and term, they are identical for all the entries from the beginning and up to that index.
  • Leader completeness - If a log entry has been committed in a given term, then that particular entry will be present in the logs of the leaders for all subsequent terms.

Raft basics

  • Typically 5 servers are used.
  • A server can have on of the following states:
    • Leader: Handles all client requests. If a client sends a request to a follower, it forwards the request to the leader.
    • Follower: Passive. Only responds to the leader’s and candidate’s requests or forwards client requests to the leader.
    • Candidate: A potential leader.
  • Term - This is a sequentially increasing integer and exists for an arbitrary amount of time. Each term beings with an election and a leader is elected. Post which, the leader remains the “leader” for the rest of the term. If there is a tie in the election, the term ends with no leader and anew term begins.


                                  System starts
                         |          Candidates          |
                         |  C1    C2    C3    C4    C5  |
                                    Term starts (T1)
                               Leader Election begins
                         |            Nodes             |
                         |  F1    F2    L3    F4    F5  |
                                 Normal operation
                          (Accept client requests, update log,
                            apply log, respond to request)
                                Leader (L3) fails
                                   Term 1 ends
                                New Term starts (T2)
                               Leader Election begins
                         |            Nodes             |
                         |  C1    C2    --    C4    C5  |
                               Repeat Normal Operation
                            once leader has been elected

This does not consider a tie during a leader election.

  • A term is a logical clock.
  • Terms are not constant for all servers. Different servers may switch terms at different times.
  • Or a server may not participate in an election at all or may remain inactive throughout one or more terms as a whole.
  • Servers will store the current term number. The term number is exchanged whenever servers communicate.
  • If a server sees its term lower than another server, it updates to the maximum value, i.e. \( T = max(T1, T2) \)
  • If a leader discovers that its term is out of date, it will step down immediately and become a follower.
  • If a server receives a request with a stale term number, the request is rejected.

Leader Election

  • When a server starts up, it is in the follower state by default.
  • There are two kinds of RPC:
    • AppendEntries
    • RequestVote
  • Heartbeats - This is an AppendEntries RPC, with an empty body (no log entries). The leader is responsible for sending heartbeats to all followers to remain the leader.
  • A server remains a follower as long as it receives valid RPCs from a leader or a candidate.
  • Election timeout - If a follower does not receive any request for this time duration, it assumes that there are no leaders in the cluster, and begins a leader election phase. This is generally set to 150-300 ms.

Starting an Election

  • A follower increments its current term and becomes a candidate.
  • It votes for itself and requests votes from all the servers (RequestVote) in parallel.
  • At this point, one of the three outcomes are possible:
    • The candidate wins the election and becomes the leader.
    • A different candidate wins the election instead.
    • There is a tie with no clear winner.


  • A candidate needs majority of the votes.
  • Each server can vote for only one candidate in a specific term. The vote goes to the first RequestVote issuer (first come, first served).
  • While waiting for votes, a server may receive an AppendEntries RPC from another server claiming to be the leader. This can happen in a network partition.
  • If the leader’s term, \( T_l\) is at least greater than equal to the candidate’s term, \(T_c\) then the candidate steps down to become a follower and the leader continues, i.e. \( T_l \ge T_c \)
  • This situation can arise when two candidates initiate a new term, but one of them gets majority of votes before the other.
  • If \( T_l < T_c \), then the AppendEntries RPC is rejected by the server.
  • Split votes can occur if too many followers become candidates for the same term. This means none of the candidates were able to secure a majority vote.
  • In such a scenario, the candidates will time out and start a new election.
  • \(T_c \) is incremented by 1 and fresh RequestVote RPCs are issued.
  • However, split votes can keep repeating indefinitely. To avoid this, random election timeouts are used.
  • This implies, that the candidates will have a different random election timeout, generally between 150-300 ms. The candidate with the smallest value will timeout before the others have timed out, and will be able to issue a new RequestVote RPC.

Log Replication

  • When a leader is elected, it starts sending AppendEntries RPC calls.
  • When there is consensus on the entry, it applies the log to its state machine and responds to the client with the result.
  • Logs: Each log entry has a term number and a state command. They also have an index to identify the position of the entry in the log.
  • The leader decides when it is safe to apply a log entry. The log entry when applied is said to be committed.
  • Committed entries are durable and will eventually be applied by all the servers in their respective state machines.
  • A log entry is committed when the leader has replicated it to a majority of the servers. This also commits all previous entries in the leader’s log (including all entries created by the previous leaders).
  • The leader tracks the highest known index that was committed.
  • This index is sent in all future AppendEntries calls and heartbeats. Thus any slow server will eventually find out about newly committed entries.
  • When a follower sees a committed entry in the log, it applies it to its own state machine.

Log matching property

  • A leader creates only one entry for a given index in a given term.
  • The log entries are never changed or deleted. Their position is also never altered.
  • This implies, that if two entries in two different logs have the same index and term, they will have the same command.

Consistency check for AppendEntries

  • When sending a request, the term and the index of the previous log entry is also sent by the leader.
  • If the follower does not find an entry in its log for the corresponding term and index already, it rejects the request.
  • An acknowledge by a follower indicates that its log matches with that of the leader.

Conflict resolution

  • In normal operation mode, the logs stay consistent across the cluster.
  • However, if a leader crashes and a new leader has emerged, the logs may become inconsistent. Followers might be missing entries from the leader and have extra entries that are not present on the leader.
  • Or if there is a network partition with a leader in each partition along with their own set of followers.
  • To fix this, the leader always forces the followers to accept its log entries. Conflicts in the followers are overwritten with entries from the leader’s log.
  • The leader maintains a nextIndex for each follower. This is the index of the log entry that the leader will send to that follower.
  • When a leader is elected, it sets the nextIndex as the index after the last log entry in its own log, i.e. this value is same for all the followers at the start of the term.
  • If a follower’s log is inconsistent, the leader decrements the nextIndex for that follower and tries again. This is repeated until a matching log entry is found. The index of this log entry is the value of nextIndex for that follower.
  • The worst case scenario is that the entire log of the follower is incorrect and it is reset to an empty one.
  • When the conflict is resolved, all the subsequent log entries from the leader are appended to the follower’s log.
  • The log will remain consistent throughout the current term.
  • When a leader is elected, it starts normal operations right away, and all the logs in the followers converge over time if the AppendEntries RPC fails in the consistency checks.


  • If a follower is unavailable during a term, \(T_n \) and the current leader goes ahead with several committed log entries.
  • In such a scenario, if the follower becomes the new leader in term, \(T_n+1 \), it will accept new writes and force the leader of the previous term to erase its log entries. This means some committed log entries will be overwritten.

Election restriction

  • To fix this problem, we ensure that a leader for any given term must contain all the entries committed from all previous terms.
  • Raft ensures that all committed entries from previous terms are already present on the new leader from the moment of its election without having to send them to the leader after it has been elected.
  • During the voting period, if a candidate does not have all the committed entries, then servers do not vote for it.
  • The RequestVotes RPC adds this restriction and includes the latest log entry. The voter then compares this log entry with its own and only issues a vote if the log entry in the RequestVotes RPC is at least as new as the latest log entry of the voter’s state machine.
  • If the term of the logs is different, then the log with the latest term is considered to be the most up-to-date. But if the term is the same, then the longer log is considered as the more up-to-date one.`

Committing entries from previous terms

  • If an entry from the current term is replicated on a majority of servers, the leader marks it as committed.
  • If a leader crashes before committing an entry, future leaders will attempt to finish replicating that entry. But a new leader cannot assume that an entry from a previous term is committed even if it is stored in a majority of servers. The previous leader might have crashed after replicating it to the majority but before committing it.
  • The leader will only commit log entries from the current term by checking if the entry has been replicated in majority of the servers. As a result all prior entries are also considered to be committed. This is the log matching property.

Safety argument

Let us assume that the Leader completeness is a false property and we have term, \( T \) and leader, \( L_T \), which commits a log entry \( E \) but does not get replicated to a node that is also a leader in a future term.

For the nearest term after \( T \) such that \( U > T \) and leader, \( L_U \) that does not have the entry \( E \).

But, \( L_T \) replicated the entry to a majority of the servers and \( L_U \) received votes from the majority of nodes to be elected a leader.

This implies, that there exists at least one server that received the entry \( E \) and voted for \( L_U \) as well.

Also the voter received entry \( E \) first and then made the vote to \( L_U \). \( E \) has term \( T \) as defined above and if it received entry \( E \) after casting the vote, the entry \( E \) should have term \( U \) instead. As a result the entry would have been rejected since \( U > T \).

Thus we can safely conclude, that the voter has stored entry \( E \) and if the voter voted in favor of \( L_U \), the leader must have had its log at least as new as that of the voter (log matching property).

Also, if \( L_U \) had the last element of the voter in its log, it implies that:

\[ length (\ log\ of\ L_U\ ) \ge length (\ log\ of\ the\ voter\ ) \]

which means that log of \( L_U \) has all the elements that are in the log of the voter.

But, the voter already has the entry \( E \), which means \( L_U \) also has \( E \). However we assumed that the leader \( L_U \) does not have the entry \( E \). This is a contradiction and thus an incorrect assumption.

And finally, if the last log entry of \( L_U \) has a term greater than that of the voter, it implies that the term of the last log entry of \( L_U \) is greater than \( T \) since the voter at least contained the term \( T \)

All log entries are applied in log index order. Therefore, from the state machine safety property, we can conclude that all the servers will apply the exact same set of log entries to their state machines in the same order. This need to be immediate, but will be eventually true.

Follower and candidate crashes

  • If a follower or candidate crashes then the leader retries the RequestVotes and the AppendEntries RPCs indefinitely. This implies that if the crashed server recovers, the RPC calls will succeed.
  • If the server crashes after completing the RPC but before responding back to the leader it will receive the applied RPC again when it restarts (since the leader will retry indefinitely).
  • However RPC calls are idempotent, that is they can be safely repeated without any side effects. If a server receives an AppendEntries RPC which it has already completed in the past, it will ignore this. This is possible since the log entry is already present in its own log, which can which can be identified by the index and the term of the corresponding log entry.

Timing and availability

  • If message exchanges take longer than the time between server crashes, we will never be able to elect a leader.
  • The following is a timing requirement for Raft to function: \[ broadcastTime \ < < \ electionTimeout \ < < \ MTBF \]
  • broadcastTime: Average time required for the servers to send RPCs in parallel to all the servers in the cluster and receive their responses.
  • electionTimeout: Time for which a server waits for a leader to be elected. If no leader is elected within this time, the server starts a new term and a new election is initiated.
  • Mean time between failures (MTBF): Average time between failures for a single server.
  • broadastTime should be an order of magnitude lesser than the electionTimeout.
  • This implies that servers can send heartbeats and RPCs before a node times out and initiates an election. This also minimizes the chance of a split vote.
  • The electionTimeout should be an order of magnitude lesser than the MTBF for the system to work.
  • If the leader crashes, the system becomes unavailable for approximately the election timeout, since at this point no client requests can be safely processed in the absence of a leader.
  • The broadcastTime and MTBF are derived properties of the system while the electionTimeout should be determined by us.

Cluster membership changes

  • TBD

Log compaction

  • TBD


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