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Riak Architecture Overview
This document describes the design of Riak. It is meant to give both
a description of the shape of the system and also some background in
the terminology used throughout.
Summary and High-level View
Riak is a distributed key-value store, strongly influenced by the
Dynamo Paper[1] and the CAP Theorem[2]. It supports high availability
by allowing tunable levels of guarantees for durability and eventual
A Riak cluster is generally run on a set of well-connected physical
hosts. Each host in the cluster runs one Riak node. Each Riak node
runs a set of virtual nodes, or "vnodes", that are each responsible
for storing a separate portion of the key space.
Nodes are not clones of each other, nor do they all participate in
fulfilling every request. The extent to which data is replicated, and
when, and with what merge strategy and failure model, is configurable
at runtime.
The Ring
(Much of this section is discussed in the Dynamo paper, but it's a
good summary of how Riak implements the necessities.)
Riak's client interface speaks of "buckets" and "keys". Internally,
Riak computes a 160-bit binary hash of the bucket/key pair, and maps
this value to a position on an ordered "ring" of all such values.
This ring is divided into partitions. Each Riak vnode is responsible
for a partition (we say that it "claims" that partition).
The nodes of a Riak cluster each attempt to run roughly an equal
number of vnodes. In the general case, this means that each node in
the cluster is responsible for 1/(number of nodes) of the ring, or
(number of partitions)/(number of nodes) vnodes. For example, if two
nodes define a 16-partition cluster, then each node will run 8 vnodes.
Nodes claim their partitions at random intervals around the ring, in
an attempt at even distribution.
When a value is being stored in the cluster, any node may participate
as the coordinator for the request. The coordinating node consults
the ring state to determine which vnode owns the partition in which
the value's key belongs, then sends the "put" request to that vnode,
as well as the vnodes responsible for the next N-1 partitions in the
ring, where N is a bucket-configurable parameter that describes how
many copies of the value to store. The put request may also specify
that at least W (=< N) of those vnodes reply with success, and that DW
(=< W) reply with success only after durably storing the value.
A fetch, or "get", request operates similarly, sending requests to the
vnode that "claims" the partition in which the key resides, as well as
to the next N-1 partitions. The request also specifies R (=< N), the
number of vnodes that must reply before a response is returned.
The riak node startup are defined by the riak_core_sup and riak_kv_sup
The riak ring is defined by the riak_core_ring module.
Vnodes are defined by the riak_kv_vnode module.
Gets and Puts are driven by the riak_kv_get_fsm and riak_kv_put_fsm
modules, respectively.
The ring state is shared around the cluster by means of a "gossip
protocol". Whenever a node changes its claim on the ring, it
announces its change via this protocol. It also periodically
re-announces what it knows about the ring, in case any nodes missed
previous updates.
This gossip protocol is defined in the riak_core_gossip and
riak_core_ring_manager modules.
With any node able to drive any request, and not all nodes needing to
participate in each request, it is necessary to have a method for
keeping track of which version of a value is current. This is where
vclocks come in. The vclocks used in Riak are based on the work
of Leslie Lamport.[3]
When a value is stored in Riak, it is tagged with a vclock,
establishing its initial version. For each update, the vclock is
extended in such a way that Riak can later compare to versions of the
object and determine:
1. Whether one object is a direct descendant of the other.
2. Whether the objects are direct descendants of a common parent.
3. Whether the objects are unrelated in recent heritage.
Using this knowledge, Riak can possibly auto-repair out-of-sync data,
or at least provide a client with an opportunity to reconcile
divergent changesets in an application specific manner.
Riak's vclock usage is defined by the vclock module in the riak source
Riak attempts to move data toward a consistent state across nodes,
but it doesn't do so by comparing each and every object on each node.
Instead, nodes gossip a "merkle tree"[4], which allows them to quickly
decide which values need comparing.
Riak's merkle trees are defined by the merkerl module in the riak source
Sharing data among nodes, on rings, etc. is all well and good, but at
some point, it has to actually be stored somewhere - like on disk!
Because Riak is relevant to a wide variety of applications, its
"backend" storage system is a pluggable one.
Each node may be configured with a different Erlang module for doing
the simple storage, at the vnode level, below all of the
interconnected cluster details. At the backend level, a module only
needs to define "get", "put", "delete", and "keys list" functions that
receive a key and value which are both Erlang binaries. The backend
can consider these binaries completely opaque data, or examine them to
make decisions about how best to store them.
Several backends are packaged with Riak:
1. riak_kv_bitcask_backend, which stores data in the Bitcask key/value
2. riak_kv_cache_backend, which behaves as an LRU-with-timed-expiry cache
3. riak_kv_dets_backend, which stores data on-disk in DETS tables
4. riak_kv_ets_backend, which stores data in ETS tables (which makes it
volatile storage, but great for debugging)
5. riak_kv_fs_backend, which stores data directly to files in a nested
directory structure on disk
6. riak_kv_gb_trees_backend, which stores data in Erlang gb_trees.
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