We're All Database Engineers
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We're All Database Engineers

WADE is a programmable distributed database. It has at its core a CP system and is constructed for reasonably low latency queries, high throughput, algorithmic simplicity, and robust operation.

In other words, you should be able to pop open this jalopy's hood and see what's going on as it flies over potholes down the freeway.

A guiding principle is that an engineer familiar with its concepts should be able to read and understand the entire code base in less than half an hour. This understandability gives it an operational advantage over more complex databases built to handle edge cases in smarter ways than WADE. The programmability of WADE allows it to be customized easily to provide a specialized set of database functionality.

WADE is closer to a framework, like Django, than a runnable database. The programmer writes custom logic that plugs into the WADE framework, much like how a web developer writes business logic that plugs into the Django framework.

Why Would We Build Such a Thing?

You can think of a database as an object that transitions from state to state, where the transitions are insert and update commands. SQL provides a fairly limited set of mutating commands, typically just setting the columns of a row to given values. Redis supports a richer set of mutating commands that match common operations on data structures.

WADE is a system for replicating an object and its state transitions across a set of nodes, and is thus a generalization of a database. The key to WADE is that the transitions are completely customizable functions. In places where you might have had to use a read-write-update cycle with a regular database, you can program WADE to perform the update in a single roundtrip.

One example is a priority queue structure in a key-value data store. Suppose that an application maps a key to a priority queue of items, and expects to be able to add and remove items. If your standard database is not expressive enough to implement a priority queue, then you might go about doing this by serializing the queue and storing it directly in the database as an opaque value. Adding an item to the queue would require pulling down the value to the client, deserializing, performing the update, reserializing, and then writing it back to the database. With WADE, the programmer would directly implement the add_item operation in the database so that a client could add items with a single command in a single roundtrip.

Along the same veins, a client might have to pull down the entire serialized value and deserialize it to get the size of the queue. Whereas with WADE, the size command would execute directly on the node and return only the result, thereby reducing the amount of network transfer required to answer a simple query.

The ability to run computations directly on the node without pulling down an object's data could be a huge advantage if the size of data is large compared to the output of the computation. For instance, you could calculate the variance of large number of metrics without high network overhead.

Design Principles

The smaller the object, the more forgiving we can be when it

- John Maeda
  • Simplicity above all else. We have a quota of 1,000 lines of code, so ease of implementation is a major factor when picking an algorithm or design.
  • Single thread execution. WADE's performance comes from running multiple instances on many cores. Single threaded operation not only helps keep the core code speedy and simple, but also allows customizations to be simple as well.
  • Understandable operation. There should be a minimal number tweakable parameters.
  • Failure scenarios should be obvious, debuggable, and recoverable.
  • Debuggability and profiling are first class concerns, as they effect ease of development and understandable operation.

State Objects

A WADE cluster consists of a set of single threaded nodes, each of which holds one or more objects. WADE targets between a few hundred and around a million objects per cluster. Objects are the unit of replication, and WADE pushes each one to an ordered subset of nodes, called a chain. The programmer defines a set of update commands that transition objects from state to state, as well as query commands that return a non-mutating view of an object.

As an example, consider the implementation of a simple in-memory key-value store, WADE-KV. The command interface for WADE-KV might consist of three operations, SET, GET, and SIZE. Suppose that the programmer has decided that this cluster has 100 objects. WADE maps each of these objects to a chain, and manages replicating the object through the chain.

A WADE-KV client issues SET and GET commands to whatever object the programmer wants. For example, a reasonable implementation would be hashing the key, modding by 100, and then issuing a SET with arguments (k, v) on the resulting chain. GET and SIZE request would similarly be issued on the same chain. Since query commands are simply non-mutating code, they don't have to return direct values from an object. They could perform some computation, such as SIZE, which returns the number of key-value pairs in its object.


A overlord node manages the chain and peer configuration. How the overlord works is completely unspecified at the moment, except that nodes implement a command to set their configuration. The expectation is that the overlord will take configuration from ZooKeeper or Puppet/Chef/etc, and apply those changes to the nodes. Thus, the overlord detects node failures and adjust chains correctly with some expediency. A chain is unavailable for writes if any of its nodes are down.

Overlord redundancy is outside the scope of WADE. The expectation is that the operator will use ZooKeeper, Consul, or some cluster configurator to ensure that there always exists an overlord process.

Chain Replication

WADE uses chain replication, though it deviates from the original paper in a few ways:


A chain consists of an ordered sequence of nodes, where the first node is called the head, and the last node is called the tail. Update (mutating) commands on a chain always start at the head, and propagate through the chain to the tail and back. On the traversal from head to tail, the node records the intent to apply the operation by adding the command into a pending set. On the traversal back from tail to head, the node applies the operation to the object.

Two notes on terminology:

  1. We say that the command is on its way in or entering as it traverses from head to tail, and on its way out or exiting as the return moves from tail back to head. The next node on the way in is an "inward" node, and the next node on the way out is an "outward" node.
  2. In two-phase commit, the act of recording intent to write is called a prepare. The act of performing the write is called a commit. You'll see this terminology used in the code.

A query (non-mutating) command goes directly to the tail. The tail, then, is the arbiter of truth in a chain -- it is the node that first decides that an operation is committed and permanently mutates object state. An update command that never reaches the tail is never applied.

The head assigns an increasing-by-one sequence number per object to every command, which is useful for dealing with failure scenarios (see Chain Breaks). Nodes only commit commands in sequential order, and the object's backing store, if one exists, is responsible for keeping track of the maximum observed sequence. The max sequence is a complete record of what commands an object has processed.

Chain Breaks

The original chain replication algorithm distinguishes between three kinds of stop failures in the chain: at the head, tail, and somewhere in between.

WADE takes a simpler unified approach. Any failure of a node in the chain results in update commands on their way in accumulating in pending sets until the first stopped node. On recongizing a failed node, the overlord reorganizes the chain by removing the dead node, and tells the head to send a fast-sync command.

First, the fast-sync causes the head to stop accepting update commands.

When the fast-sync reaches the (possibly new) tail, it commits all valid pending commands then responds back with the max sequence. On the way out, all nodes commit pending commands less than or equal to the max sequence and drop any other commands. The head then notes the new max sequence and starts accepting update commands.

WADE also provides a full-sync command, intended for emergency repairs. A full-sync is nearly identical to a fast-sync, the exception being that the tail responds with a serialized form of its object state rather than the max sequence. On the way out, nodes overwrite their object, set the max sequence to match, and drop the entire pending set.

Adding a node simply initiates a full-sync for simplicity, though there are a variety of ways to be smarter than this. This is potentially one of WADE's major drawbacks, but a source of its simplicity. Adding a node is a special case of a node failure, so there are fewer code paths to write and reason about. However, adding a node introduces unavailability as chains that include it stop accepting writes while they run the full-sync. If objects are large, chains may be unavailable for writes for unacceptably long periods of time.


The tail is always the arbiter of truth. Its job is to maintain full integrity and consistency.

The tail only accepts update commands that are one greater than the max sequence for its object. It rejects any update command that arrives in an incorrect order.

No node accepts an update command with a sequence number that is equal to any in its pending set, or less than or equal to the max of its object. In other words, we reject any command that might possibly be from the past or a misinformed node.

If the head gets into a state such that successor nodes reject all entering commands, then we need to run a full-sync. In this situation, it's difficult or impossible to tell whether the head is misinformed, or some intermediate node is misinformed. We assume the tail is the arbiter of truth, so a full-sync resets all state in the chain.

Exercises for the reader:

  • Why do we have to commit all pending commands at the tail during fast and full syncs?
  • Nodes ignore return values from successor nodes as commands exit except in the case of full and fast syncs. Why are they not allowed to do something conditioned on the return value?
  • Operations run a function on commit. In addition to that, we could also allow executing functions on prepare. Why is this a bad idea?

Command Replication

WADE uses command replication for two reasons:

  1. Many use cases result in commands taking up fewer bytes than states (such as an HLL database, or a single command that might manipulate many keys or rows like secondary indexes). Because performance is upper bounded by network throughput, we take great care in keeping network transit to a minimum.
  2. WADE is agnostic to object representation, so value replication may be complicated or not very well defined.

Command Interface

Command interfaces must support:

  • A set of operators.
  • Serializing/deserializing object state. Actually this is a bad name. Object states should be convertible to a form that is msgpack friendly.
  • max sequence for a given obj_id.

Special Ops

Special ops are commands that are run directly on a node and never forwarded. They're mostly administrative and debugging commands.

  • Fast-sync. (not implemented)
  • Full-sync. (not implemented)
  • reload_config / get_config: set and get node configuration.
  • accept_updates: causes head to drop update commands or allow them through
  • pdb / inject_code: see Debugging section below.


Clients can connect to any node in the cluster, and can send any node commands. The node a client connects to acts a coordinator for forwarding the command to the appropriate chain head.

Distributing the configuration for clients is outside the scope of WADE.

Performance Measurements

Baseline chorus (this is the speed of the messaging system) with naive reqrep handles about 38k messages / sec per Amazon AWS c3 core. At the time of this writing, a c3.large instance with 2 cores (3.5 compute units each) costs about $75 / month and should be able to do 70k messages / sec in parallel without issue.

Single node wade-kv with naive reqrep and no replication runs at about 25k messages / sec. Thus there's substantial overhead from WADE above chorus.

Performance is generally bounded by the rate of socket calls. Naive reqrep is synchronous and only reads/writes one message at a time. In other words, a single client connecting to a WADE server causes WADE to context switch on every call. In very simple tests, we've shown that we can get near linear speedups by batching messages. In other words, if the client sends 2 messages at once instead of 1, performance doubles. WADE's request protocol and server implementation is designed to handle this, though there currently exists no client library that takes advantage of this capability.

Also, a note from experience developing WADE in virtual machines and Macbooks: performance characteristics can vary quite a bit, and you must be running your final tests on a target machine. In some cases, WADE performs better on Linux in a virtual machine than host OS X.

Code Structure & Development

WADE consists of two components: the messaging layer and the chain replication algorithm.

wade.chorus is the messaging layer, and exists as a clean abstraction apart from the chain replication. It should be possible to replace this with other messaging protocols, such as ZeroMQ or Thrift, without much effort. Profiling also shows that the current implementation spends about half its time in pyuv Python code. Future optimization efforts can concentrate on that, either improving pyuv's Python portion, replacing it with C, or replacing the entire chorus layer with a C/C++ program.

wade.chain consists of the chain replication logic, and depends on the chorus interface. Again, it should be possible to replace this with another implementation if needed. A plausible reworking might be in a more efficient language that preserves the call interface to the command operators, such as by embedding the Python interpreter.

See the source for the nitty gritty details on how chorus and chain work.

This repo contains a Vagrantfile which will bring up a development environment with the necessary Python packages.

This repo also contains sample databases in the contrib directory.


WADE has a "dangerous debugging" mode, which is the --dangerous_debug flag if using wade.into helpers. This turns on two special ops: PDB and INJECT_CODE.

PDB allows the programmer to stop WADE and attach pdb to a port on the node. You can then telnet to that port and remotely run a pdb session. Note that while this session is open, WADE completely stops responding, even to the command that started pdb.

Unfortunately, telnet doesn't give much in the way of being able to use all the libreadline goodness we're accustomed to everywhere else. To slightly compensate for this, INJECT_CODE allows the programmer to write Python code and directly inject + execute it in the special ops handler. The function gets access to a local variable, handler, which is the chain.Handler instance. chain.Handler, in turn, has access to everything else that should be useful for debugging. See the code for documentation on how to use this awesome feature.

Of course both of these functions are dangerous security risks, and so they're turned off by default.

Things To Understand

Some helpful things to understand when looking at the source:

  • Chain replication, natch
  • pyuv
  • ZooKeeper


How might we do transactions? RAMP is one possibility.


The RAMP paper pushes replication to other methods. So one way to view the solution would be that WADE and chain replication maintain the consistency of a RAMP partition. Then WADE logic implements the prepare/commit parts of the RAMP protocol as commands.

One downside with RAMP is that it requires two roundtrips for writes. The client sends prepares to all partitions (one roundtrip), then sends commits to on receipt of prepare acknowledgements (second roundtrip). We can modify chain replication so that all partitions involved in a transaction, including ones that deal with replication, are concatenated into a single long chain. The tail then assumes responsibility of deciding when all partitions have been prepared; partitions commit as the command exits the chain. This effectively merges WADE's prepare/commit phases with RAMP's.

Also, note the TODO.rst file which contains less far-ranging tasks.