What Two Generals Can Teach Us About Web APIs
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What Two Generals Can Teach Us About Web APIs.

There are only two hard problems in distributed systems:

  • 2 Exactly-once delivery
  • 1 Guaranteed order of messages
  • 2 Exactly-once delivery

Mathias Verraes

This becomes clear when you examine the Two Generals Problem.

Two Generals

Two generals are camped outside of a city, laying siege. They can only communicate by sending messages through enemy territorry. They must reach an agreement in which both attack at the same time, or both abstain. If only one attacks, then they will surely fail.

Can you come up with such a protocol?

Let's try. Lest say that a general decides to attack tomorrow, but will only do so if he knows that the other general learns of his decision. He sends a message "Attack" to the other general. How will he know that the other general has received the message? The messenger could be captured or killed.

He can try sending messenger after messenger. But with no way of knowing that any messenger made it, he is still guessing as to whether the other general knows of his intentions.

So let's add a message to the protocol. The other general upon receiving the "Attack" message will respond with "OK". If he receives another "Attack", he will send out another "OK". So when the "OK" makes it to the first general, he can stop sending messages. He knows that the other will attack.

Or does he? The other general doesn't know that the "OK" made it to the first general. He knows the protocol, and realizes that the first general won't attack until it does. And so he can clearly not choose to attack, as he might attack alone.

And so we can add a third message. When the original general receives "OK", he can send out "Acknowledged". Now when the other general receives "Acknowledged", he knows that the first has recieved the "OK" and will attack.

But is that true? The first knows that the second won't attack until he receives "Acknowledged". He doesn't know if that message ever made it through. So he clearly cannot choose to attack on his own.

There is no protocol that solves the Two Generals problem.

Simplifying the Problem

If we make a couple of assumptions, the problem becomes simpler:

1 One general decides to attack, and commits to that action 2 There is no deadline

If we make these assumptions, we can find a solution. They introduce a time during which one general will attack, but the other will abstain. The one who has decided will go ahead no matter what happens in the protocol.

But that risk is mitigated by the fact that we have eliminated the deadline. In the actual battle scenario, this is unrealistic. Surely, the attack will take place at some time in the future. That future date must be a deadline.

But we'll make this assumption nonetheless and see if we can apply this reasoning to situations in which we can eliminate the deadline.

If we make these assumptions, then we find that we can solve the problem with three states and two messages. The states are:

  • Waiting - The general will not attack.
  • Attacking - The general will attack, but isn't sure about the other.
  • Assured - The general will attack, and knows that the other will as well.

Both generals start in Waiting. Then one decides that the time is right to attack and switches to Attacking.

Once in Attacking, a general periodically sends Attack messages. If a general in Waiting recieves Attack, then he knows the intentions of the other general. He switches to Assured, and responds with OK.

If a general in Assured receives another Attack message, there is no state change necessary. He stays in Assured and sends out another OK.

When the general in the Attack state receives an OK, now he also knows the intentions of the other. He switches to Assured and sends no more messages.

This is not a solution to the original problem. This solution only works becaus of our simplifying assumptions.

Eventual Consistency

These simplifying assumptions go by a different name. In distributed systems, we call them "Eventual Consistency". The system is allowed to be inconsistent for a time, and we impose no deadline upon it reaching consistency. If we can convince our clients that inconsistency is OK for a short time, and that there is no deadline on what this "short time" happens to be, then we can solve the problem. Without this set of simplifying assumptions, the problem is impossible.

Can I prove that it's impossible? Indeed. That's called "The CAP Theorem".


We often map the HTTP verbs GET, PUT, POST, and DELETE onto the operations Read, Update, Insert, and Delete. This isn't the way we should think about them. Thinking in this way leads to problems. A better way to think about them is in terms of three guarantees.

  • Safe
  • Idempotent
  • No guarantee

GET is safe, because a well-behaved node will not change the state of the system in any observable way upon receipt of this request. PUT and DELETE are idempotent, because a well-behaved node will only change state once, no matter how many times they are received.

Which leaves POST, offering no guarantees. If we examine the Two Generals Problem, we find that idempotency is a valuable guarantee. It is what keeps a general in the Assured state even when they recieve a second Attack.

Why should we not expect inserts to provide this guarantee?

Make Inserts Idempotent

In the associated source code, you will find a branch called before. This is a project before applying what we learned from the Two Generals. In this example, we use POST to insert to-do lists.

If you switch to the branch listid, you will see that we've modified the API to use PUT instead to insert to-do lists. It's OK, the specification allows this. The client is providing the URL at which the resource will be hosted. They are generating the ID. Which brings us to the second piece of advice.

Never Expose Internal IDs

We are far to quick to use the autoincrement ID of the row to represent its identity. When we do so, we require that the client make a successful round trip with the server before identifying an object. As we saw with The Two Generals, messages can fail in either direction. We don't know whether the object was created, and so we must be able to retry. If retrying causes the server to generate a new ID, then inserts are not idempotent, and we are right back to the first piece of advice above.

So the only way for inserts to be idempotent is for the identity of the thing inserted coming from the client. The identity is generated at the time of intent. It doesn't matter how many times I try to inform another party of my intent, my original intent, and hence the identity, is the same.

So use that original client-generated identity throughout. There are several good candidates for client-generated identity. Combine these based on your needs:

  • Natural Keys
  • GUIDs
  • Timestamps (but only when combined with a stronger identifier)
  • External IDs (those generated by a system with which you are integrating)
  • Public Keys
  • Hashes (of immutable state)

Examine the branch listid and further itemid to see a couple of examples of replacing internal IDs.

Favor Commutative Operations

Idempotency is necessary, but it is not sufficient. To make a system that truly resilient to both repeated and out-of-order messages, we should also be commutative.

Imagine that one of our messengers got lost and was wandering around in the forest. Let's be generous and say that he was hiding from enemy scouts. In any case, he finally makes it to the other general, but only after more messages have been sent. Should the general change his behavior based on the message that arrived late?

Or putting it in HTTP terms, suppose we have a PUT that changes the value of a resource. It gets caught in a buffer somewhere, and we retry the PUT. Then we send another PUT changing the value of that resource again.

At this point, the original PUT finally makes it through the buffer and arrives at our destination -- after we have already moved on. Should we go back to the original state? No, we should recognize that this is an old message and stay in the more current state.

These are examples of handling messages in a commutative fasion. Just as in math, the commutative property of messages says that we get the same answer no matter what order we process the messages in.

If you look at the commutative branch, you will see that we have modified the API to take a timestamp. This is the time of intent, not of sending. So if we retry a message, we do not change the timestamp. The server only accepts the latest time stamp for any given PUT.

This is one simple, albeit problematic, way of making our messages commutative. Other techniques include vector clocks, block chains, Merkle trees, CRDTs, and other strategies. I won't go into them here, but do your research, and find the commutative strategy that works for you.

Advice for API Designers

  • Make inserts idempotent (by using PUT instead of POST)
  • Never expose internal IDs (by using an intrinsic, client-generated identity instead)
  • Favor commutative operations (by introducing some sort of clock)