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Version Vectors are not Version Clocks

Most people still confuse Version Vectors and Vector Clocks . Well, I did confuse them for several years. In fact they look the same and the update rules are almost the same.

Both of these mechanisms are practical ways of capturing causality in distributed systems. Causality (in distributed systems) is an abstract concept, can was formalized in 1978 by Leslie Lamport in one of the most cited   articles in computer science. In 1983 Version Vectors are developed to track the causal relations among data items that can be concurrently updated. Some years later, around 1988, Vector Clocks are developed to track the causality between events in a distributed computation. In both cases a vector of integers, one per source of concurrency, is used. There is, however, a fundamental difference.

First, in order to simplify a little bit, lets consider that we have a fixed number of processes and a fixed number of replicas. 

  • Vector Clocks need to establish a partial order among a, potentially ever growing, set of events occurring in the processes. The set of events that are generated in the distributed computation. Naturally since the set can grow unbounded, the tracking mechanism also needs to grow unbounded. Vectors of integers are fine since, at least in theory we don’t run out of integers. In 1991, Charron-Bost showed in this article  that Vector Clocks are the smaller mechanism that can track causality among distributed events.
  • Version Vectors need to establish a partial order (more precisely a pre-order) among the replicas in the distributed system. Notice that although the state in these replicas changes as consequence of ever growing sets of update events, here we want to relate the replica states and not the update events. Using vectors of integers is over-expressive in this setting. In 2004, we noticed this and constructed Bounded Version Vectors , where integers are substituted by a limited set of symbols, depending on the number of replicas. Naturally, Charron-Bost result does not apply to Version Vectors.

Lets consider a simple example, thats shows that vectors of integers are over-expressive . One has two recently synchronized replicas A and B with identical state and vectors A[2,3] and B[2,3]. Now, replica A suffers an update and its new vector is A[3,3]. We now see that A is more updated than B, since [3,3] > [2,3] (here each integer in the left is greater or equal than its counterpart in the same position). Now replica A suffers 7 more updates, A[10,3]. Still we have [10,3] > [2,3], and this increase in the integer does not convey more information to the task of tracking the causal order among the two replicas. The number of individual updates is typically not important, specially in systems where you can change either a lot or a little in a single update. What is important is how they change the causal order relation among the replicas.

In the example, at this point, we can compare A[10,3] and B[2,3] and notice that they are easy to synchronize since A has the most updated state and it can be simply copied into B. However, if B issues an update and we now have a system with A[10,3] and B[2,4]. Now the replicas are divergent and a synchronization will typically have to look at the state (often with user assistance)  to figure the correct synchronized state that can be tagged with [10,4].

The message is, use the right tools and know the differences. Vector Clocks are great to implement causal delivery middleware, consistent snapshots, and the like. But for replicated data, Version Vectors are the right concept, and several mechanisms can make use of the subtle differences. Our own work on Dotted Version Vectors explores this and a specific system interaction that occurs in present data-stores. We also point out to Concise Version Vectors that explores the synchronization of multiple replicas  and early work on dynamic version vector maintenance

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