Saturday, December 31, 2016

Selected blog posts from 2016

This is my 42nd post for the year. As is the custom in a year-end post, I mention some highlights among my 41 posts in 2016.

Machine Learning




Facebook papers




Fault-tolerance




Distributed Coordination




TLA+/Pluscal Modeling




Miscellaneous


Monday, December 26, 2016

Learning Machine Learning: A beginner's journey

I have been learning about machine learning and deep learning (ML/DL) for the last year. I think ML/DL is here to stay. I don't think this is a fad or bubble! Here is why:

  1. ML/DL has results. It is hard to argue against success.
  2. ML/DL has been on the rise organically since 1985 (with the backpropagation algorithms) and went through another phase of acceleration after 2005 (with the wide availability of big data and distributed data processing platforms). The rise of ML/DL is following a rising curve pattern, not the pattern for a hyped ephemeral bubble. Since it grew gradually over many years, I am betting it will be around for at least the same amount of time. 
  3. ML/DL has been co-developed with applications. It has developed very much on the practice side with trial and error, and its theory is still lagging a bit behind and is unable explain many things. According to Nassim Taleb's heuristics ML/DL is antifragile.
  4. ML/DL has the market behind it. Big money provides big incentive and has been attracting a lot of smart people. This many smart people cannot be wrong.



Certainly there is also a lot of hype about ML/DL. ML/DL proved viable for specific sets of applications, and it is a hyperbole to claim that the general AI has arrived. We are far from it. But that is a good thing, because we will have a lot of juicy problems to work on.

So I am doubling down on ML/DL.

Here are my first impressions learning about ML/DL. ML/DL uses a very different toolkit and approach than the distributed systems field I grew up in. I was initially surprised and taken aback by the very experimental and trial and error nature of ML/DL. ML/DL is dealing with noisy/fuzzy/messy real world data and naturally the field produced statistical and probabilistic tools. Validation is only via showing performance on the test set. The data set is the king. Debugging is a mess, and learning is very opaque. On the other hand, I really like the dynamism in the ML/DL area. There are a lot of resources and platforms and a lot of very interesting applications.

My interest in ML/DL is in its interactions with distributed systems. I am not interested in writing image/text/speech processing applications. I learned about ML/DL to think about two questions:
  1. How can we build better distributed systems/architectures to improve the performance of ML/DL systems/applications?
  2. How can we use ML/DL to build better distributed systems?
These are big questions and will take long to answer properly, so I hope to revisit them later. Below I talk about how I went about learning ML/DL, and in the coming days I hope to write brief summaries introductory ML/DL concepts and mechanisms.

How I went about learning ML/DL

In January, I started following Andrew Ng's machine learning course at Coursera. (Alternatively, here is Ng's course material for CS 229 at Stanford.)  After the kids went to sleep, I spent an hour each night following Ng's class videos. Andrew Ng has a nice and simple way of explaining ML concepts. He is a very good teacher.

On a side note, if you like to learn a bit about Ng's thinking process and his approach to life, creativity, and failure, I  recommend this interview. It is a very good read.

I really liked the first 3 weeks of Ng's course: Introduction and Linear Regression, Linear Regression with multiple features, and Logistic Regression and regularization. But as the course went to logistic regression with nonlinear decision boundaries, I started to get overwhelmed with the amount of information and complication. And as the course progressed to neural networks, I started to get lost. For example, I could not form a good mental model and picture of forward and backward propagation in neural networks. So those parts didn't stick with me. (I was also not following the programming assignments well.)

I think the problem was that Ng was explaining the neural networks concepts in a general/generic way. That sounded too abstract to me. It might have worked better if he had settled on a small concrete use case and explained the concepts that way.

Recently, I started auditing a deep learning course on Udacity with a Google Engineer, Vincent Vanhoucke. This course offered a simpler introduction to deep learning. The course started with multinomial logistic classification. Since I knew about logistic regression, I could follow this easily.  I liked the softmax function, one-hot encoding, and cross entropy ideas as they are all very practical and concrete concepts. The course presented these with the use case of MNIST letter classification for the first 10 letters. 

Then using the same MNIST example, the course introduced rectified linear units (ReLu) as a simple way of introducing nonlinearity and showed how to chain multinomial logistic classification with ReLus to construct a deep network that solves the letter classification task much better. This time, I was able to follow the forward and backward propagation ideas much better. Instead of explaining deep networks in a general abstract way, this course explained it in a ReLu-specific way and reusing the letter classification example built with logistical regression. (In Ng's class ReLu came on week 7, when introducing support vector machines).

As a quick way to overview Vincent's course contents, you may watch this YouTube video from another Google engineer. (Watch at 1.5x speed.) The talk uses the same MNIST example and similar approach. But it doesn't go into explanation of forward/backward propagation and deriving the ReLus, instead it focuses more on giving you introduction to TensorFlow skills as well as introducing the basic neural network concepts. Within 1 hour, the talk gets you learning about convolutional networks. The presentation is nice and easy to follow.

Reflecting back, it is interesting how much YouTube helped me to learn about ML/DL. I normally like reading papers better than listening/watching videos, or maybe that is because I am more accustomed to learning that way. But for learning about ML/DL, these YouTube videos have been very helpful. It looks like lecturing is making a come back.

Here is a bonus video of Andrew Ng talking about nuts and bolts of applying deep learning. Ng is a great teacher, so it is easy to follow the concepts presented and learn a lot from this talk.

In the coming days I hope to write brief summaries of the introductory ML/DL concepts I learned from these courses. In my first couple posts on this, I plan to follow the first 3 weeks of Ng's class. There are very good course notes of that course here, and I will summarize even more briefly to mention the big ideas. Then I will switch to Vanhoucke's course to introduce the ideas in multinomial logistical regression and the generalization to neural networks and deep learning from there. I will use the #mlbegin tag for the series. Let's see how that goes.

UPDATE (1/11/17): I wrote them up. Here are the introductory ML/DL concepts I learned from those courses:

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book review: Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking

The title of this book grabbed my attention immediately. Intuition pumps is a very visual term, and who doesn't like to learn about tools for thinking. The premise of the book is given in the first quote:
"You can't do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can't do much thinking with your bare brain." -- Bo Dahlbom.

The book is by Philosopher Daniel Dennett. The book is surprisingly readable for a philosophy book, which are full of jargon and big words. Dennett took special care in writing in a simple an clean way. For this, he recruited help from undergraduate students in his university, Tufts. The book content was discussed at an undergraduate seminar Dennett offered, and he then got help from these students review the book. This is later revealed as one of Dennett's thinking tools: "Explain to nonexperts: use a decoy audience". I think that worked: the book is accessible to an undergraduate, but a motivated one.

The first chapter explained about intuition pumps and thinking tools. An intuition pump is a simple mind tool. Dennett mentions Galileo's thought experiment that concluded small and big things fall with the same speed as an intuition pump. (Galileo thought about tying a light rock to a heavy rock. If you accept the faulty premise, since the combined system is more heavy it should fall faster, but on the other hand, since the light rock is supposed to fall slower, shouldn't it be slowing down the heavy rock it is tied to. Contradiction.)

A good story/narrative, such as "Sour grapes by Aesop", qualifies as an intuition pump for thinking about some behavioral motivations. Dennett says scientists often underestimate the use of informal tools of prose & poetry as intuition pumps. But this is probably rightly so, because some intuition pumps are misleading. Dennett calls these "Boom Crutch" (he has a catchy name for everything), and uses those to replace the technical jargon.

Chapter 2 is about general thinking tools. Dennett says "History of philosophy is smart men making tempting mistakes". But he is of course not saying that as a negative. He later continues to say the following. Making mistakes is the key to making progress. In contrast to animals, humans can remember their previous thinking, and reflect on their previous thinking and learn. For writing, blurt it out, then you have something to work with. You need to make mistakes to find the right questions. Philosophy is what you do to figure out the right questions.

To give examples of thinking tools, Dennett talks about reductio ad absurdum ("argument to absurdity"). He talks about Occam's razor: "Don't add unnecessary parameters to overfit the data". He also talks about the dual of Occam's razor: Occam's broom with which one whisks away data/facts that doesn't fit the theory. This commits the omission fallacy, and is an example of a Boom crutch. He also mentions other Boom crutches, "rathering" and "surely" which are used for dictating a false dichotomy. Finally, Dennett talks about "Jumping out of the system", a.k.a. Jootsing (he has a short funny name for everything). He says that for there to be creativity, there needs to be rules to rebel to.

I stopped reading at Chapter 3: Thinking tools for meaning or context. This is a big book at 460 pages. Although it is readable, I wasn't motivated enough as the thinking tools mentioned became more specialized for philosophy. The book talks mostly about philosophers' toolkit, and these tools are not as useful for nonphilosophers.

After reading the book, I got a pretty good idea about how the philosophers work. A friend once mentioned me a quote "Philosophy is a race to see who can think the slowest". It is said in jest of course, and probably a better way of putting "slowest" is "deepest/most exhaustively".

For us the nonphilosophers, the practical minded, the question should be: what are the thinking tools that can make our lives better?

I think some thinking tools carry across domains, but most are not. That is why we specialize in domains, and learn thinking tools that apply for those domains. And often our minds are shaped for good or bad by these tools.  My mind is shaped by computational thinking, a psychologists mind is shaped by behavioral thinking, etc. I was surprised the first time I saw this in action: For the same problem of making a toy car follow a circular trace, my Electronics Engineer friend had devised a differential formula and control theory solution, whereas I had an algorithmic/programmatic solution. I guess now the trending paradigm is to devise a machine learning solution.  (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis anyone?)

The thinking tools may not necessarily be internal to our brains, they could be prosthetics. A simple but powerful prosthetics is writing. A good example is checklists, as Atul Gawande pointed out. As a more complicated prosthetics, Steve Jobs once called the Mac as a bicycle for the mind. A thought amplifier.
"I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.
And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” -- Steve Jobs

Thursday, December 22, 2016

TLA+ project2 solution (2016)

In a previous post, I had given the description of project2. Here is the TLA+ project2 solution made available on github. Below I will briefly explain the solution.

If you are not familiar with the chain-replication protocol, read this brief summary. 

The setup and variables


The first part is about the setup. We declare the process IDs for storage nodes (denoted as Nodes), the clients, and the configurator process.


The nodes maintain "db" each, where the item is updated and queried. For simplicity, our distributed key-value store maintains only a single item, and initialized to ver=-1, val=-1, cli=-1.

The nodes also have an auxiliary variable "up", which is used for modeling the status of the node. A node can go "down" at any time provided that less than FAILNUM nodes are currently down.

Each node and client has a message box, initially all message boxes are empty.

Finally, there is a global variable chain. Initially it is an empty sequence. As the configurator populates the chain, the chain will list in order the storage nodes: head, interim nodes, and the tail storage node. The configurator maintains the chain by removing the IDs of crashed nodes from the chain, and adding healthy nodes to the tail of the chain.

(In practice this can be implemented in several ways. chain could be the API of the configurator process, and can be obtained by an RPC call to the configurator. Or chain could be cached at the client-side library, and if/when the configurator changes the chain, it can update the chain variable at the library.)

The define block


Here comes the macros. We write this to simplify our modeling. As I wrote earlier, once we decide on the macros, we are halfway done with our modeling. "I find that once you get the "define" block right, the rest of the PlusCal algorithm practically writes itself. But you may need to make a couple unsuccessful takes before you figure out the most suitable /define/ block that leads to a succinct and elegant model."

IsUp is a function that takes an ID of a storage node, and returns whether that storage is up or not. Its implementation is very simple. Since we model a node being up or not using the up variable for that node, the macro just returns the up variable for the corresponding node. Why did we have a macro for this? We will use this boolean function as a filter for SelectSeq operator when we discuss the configurator.

UpNodes return a set that consists of the storage nodes that are up. We could have also written it as {n \in Nodes: IsUp(n)}. InChain(s) predicate returns whether node ID "s" is included in the chain or not. I implemented this by using the Seq operator. If chain is one of the subsequences of Nodes \ {s}, then s is not in the chain. Otherwise s is in the chain.

ChainNodes returns the set of all nodes s where InChain(s) is satisfied. FreeUpNode returns an "up" node that is not in the chain. GetIndex(s) returns the index of the node s in the chain.GetNext(s) returns the successor of node s in the chain.

The client


The client sends write requests to the storage nodes. The client gets to its work only after a chain is formed by the configurator. To keep our model checking short/finite, we make the client to send STOP number of requests.

Before sending an update request, the client first reads the current version of the item from the key value store. This is done in label CLR inside a while loop. The read request is sent to the node at the tail of the chain, which is given by chain[Len(chain)]. The client sends the request by writing to the messagebox of the tail node. Why is this inside a while loop? Because we leave the fault-tolerance to the client. The client's read request may be dropped. This can happen either via a message loss, or when the tail node crushes after receiving the read request. If the client does not get a response back to its read request, it re-sends the read request to the current tail of the chain, until it receives a message back to its message box. Then, the client sets the hver to be the latest version of the item+1, and removes the message from its message box, by resetting the message box to empty.

In the CLW tag, the client writes the update to the item to the head of the chain, i.e., chain[1], as per the chain replication protocol. This is also done in a while loop, because an update can be lost (if the head or interim node in chain crashes), and it is the client's responsibility to retry the update until it receives back an acknowledgment for that particular update.

After the write is acknowledged, the client removes the acknowledgment message from its messagebox, and increments the local variable counter, which maintains the number of successful updates the client made.

The storage nodes


The storage node actions are in two parts. The second part (starting with label NDF) is the modeling of a crash or recovery of a node. If FAILNUM number of crashes are not reached, any node can crash by setting its up variable False, and any crashed node can recover back by setting its up variable to True.

The first part actions show how a node reacts to a request in its message box. The preconditions to serving a request are that the node has a request in its message box, the node is up and part of the chain. Then, we check the type of the message: val=-1 means this is a read message, otherwise it is an update message and the db is updated with the message. The message is then propagated to the messagebox of the next node in the chain. (This is done regardless of whether it is a read message or update message). If this is the tail, then the message is written to the messagebox of the client indicated on the message (as that client has sent this request to the system). Finally the node sets its messagebox to empty when it finishes processing this message.

The configurator


The configurator process is infallible. (In practice it would be implemented as a Paxos box.) Its job is to monitor and configure the chain. (If you are not familiar with the chain-replication protocol, read this brief summary.)

It first checks if the chain is of length=3 and if there is an available up node to append to chain it will add it to chain to get the chain of length=3. When a new node is appended as the tail, its db is also initialized by copying the db of the current tail of the chain.

After repopulating the chain, the configurator checks the health of the nodes in the chain, and removes the crashed nodes in the chain. For this I used the SelectSeq operation which filters the chain based on the output of IsUp predicate on each member of the chain.

Model checking

The system is to satisfy single-copy consistency. Single-copy consistency means the storage nodes appear to outside as if it is a single virtual infallible node, even though upto FAILNUM of physical storage nodes can fail. More specifically, the highest version number result returned by a read from the tail should match the item stored by the most recently acknowledged write operation on the system.


If there is only one client of the system (you can configure this by setting C=1 in model checking parameters), then there is a shortcut to checking single-copy consistency. Since the single client is using cntr to keep track of the writes completed and updates the item val with cntr+1, the version number, hver, and val of the item should always match. The Consistent invariant checks that this is true at all storage nodes. "Consistent" can be violated if the client reads an old ver, and cntr is incremented as usual, so that ver becomes lower than cntr = val. However, if we implemented our chained-storage to implement single-copy consistency correctly, Consistent should hold as invariant in the presence of a single Client.

Of course that is a very restrictive invariant (assumes a single client, and assumes val=cntr). Let's look for more general invariants. CCon denotes that an earlier node in the chain will have more recent information "hver" than a later node in the chain. CPro is an end-to-end invariant at the client. It says that for any client, the hver maintained at the client is nondecreasing. That is, a client never reads an older/smaller hver from the system after reading a recent/larger hver. CPro is actually written as a temporal formula, so when model-checking CPro should be added to the temporal formulas section in the model. It has a peculiar form: hver' means the next state value of hver. And the formula reads as: It is always the case that for any client, the next state value of hver is greater than or equal to hver value at the current state.

When I model check with C=1 single client I see that Consistent, CCon, and CPro holds for this model. (Of course it took me many iterations to get there. There were subtle bugs that led to referencing nonexistent nodes in chain, etc.). When I check with C=2, the model checker complains that Consistent is violated. Of course this is expected, so I uncheck Consistent from the invariants, so that I can check that CCon and CPro holds.

Surprise! CCon is violated with two clients. (The same violation also applies for CPro of course.) The model checker spits out a 35 step counter example. Here is the gist of the problem.

Initially both client1 and client2 reads version as -1, and they both start an update with version 0. Client1 writes with version 0, client2's write is dropped in the messagebox at the head as Client1 overwrites that. Client1 then reads version as 0, and starts another write version=1, and succeeds. Client2 hasn't acted yet. Finally, Client2 retries its write with version 0 and manages to write with version 0 to the chain. And the chain went from version 1 down to version 0. CCon is violated. (CPro would also be violated, because Client1 would read a version=0 after it has read version=1.)

What went wrong? Modeling the messagebox with length=1 played a role in the counterexample. Only one message can be in the message box at a time, and if another message arrives before this message is read/consumed by the node, that first message gets lost. If the implementation uses TCP, this overwriting problem would be taken care of. However, it is still possible for Client2's write to get lost and CCon and CPro be violated: Client2 might write to the head which subsequently fails, then Client1 writes to the new head and succeeds with version=0 and version=1, then Client2 retries and overwrites the chain db with version=0.

As one way to fix the problem, we can consider changing the blind rewriting at label CLW. We may consider adding the client another action (which could be added to the process with an either clause) to check if the write succeeds and if not to retry the write but starting from CLR so that the client reads the new version (if any). But this is still prone to a race condition, as we make assumptions about relative speeds of Client1 and Client2. After Client2 reads a version, before it starts the CLW portion of the write, Client1 may have completed its write incrementing the version and causing the same counterexample. It seems like the proper way to handle this problem is at the storage node level. The storage node should reject an update that downgrades the version number of the item, and the client should get a rejection for its update request. I haven't put that update in my model to show the counterexample with two client case.

Some other subtle points in the modeling

I chose to model crash detection of nodes using an auxiliary variable "up", and I made it a global variable so that the configurator can readily access this information. I didn't put emphasis on a realistic failure detection part, and instead focused on the correctness modeling of the chain-based key-value store. A more realistic, closer to implementation way of doing this would be to not to use an auxiliary variable at all. For example,  the configurator could rely on periodic heartbeat messages from the nodes to implement failure detection of the nodes.

I also model "db" as a global variable. I tried to avoid this at first, but then I needed a mechanism for copying the db of the tail, when I append a new node to be the new tail of the chain. This could have been done by message passing and inventing a special request message, but that would make the model longer. I went for a shorter model and exposed db of the storage node. The only place I use this is for copying db when appending a new tail, and this would be something to refine further as we move towards implementing our protocol.

One way to refine this could be as follows. The new tail can send a "read" message to the current tail, as if it is a client. This would propagate the db of the current tail to the candidate tail, and that is copied at the candidate tail. But then we need a signaling mechanism between the candidate tail and the configurator so that the candidate tail can be declared as the new tail. But this task  is race condition prone, so this should be modeled in PlusCal and checked before it makes its way to the implementation. For this proposed refinement, the race condition can occur as follows: the current tail acknowledges a write to the client, and then the new tail is added which did not get this update, the client may query the new tail for a read and get an old version of the item. Single copy serializability is violated.

So we unearthed a concurrency race condition for 2 clients, and another race for adding a candidate tail. What other types of concurrency problems could be there with a sloppy protocol? Many different types. It is fun to go through the modeling process with TLA+ as you can observe how things may go wrong in ways you haven't anticipated. The TaxDC paper gives a good study of concurrency bugs in production use, well-debugged open source systems. Here are the common misconceptions about distributed systems that leads to these bugs:
+ One hop is faster than two hops.
+ No hop is faster than one hop.
+ Interactions between multiple protocols seem to be safe.
+ What you thought as an atomic block of execution wasn't, because another process was scheduled to execute something concurrently and that other process changed the system state in a way you didn't anticipate.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Feedback from my distributed systems class

I am done with my distributed systems class this semester. At the end of the semester, I polled my students for feedback about the class. I was especially interested in hearing about their feedback on using TLA+ in the course and course projects, and using research paper reviewing for homework assignments. Of course, I didn't mention these when I solicited their feedback. I asked them to write a brief review for what they have learned in my distributed systems class this semester.

I received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Below I share some of the comments about TLA+ and the paper review assignments. (I removed the flattering feedback about my teaching, while I enjoyed reading them.  I put a lot of effort in my teaching and I am happy when the students recognize how much I care. That keeps me motivated.)

Feedback about using TLA+

I assigned two TLA+ projects. The first project was modeling Voldemort key-value store with client-side routing, and the second project was about extending the first with chain-replication and server-side routing. I had given the students TLA+ demonstrations in a couple classes, and shared with them PlusCal modeling of several of the distributed algorithms I covered in the class.

(I had wrote about how and why I decided to integrate TLA+ to my distributed systems class in a couple earlier posts including: Using TLA+ for teaching distributed systems, My experience with using TLA+ in distributed systems class. I also posted several TLA+/PlusCal modeling of distributed algorithms in my blog. You can reach all of my posts about TLA+/PlusCal here.)

Most of the students mentioned that they appreciated the TLA+ projects.  The students said TLA+ showed them how tricky distributed algorithms can get, and without TLA+ they wouldn't be able to figure out the intricacies of those algorithms.

TLA+ is a great tool to learn to use if you're planning on pursuing a career in computer science. Its raw ability to detect flaws in algorithms is unparalleled. I am very pleased with having been introduced to it through this class. Of all my takeaways from the class through the semester the opportunity to become familiar with this is the one I believe will help me the most in my future.
Working on the TLA+ projects taught me the most. Sitting in the classroom and going through the whole algorithm gave me an insight of the algorithm but I realized the depth of the algorithm, the problems related to it and the capability of the algorithm only when I worked on the projects. 
TLA seems to be a fantastic way to reason about systems and I really enjoyed using it for the class. I aspire to use TLA+/formal verification all along my career when I get an opportunity. 
I liked the invariant based way of reasoning about the correctness of a program. I liked the expressiveness of PlusCal to model complex distributed algorithms with very short lines of code.

At the same time, many students complained about the learning curve of TLA+, and that they had to spent a lot of time figuring the ropes. They said that it would help if I had arranged for more TLA+ demonstrations, and  if I had assigned them some smaller projects to get them warmed up with TLA+.
I found the element of the class I really had to put a lot of time into was reading the PlusCal manual and the Dynamic help in the eclipse toolbox. There was a great deal of functionality in this programming environment I didn't know how to properly use until the end of the semester. I think the class can greatly benefit from more in depth classes or recitations on TLA+ from the syntax of PlusCal to the options and tools in the model checker. 
Regarding the projects, I really enjoyed learning TLA and PlusCal and I  really liked building Voldemort and Voldchain. The caveat consists in that sometimes it was difficult and frustrating, but I learned a new way of thinking programmatically and mathematically, and it was very satisfying.
Initially, I needed a lot of time to get acquainted to the PlusCal syntax. But once I got used to it, things stared flowing smoothly. I realized that TLA+ does force the designers to clearly describe and understand the design before they actually write the executable code for it. Since TLA+ has numerous benefits and advantages I hope it gets widely adopted in the industry. 
The code translate check cycle was sometimes very long. To be fair this was usually a problem with the code itself or using too much state to design the model. 
Some errors were very difficult to comprehend and debug in TLC model checker. Some error messages were cryptic.

I like this suggestion from one of the students. It is an ambitious idea for an introductory distributed systems course with limited time and much ground to cover, but it would be a great improvement if we can pull that off.
It would be great if the project could be a semester long one, where in the first half we design a distributed algorithm and verify its consistency properties using TLA+ and in the second half we do an implementation of the system in a high-level programming language (like Java or C++).

Reviewing papers

I assigned 6 homework this semester, 4 of which involved reviewing research papers about the topics we covered. Many students commented that they didn't like reading/reviewing papers at first, but then started to find the reviewing assignments useful and enjoyable.
I just needed something to force me to do it [review papers] a few times before I could get the hang of it. Considering how much the industry changes and the absolute need to continue learning from others in the filed I think this will help me later in my career.
Because of this course I have started reading research papers on a regular basis, just because I like reading them now. 
I really enjoyed the paper reviews we did. After reading the papers and writing the reviews, I actually felt like I had a thorough understanding for the content of the papers, which was a very cool feeling. Before this class, I have never read an academic paper and felt like I actually understood it. 
Looking back, I am so glad that I had the opportunity to review the papers. At first I was intimidated, and didn't want to do it, but I feel much more confident and familiar with reading and evaluating research papers as a result. Part of the reason is that you posted information on how to go about this process, and it really helped to have a good method for performing this function. It also helped to know that I'm not the only one who doesn't understand the paper on the first or second pass. That you for your honesty.

I think this last student is referring to my "How I read a research paper" post.

Other comments

Favorite distributed algorithms for my students have been Paxos, hygienic dining philosophers, and Dijkstra's stabilizing token ring algorithms.

Almost all of the students mentioned that they liked the reenacting of the algorithms on the board, and those made the algorithms memorable and more easily understandable. The students all seemed to benefit from the YouTube videos I show at the beginning of lectures.
I loved the fact that the Professor showed YouTube videos in every lecture. Although at times it took me a few minutes to understand how the videos connected to the topic at hand (especially the one with Mr. Miyagi and the karate kid).

This comment was particularly interesting.
I appreciated that the professor would like to share his thinking processes with us. That was really helpful for me. As for a beginner stepping in this area, I lack the proper mind in considering the problems in distributed systems. However, professor was always offering his logic to us. That was what I could take it into my life with the knowledge I learned from the course.

I am intrigued that the student was able to catch this. Once I had wrote a post about why we should be talking more about our thought processes. 


Teaching is hard work, it has its ups and downs, but looking back on the semester, I am very proud to have raised another batch of distributed systems geeks.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Modeling a Replicated Storage System in TLA+, Project 2

Two weeks ago, I had described phase 1 of the TLA+ project I assigned in my distributed systems class. I promised to give you the solution soon. I put the solution for phase1 on github.

In this post, I will describe the phase 2 of the project. In phase 2 of the project, we use Chain Replication to ensure persistence and consistency of the objects stored. Read my chain replication summary to refresh on the algorithm.


Before performing the write, the client reads from the tail of chain to learn the highest versioned write completed. The client then increments the version number, and performs the write to the head of chain with this version number. Since a node failure may lead to a request being lost (be it a read request, or update request), the client needs to repeat the request until a response is returned from the tail. The client cannot start a new request before it receives a reply to its earlier request.

A configurator process (an infallible process which would in practice be implemented as a Paxos cluster) will be used for configuring the chain. One responsibility of the configurator is to remove a down node from the chain, and the other is to add a new node to the tail of the chain if the length of the chain is less than 3. The chain is initially empty, and the configurator populates the chain using the "add a new node to the tail" action.

A storage node can crush (provided that FAILNUM is not exceeded), and recover at any time. For simplicity we assume the client writes to only one item, so we omit the key part of the key-value pair item, and model the database db at each node to consist of one item. The newer version of the item will writeover the old version.

In this phase of the project, the storage system performs server-side routing, and modeling of the system is done using message passing instead of shared memory. Once a storage node receives a new request in its message-box msg, it will consult the configurator to figure out its successor in the chain and propagate the request to its successor. If the storage node is the tail it will send a reply to the client. An update request modifies the db with the newer version of the item. A read request does not change the db.

The students are asked to write a PlusCal program to model this algorithm. I provide them the below template as a starting point, and they fill in the redacted parts, use the toolkit to translate their code to TLA+, write invariant properties and model-check for correctness. I also ask them to list their observations about phase2 "Voldchain" versus phase1 "Voldemort quorums" version of the protocol. How do they compare? Is Voldchain capable of tolerating more failures with less number of nodes? How do you explain the difference? What is the analog of write quorum, and read quorum in Voldchain?


I will wait a week or so before I share my solution for the Project2.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Emerging trends in big data software

Mike Franklin, a famous expert on data science, had visited our department at University at Buffalo in May to talk about emerging trends in big data software. I had taken some notes during his talk, and decided to summarize and share them here.

Mike recently joined University of Chicago as the chair of Computer Science Department, and before that he was the head of UC Berkeley's AMPLab (Algorithms, Machines and People Laboratory), where he was involved with the Spark and Mesos projects which had wide academic and industrial impact. Naturally, the talk included a lot of discussion about AMPLab projects, and in particular Spark.

Mike described AMPLab as a federation of faculty that collaborate around an interesting emerging trend. AMPLab has in total 90 faculty and students. Half of the funding comes from government, and the other half from industrial sponsors. The industrial sponsors also provide constant feedback about what the lab works on and how it matters for them. As an AMPLab student graduates, a system he/she worked on also graduates from the lab. Mike credits this model with wide academic and industrial impact.

While I don't have Mike's slides from his talk at Buffalo, I found his slides for a keynote he delivered in March on the same topic. Below I provide very brief highlights from Mike's talk. See his slides for more information.

Motivation for big data

Big data is defined as datasets typically consisting of billions of trillions of records. Mike argues that big data is a big resource. For example, we knew that Tamoxifen is 80% effective for breast cancer, but thanks to big data, now we know that it is 100% at 70-80% of people and ineffective in the rest. Even 1% effective drugs could save lives; with enough of the right data we can determine precisely who the treatment will work for.

Big data spurted a lot of new software framework development. Data processing technology has fundamentally changed to become massively scalable, start using flexible schema, and provide easier integration of search query and analysis with a variety of languages. All these changes drive further innovation in big data area.

The talk continues on summarizing some important trends in big data software.

Trend1: Integrated stacks vs silos

Stonebraker famously said "one size doesn't fit all in DBMS development any more". But, Mike says that in their experience, they found that it is possible to build a single system that solves a lot problems. Of course Mike is talking about their platform Berkeley Data Analytics Stack (BDAS). Mike cites their Spark user survey to support his claim that one size fits many: Among 1400 respondents, 88% use at least 2 components, 60% at least 3, 27% at least 4.

Mike explains AMPLab's unification strategy as generalizing the MapReduce model. This leads to
1. richer programming model (fewer systems to master)
2. better data sharing (less data movement)

Here Mike talked about RDDs (Resilient Distributed Datasets) for improving over the inefficiency of MapReduce redundantly loading and writing data at each iteration. An RDD is a read-only partitioned collection of records distributed across a set of machines. Spark allows users to cache frequently used RDDs in-memory to avoid the overhead of writing intermediate data to disk and achieving up to 10-100x faster performance than MapReduce.

Spark dataflow API provides coarse grained transformations on RDDs such as map groupby, join, sort, filter, sample. RDDs are able to get good fault-tolerance without using the disk, by logging the transformations used to build an RDD and reapplying transformations from earlier RDDs to reconstruct that RDD in case it got lost/damaged.

Trend2: "Real-time" redux

One approach for handling real-time is the lambda architecture, which proposes using real-time speed layer to accompany and complement the traditional batch processing+serving layer.

Mike's complaint about this architecture is that it leads to duplication of work: you need to write processing both for the batch layer and the real-time speed layer, and when you need to modify something you need to do it again both for the batch layer and the real-time speed layer. Instead Mike mentions the kappa architecture based on Spark (first advocated by Jay Kreps) which gets rid off a separate batching layer and uses Spark streaming as both the batching and the real-time speed layer. Spark streaming uses microbatch approach to provide low latency. It introduces additional "windowed" operations. Mike says that Spark streaming doesn't provide everything a fullblown streaming system does, but it does provide most of it most of the time.

Trend 3: Machine learning pipelines

For this part Mike briefly talked about KeystoneML framework which enables the developers to specify machine learning pipelines (using domain specific and general purpose logical operators) on Spark.