Thoughts on RICON West 2013

RICON bills itself as a “Distributed Systems Conference for Developers” but it also has in recent years increasingly morphed into a lively intersection of leading academics and distributed systems practitioners. WANdisco also parallels these worlds, on the one hand being a 5 year sponsor for Berkeley’s AMPLab, and on the other having deployed advanced distributed systems into enterprise production environments for almost a decade.

A recent and gratifying trend is the maturation of understanding of the Paxos algorithm as a practical solution for implementing distributed consensus, an essential building block for distributed systems. Even though we still heard some speakers repeat the common opinion that Paxos is “too hard to implement”, we also saw others dipping their toes into Paxos.  And as evidence of increased interest in coordination algorithms, one talk presented a “stepping stone” algorithm proven easier to teach to undergraduate computer science students.

Another area of beneficial progress is the growth of understanding around the subtleties of the CAP theorem. As expressed by Michael Bernstein, “now you have CAP, which is an acronym, which is super easy to make s–t up about.” Of course, what we’ve often heard are witty sounding but dead wrong simplifications about CP and AP tradeoffs.  As industry knowledge about distributed systems matures, real life implementations prove increasingly effective and durable.

There was also increased interest in methods for strengthening consistency in eventual consistency databases. Note that the entire subject of eventual consistency leaves us a little squeamish. As I wrote in Why Cassandra Lies to You, the eventual consistency model does not practically provide strong consistency.  In cases where true consistency is required, choosing the weaker BASE guarantee of eventual consistency will likely be a painful mistake.

Perhaps it is inevitable that distributed databases will eventually displace the relational databases powering the vast, churning machines of industry.  RICON is one window into that future.

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