Students' Guide to Raft (30 min. read)

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For the past few months, I have been a Teaching Assistant for MIT’s 6.824 Distributed Systems class. The class has traditionally had a number of labs building on the Paxos consensus algorithm, but this year, we decided to make the move to Raft. Raft was “designed to be easy to understand”, and our hope was that the change might make the students’ lives easier.

This post, and the accompanying Instructors’ Guide to Raft post, chronicles our journey with Raft, and will hopefully be useful to implementers of the Raft protocol and students trying to get a better understanding of Raft’s internals. If you are looking for a Paxos vs Raft comparison, or for a more pedagogical analysis of Raft, you should go read the Instructors’ Guide. The bottom of this post contains a list of questions commonly asked by 6.824 students, as well as answers to those questions. If you run into an issue that is not listed in the main content of this post, check out the Q&A. The post is quite long, but all the points it makes are real problems that a lot of 6.824 students (and TAs) ran into. It is a worthwhile read.


Before we dive into Raft, some context may be useful. 6.824 used to have a set of Paxos-based labs that were built in Go; Go was chosen both because it is easy to learn for students, and because is pretty well-suited for writing concurrent, distributed applications (goroutines come in particularly handy). Over the course of four labs, students build a fault-tolerant, sharded key-value store. The first lab had them build a consensus-based log library, the second added a key value store on top of that, and the third sharded the key space among multiple fault-tolerant clusters, with a fault-tolerant shard master handling configuration changes. We also had a fourth lab in which the students had to handle the failure and recovery of machines, both with and without their disks intact. This lab was available as a default final project for students.

This year, we decided to rewrite all these labs using Raft. The first three labs were all the same, but the fourth lab was dropped as persistence and failure recovery is already built into Raft. This article will mainly discuss our experiences with the first lab, as it is the one most directly related to Raft, though I will also touch on building applications on top of Raft (as in the second lab).

Raft, for those of you who are just getting to know it, is best described by the text on the protocol’s web site:

Raft is a consensus algorithm that is designed to be easy to understand. It’s equivalent to Paxos in fault-tolerance and performance. The difference is that it’s decomposed into relatively independent subproblems, and it cleanly addresses all major pieces needed for practical systems. We hope Raft will make consensus available to a wider audience, and that this wider audience will be able to develop a variety of higher quality consensus-based systems than are available today.

Visualizations like this one give a good overview of the principal components of the protocol, and the paper gives good intuition for why the various pieces are needed. If you haven’t already read the extended Raft paper, you should go read that before continuing this article, as I will assume a decent familiarity with Raft.

As with all distributed consensus protocols, the devil is very much in the details. In the steady state where there are no failures, Raft’s behavior is easy to understand, and can be explained in an intuitive manner. For example, it is simple to see from the visualizations that, assuming no failures, a leader will eventually be elected, and eventually all operations sent to the leader will be applied by the followers in the right order. However, when delayed messages, network partitions, and failed servers are introduced, each and every if, but, and and, become crucial. In particular, there are a number of bugs that we see repeated over and over again, simply due to misunderstandings or oversights when reading the paper. This problem is not unique to Raft, and is one that comes up in all complex distributed systems that provide correctness.

Implementing Raft

The ultimate guide to Raft is in Figure 2 of the Raft paper. This figure specifies the behavior of every RPC exchanged between Raft servers, gives various invariants that servers must maintain, and specifies when certain actions should occur. We will be talking about Figure 2 a lot in the rest of this article. It needs to be followed to the letter.

Figure 2 defines what every server should do, in ever state, for every incoming RPC, as well as when certain other things should happen (such as when it is safe to apply an entry in the log). At first, you might be tempted to treat Figure 2 as sort of an informal guide; you read it once, and then start coding up an implementation that follows roughly what it says to do. Doing this, you will quickly get up and running with a mostly working Raft implementation. And then the problems start.

In fact, Figure 2 is extremely precise, and every single statement it makes should be treated, in specification terms, as MUST, not as SHOULD. For example, you might reasonably reset a peer’s election timer whenever you receive an AppendEntries or RequestVote RPC, as both indicate that some other peer either thinks it’s the leader, or is trying to become the leader. Intuitively, this means that we shouldn’t be interfering. However, if you read Figure 2 carefully, it says:

If election timeout elapses without receiving AppendEntries RPC from current leader or granting vote to candidate: convert to candidate.

The distinction turns out to matter a lot, as the former implementation can result in significantly reduced liveness in certain situations.

The importance of details

To make the discussion more concrete, let us consider an example that tripped up a number of 6.824 students. The Raft paper mentions heartbeat RPCs in a number of places. Specifically, a leader will occasionally (at least once per heartbeat interval) send out an AppendEntries RPC to all peers to prevent them from starting a new election. If the leader has no new entries to send to a particular peer, the AppendEntries RPC contains no entries, and is considered a heartbeat.

Many of our students assumed that heartbeats were somehow “special”; that when a peer receives a heartbeat, it should treat it differently from a non-heartbeat AppendEntries RPC. In particular, many would simply reset their election timer when they received a heartbeat, and then return success, without performing any of the checks specified in Figure 2. This is extremely dangerous. By accepting the RPC, the follower is implicitly telling the leader that their log matches the leader’s log up to and including the prevLogIndex included in the AppendEntries arguments. Upon receiving the reply, the leader might then decide (incorrectly) that some entry has been replicated to a majority of servers, and start committing it.

Another issue many had (often immediately after fixing the issue above), was that, upon receiving a heartbeat, they would truncate the follower’s log following prevLogIndex, and then append any entries included in the AppendEntries arguments. This is also not correct. We can once again turn to Figure 2:

If an existing entry conflicts with a new one (same index but different terms), delete the existing entry and all that follow it.

The if here is crucial. If the follower has all the entries the leader sent, the follower MUST NOT truncate its log. Any elements following the entries sent by the leader MUST be kept. This is because we could be receiving an outdated AppendEntries RPC from the leader, and truncating the log would mean “taking back” entries that we may have already told the leader that we have in our log.

Debugging Raft

Inevitably, the first iteration of your Raft implementation will be buggy. So will the second. And third. And fourth. In general, each one will be less buggy than the previous one, and, from experience, most of your bugs will be a result of not faithfully following Figure 2.

When debugging, Raft, there are generally four main sources of bugs: livelocks, incorrect or incomplete RPC handlers, failure to follow The Rules, and term confusion. Deadlocks are also a common problem, but they can generally be debugged by logging all your locks and unlocks, and figuring out which locks you are taking, but not releasing. Let us consider each of these in turn:


When your system livelocks, every node in your system is doing something, but collectively your nodes are in such a state that no progress is being made. This can happen fairly easily in Raft, especially if you do not follow Figure 2 religiously. One livelock scenario comes up especially often; no leader is being elected, or once a leader is elected, some other node starts an election, forcing the recently elected leader to abdicate immediately.

There are many reasons why this scenario may come up, but there is a handful of mistakes that we have seen numerous students make:

Incorrect RPC handlers

Even though Figure 2 spells out exactly what each RPC handler should do, some subtleties are still easy to miss. Here are a handful that we kept seeing over and over again, and that you should keep an eye out for in your implementation:

Failure to follow The Rules

While the Raft paper is very explicit about how to implement each RPC handler, it also leaves the implementation of a number of rules and invariants unspecified. These are listed in the “Rules for Servers” block on the right hand side of Figure 2. While some of them are fairly self-explanatory, the are also some that require designing your application very carefully so that it does not violate The Rules:

One common source of confusion is the difference between nextIndex and matchIndex. In particular, you may observe that matchIndex = nextIndex - 1, and simply not implement matchIndex. This is not safe. While nextIndex and matchIndex are generally updated at the same time to a similar value (specifically, nextIndex = matchIndex + 1), the two serve quite different purposes. nextIndex is a guess as to what prefix the leader shares with a given follower. It is generally quite optimistic (we share everything), and is moved backwards only on negative responses. For example, when a leader has just been elected, nextIndex is set to be index index at the end of the log. In a way, nextIndex is used for performance – you only need to send these things to this peer.

matchIndex is used for safety. It is a conservative measurement of what prefix of the log the leader shares with a given follower. matchIndex cannot ever be set to a value that is too high, as this may cause the commitIndex to be moved too far forward. This is why matchIndex is initialized to -1 (i.e., we agree on no prefix), and only updated when a follower positively acknowledges an AppendEntries RPC.

Term confusion

Term confusion refers to servers getting confused by RPCs that come from old terms. In general, this is not a problem when receiving an RPC, since the rules in Figure 2 say exactly what you should do when you see an old term. However, Figure 2 generally doesn’t discuss what you should do when you get old RPC replies. From experience, we have found that by far the simplest thing to do is to first record the term in the reply (it may be higher than your current term), and then to compare the current term with the term you sent in your original RPC. If the two are different, drop the reply and return. Only if the two terms are the same should you continue processing the reply. There may be further optimizations you can do here with some clever protocol reasoning, but this approach seems to work well. And not doing it leads down a long, winding path of blood, sweat, tears and despair.

A related, but not identical problem is that of assuming that your state has not changed between when you sent the RPC, and when you received the reply. A good example of this is setting matchIndex = nextIndex - 1, or matchIndex = len(log) when you receive a response to an RPC. This is not safe, because both of those values could have been updated since when you sent the RPC. Instead, the correct thing to do is update matchIndex to be prevLogIndex + len(entries[]) from the arguments you sent in the RPC originally.

An aside on optimizations

The Raft paper includes a couple of optional features of interest. In 6.824, we require the students to implement two of them: log compaction (section 7) and accelerated log backtracking (top left hand side of page 8). The former is necessary to avoid the log growing without bound, and the latter is useful for bringing stale followers up to date quickly.

These features are not a part of “core Raft”, and so do not receive as much attention in the paper as the main consensus protocol. Log compaction is covered fairly thoroughly (in Figure 13), but leaves out some design details that you might miss if you read it too casually:

The accelerated log backtracking optimization is very underspecified, probably because the authors do not see it as being necessary for most deployments. It is not clear from the text exactly how the conflicting index and term sent back from the client should be used by the leader to determine what nextIndex to use. We believe the protocol the authors probably want you to follow is:

A half-way solution is to just use conflictIndex (and ignore conflictTerm), which simplifies the implementation, but then the leader will sometimes end up sending more log entries to the follower than is strictly necessary to bring them up to date.

Applications on top of Raft

When building a service on top of Raft (such as the key/value store in the second 6.824 Raft lab, the interaction between the service and the Raft log can be tricky to get right. This section details some aspects of the development process that you may find useful when building your application.

Applying client operations

You may be confused about how you would even implement an application in terms of a replicated log. You might start off by having your service, whenever it receives a client request, send that request to the leader, wait for Raft to apply something, do the operation the client asked for, and then return to the client. While this would be fine in a single-client system, it does not work for concurrent clients.

Instead, the service should be constructed as a state machine where client operations transition the machine from one state to another. You should have a loop somewhere that takes one client operation at the time (in the same order on all servers – this is where Raft comes in), and applies each one to the state machine in order. This loop should be the only part of your code that touches the application state (the key/value mapping in 6.824). This means that your client-facing RPC methods should simply submit the client’s operation to Raft, and then wait for that operation to be applied by this “applier loop”. Only when the client’s command comes up should it be executed, and any return values read out. Note that this includes read requests!

This brings up another question: how do you know when a client operation has completed? In the case of no failures, this is simple – you just wait for the thing you put into the log to come back out (i.e., be passed to apply()). When that happens, you return the result to the client. However, what happens if there are failures? For example, you may have been the leader when the client initially contacted you, but someone else has since been elected, and the client request you put in the log has been discarded. Clearly you need to have the client try again, but how do you know when to tell them about the error?

One simple way to solve this problem is to record where in the Raft log the client’s operation appears when you insert it. Once the operation at that index is sent to apply(), you can tell whether or not the client’s operation succeeded based on whether the operation that came up for that index is in fact the one you put there. If it isn’t, a failure has happened and an error can be returned to the client.

Duplicate detection

As soon as you have clients retry operations in the face of errors, you need some kind of duplicate detection scheme – if a client sends an APPEND to your server, doesn’t hear back, and re-sends it to the next server, your apply() function needs to ensure that the APPEND isn’t executed twice. To do so, you need some kind of unique identifier for each client request, so that you can recognize if you have seen, and more importantly, applied, a particular operation in the past. Furthermore, this state needs to be a part of your state machine so that all your Raft servers eliminate the same duplicates.

There are many ways of assigning such identifiers. One simple and fairly efficient one is to give each client a unique identifier, and then have them tag each request with a monotonically increasing sequence number. If a client re-sends a request, it re-uses the same sequence number. Your server keeps track of the latest sequence number it has seen for each client, and simply ignores any operation that it has already seen.

Hairy corner-cases

If your implementation follows the general outline given above, there are at least two subtle issues you are likely to run into that may be hard to identify without some serious debugging. To save you some time, here they are:

Re-appearing indices: Say that your Raft library has some method Start() that takes a command, and return the index at which that command was placed in the log (so that you know when to return to the client, as discussed above). You might assume that you will never see Start() return the same index twice, or at the very least, that if you see the same index again, the command that first returned that index must have failed. It turns out that neither of these things are true, even if no servers crash.

Consider the following scenario with five servers, S1 through S5. Initially, S1 is the leader, and its log is empty.

  1. Two client operations (C1 and C2) arrive on S1
  2. Start() return 1 for C1, and 2 for C2.
  3. S1 sends out an AppendEntries to S2 containing C1 and C2, but all its other messages are lost.
  4. S3 steps forward as a candidate.
  5. S1 and S2 won’t vote for S3, but S3, S4, and S5 all will, so S3 becomes the leader.
  6. Another client request, C3 comes in to S3.
  7. S3 calls Start() (which returns 1)
  8. S3 sends an AppendEntries to S1, who discards C1 and C2 from its log, and adds C3.
  9. S3 fails before sending AppendEntries to any other servers.
  10. S1 steps forward, and because its log is up-to-date, it is elected leader.
  11. Another client request, C4, arrives at S1
  12. S1 calls Start(), which returns 2 (which was also returned for Start(C2).
  13. All of S1’s AppendEntries are dropped, and S2 steps forward.
  14. S1 and S3 won’t vote for S2, but S2, S4, and S5 all will, so S2 becomes leader.
  15. A client request C5 comes in to S2
  16. S2 calls Start(), which returns 3.
  17. S2 successfully sends AppendEntries to all the servers, which S2 reports back to the servers by including an updated leaderCommit = 3 in the next heartbeat.

Since S2’s log is [C1 C2 C5], this means that the entry that committed (and was applied at all servers, including S1) at index 2 is C2. This despite the fact that C4 was the last client operation to have returned index 2 at S1.

The four-way deadlock: All credit for finding this goes to Steven Allen, another 6.824 TA. He found the following nasty four-way deadlock that you can easily get into when building applications on top of Raft.

Your Raft code, however it is structured, likely has a Start()-like function that allows the application to add new commands to the Raft log. It also likely has a loop that, when commitIndex is updated, calls apply() on the application for every element in the log between lastApplied and commitIndex. These routines probably both take some lock a. In your Raft-based application, you probably call Raft’s Start() function somewhere in your RPC handlers, and you have some code somewhere else that is informed whenever Raft applies a new log entry. Since these two need to communicate (i.e., the RPC method needs to know when the operation it put into the log completes), they both probably take some lock b.

In Go, these four code segments probably look something like this:

func (a *App) RPC(args interface{}, reply interface{}) {
    // ...
    i := a.raft.Start(args)
    // update some data structure so that apply knows to poke us later
    // wait for apply to poke us
func (r *Raft) Start(cmd interface{}) int {
    // do things to start agreement on this new command
    // store index in the log where cmd was placed
    return index
func (a *App) apply(index int, cmd interface{}) {
    switch cmd := cmd.(type) {
    case GetArgs:
        // do the get
	// see who was listening for this index
	// poke them all with the result of the operation
    // ...
func (r *Raft) AppendEntries(...) {
    // ...
    // ...
    for r.lastApplied < r.commitIndex {
      r.lastApplied++, r.log[r.lastApplied])
    // ...

Consider now if the system is in the following state:

We now have a deadlock, because:

There are a couple of ways you can get around this problem. The easiest one is to take a.mutex after calling a.raft.Start in App.RPC. However, this means that App.apply may be called for the operation that App.RPC just called Raft.Start on before App.RPC has a chance to record the fact that it wishes to be notified. Another scheme that may yield a neater design is to have a single, dedicated thread calling from Raft. This thread could be notified every time commitIndex is updated, and would then not need to hold a lock in order to apply, breaking the deadlock.