Using Promise Theory to solve the distributed consensus problem

Secure tools for sharing granular data between micro clients

Mark Burgess
16 min readMar 9, 2024

Whenever we try to fix something in one corner of IT, we seem to yank another corner out of place and create new problems–trading one conundrum for another. Microservices are a perfect example of that: the denormalization of data and centralization of processes makes teams less interdependent (solving a human issue), but creates challenges for managing shared state. Breaking up singular data stores into (not completely) independent parts can easily upset the integrity of algorithms, data, user experiences, and hence business continuity. These headaches are now more keenly felt as these matters become regulated by law (think GDPR, DORA, etc). The most prominent issue is the so-called consistency of shared data, because it underpins so much and involves technical issues that engineers can sympathize with.

Dare we ask?

The problem of data consistency remains one of those issues that continues to attract attention both from academics and practitioners. It’s famously muddled together with the notion of distributed consensus. The English meanings are basically the same, but the technical meanings are used differently. Confusingly, the latter is used as part of the usual solution to the former in standard algorithms like Paxos and Raft. Lesser known but influential results, like the FLP theorem, “prove” the impossibility of distributed consensus in an asynchronous environment and scare people away from thinking carefully. There’s also the infamous CAP conjecture whose popularization (and apparently endless revisions) added fuel to the mysticism in a generally unhelpful way.

The IT industry isn’t always good at asking probing questions–we like to trust leaders and influencers who can think for us. But those thinkers sometimes leave the problem half solved, and we end up with standard solutions that random software engineers interpret for us. Dare we question them?

Over my tenure in Computer Science, I’ve tried to clarify and even debunk the occasional myth about what can and can’t be done by developing clear models, many of which are summarised in my Treatise on Systems, often with the help of the increasingly ubiquitous Promise Theory. The data consistency issue is no different, and it turns out that there is a simple answer we’ve been missing that András Gerlits and I have been talking about quite a lot recently in connection with his Omniledger calibrator software. Of course, there may be several ways of “solving” a problem, depending on the semantics we desire. Part of the confusion about consistency lies in deciding what we consider to be an equitable solution.

Let’s apply the smallest amount of Promise Theory to show how intentional consistency of data can be engineered at the same time as we scale the scope and availability of a service.

Consistency: one of the skis is parallel!

By consistency, we obviously don’t mean whipping data into a smooth spongy texture for a dish best served fast! Consistency in IT refers to the pure undelayed homogeneity of facts throughout a system–of data values, or key-value pairs that spans several computers.

Consistency manifests as a business reliability (perhaps even security) issue for most of us. It’s now related to regulatory compliance issues, particularly in the EU, as well as matters of privacy and user experience. The related terms consensus and quorum are more subtly used to refer to how one reaches agreement about disputed facts, but in practice these all mean that we want parts of a system to reach the goal of being aligned in their promises of data.

On a ski slope, skiers are taught to keep their skis in alignment when making turns. When parallel, the skis’ directions “agree” or are consistent with each other. One might say they have reached a consensus about their direction of travel. Those who are less stylish in their parallelism sometimes joke: “well, one of the skis was parallel!”. In IT, we don’t want our systems to be split down the middle by misalignments.

We can’t actually stop it from happening, but we can prevent ourselves from ever seeing it so that it can make no difference in practice. Just how stringently this is prevented accounts for several differences in the discussions about data consistency.

Seeing is believing

If consensus is about winning an argument, then consistency is a problem about calibration of state. Any user or observer has an equal “right” or capability to measure the answers given by different independent agents and compare them to see if they are equal. That single point of measurement calibrates the outcomes of any two agents (see diagram below).

A and B are supposed to be in alignment. A claims the value is a, B clams it’s b. It’s up to C to decide whether it receives these and finds that a = b are the same.

C observes A and B and, using this information, it is able to make a conditional promise based on that information to any other agent of interest (including the original A and B) about whether or not a=b according to its own measurements and to the best of its capabilities. C is thus a calibrator–an independent adjudicator of truth. This is how law courts work: a judge compares A and B to resolve differences or make a choice. Consensus means that A, B, and C all agree about their value for the promise. This is easy if there is an authoritative source for correct change. This is what we need to preserve.

Agreeing about different versions of a particular value is relatively easy as long as the values of a and b never change. But in a dynamically changing environment, like bumping over snow moguls, keeping a and b skis aligned depends on a race to change each. What if a changes while no one is looking and C hasn’t measured a in a while, so it still thinks that a=b, but A knows better. How can we know this? Clearly, we can’t because we already lost that race, but we need to ask whether this matters to anything that can happen. If a skier falls in a forest and no one is looking…should we care?

Central services!?

A small but growing number of voices is challenging the authority of the FLP and CAP results, pointing out that their implications have been misunderstood. The impossibility claims for distributed consensus stem from an incorrect assumption about the universality of change. The standard assumption is that it has to apply to everyone “at the same time”. But what does “at the same time” mean? If you’ve ever watched a thunderstorm, you know that sensory data (what we see and what we hear) arrive at very different times even though the strike happens at a single moment and at a single location.

Availability (readiness to listen) and consensus (agreement) are not global constraints that need to imply rigorous temporal precision, they are actually only constraints on the local behaviour of observers and influencers (users). Promise Theory is about autonomous agents, which implies the causal independence of agents: changes promised by one agent cannot influence another without an explicit acceptance by the promisee. So Promise Theory can help us to clarify where incorrect assumptions about causality go wrong.

Alignment of data ultimately boils down to how different agents in an information system signal and observe change to one another. After all it’s this change that measures the passage of time across the different partial processes. Observation is a crucial element, because we don’t notice changes (the passage of time) while we have our eyes closed. When we open them again, that’s when the change reaches us in a single tick. So everyone receives the information at their own behest: at their own pace, not when the lightning actually strikes.

If we apply this to think about how fragments in a system align their changing facts, the solution for maintaining alignment across multiple locations boils down to making sure we preserve the historical order of changes from the original source. If you smash a plate with a picture painted on it, we can reconstruct the picture later so that it’s consistent with the original as long as we put the pieces in the correct spacetime order.

An obvious and simple way to assure consistency is to have just one answer to compare to. A single copy cannot be inconsistent, so we use singular sources as sources for truth and arbitration. For perfect parallel turns, use a snowboard!

The industry standard is to force a single “master” database and replicate it for redundancy. That way, you don’t have to worry about the “master” being consistent. We don’t look at the copies too often, so that’s one way of avoiding trouble. Centralization to a single master is presented as a control decision to assure an authoritative source, i.e. a single source of control. But when the master fails, we have to worry about whether any of the backups are consistent with the master. Since we’ve now lost the original, the meaning of consistent is now ambiguous. Aligned with what? Which of the skis is parallel?

Many also point out that a central service is also a possible bottleneck (depending on its relative capacity), but the true importance of centralisation in system design is really (you guessed it) for calibration–to act as a standard measuring stick for data. It turns out we can solve both the consistency problem and the bottleneck problem alongside the partial sharing (microservice) problem all at the same time by introducing a data calibrator, and just getting the plumbing right to preserve causal order across a system. It’s a bit like a shared clock, but in which the flow of data is the clock itself! In this way, all concerns about data or network partitions, unreliable connections etc, can be resolved for each individual client locally for best effort. To make everything happen “at the same time” we can simply stop time for those who wait without a central service!

Independent contractors or central services?

Scale it, agent by agent

The figure below shows the basic interaction between a client and a single server, e.g. a database. Assuming that there is only one copy of data on this server, it has to be self-consistent.

A user interacts with a datastore. The causality is simple: one version, one value at a time.

As we add more clients, a single database may not be able to cope with the work so we look to scale the system. Using Promise Theory notation, the database promises to accept data (-) in the order the client promises to offer data (+). We simply need to scale these promises to deal with a single superagent that encapsulates more clients and databases to maintain alignment across redundant copies of data on a continuous basis.

What’s true for a single client-server pair must also be true for any pair in a collection of pairs. Consider three such pairs, in the diagram below.

When N independent data stores want to coordinate a few records each can have one version at a time in their private scope, but each data store and user can hold its own version of what they call the same thing, becaus agreeing onthe key is not agreeing about the value.

Every pair can work independently, but if we want all three of these pairs to be aligned with one another “at all times”, could we arrange a perfect alignment of their data promises? They need to be coordinated.

Because data changes tend to be sparse arrival processes their streams can naturally be merged without losing any contention. If (in rare cases) the streams all have heavy traffic, we can use traffic lights to poll them round robin in the usual way. Roundabouts (“road circles”) do this in traffic. We can create the same effect with simple polling of the entrances and exits.

“At all times” is the key term, and this is where people often stumble. There are, after all, times when we don’t care if things are the same: i.e. when no one is looking. Skiers can pick themselves up in the forest and recover without being disqualified from a race. Instead of “equality at all times” we should be asking “alignment whenever someone actually looks”, because this is all we can promise about someone else’s state. Whatever we can’t see is uncorroborated hearsay.

What the FLP and CAP results interpret too restrictively is that all times and locations must be universally in alignment for arbitrarily small intervals of a mythical universal time. However, when sleeping, hours can pass during which we can neither say nor care whether data elsewhere are in step or not. If we disregard times when it is impossible to observe misalignment, the issues simply become about tracing the history in causal order, like in a supply chain. We accomplish this by managing observables when making conditional promises about consensus.

We already know that the simple way to achieve this is to get everyone to interact with the same database, which is the central services model. We can do better than this by introducing a conditional interpolation pipeline. Reads and writes of data queue up centrally to be admitted to a single calibrated timeline. If two clients send a conflicting request it’s First Come First Served and the latecomer is returned to sender. The accepted transactions are thus queued up to final destinations so they can be picked up once the receivers are awake and available to assimilate them.

Granular scaling with no master

Let’s do it step by step. You can skip this if it’s too much detail. To make N databases behave as one we have to note the following:

  1. We replace each master database interaction by interactions with an interloper: a kind of “virtual data service”, i.e. a scale model of a single database (made from distributed parts) made using smart data plumbing.
  2. We then tie the ability to observe records together with the condition of no pending change. This is slightly different from a typical mutex lock, but it amounts to the same thing.
  3. We intercept the usual promises from client to database by wrapping the service connection with our smart pipeline, which now passes everything through an interloper or data calibrator.

With these promises, we can actually scale data replication up and down more powerfully than by the master replica set method. Every database can continue to work at near full capacity at its edge of the network. The data calibrator mediates a kind of virtual database that coordinates changes on a microgranular level between otherwise independent databases. Instead of writing directly to a database connection, we feed operations into a smart pipeline and everything else happens transparently. The data managed by the interloper proxy can cover just as much or as little of the whole edge data stores as we want it to. This is a matter of policy. The result is that we have an idea which is perfect for:

  • Copy on write backup of all data, or
  • Microservices with denormalized storage, where perhaps only a small amount of user data needs caching over some region.
To restore unity, replace three interactions with three things with three interactions, one at a time, with one thing. We can use this simple causal reasoning to prevent inconsistencies at various levels of nitpicking.

Promise theoretically, we proceed by drawing a boundary around the three interactions we want to calibrate (excluding the databases themselves, which we don’t want to force to be fully identical) and call these a single superagent. We redirect the interactions for shared data to this new agent, which implements a smart data pipeline for causal updates.

  1. To the client user, this now looks like a single interface (or proxy) to a scaled model of a database.
  2. To each database, the client just looks like a single client.

The promises

Let’s quickly examine the client-server interactions more closely and turn each direct interaction into a supply chain interaction, with replication of the data stream.

An interaction can be described formally by an exchange of promises about how the two sides will behave. Each side has the freedom to decide what it accepts from the other, though this is rarely properly acknowledged in human design including IT.


  • Clients impose changes ad hoc at any time.
  • Clients promise to pay attention to and take responsibility for non-accepted (failed) data impositions signalled by the interloper.

db :

  • A virtual db connection accepts only read/write/change commands from the interloper and sleeps in between such events.
  • The db signals the interloper of success/failure for any attempted read/write as its virtual client.


  • Our smart plumbing accepts read requests for the shared data if and only if the relevant records are up to date with all shared data changes logged by the interpolator, i.e. the private write queue for that database is empty. We don’t need to wait for irrelevant records.
  • The interloper accepts new write requests to forward to its shared clients if and only if all active shared data connections confirm that they haven’t already received a prior command that might read or write relevant overlapping data (e.g. in a select/search of an affected value or a write to the affected value).
  • Accepted writes are queued in a single totally ordered queue shared by all active edge databases and are only removed when all databases have been updated.
  • The queue processes the commit requests (as private write queues) to each database and empties the queue as quickly as possible so that the affected records can be read again. It’s this granular locking that permits almost wait-free replication of consistent shared state,
  • The operations inform clients of success/failure for any attempted read/write, like a normal SQL API.

The interloper is now the gatekeeper of a single scaled truth–a smart data calibrator on a highly granular level. Its logic is determined entirely by conditional promises, like a causal supply chain. Everything flows normally unless the preconditions are not met. If no one is looking, there’s no pressure to deliver quickly. If there is a delivery failure somewhere, or there are crossed wires, no one can jump the queue or take out data that haven’t yet arrived.

If one of the databases becomes unavailable (e.g. if it loses power or its network connection creating a “partition”) no harmful misalignment can be observed by any client, because the interloper disallows reads until everything is reported to be back in sync. Thus, when an orphaned receiver rejoins the collective, it has to catch up with the shared order before it can serve any affected data to its local clients. While cut off, attempts to write to the shared state would simply fail without blocking writes to remaining available destinations. No collisions can possibly occur as long as all changes are fed through the pipeline. Time effectively stops for clients until a partitioned database gets plugged back in. The interpolator acts as a master ledger for all changes, taking care of global order and regular semantics.

Most solutions to the consensus/consistency problem don’t try to fully prevent misreads of data like this, because that would require some changes to established technology–and heaven forbid that we should inconvenience technologists to make a public safety improvement. It’s more common to offer limited help in avoiding the issue by posting “buyer beware” notices or recommendations for “best buy” service. That covers some legal disclaimers, which may cover many cases: after all, as network reliability improves, the probability of observing inconsistencies shrinks anyway. The biggest problem becomes one of simple negligence in coordinating updates across distributed copies.

Why is this different from master replication?

Our ideal scenario promises a virtual scale model of each single data record that we choose to track, made by connecting several databases together over a smart data pipeline. Causal change manages temporal order over arbitrary spatial separations, like a supply chain or pipeline. In the usual approach to database redundancy, replicas tend to reduce database throughput performance; here the opposite may actually be true.

What replica sets using Paxos and Raft propose is that you will literally deal with one master server and try to keep backup copies of an entire database aligned independently. When a master dies or fails, the clients try to decide on a new leader so that they are all talking to the same server. This leads to a delay in which no one can write. The skis come off!

There's no particular need to replicate a whole database if we only want to share a few records. Granularity is the answer to scalability and reliability.

This is not the end of the story…

All this is straightforward and it would surely be great if more people used this approach, but probabilities tend to argue against solving the problem. What our simple and obvious promise theoretic solution cannot do is make sense of the biggest problem we have with modern data stores, which is that they typically offer only latest-value semantics. The caching problem.

In IT, correct values are assumed to be the latest values. It’s a race to be last, because the last value wins by overwriting and obliterating what came before. So if you have an evil demon flooding the system with nonsense, you’re in trouble. We always live in the moment, even when we keep ledgers and transaction logs at some master location for forensics. Are we sure those logs are consistent? More importantly, are they a record of what everyone intended?

We still continue to design software that does not align change on a continuous basis across multiple locations. We see the world of data as if it were a perpetual snapshot, and we try to keep offline backups in sync by brute force as lagging snapshots. Most of our technologies fail to track their changes as versions of data records. We apply continuous time-series databases (addressable logs) and version control repositories (like git) for only a few specialised purposes at the edge.

In our age of ubiquitous e-commerce, we want data services to be available all the time, not least for uninterrupted revenue. When restocking, we sometimes need to close the shop doors temporarily to avoid mishaps when moving stuff. We believe that continuous availability implies instantaneous and simultaneous change for everyone, but that’s not true. In reality, clients and updates come in bursts and each transaction takes a finite time (that we call latency) so what we do in the gaps between can go unnoticed. We should hope for these gaps when replicating data for backup, because replication is typically slow to catch up with continuous change and we fear the risks of having data that are out of essential alignment at a crucial moment.

What remains is a modelling issue (one of imposition over promise), not a technology problem per se–but, luckily it’s a discussion for another snapshot in time.

Additional references

  1. Scaling systems so that they keep the same kind of promises at every scale is discussed in my article about Software Wind Tunnels, and in more detail in the Treatise on Systems.
  2. This essay is based on a slimmed down version of a paper I wrote with András Gerlits and served as a simple introduction to his software implementation.

If you need to help to solve this issue, I suggest reaching out to András above or even me!

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Mark Burgess

@markburgess_osl on Twitter and Instagram. Science, research, technology advisor and author - see Http:// and Https://