Problem When multiple nodes share state, they often need to agree between themselves on a particular value. With Leader and Followers, the leader decides and passes its value to the followers. But if there is no leader, then the nodes need to determine a value themselves. (Even with a leader-follower, they may need to do…



When multiple nodes share state, they often need to agree between
themselves on a particular value.
With Leader and Followers, the leader decides and passes its value to the
followers. But if there is no leader, then the nodes need to determine a
value themselves. (Even with a leader-follower, they may need to do this to
elect a leader.)

A leader can ensure replicas safely acquire an update by using
Two Phase Commit, but without a leader we can have competing nodes
attempt to gather a Quorum. This process is further
complicated because any node may fail or disconnect. A node may achieve
quorum on a value, but disconnect before it is able to communicate this
value to the entire cluster.


The Paxos algorithm was developed by Leslie Lamport,
published in his 1998 paper The
Part-Time Parliament
. Paxos works in three phases to make sure
multiple nodes agree on the same value in spite of partial network or
node failures. The first two phases act to build consensus around a
value, the last phase then communicates that consensus to the remaining

  • Prepare phase: establish the latest Generation Clock
    and gather any already accepted values.
  • Accept phase: propose a value for this generation for replicas
    to accept.
  • Commit Phase: let all the replicas know that a value has been chosen.

In the first phase (called prepare phase), the node
proposing a value (called a proposer) contacts all the nodes
in the cluster (called acceptors) and asks them if they will
promise to consider its value. Once a quorum of acceptors return such a
promise, the proposer moves onto the second phase. In the second phase
(called the accept phase) the proposer sends out a proposed
value, if a quorum of nodes accepts this value then the value is
chosen. In the final phase (called the commit
), the proposer can then commit the chosen value to all the
nodes in the cluster.

Flow of the Protocol

Paxos is a difficult protocol to understand. We’ll start by showing
an example of a typical flow of the protocol, and then dig into some of
the details of how it works. We intend this explanation to provide an
intuitive sense of how the protocol works, but not as a comprehensive
description to base an implementation upon.

Here’s a very brief summary of the protocol.



Obtains the next generation number from a Generation Clock. Sends a prepare request with this generation
number to all acceptors.

If the generation number of the prepare request is later than
its promised generation variable, it updates its promise generation
with this later value and returns a promise response. If it has already
accepted a proposal it returns this proposal.

When it receives promises from quorum of acceptors, it looks to
see if any of these responses contain accepted values. If so it changes its
own proposed value to that of the returned proposal with the highest
generation number. Sends accept requests to all acceptors with its generation number and
proposed value.

If the generation number of the accept request is later than
its promised generation variable it stores the proposal as its accepted
proposal and responds that it has accepted the request.

When it receives a successful response from a quorum of
acceptors, it records the value as chosen and sends commit messages to
all nodes.

Those are basic rules for paxos, but it’s very hard to understand how
they combine for an effective behavior. So here’s an example to show how
this works.

Consider a cluster of five nodes: Athens, Byzantium, Cyrene,
Delphi, and Ephesus. A client contacts the Athens node, requesting to set
the name to “alice”. The Athens node now needs to initiate a Paxos
interaction to see if all the nodes will agree to this change. Athens is
called the proposer, in that Athens will propose to all the other nodes that
the name of the cluster become “alice”. All the nodes in the cluster
(including Athens) are “acceptors”, meaning they are capable of accepting

At the same time that Athens is proposing
“alice”, the node Ephesus gets a request to set the name to “elanor”. This
makes Ephesus also be a proposer.

In the prepare phase the proposers begin by sending some prepare
requests, which all include a generation number. Since Paxos is intended to
avoid single points of failure, we don’t take this from a single generation
clock. Instead each node maintains its own generation clock where it
combines a generation number with a node ID. The node ID is used to break
ties, so [2,a] > [1,e] > [1,a]. Each acceptor records the
latest promise it’s seen so far.

promised generation1,a1,a01,e1,e
accepted valuenonenonenonenonenone

Since they haven’t seen any requests before this, they all return a
promise to the calling proposer. We call the returned value a “promise”
because it indicates that the acceptor promises to not consider any messages
with an earlier generation clock than the promised one.

Athens sends its prepare message to Cyrene. When it receives a promise in
return, this means it has now got promises from from three of the five nodes, which
represents a Quorum. Athens now shifts from sending
prepare messages to sending accept messages.

It is possible that Athens fails to receive a promise
from a majority of the cluster nodes. In that case Athens
retries the prepare request by incrementing the generation clock.

promised generation1,a1,a1,a1,e1,e
accepted valuenonenonenonenonenone

Athens now starts sending accept messages, containing the generation and
the proposed value. Athens and Byzantium accept the proposal.

promised generation1,a1,a1,a1,e1,e
accepted valuealicealicenonenonenone

Ephesus now sends a prepare message to Cyrene. Cyrene had sent a promise to
Athens, but Ephesus’s request has a higher generation, so it takes
precedence. Cyrene sends back a promise to Ephesus.

Cyrene now gets an accept request from Athens but rejects it as the
generation number is behind its promise to Ephesus.

promised generation1,a1,a1,e1,e1,e
accepted valuealicealicenonenonenone

Ephesus has now got a quorum from its prepare messages, so can move on to
sending accepts. It sends accepts to itself and to Delphi but then crashes
before it can send any more accepts.

promised generation1,a1,a1,e1,e1,e
accepted valuealicealicenoneelanorelanor

Meanwhile, Athens has to deal with the rejection of its accept request from
Cyrene. This indicates that its quorum is no longer promised to it and thus
its proposal will fail. This will always happen to a proposer who loses its
initial quorum like this; for another proposer to achieve quorum at least
one member of the first proposer’s quorum will defect.

In a situation with a simple two phase commit, we would then expect
Ephesus to just go on and get its value chosen, but such a scheme would now
be in trouble since Ephesus has crashed. If it had a lock on a quorum of
acceptors, its crash would deadlock the whole proposal process. Paxos,
however, expects this kind of thing to happen, so Athens will make another
try, this time with a higher generation.

It sends prepare messages again, but this time with a higher generation
number. As with the first round, it gets back a trio of promises, but with
an important difference. Athens already accepted “alice”
earlier, and Delphi had accepted “elanor”. Both of these acceptors return a
promise, but also the value that they already accepted, together with the
generation number of that accepted proposal

promised generation2,a1,a2,a2,a1,e
accepted valuealicealicenoneelanorelanor

Alice, with a quorum, must now move onto the accept phase, but
it must propose the already-accepted value with the highest generation,
which is “elanor”, who was accepted by Delphi with a generation of [1,e], which is
greater than Athens’s acceptance of “alice” with [1,a].

Athens starts to send out accept requests, but now with “elanor” and its current
generation. Athens sends an accept request to itself, which is accepted. This is a
crucial acceptance because now there are three
nodes accepting “elanor”, which is a quorum for “elanor”, therefore we can consider
“elanor” to be the chosen value.

promised generation2,a1,a2,a2,a1,e
accepted valueelanoralicenoneelanorelanor

But although “elanor” is now the chosen value, nobody is yet aware of it.
Within the accept stage Athens only knows itself having “elanor” as the
value, which isn’t a quorum and Ephesus is offline. All Athens needs to do is
have a couple more accept requests accepted and it will be able to commit.
But now Athens crashes.

At this point Athens and Ephesus have now crashed. But the cluster still
has a quorum of nodes operating, so they should be able to keep working, and
indeed by following the protocol they can discover that “elanor” is the
chosen value.

Cyrene gets a request to set the name to “carol”, so it becomes a
proposer. It’s seen generation [2,a] so it kicks off a prepare phase with
generation [3,c]. While it wishes to propose “carol” as the name, for
the moment it’s just issuing prepare requests.

Cyrene sends prepare messages to the remaining nodes in the cluster. As
with Athens’s earlier prepare phase, Cyrene gets accepted values back, so
“carol” never gets proposed as a value. As before, Delphi’s “elanor” is
later than Byzantium’s “alice”, so Cyrene starts an accept phase with
“elanor” and [3,c].

promised generation2,a3,c3,c3,c1,e
accepted valueelanoralicenoneelanorelanor

While I could continue to crash and wake up nodes, it’s clear now that
“elanor” will win out. As long as a quorum of nodes are up, at least one of
them will have “elanor” as its value, and any node attempting a prepare will
have to contact one node that’s accepted “elanor” in order to get a quorum
for its prepare phase. So we’ll finish with Cyrene sending out commits.

At some point Athens and Ephesus will come back online and they will
discover what the quorum has chosen.

Requests don’t need to be rejected

In the example above, we saw acceptors rejecting requests with an
aged generation. But the protocol does not require an explicit rejection
like this. As formulated, an acceptor may just ignore an out-of-date
request. If this is the case, then the protocol will still converge on a
single consensus value. This is an important feature of the protocol
because, as this is a distributed system, connections can be lost at any
time, so it’s beneficial to not be dependent on rejections to ensure the
safety of the protocol. (Safety here meaning that the protocol will
choose only one value, and once chosen, it won’t be overwritten.)

Sending rejections, however, is still useful as it improves
performance. The quicker proposers find out they are old, the sooner
they can start another round with a higher generation.

Competing proposers may fail to choose

One way this protocol can go wrong is if two (or more) proposers get
into a cycle.

  • alice is accepted by athens and byzantium
  • elanor is prepared by all nodes, preventing alice from gaining quorum
  • elanor is accepted by delphi and ephesus
  • alice is prepared by all nodes, preventing elanor from gaining
  • alice is accepted by athens and byzantium
  • … and so on, a situation called a livelock

The FLP Impossibility Result
shows that even a single faulty node can stop a cluster from ever
choosing a value.

We can reduce the chances of this livelock happening by ensuring that whenever
a proposer needs to choose a new generation, it must wait a random
period of time. This randomness makes it likely that one proposer will
be able to get a quorum accepted before the other sends a prepare
request to the full quorum.

But we can never ensure that livelock can’t happen. This is a
fundamental trade-off: we can either ensure safety or liveness, but not
both. Paxos ensures safety first.

An example key-value store

The Paxos protocol explained here, builds consensus on a single value
(often called as single-decree Paxos).
Most practical implementations used in mainstream products like
Cosmos DB or Spanner
use a modification of paxos called multi-paxos which is implemented
as a Replicated Log.

But a simple key-value store can be built using basic Paxos. [cassandra]
uses basic Paxos in a similar way to implement it’s light-weight transactions.

The key-value store maintains Paxos instance per key.

class PaxosPerKeyStore…

  int serverId;
  public PaxosPerKeyStore(int serverId) {
      this.serverId = serverId;

  Map key2Acceptors = new HashMap();
  List peers;

The Acceptor stores the promisedGeneration, acceptedGeneration
and acceptedValue.

class Acceptor…

  public class Acceptor {
      MonotonicId promisedGeneration = MonotonicId.empty();
      Optional acceptedGeneration = Optional.empty();
      Optional acceptedValue = Optional.empty();
      Optional committedValue = Optional.empty();
      Optional committedGeneration = Optional.empty();
      public AcceptorState state = AcceptorState.NEW;
      private BiConsumer kvStore;

When the key and value is put in the kv store, it runs the Paxos protocol.

class PaxosPerKeyStore…

  int maxKnownPaxosRoundId = 1;
  int maxAttempts = 4;
  public void put(String key, String defaultProposal) {
      int attempts = 0;
      while(attempts <= maxAttempts) {
          MonotonicId requestId = new MonotonicId(maxKnownPaxosRoundId++, serverId);
          SetValueCommand setValueCommand = new SetValueCommand(key, defaultProposal);

          if (runPaxos(key, requestId, setValueCommand)) {

          Uninterruptibles.sleepUninterruptibly(ThreadLocalRandom.current().nextInt(100), MILLISECONDS);
          logger.warn("Experienced Paxos contention. Attempting with higher generation");
      throw new WriteTimeoutException(attempts);

  private boolean runPaxos(String key, MonotonicId generation, Command initialValue) {
      List allAcceptors = getAcceptorInstancesFor(key);
      List prepareResponses = sendPrepare(generation, allAcceptors);
      if (isQuorumPrepared(prepareResponses)) {
          Command proposedValue = getValue(prepareResponses, initialValue);
          if (sendAccept(generation, proposedValue, allAcceptors)) {
              sendCommit(generation, proposedValue, allAcceptors);
          if (proposedValue == initialValue) {
              return true;
      return false;

  public Command getValue(List prepareResponses, Command initialValue) {
      PrepareResponse mostRecentAcceptedValue = getMostRecentAcceptedValue(prepareResponses);
      Command proposedValue
              = mostRecentAcceptedValue.acceptedValue.isEmpty() ?
              initialValue : mostRecentAcceptedValue.acceptedValue.get();
      return proposedValue;

  private PrepareResponse getMostRecentAcceptedValue(List prepareResponses) {
      return -> r.acceptedGeneration.orElse(MonotonicId.empty()))).get();

class Acceptor…

  public PrepareResponse prepare(MonotonicId generation) {

      if (promisedGeneration.isAfter(generation)) {
          return new PrepareResponse(false, acceptedValue, acceptedGeneration, committedGeneration, committedValue);
      promisedGeneration = generation;
      state = AcceptorState.PROMISED;
      return new PrepareResponse(true, acceptedValue, acceptedGeneration, committedGeneration, committedValue);


class Acceptor…

  public boolean accept(MonotonicId generation, Command value) {
      if (generation.equals(promisedGeneration) || generation.isAfter(promisedGeneration)) {
          this.promisedGeneration = generation;
          this.acceptedGeneration = Optional.of(generation);
          this.acceptedValue = Optional.of(value);
          return true;
      state = AcceptorState.ACCEPTED;
      return false;

The value is stored in the kvstore only when it can be successfully committed.

class Acceptor…

  public void commit(MonotonicId generation, Command value) {
      committedGeneration = Optional.of(generation);
      committedValue = Optional.of(value);
      state = AcceptorState.COMMITTED;
      kvStore.accept(this, value);

class PaxosPerKeyStore…

  private void accept(Acceptor acceptor, Command command) {
      if (command instanceof SetValueCommand) {
          SetValueCommand setValueCommand = (SetValueCommand) command;
          kv.put(setValueCommand.getKey(), setValueCommand.getValue());

The paxos state needs to be persisted.
It can be easily done by using a Write-Ahead Log.

Handling multiple values.

It is important to note that Paxos is specified and proven to work on single value.
So handling multiple values with the single value Paxos protocol needs to be done
outside of the protocol specification. One alternative is to reset the state,
and store committed values separately to make sure they are not lost.

class Acceptor…

  public void resetPaxosState() {
      //This implementation has issues if committed values are not stored
      //and handled separately in the prepare phase.
      //See Cassandra implementation for details.

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One thought on “Paxos

  1. Aditya avatar

    I have a bit of a man-crush on Leslie Lamport (and have (unsuccessfully) tried to get TLA+ to be used at every job I've had for the last five years), and I have read through both the original Paxos paper in addition to the Paxos Made Simple paper, and I'm just going to say that I still found it about five times harder to grok than Raft. Honestly the TLA+ specification of Paxos made it click more than the papers for me, but that could just be because of the repeated readings before.

    It's a beautiful algorithm, but Raft has the advantage of being a lot simpler.