The trouble with fault-tolerant systems is that they tolerate faults: by design they can appear to be working normally despite some underlying problem.

Majority-based consensus algorithms such as Paxos are designed to keep working as long as more than half of the nodes in the cluster are healthy and communicating with each other, but in practice you want to know about unhealthy nodes or connectivity issues so they can be fixed before they lead to a total failure.

Fortunately there are some fairly simple symptoms that can be used to detect and act on all sorts of hidden problems.


A healthy Paxos cluster is capable of accepting instructions from clients and makes regular progress. A cluster can be healthy despite underlying faults, but it’s worth having a basic health check for this to help rule out possibilities when you are investigating a broader issue.

At the other end of the scale, a cluster is unhealthy if it is unable to accept any instructions from clients, which may be due to a network partition or the failure of at least half of the nodes. If using the pre-voting mechanism then (after a timeout or two) all nodes in an unhealthy cluster are candidates which is fairly easy to observe. This is sufficient because non-candidates, by definition, made progress recently, and progress requires communication between a majority of nodes, so if there are any non-candidates then the system was recently available. Contrapositively, if the system wasn’t recently available then all nodes are candidates.

A completely-healthy Paxos cluster is healthy and has no underlying faults. It has a leader, and all other nodes are followers of that leader. The leader does not change, and proposes new values at some minimum frequency to continue to assert its leadership. It receives timely responses from all its followers when it proposes new values, and all nodes learn the new values reasonably soon after they are proposed.

The more interesting cases are those which are healthy but not completely healthy: the system is still making progress, but at an elevated risk of becoming unavailable. If the system is in such a state then an operator needs to be warned about it, but it is not urgent to resolve the failure. The two main symptoms of such a state are

  • any node is (or was recently) a candidate or uncontactable, and

  • any pair of nodes is (or was recently) unable to communicate with each other.

The first state can be detected by querying all nodes, and/or by raising a warning on recent receipt of a seek-votes message which indicates the sender was a candidate.

The second state requires all nodes to periodically contact all other nodes. It is important to verify this as it is possible for a partial network partition to allow all followers to communicate with the leader but not with each other. In this kind of partition if the leader were to fail then none of the followers may be able to form a majority and take over as a new leader, so the cluster would immediately become unhealthy.

It’s turned out to be useful for nodes to continue to report unhealthiness for some period of time (say 10s) after technically becoming healthy again, to mitigate the risk that a persistent yet intermittent fault is missed. Any unhealthiness indicates some kind of genuine fault and if the fault isn’t transient then the operators need to know about it.

It’s also turned out to be useful to enter a warning state if any peer was recently in a warning state (for reasons other than this one) as this propagates warnings across the whole cluster.


Health, as described above, focusses on failures affecting a single node, but there are some failure modes that may affect more than one node in the cluster. For example, in a three-node cluster it may happen that two of the nodes share a power supply or other vital infrastructure. It is worth checking that the system’s configuration is not exposed to this sort of multi-node failure mode, and notifying operators to reconfigure it if such a risk is identified.


Another latent fault to watch out for is to do with (hoho) latency. High latency at an otherwise healthy-looking node can be a strong leading indicator of impending doom, such as the system getting too close to at some kind of throughout limit.

In a majority-based system, the latency presented to clients is related to the median latency of the individual nodes, which can hide the fact that a minority of nodes are struggling. The trouble is that if just one of the healthy nodes goes offline then the median latency can shift dramatically, possibly triggering a cascading failure.

This means it’s a good idea to keep track of the response latencies of all the nodes as well as the client-facing (i.e. median) latency, to catch any problems before they start to have consequences.


Most of the network bandwidth required to run a Paxos implementation is used sending data from the leader to its followers. When the leader fails and another node takes over there can be a dramatic change in the flow pattern of data in the system, which risks overwhelming some network links. I don’t have a comprehensive answer for how to detect this in advance, but be aware that it can happen.

Leadership changes should be needed relatively rarely (I count four occurrences in the last two months in one of our production clusters) but can be disruptive when they occur, so it could be a good idea to add a Revolutionary Monkey to your Simian Army to depose the current leader more frequently than would happen naturally.

Unusual activity

In normal running each node of the cluster executes quite a small subset of its code, avoiding all of the branches that are only active during some kind of failure. More specifically, this is something like:

  • a follower expects to receive only proposed and committed messages from the current leader for its current term, and never to become a candidate.

  • a leader expects to receive only accepted messages from its followers for its current term, and to send proposed messages due to timeouts or client requests. It occasionally becomes an incumbent, but never a candidate.

It has turned out to be worthwhile and simple to record, in detail, all activity that is not on these paths. The resulting logs are empty when the cluster is completely healthy, but contain very detailed information whenever something unexpected happens.


Observability is about measuring the state of your system and using these measurements to take further action.

If the cluster is completely healthy and all the latency measurements seem reasonable then all is well in the world. If the cluster is healthy-but-not-completely then it’s still working from the clients’ perspectives but there’s an elevated risk of failure. Nodes that become candidates, even temporarily, warrant further investigation. The logs of activity off the usual paths will show if it’s a problem with the node itself or its connectivity.

If the cluster is critically unhealthy then immediate action may be required to restore service. Unusual-activity logs and other monitoring can determine whether the cluster is down because of lost connectivity or because of the failure of too many nodes. If the former, fix the connectivity to restore service. If the latter, there is a risk that some recently-acknowledged data has been lost, but (accepting this risk) it is sometimes possible to restore a cluster from any remaining nodes. The last resort is for the cluster to be completely terminated and then started from backups on a set of healthy nodes.