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Leader Election and State Machine Replication in BlazingMQ


This articles introduces readers to the leader election algorithm in BlazingMQ. The article explains the motivation for having a leader node in a given BlazingMQ cluster, and then goes on to explain the leader election algorithm implementation, which is inspired by the algorithm proposed in the Raft consensus protocol. The article also discusses an extension to the leader election algorithm (what Raft refers to as PreVote), which helps BlazingMQ’s leader election implementation achieve stability during network disruptions. Note that Raft is a state machine replication algorithm, and indeed, BlazingMQ’s replication model is also inspired by it, although with some important differences. This article primarily focuses only on BlazingMQ’s leader election algorithm, and explains state machine replication only briefly. Similarly, differences with Raft are discussed briefly.


Before we jump into the nitty-gritty of the leader election algorithm, let’s first look at why some distributed systems like BlazingMQ need a node in their clusters to act as a coordinator or “leader”.

A distributed system often needs to carry out some bookkeeping and management of its workload as well as nodes in the cluster. These responsibilities can take various forms for different distributed systems, including but not limited to:

  • Keeping an eye on the health of nodes in the cluster (e.g., demoting an unhealthy node, synchronizing a newly joined node, etc.)

  • Distributing work across nodes in the cluster (e.g., assigning a primary node to a stream of data, distributing ranges of keys across nodes in the cluster, etc.)

  • Storing and replicating any metadata required to bootstrap the cluster upon restart

In order to avoid conflicting decisions, only one node in the cluster (the “leader”) should be authorized to carry out such work, while other nodes (the “followers”) must honor the decisions made by the leader node.

It is worth noting that not all distributed systems require a leader node to work. In such systems, each node can act as a coordinator for a request that it receives from the user. Such systems are out of the scope of this article.

Responsibilities of the Leader Node in BlazingMQ

At this point, it is worth discussing the role of a leader node in BlazingMQ cluster. A BlazingMQ leader node performs the following responsibilities:

  • Managing Cluster Metadata: A BlazingMQ cluster hosts its metadata itself, instead of relying on an external metadata store like Apache ZooKeeper, etcd, etc. It is the responsibility of the leader to store and replicate metadata among nodes in the cluster. See Cluster Metadata section for more details about metadata.

  • Synchronizing New Nodes: The leader node is also in charge of bringing a new node (which just restarted or joined the BlazingMQ cluster) up to date with cluster’s metadata and other information which helps the new node catch up with other nodes.

  • Checking the Health of Peer Nodes: Leader node keeps an eye on the health of peer nodes, and may choose to assign another node as the primary upon detecting a failing or crashed primary node.

The Leader Election Algorithm in BlazingMQ

As mentioned previously, a BlazingMQ cluster elects a node as the leader which acts as a coordinator for the cluster’s metadata and healthiness of nodes. The leader node maintains a replicated state machine to ensure that the cluster’s metadata is persisted at the majority of the nodes. This section explains the leader election algorithm at a high level. It is by no means exhaustive and deliberately avoids any formal specification or proof. Readers looking for an exhaustive explanation should refer to the Raft paper, which acts as a strong inspiration for BlazingMQ’s leader election algorithm.

Naïve Leader Election Algorithm

Instead of jumping into the final version of algorithm, let’s try to write one, starting from something simple. Here’s our first attempt:

  1. When a node in the BlazingMQ cluster detects the absence of a leader, it proposes election by sending an ElectionProposal request to the peer nodes.

  2. Peers can respond to the ElectionProposal request with a yes or a no, depending upon their elector state machine.

  3. If the proposing node gets support from the majority of the peer nodes, it becomes the leader. Here, majority would mean N/2 + 1, where N is the total number of nodes in the cluster. Enforcing quorum ensures that at any given time, there is no more than one leader in the BlazingMQ cluster.

  4. New leader starts sending periodic heartbeats to the peers (“followers”).

  5. Follower nodes periodically check for heartbeats from the leader. If a configured number of consecutive heartbeats are missed, then the follower may assume that the leader node has disappeared, and may decide to propose an election immediately or after some time.

Problems with the Naïve Algorithm

While the above algorithm looks reasonable enough, it has several problems:

  • Concurrent Election Proposals: It cannot handle concurrent election proposals. Let’s say the two follower nodes notice that the leader has disappeared, and decide to propose an election at the same time. As a result, other nodes would receive multiple election proposals, one from each of the nodes proposing an election. How should a node decide which proposal to respond to with a yes and which one with a no?

  • Unneeded Election Proposals: It cannot handle unneeded election proposals. Let’s say a follower node already views a node as the leader, but then receives an election proposal from another node. Should the follower node continue to follow the original leader, or should it support the second one? What if the second one has more up-to-date information? There is no way for the follower node to figure that out from the proposal.

  • Stale Leader Detection: It cannot detect a stale leader. Let’s say a follower node already views a node as the leader, but then starts receiving leader heartbeats from another node as well. How does the follower node determine which of the two leaders is the stale one?

  • Ordering Leader Updates: It cannot help nodes to order updates published by the leader. Given two updates, there is no way to figure out which update originated from an old leader and which one from a new leader.

Introducing Election Term

All of the above problems can be solved by introducing a monotonically increasing integer in our election algorithm. Here are the details:

  • Every message exchanged within the algorithm (e.g., ElectionProposal, ElectionProposalResponse, LeaderHeartbeat, etc) will contain an integer.

  • Every node will maintain its own copy of the integer.

  • A node will always honor an election request/notification/heartbeat message if the message contains a higher value for this integer than its own copy (and will also update its own copy with the higher value).

This integer can be thought of as a logical clock, a generation count, a fencing token, or as Raft calls it: an election term.

Updated Algorithm using Term

Here’s the updated algorithm which now uses a term:

  1. When a node in the BlazingMQ cluster detects the absence of a leader, it proposes an election by sending an ElectionProposal request to the peer nodes containing proposedTerm == ++selfTerm.

  2. A peer node responds to ElectionProposal with a:

    • Yes if proposedTerm > peer's selfTerm, and also updates selfTerm = proposedTerm.

    • No if proposedTerm <= peer's selfTerm

  3. If the proposing node gets support from the majority of the peer nodes, it transitions to leader (at this point the leader’s selfTerm == proposedTerm).

  4. The new leader starts sending periodic heartbeats to the peers (“followers”). Every Heartbeat message contains the leader’s term.

  5. Follower nodes periodically check for heartbeats from the leader and ensure that selfTerm == term in heartbeat message. If a configured number of consecutive heartbeats are missed, then follower may assume that the leader node has disappeared.

Additional notes on elector term:

  • One can see that every leader will have a unique term associated with it, and a newer leader will have a higher term than the previous leader. This can help followers detect and ignore stale leaders.

  • A leader can also use its term to create composite sequence numbers to be used in any application-level messages sent by the leader. These sequence numbers can be of the form (Term, Counter) where Counter is an integer starting from zero for every new leader. In BlazingMQ, these composite sequence numbers are referred to as Leader Sequence Numbers or LSNs. So a leader with a term of 5 can issue messages with LSNs (5, 1), (5,2) and so on. LSNs can also be used to order messages from the leader as well as to ignore messages from stale leaders. For example, a message LSN (5, 2) is newer than a message with LSN (4, 1000).

  • Lastly, what Raft refers to as a term is referred to as view, ballot number, proposal number, round number, epoch, etc by other similar systems like Paxos, Apache ZooKeeper etc. Moreover, what we refer to as Leader Sequence Number in BlazingMQ is referred to as Log Sequence Number, ZXID, etc by other systems.

Elector State Machine

At a given time, every participating node can be in one of the three states:

  • FOLLOWER: a follower node is not the leader and has not proposed an election. It may or may not be aware of the leader.

  • CANDIDATE: a candidate node is not the leader, but has a pending election proposal.

  • LEADER: a leader node is one which currently enjoys support of the majority of the nodes in the cluster.

Some general notes on these elector states:

  • A node always starts as a FOLLOWER with selfTerm = 0. Upon start up, the node waits a configured amount of time in order to discover the existing leader, if one exists.

  • A FOLLOWER node will transition to CANDIDATE and propose an election if it cannot find a leader node in the configured time.

  • A CANDIDATE waits for a configured amount of time to hear from all or the majority of its peers for its election proposal.

  • If a CANDIDATE receives an election proposal or a heartbeat with higher term, the CANDIDATE transitions back to FOLLOWER and supports the node with higher term.

  • Similarly, if a LEADER receives an election proposal or a heartbeat with higher term, it transitions back to FOLLOWER and supports the node with higher term.

A node will always honor an election proposal or heartbeat message with higher term, irrespective of its role.

Elector Algorithm: Node Startup Scenario

Let’s walk through a common scenario where a node starts up and joins the peers participating in the election:

  1. The new node starts up as a FOLLOWER with selfTerm = 0 and waits for the configured amount of time to discover the existing leader, if any.

  2. If the node discovers a leader via heartbeat messages, it updates selfTerm = leaderTerm, and also sends an unsolicited ElectionProposal response to the leader node, letting it know that it supports the leader.

  3. If the node does not find the leader node, it waits for some additional time (random interval between 0-3 seconds) before transitioning to a CANDIDATE and proposing an election with ++selfTerm. The reason for waiting a random time interval before proposing an election is explained in the third bullet of the next section.

Elector Algorithm: Leader Crash Scenario

Let’s walk through another common scenario where the leader node crashes or stops gracefully:

  1. Once a FOLLOWER node starts following a LEADER node, it schedules a periodic event to check for heartbeat messages from the leader.

  2. If three consecutive heartbeats are missed, the follower waits for a random time interval (between 0-3 seconds) before proposing an election with ++selfTerm.

  3. The additional random wait interval prevents multiple FOLLOWER nodes from proposing elections simultaneously. This helps to avoid failed election proposals, which helps with faster convergence to elect a new leader.

Differences from Raft’s Consensus Algorithm

BlazingMQ’s leader election and state machine replication differs from that of Raft in one way: in Rafts leader election, only the node having the most up-to-date log can become the leader. If a follower receives an election proposal from a node with stale view of the log, it will not support it. This ensures that the elected leader has up-to-date messages in the replicated stream, and simply needs to sync up any followers which are not up to date. A good thing about this choice is that messages always flow from leader to follower nodes.

BlazingMQ’s elector implementation relaxes this requirement. Any node in the cluster can become a leader, irrespective of its position in the log. This adds additional complexity in that a new leader needs to synchronize its state with the followers and that a follower node may need to send messages to the new leader if the latter is not up to date. However, this deviation from Raft and the custom synchronization protocol comes in handy because it allows BlazingMQ to avoid flushing (fsync) every message to disk. Readers familiar with Apache Kafka internals will see similarities between the two systems here.

An additional benefit of this deviation is the case when we specifically want a particular node to become leader for testing, troubleshooting, or simulating disaster recovery scenarios. On some occasions, the target node could be behind in the replicated state machine, and would not be elected as the leader in the original Raft algorithm.

Extending the Leader Election Algorithm

In the previous sections, we discussed a couple of scenarios (node start and leader crash) and saw how the election algorithm handles them well. Let’s discuss a couple of scenarios where the BlazingMQ algorithm could do better.

Non-sticky Leader

Non-sticky Leader

The figure above demonstrates a setup where there are 4 nodes in a cluster. In the absence of any disturbance, all 4 nodes connect to each other over TCP, creating full mesh. However, let’s assume that due to network disruption, node B gets isolated from the other 3 nodes. Let’s also assume that node A is the leader with a term of 10. Note that even after node B gets isolated, node A continues to enjoy support of the majority of the nodes in the cluster and thus continues to be the leader as perceived by itself and nodes C and D.

However, since node B is isolated, it cannot see node A and its elector state machine eventually transitions to CANDIDATE, bumps up it’s local term to 11 and proposes an election. Inevitably, this election round fails after a timeout. Node B then waits for random time interval and proposes an election yet again, this time with a term of 12, which fails yet again. The cycle continues and node B’s term keeps on incrementing with every failed election.

Now, let’s assume that network heals and node B is no longer isolated from its peers. Node B will eventually receive heartbeats from node A with a term of 10, which node B will ignore since its own term is higher than that. Additionally, node B will propose an election with a term higher than 10. Nodes A, C, and D, upon receiving this proposal, will support node B because of higher term in the proposal, and node A will transition from LEADER to FOLLOWER. Eventually, node B will transition to LEADER with the other 3 nodes following it.

While our algorithm works correctly (at a given time, there is only one leader) one can see that there was an unnecessary leadership switch from node A to node B. It would be ideal if node A continued to be the leader, with node B simply following it upon re-joining the cluster.

Leader Ping-Pong

Leader Ping-Pong

The figure above demonstrates another scenario which is more disruptive than the one discussed in the previous section.

In this scenario, let’s assume that node A is the leader with a term of 10 with the other three nodes following it. Then, due to a network disturbance, let’s assume that node B gets disconnected from node A, while still being connected to nodes C and D.

In this scenario, node B will detect the dropped connection (or missed leader heartbeats) from node A, and will eventually transition to FOLLOWER and then become a CANDIDATE and propose an election with term 11. Node A will not receive this proposal, but nodes C and D will, and both of them will support node B because of higher term in the election proposal. Node B will get support from the majority of the nodes and will transition to LEADER.

Node A will come to know that nodes C and D no longer support it as the leader when it receives an InvalidHeartbeat message from one or both of them with the latest term (11). Node A will transition to FOLLOWER, and since it cannot see the current leader (node B), it will propose an election with a term of 12. Again, nodes C and D will support this election, and node A will end up being the leader with a term of 12.

The cycle will repeat with node B becoming a leader with a term of 13, then node A becoming a leader with a term of 14, and so on. Leadership will keep bouncing between nodes A and B. While at a given time, there will be only one leader, this scenario can be extremely disruptive for an application.

Solution: The ElectionScouting Request

The problems of non-sticky leaders and leader ping-pong discussed above can be solved by introducing an ElectionScouting request (Raft calls this as PreVote request):

  1. A node, instead of sending an ElectionProposal request with proposedTerm = ++selfTerm, sends an ElectionScouting request with proposedTerm = selfTerm + 1. In other words, the node specifies an incremented term in the ElectionScouting request but does not bump up its own term. For example, a node with term 10 will specify term 11 in ElectionScouting request. Logically, an ElectionScouting request asks this question to the peer nodes: “If I were to propose an election with the specified term, will you support me?”.

  2. A node which receives ElectionScouting request responds as per this logic:

    • If it already perceives another node as the leader, it responds to the ElectionScouting request with a No.
    • If it does not perceive any node as the leader, it responds with a Yes if selfNode < proposedNode, otherwise a No.

Introducing the ElectionScouting request ensures that a node does not needlessly bump up its own term every time it proposes an election, without even knowing if peers will support its proposal or not.

Additionally, the logic in second bullet ensures that if a peer is already aware of a leader, it will not honor an ElectionScouting request from another node, even if the request contains a higher term. Note that the rule of honoring a message with higher term still applies to all other requests/notifications/heartbeats, except for ElectionScouting requests.

Readers will notice that the two enhancements above ensure that the election algorithm is no longer susceptible to the non-sticky leader and leader ping-pong scenarios previously mentioned.


Just like BlazingMQ’s other subsystems, its leader election implementation (and general replicated state machinery) is tested with unit and integration tests. In addition, we periodically run chaos testing on BlazingMQ using our Jepsen chaos testing suite, which we will be publishing soon as open source. We have also tested our implementation with a TLA+ specification for BlazingMQ’s elector state machine.