Viewstamped Replication is a mechanism for providing replication through a Primary / Backup scheme. This paper provides a distilled view of this technique along with several optimizations that can be applied. In particular, this paper focuses solely on the Viewstamped Replication protocol, without looking at any specific implementation or uses.

While a general Primary / Backup replication scheme may seem easy to get right, considering how to handle view changes and the many optimizations that others have come up with over the years, this paper provides a go-to source for building such a system.

Previously we have looked at the Paxos protocol for consensus as well as Spanner which is an externally consistent distributed storage system. This paper sits in-between these two extremes in that it is a technique used for replication, thus being more complete than one-time consensus, while eliding the details of a full storage system like Spanner.

What is Viewstamped Replication?

Viewstamped Replication (referred to as VR in the remainder of this post) is a replication protocol that uses consensus to support a replicated state machine. The replication state machine allows clients using this service to run operations that either view or modify the state, upon which other services can be built such as a distributed key-value store.

One goal of VR is to support failures using nodes, so it should be used in a distributed system where failures may occur. Beyond normal operation, the system handles two scenarios: changing the primary between the current list of members in a view change, as well as changing the set of participating members in a reconfiguration. This paper assumes that state replicated on many machines can be used for durability, thus avoiding a potential latency of writing to persistent storage. Unfortunately, if VR is run in one datacenter, all the machines may be on the same power source and thus in the same failure domain, so this might not be practical without a UPS.


Some number of clients will be interacting directly with a service such as a key-value store. The clients use a VR library or proxy that will abstract away the details of the replication so that client code will use the abstraction of “read” and “write” like operations on client defined state. Clients will use a monotonically increasing request number which will allow the system to detect duplicate requests.

Some number of servers ( when trying to support failures) will run the VR code as well as the service code. The VR code on the server will determine when to apply operations on the service data and push these operations up to the service code. Note that these servers can return after a failure (or network partition) and will only result in a view change which would require getting the failed / partitioned node(s) up to date.

Note that in VR as presented in this paper, the operations are performed on several different replicas (instead of shipping the data around after the operation has been performed). As a result, the operations must be deterministic. It is mentioned in the paper that particular techniques can be used to ensure this property.

As this is a Primary / Backup based system, the ordering is decided by the primary, however replicas must know about a request before executing it to ensure durability despite failures and that ordering is guaranteed.

System Operation

The system is in one of three states: normal operation, view changes when the system needs a new primary, and reconfiguration when membership is changing. The primary node is deterministically chosen based on the configuration (list of servers) and the view numbers. As a result this system does not need to rely on voting or consensus (e.g. longest log) to determine the next leader to take over.

Normal Operation

Replicas use a view number to determine if they are in the correct state. If the sender is behind, the receiver will drop the message, whereas if the sender is ahead, the receiver must update itself first, and then process the message.

A client sends a request to perform an operation at the server. The server then sends Prepare messages to each of the backups and waits for PrepareOk responses. Once it has received these responses it can assume that the message will persist and it applies the operation by making an upcall to the service code, which finally replies to the client. A backup will perform the same operation but does not reply to the client.

View Changes

View changes occur when the system needs to elect a new leader. A key correctness requirement for the protocol is that every operation executed by an upcall to the service code must make it into the new view in the same order as the original execution. To achieve this requirement, logs are obtained and merged using the view number to break conflicts in op number ordering.


  • Replica sends StartViewChange to all other replicas
  • Receives responses, sends DoViewChange to new primary
  • New primary waits for DoViewChange messages before assuming new view

Note that sending a suffix of the log (e.g. 1-2 entries) in the DoViewChange message will likely bring the new server up to date without requiring any additional state transfer from the replicas.


Server recovery has the correctness requirement that a replica must be as up to date as it was when it crashed, otherwise it may forget about ops that it prepared. This is achieved by receiving state from other replicas using the following recovery protocol (note that nodes do not participate in request processing or view changes during the recovery phase):

  • Recovering node send Recovery message to all
  • All reply with RecoveryResponse, view number and a nonce (and log, etc if primary)
  • Replica waits for responses (and primary), applies log and begins normal processing

Note that in the theoretical solution, logs may be prohibitively big, however optimizations exist to trim the log (e.g. snapshots).

Client recovery is simply achieved by starting any new request with the old request number (obtained from replicas) + 2.


Though reconfiguration is discussed later in the paper, it fits the flow here in that it is essentially the last mode of operation. Beyond that, several optimizations are considered to speed up various parts of the system.

Reconfiguration is used to add/remove nodes to the system (thus changing the failures that the system can handle), or to upgrade or relocate machines (for long running systems). A reconfiguration is instantiated by an administrator of the system. In this paper, the term “epoch” refers to a configuration number and the “transitioning” state refers to a node that is currently changing configurations. The reconfiguration is started similarly to other operations by sending the operation to the leader, however included in this operation is the new configuration (list of participating machines). The primary will then send the StartEpoch message and wait for responses.

Any new replicas will be brought up to date before the epoch change (by sending them a list of operations or a snapshot + diff). Once a new replica is up to date it will send an EpochStarted message to old replicas. Thus, once an old replica (that is not in the new configuration) has received EpochStarted messages, it is free to shut down. Note that one particular optimization is to bring new machines up to date (e.g. warm-up) before performing the reconfiguration to minimize the down time during transition as nodes will not respond to messages for earlier epochs or while transitioning.

The administrator can determine status of old replicas by sending out CheckEpoch messages and then know when it is safe to shut down old machine(s).

One issue for this system is rendezvous, however the solution provided in the paper is to simply publish it somewhere out-of-band.

Efficient Recovery

One concern is achieving efficient recovery of failed server machines. As presented previously, sending the missing log could result in the transfer of a substantial amount of data. One way to solve this is to store application state as a “checkpoint” that represents a log prefix, thus allowing the transfer of a potentially much more compressed state + some log diff.

After a server creates a checkpoint, it can mark any modification as “dirty”, and provide those as the diff over the last created checkpoint. A perhaps generic way of accomplishing this diff is to use merkle trees to efficiently determine which pages are dirty to avoid sending the entire checkpoint. Finally, if the state is too large to transfer then the paper suggests an out-of-band mechanism (e.g. sneakernet).

Note that checkpoints allow garbage collection of the log, but the log may still be required to bring back a recovering node, so it is beneficial to keep some of it, else the system will suffer the cost of state transfer between servers.

State Transfer

State transfer between two replicas can exist in essentially two cases. One being that there are missing operations in the current view. To solve this, the replica will simply obtain said operations from another replica. The second, and more difficult, situation is that there was a view change. In this case, the replica sets its op-number to the latest commit-number, and obtains updates from another replica. If there is a gap in this replica’s log, it will need to fast-forward using application state (such as a checkpoint).

Other Optimizations

There are a handful of optimizations that others have come up with since the original VR procool was presented. One example is using Witnesses that aren’t performing the operations. This is a simple extension to the system by having replicas act as log keepers that are only used for view changes and recovery.

Another optimization is to batch operations which simply implies that if the system is busy then piggy-back several operations in a single message.

Finally, fast reads is a technique used in several replication systems. This essentially allows the primary to respond to a read request without going through the full protocol. These can be performed at the Primary, though the use of leases and loosely synchronized clocks are required to maintain consistency. Additionally, if the user of the system is ok with stale data, then reads can be served at backups where a backup will reply to a client if it has seen commits up to that request.