System design basics – III Consistent hashing

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Consistent Hashing

To understand consistent hashing, first of all, we have to understand traditional hashing and it’s limitations in large scale distributed systems.

Hashing in plain terms is nothing but a key-value pair store, were given a key, the associated value can be found very efficiently. Example: Let’s say we want to find the name of a street in the city given its zip code. Idea is to store this information as hash as

The problem becomes more interesting when data is too big to store on one node or machine, multiple such nodes or machines are required in the system to store it. For example, a system which uses number of web caches. First question: How to decide which key goes on which node? The simplest solution is to use a modulo function to decide. Given a key, take the hash of the key,  divide it by the number of nodes in the system and then put that key on to that node. Similarly, when fetching key, hash the key, divide with the number of nodes and then go to that node and fetch the value. The picture depicts conventional hashing in the multi-node system.


Failures are common in commodity hardware-driven distributed multi-node system. Any node can die without any prior notice and the expectation is that the system runs unaffected with a slight cost on performance. What happens when in the system described above, a node goes down?  In traditional hashing, the total number of nodes has decreased, so function determining node to put key on or fetch key from, changes. New keys will be working fine. What happens to existing keys? They are all in the wrong nodes as per the new function.

traditional-hashing (1)

To fix this problem, we have to redistribute all existing keys on the remaining nodes, which may be a very costly operation and can have detrimental effects on the running system. Again what happens when a node comes back? well, repeat what was done when the node went down. This may result in thrashing effect where if a node misbehaves regularly, the system would do no good work except re-distribution of keys.

How to solve this challenge? This is where consistent hashing comes into the picture.

Consistent hashing in distributed multi-node systems

Consistent hashing comes up with a very simple idea, that is to have nodes and keys in the same id space, unlike traditional hashing where node id and keys were in two different id space. Node id can be a hash function to IP address and then the same hash function is applied to keys to determine which node key goes on or to fetch from.

A critical requirement for consistent hashing implementation is to have a hash function which is consistent irrespective of system view and map keys roughly uniformly on all machines.

Chose any base hash function such that it maps a keyspace to integers in the range [0..M]. Once we divide it with M, it gives us a unit circle. Now, each key once hashed represents a point on this unit circle.

Consistent hashing

How does a key map to a node exactly? Well, a key is hashed and then put key on to the first node you find while moving clockwise. Simple enough, huh? To find a key, take a hash and go to the first node while moving clockwise on to the unit circle.

consistent-hashig (1)

How does it solve the problem of scale? Let’s my system is receiving  5 x load, what happens to nodes and how can I balance load or reduce it? Simple thing is to add more nodes uniformly distributed on the unit circle and problem solved. Consistent hashing built of scale.

What happens when a node goes down? All the keys which were on this node are reallocated to the next successor node on the circle. All other keys remain unchanged. This is far more optimal compared to the case when we have re-distribute all keys on the failure of one node.

As mentioned earlier, we assume that the hash function used will distribute keys on nodes uniformly, which is not realistic. To reduce non-uniformity,  virtual nodes are introduced. In this case, each node is hashed with K different hash function which maps nodes on different points on the circle. Still, the node is going to get 1/N keys however, virtual nodes reduce key load variance significantly.

One challenge still remains: How to efficiently find successor node for a given key, we want to find source s such that h(s) > h(k) of key k. The intuitive solution is to use hash, but hashes do not maintain any ordering information. Best bet is to use binary search tree which maintains order, but the successor function is proportional to the depth of tree which is O(N), We can reduce that by using balanced binary search trees like red-black trees which reduces complexity to log(N).

Where all consistent hashing is used?

Consistent hashing is used in Memcached, Casandra, Amazon Dynamo, etc.

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