Consul provides a session mechanism which can be used to build distributed locks. Sessions act as a binding layer between nodes, health checks, and key/value data. They are designed to provide granular locking and are heavily inspired by The Chubby Lock Service for Loosely-Coupled Distributed Systems.

»Session Design

A session in Consul represents a contract that has very specific semantics. When a session is constructed, a node name, a list of health checks, a behavior, a TTL, and a lock-delay may be provided. The newly constructed session is provided with a named ID that can be used to identify it. This ID can be used with the KV store to acquire locks: advisory mechanisms for mutual exclusion.

Below is a diagram showing the relationship between these components:

Consul Sessions

The contract that Consul provides is that under any of the following situations, the session will be invalidated:

  • Node is deregistered
  • Any of the health checks are deregistered
  • Any of the health checks go to the critical state
  • Session is explicitly destroyed
  • TTL expires, if applicable

When a session is invalidated, it is destroyed and can no longer be used. What happens to the associated locks depends on the behavior specified at creation time. Consul supports a release and delete behavior. The release behavior is the default if none is specified.

If the release behavior is being used, any of the locks held in association with the session are released, and the ModifyIndex of the key is incremented. Alternatively, if the delete behavior is used, the key corresponding to any of the held locks is simply deleted. This can be used to create ephemeral entries that are automatically deleted by Consul.

While this is a simple design, it enables a multitude of usage patterns. By default, the gossip based failure detector is used as the associated health check. This failure detector allows Consul to detect when a node that is holding a lock has failed and to automatically release the lock. This ability provides liveness to Consul locks; that is, under failure the system can continue to make progress. However, because there is no perfect failure detector, it's possible to have a false positive (failure detected) which causes the lock to be released even though the lock owner is still alive. This means we are sacrificing some safety.

Conversely, it is possible to create a session with no associated health checks. This removes the possibility of a false positive and trades liveness for safety. You can be absolutely certain Consul will not release the lock even if the existing owner has failed. Since Consul APIs allow a session to be force destroyed, this allows systems to be built that require an operator to intervene in the case of a failure while precluding the possibility of a split-brain.

A third health checking mechanism is session TTLs. When creating a session, a TTL can be specified. If the TTL interval expires without being renewed, the session has expired and an invalidation is triggered. This type of failure detector is also known as a heartbeat failure detector. It is less scalable than the gossip based failure detector as it places an increased burden on the servers but may be applicable in some cases. The contract of a TTL is that it represents a lower bound for invalidation; that is, Consul will not expire the session before the TTL is reached, but it is allowed to delay the expiration past the TTL. The TTL is renewed on session creation, on session renew, and on leader failover. When a TTL is being used, clients should be aware of clock skew issues: namely, time may not progress at the same rate on the client as on the Consul servers. It is best to set conservative TTL values and to renew in advance of the TTL to account for network delay and time skew.

The final nuance is that sessions may provide a lock-delay. This is a time duration, between 0 and 60 seconds. When a session invalidation takes place, Consul prevents any of the previously held locks from being re-acquired for the lock-delay interval; this is a safeguard inspired by Google's Chubby. The purpose of this delay is to allow the potentially still live leader to detect the invalidation and stop processing requests that may lead to inconsistent state. While not a bulletproof method, it does avoid the need to introduce sleep states into application logic and can help mitigate many issues. While the default is to use a 15 second delay, clients are able to disable this mechanism by providing a zero delay value.

»K/V Integration

Integration between the KV store and sessions is the primary place where sessions are used. A session must be created prior to use and is then referred to by its ID.

The KV API is extended to support an acquire and release operation. The acquire operation acts like a Check-And-Set operation except it can only succeed if there is no existing lock holder (the current lock holder can re-acquire, see below). On success, there is a normal key update, but there is also an increment to the LockIndex, and the Session value is updated to reflect the session holding the lock.

If the lock is already held by the given session during an acquire, then the LockIndex is not incremented but the key contents are updated. This lets the current lock holder update the key contents without having to give up the lock and reacquire it.

Once held, the lock can be released using a corresponding release operation, providing the same session. Again, this acts like a Check-And-Set operation since the request will fail if given an invalid session. A critical note is that the lock can be released without being the creator of the session. This is by design as it allows operators to intervene and force-terminate a session if necessary. As mentioned above, a session invalidation will also cause all held locks to be released or deleted. When a lock is released, the LockIndex does not change; however, the Session is cleared and the ModifyIndex increments.

These semantics (heavily borrowed from Chubby), allow the tuple of (Key, LockIndex, Session) to act as a unique "sequencer". This sequencer can be passed around and used to verify if the request belongs to the current lock holder. Because the LockIndex is incremented on each acquire, even if the same session re-acquires a lock, the sequencer will be able to detect a stale request. Similarly, if a session is invalided, the Session corresponding to the given LockIndex will be blank.

To be clear, this locking system is purely advisory. There is no enforcement that clients must acquire a lock to perform any operation. Any client can read, write, and delete a key without owning the corresponding lock. It is not the goal of Consul to protect against misbehaving clients.

»Leader Election

The primitives provided by sessions and the locking mechanisms of the KV store can be used to build client-side leader election algorithms. These are covered in more detail in the Leader Election guide.

»Prepared Query Integration

Prepared queries may be attached to a session in order to automatically delete the prepared query when the session is invalidated.