» Semaphore

This guide demonstrates how to implement a distributed semaphore using the Consul KV store. This is useful when you want to coordinate many services while restricting access to certain resources.

There are a number of ways that a semaphore can be built, so our goal is not to cover all the possible methods. Instead, we will focus on using Consul's support for sessions. Sessions allow us to build a system that can gracefully handle failures.

» Contending Nodes

Let's imagine we have a set of nodes who are attempting to acquire a slot in the semaphore. All nodes that are participating should agree on three decisions: the prefix in the KV store used to coordinate, a single key to use as a lock, and a limit on the number of slot holders.

For the prefix we will be using for coordination, a good pattern is simply:

service/<service name>/lock/

We'll abbreviate this pattern as simply <prefix> for the rest of this guide.

The first step is to create a session. This is done using the Session HTTP API:

curl  -X PUT -d '{"Name": "dbservice"}' \

This will return a JSON object contain the session ID:

  "ID": "4ca8e74b-6350-7587-addf-a18084928f3c"

Next, we create a contender entry. Each contender creates an entry that is tied to a session. This is done so that if a contender is holding a slot and fails, it can be detected by the other contenders.

Create the contender key by doing an acquire on <prefix>/<session> via PUT. This is something like:

curl -X PUT -d <body> http://localhost:8500/v1/kv/<prefix>/<session>?acquire=<session>

The <session> value is the ID returned by the call to /v1/session/create.

body can be used to associate a meaningful value with the contender. This is opaque to Consul but can be useful for human operators.

The call will either return true or false. If true, the contender entry has been created. If false, the contender node was not created; it's likely that this indicates a session invalidation.

The next step is to use a single key to coordinate which holders are currently reserving a slot. A good choice for this lock key is simply <prefix>/.lock. We will refer to this special coordinating key as <lock>.

The current state of the semaphore is read by doing a GET on the entire <prefix>:

curl http://localhost:8500/v1/kv/<prefix>?recurse

Within the list of the entries, we should find the <lock>. That entry should hold both the slot limit and the current holders. A simple JSON body like the following works:

    "Limit": 3,
    "Holders": {
        "4ca8e74b-6350-7587-addf-a18084928f3c": true,
        "adf4238a-882b-9ddc-4a9d-5b6758e4159e": true

When the <lock> is read, we can verify the remote Limit agrees with the local value. This is used to detect a potential conflict. The next step is to determine which of the current slot holders are still alive. As part of the results of the GET, we have all the contender entries. By scanning those entries, we create a set of all the Session values. Any of the Holders that are not in that set are pruned. In effect, we are creating a set of live contenders based on the list results and doing a set difference with the Holders to detect and prune any potentially failed holders.

If the number of holders (after pruning) is less than the limit, a contender attempts acquisition by adding its own session to the Holders and doing a Check-And-Set update of the <lock>. This performs an optimistic update.

This is done by:

curl -X PUT -d <Updated Lock> http://localhost:8500/v1/kv/<lock>?cas=<lock-modify-index>

If this succeeds with true, the contender now holds a slot in the semaphore. If this fails with false, then likely there was a race with another contender to acquire the slot. Both code paths now go into an idle waiting state. In this state, we watch for changes on <prefix>. This is because a slot may be released, a node may fail, etc. Slot holders must also watch for changes since the slot may be released by an operator or automatically released due to a false positive in the failure detector.

Note that the session by default makes use of only the gossip failure detector. That is, the session is considered held by a node as long as the default Serf health check has not declared the node unhealthy. Additional checks can be specified if desired.

Watching for changes is done via a blocking query against <prefix>. If a contender holds a slot, then on any change the <lock> should be re-checked to ensure the slot is still held. If no slot is held, then the same acquisition logic is triggered to check and potentially re-attempt acquisition. This allows a contender to steal the slot from a failed contender or one that has voluntarily released its slot.

If a slot holder ever wishes to release voluntarily, this should be done by doing a Check-And-Set operation against <lock> to remove its session from the Holders object. Once that is done, the contender entry at <prefix>/<session> should be deleted. Finally, the session should be destroyed.