The previous section described the circumstances under which updates to shared state can conflict, and introduced some techniques used to identify such conflicts. This section will present Conflict-free Replicated Data Types, a technology that automatically resolves such changes without the need for a central authority. It will define the specialized terminology which seems to keep many from adopting CRDTs, provide some basic examples, lay out clear expectations of what they can and cannot accomplish, and hopefully prepare you to avoid concurrency-related bugs and enjoy the benefits of offline-first applications.
Just like in the conventional sense of a Data Type, a CRDT can be defined by the set of its possible values, the set of valid operations on those values, and low-level representation of them. There are often many ways to represent the same information. Knowing the range of possible values and the exact operations required for your particular use case will help you choose the most effective design for the job.
CRDTs go further than the basic data types that are included in almost any programming language in that they are designed to be replicated across multiple processes. These processes might run on the same machine, but are more commonly spread across a network. To accomplish this they generally define additional methods to track the state of remote peers, deliver the minimal set of updates those peers lack, and to indicate which updates are known so that other peers can perform the same services for us.
Most importantly, CRDTs are conflict-free, meaning that they are designed to handle every possible combination of concurrent operations for a given data type in a deterministic way. The states of peers can diverge temporarily, but a CRDT guarantees eventual consistency, that any two peers that are aware of the same set of updates will converge to have the same state.
A tally (or count) is relatively simple to implement compared to many other data types. If two people want to count the number of books on two shelves, they can each count one of the shelves and then sum their results. They could also call out numbers on an ongoing basis, adding both their own discoveries and those they hear to a mental sum. It doesn't matter in what order values are recorded because addition is commutative, at least for simple numbers. The important thing to understand is that despite any superficial similarity, a tally differs from a number because a number supports many operations which cannot be applied in any order. By choosing to only support addition it can be guaranteed that all peers' tallies will converge on the same final value.
For a slightly more complex version of a tally
we can consider a situation in which the organizers of a festival
must ensure that none of its zones exceed their maximum safe occupancy.
A tally of the number of attendees in every zone can be kept
by recording the number of people passing through entrances and exits.
Rather than assuming that all additions pertain to a single value as in the last example,
we can modify our operation to specify
both the relevant zone and the change in occupancy.
Thus, as three people move from zone A to zone B,
the checkpoint can record two events (
update('A', -3); update('B', 3)).
As long as all checkpoints for a given zone
are able to communicate with each other with relatively little delay
then they should be able to use the information available to them
to decide whether to admit additional participants through their checkpoint.
These examples describe very basic CRDTs with narrowly scoped problems. If you have such a problem that maps well to a commutative operation then it might be worthwhile to design a specialized CRDT to solve it, and it may be reassuring to know that these data structures do not always require much complexity.
In practice the order of applications will matter, especially when dealing with data structures like lists or arrays. If two concurrent operations append items to the end of a list then it's reasonable to insert them in an arbitrary sequence. For example:
- Alice and Bob both try to add elements to their local copies of an empty list (
let list = )
- Alice does
- Bob does
- Alice does
- When they become aware of each others edits it would be valid to automatically resolve the concurrent changes as either
[7, 5], at least under most circumstances
- Now, if Charlie comes along, learns of both changes, and then tries to append yet another item, most would expect it to be added to the end:
- Charlie does
- Charlie does
- Valid outcomes are either
[5, 7, 11]or
[7, 5, 11]
As described in the last section of this chapter, there are techniques to differentiate between these two types of circumstance, identifying which operations are concurrent or consecutive. In order to automatically resolve such conflicts when concurrent operations do occur, such types must also define deterministic strategies to allow all participants to choose the same ordering out of a set of all possible options. Different CRDT libraries may use different resolution strategies, but in most cases the choice of mechanism is essentially arbitrary as long as it meets some basic conditions.
CRDTs are a very broad class of data structures with wide variety of possible implementations, even for superficially similar types. What they all have in common is a guarantee of eventual consistency, that all participants in a system will agree on the final state of the structure as long as they are all aware of the same set of updates. All updates will be merged automatically, regardless of their order or the degree to which they intersect.
With that said, whether or not the structure's final state matches
the expectations of those using the application is a matter of design.
If two peers concurrently increment a number from
one system might decide that the two peers agree the new state should be
while another might consider it appropriate to increment twice to
In the event that one of the basic data types of a general-purpose CRDT like Yjs does not match your expectations the library may still be suitable for your use. Different behaviours can be accomplished by composing the built-in types into more complex ones. Yjs will treat concurrent changes to a number as two assignments. If you prefer for them to be treated as increments then you can instead encode each addition as a new member of an array of numbers to be summed. The higher-level value can then be derived from the array whenever it is required, while the lower-level representation serves as a simplified way to achieve consistency. It is common for collaborative applications built on CRDTs to follow this sort of schema pattern, in which user actions are translated into operations on the shared state, with remote changes propagating back to the UI.
A well-designed CRDT will handle all aspects of ordering messages, including the internal implementation of a logical clock, the detection of concurrency, and the resolution of overlapping changes. This enables peers to queue updates while entirely offline, and to merge their local state with others' when they are once again able to communicate. While this behaviour can be very helpful for application developers, it may not free you entirely from having to think about network conditions. Eventually-consistent application state should generally be treated as subjective, which can be a significant shift if you are used to having a server acting as an authority. That means that conditional behaviour that you'd usually treat as yes and no, may instead behave more like currently and not yet.
This section has discussed attributes of CRDTs that are mostly theoretical. The next section will give more concrete examples using Yjs, with a particular focus on how it can be used to accomplish common goals within webxdc applications as implemented in existing webxdc platforms.