A distributed data structure (DDS) is a self-managing storage layer designed to run on a cluster of workstations  and to handle Internet service workloads. A DDS has all of the previously mentioned service properties: high throughput, high concurrency, availability, incrementally scalability, and strict consistency of its data. Service authors see the interface to a DDS as a conventional data structure, such as a hash table, a tree, or a log. Behind this interface, the DDS platform hides all of the mechanisms used to access, partition, replicate, scale, and recover data. Because these complex mechanisms are hidden behind the simple DDS interface, authors only need to worry about service-specific logic when implementing a new service. The difficult issues of managing persistent state are handled by the DDS platform.
Figure 1 shows a high-level illustration of a DDS. All cluster nodes have access to the DDS and see the same consistent image of the DDS. As long as services keep all persistent state in the DDS, any service instance in the cluster can handle requests from any client, although we expect clients will have affinity to particular service instances to allow session state to accumulate.
The idea of having a storage layer to manage durable state is not new, of course; databases and file systems have done this for many decades. The novel aspects of a DDS are the level of abstraction that it presents to service authors, the consistency model it supports, the access behavior (concurrency and throughput demands) that it presupposes, and its many design and implementation choices that are made based on its expected runtime environment and the types of failures that it should withstand. A direct comparison between databases, distributed file systems, and DDS's helps to show this.
Relational database management systems (RDBMS): an RDBMS offers extremely strong durability and consistency guarantees, namely ACID properties derived from the use of transactions , but these ACID properties can come at high cost in terms of complexity and overhead. As a result, Internet services that rely on RDBMS backends typically go to great lengths to reduce the workload presented to the RDBMS, using techniques such as query caching in front ends [15,21,32]. RDBMS's offer a high degree of data independence, which is a powerful abstraction that adds additional complexity and performance overhead. The many layers of most RDBMS's (such as SQL parsing, query optimization, access path selection, etc.) permit users to decouple the logical structure of their data from its physical layout. This decoupling allows users to dynamically construct and issue queries over the data that are limited only by what can be expressed in the SQL language, but data independence can make parallelization (and therefore scaling) hard in the general case. From the perspective of the service properties, an RDBMS always chooses consistency over availability: if there are media or processor failures, an RDBMS can become unavailable until the failure is resolved, which is unacceptable for Internet services.
Distributed file systems: file systems have less strictly defined consistency models. Some (e.g., NFS ) have weak consistency guarantees, while others (e.g., Frangipani  or AFS ) guarantee a coherent filesystem image across all clients, with locking typically done at the granularity of files. The scalability of distributed file systems similarly varies; some use centralized file servers, and thus do not scale. Others such as xFS  are completely serverless, and in theory can scale to arbitrarily large capacities. File systems expose a relatively low level interface with little data independence; a file system is organized as a hierarchical directory of files, and files are variable-length arrays of bytes. These elements (directories and files) are directly exposed to file system clients; clients are responsible for logically structuring their application data in terms of directories, files, and bytes inside those files.
Distributed data structures (DDS): a DDS has a strictly defined consistency model: all operations on its elements are atomic, in that any operation completes entirely, or not at all. DDS's have one-copy equivalence, so although data elements in a DDS are replicated, clients see a single, logical data item. Two-phase commits are used to keep replicas coherent, and thus all clients see the same image of a DDS through its interface. Transactions across multiple elements or operations are not currently supported: as we will show later, many of our current protocol design decisions and implementation choices exploit the lack of transactional support for greater efficiency and simplicity. There are Internet services that require transactions (e.g. for e-commerce); we can imagine building a transactional DDS, but it is beyond the scope of this paper, and we believe that the atomic single-element updates and coherence provided by our current DDS are strong enough to support interesting services.
A DDS's interface is more structured and at a higher level than that of a file system. The granularity of an operation is a complete data structure element rather than an arbitrary byte range. The set of operations over the data in a DDS is fixed by a small set of methods exposed by the DDS API, unlike an RDBMS in which operations are defined by the set of expressible declarations in SQL. The query parsing and optimization stages of an RDBMS are completely obviated in a DDS, but the DDS interface is less flexible and offers less data independence.
In summary, by choosing a level of abstraction somewhere in between that of an RDBMS and a file system, and by choosing a well-defined and simple consistency model, we have been able to design and implement a DDS with all of the service properties. It has been our experience that the DDS interfaces, although not as general as SQL, are rich enough to successfully build sophisticated services.