Diving Deep on S3 Consistency

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I recently posted about Amazon S3 and how it’s evolved over the last 15 years since we launched the service in 2006 as “storage for the internet.” We built S3 because we knew customers wanted to store backups, videos, and images for applications like e-commerce web sites. Our top design priorities at the time were security, elasticity, reliability, durability, performance and cost because that’s what customers told us was most important to them for these types of applications. And this is still true today. But over the years, S3 has also become the storage used for analytics and machine learning on massive data lakes. Rather than just storing images for e-commerce web sites, these data lakes are serving the data for applications like satellite imagery analysis, vaccine research, and autonomous truck and car development.

To provide storage for such a wide variety of usage requires constant evolution of capability. And it’s this right here that I think is one of the most interesting things about S3. It’s fundamentally changed how customers use storage. Before S3, customers were stuck for 3-5 years with the capacity and capabilities of the expensive on-premises storage system that they bought for their data center. If you wanted to get more capacity or new features, you would buy a new on-premises storage appliance and then need to migrate data between storage arrays. With S3s pay-as-you model for capacity and constant innovation for new capabilities, S3 changed the game for companies who could now evolve their data usage without making major changes to their applications.

One of these new exciting innovations is S3 Strong Consistency, and this is what I would like to dive into today.

Consistency, Consistently

Consistency models are a distributed system concept that defines the rules for the order and visibility of updates. They come with a continuum of tradeoffs that allow architects to optimize a distributed system for the most important components.

For S3, we built caching technology into our metadata subsystem that optimized for high availability, but one of the implications in that design decision was that in extremely rare circumstances we would exhibit eventual consistency on writes. In other words, the system would almost always be available, but sometimes an API call would return an older version of an object that had not fully propagated throughout all the nodes in the system yet. Eventual consistency was suitable when serving website images or backup copies in 2006.

Fast forward 15 years later to today. S3 has well over 100 trillion objects and serves tens of millions of requests every second. Over the years, customers have found many new use cases for S3. For example, tens of thousands of customers use S3 for data lakes, where they are performing analytics, creating new insights (and competitive advantages) for their businesses at a scale that was impossible just a few years ago. Customers also use S3 to store petabytes of data to train machine learning models. The vast majority of these interactions with storage are done by application code. These data processing applications often require strong consistency–objects need to be the same across all nodes in parallel– and so customers put in place their own application code to track consistency outside of S3 for their S3 usage. Customers loved S3’s elasticity, cost, performance, operational profile and simplicity of the programming model, and so when it was important for their application to have strong consistency in storage, they added it themselves in application code to tap into the benefits of S3. As one example, Netflix open sourced s3mper, which used Amazon DynamoDB as a consistent store to identify those rare cases that S3 would serve an inconsistent response. Cloudera and the Apache Hadoop community worked on S3Guard, which similarly provided a separate view for applications to mitigate rare occurrence of inconsistency.

While customers were able to use metadata tracking systems to add strong consistency for their applications' use of S3, it was extra infrastructure that had to be built and managed. Remember that 90% of our roadmap at AWS comes directly from customers, and customers asked us if we could change S3 to avoid them needing to run extra infrastructure. We thought back to the core design principle of simplicity. It was true in 2006, and continues to be true today as a cornerstone for how we think about building S3 features. And so we started to think about how to change the consistency model of S3. We knew it would be hard. The consistency model is baked into the core infrastructure of S3.

We thought about strong consistency in the same way we think about all decisions we make: by starting with the customer. We considered approaches that would have required a tradeoff in cost, in the scope of which objects had consistency, or in performance. We didn't want to make any of those tradeoffs. So, we kept working towards a higher bar: we wanted strong consistency with no additional cost, applied to every new and existing object, and with no performance or availability tradeoffs.

Other providers make compromises, such as making strong consistency an opt-in setting for a bucket or an account rather than for all storage, implementing consistency with dependencies across regions which undermine the regional availability of a service, or other limitations. If we wanted to change this fundamental underlying concept of consistency and stay true to our S3 design principles, we needed to make strong consistency the default for every request, free of charge, with no performance implications, and staying true to our reliability model. This made a hard engineering problem a lot harder, particularly at S3’s scale.

S3’s Metadata Subsystem

Per-object metadata is stored within a discrete S3 subsystem. This system is on the data path for GET, PUT, and DELETE requests, and is responsible for handling LIST and HEAD requests. At the core of this system is a persistence tier that stores metadata. Our persistence tier uses a caching technology that is designed to be highly resilient. S3 requests should still succeed even if infrastructure supporting the cache becomes impaired. This meant that, on rare occasions, writes might flow through one part of cache infrastructure while reads end up querying another. This was the primary source of S3’s eventual consistency.

One early consideration for delivering strong consistency was to bypass our caching infrastructure and send requests directly to the persistence layer. But this wouldn’t meet our bar for no tradeoffs on performance. We needed to keep the cache. To keep values properly synchronized across cores, CPUs implement cache coherence protocols. And that’s what we needed here: a cache coherence protocol for our metadata caches that allowed strong consistency for all requests.

Cache Coherence

Our strong consistency story required that we make our metadata cache strongly consistent. This was a tall order at S3’s scale, and we wanted to make that change while respecting the lessons learned for scale, resiliency, and operations for our metadata systems.

We had introduced new replication logic into our persistence tier that acts as a building block for our at-least-once event notification delivery system and our Replication Time Control feature. This new replication logic allows us to reason about the “order of operations” per-object in S3. This is the core piece of our cache coherency protocol.

We introduced a new component into the S3 metadata subsystem to understand if the cache’s view of an object’s metadata was stale. This component acts as a witness to writes, notified every time an object changes. This new component acts like a read barrier during read operations allowing the cache to learn if its view of an object is stale. The cached value can be served if it’s not stale, or invalidated and read from the persistence tier if it is stale.

This new design presented challenges for us along two dimensions. First, the cache coherency protocol itself had to be correct. Strong consistency must always be strong with no exceptions. Second, customers love S3’s high availability, so our design for the new witness component must ensure that it doesn't lower the availability that S3 is designed to provide.

High Availability

Witnesses are popular in distributed systems because they often only need to track a little bit of state, in-memory, without needing to go to disk. This allows them to achieve extremely high request processing rates with very low latency. And that’s what we did here. We can continue to scale this fleet out as S3 continues to grow.

In addition to extremely high throughput we built this system to exceed S3’s high availability requirements, leveraging our learnings operating large scale systems for 15 years. As I have long said, everything fails, all the time, and as such we have designed the system assuming that individual hosts/servers will fail. We built automation that can respond rapidly to load concentration and individual server failure. Because the consistency witness tracks minimal state and only in-memory, we are able to replace them quickly without waiting for lengthy state transfers.


It is important that strong consistency is implemented correctly so that there aren’t edge cases that break consistency. S3 is a massively distributed system. Not only does this new cache coherency protocol need to be correct in the normal case, but in all cases. It needs to be correct when concurrent writes to the same object were ongoing. Otherwise, we’d potentially see values “flicker” between old and new. It needs to be correct when a single object is seeing very high concurrency on GET, LIST, PUT, and DELETE while having versioning enabled and having a deep version stack. There are countless interleavings of operations and intermediate states, and at our scale, even if something happens only once in a billion requests, that means it happens multiple times per day within S3.

Common testing techniques like unit testing and integration testing are valuable, necessary tools in any production system. But they aren’t enough when you need to build a system with such a high bar for correctness. We want a system that’s “provably correct”, not just “probably correct.” So, for strong consistency, we utilized a variety of techniques for ensuring that what we built is correct, and continues to be correct as the system evolves. We employed integration tests, deductive proofs of our proposed cache coherence algorithm, model checking to formalize our consistency design and to demonstrate its correctness, and we expanded on our model checking to examine actual runnable code.

These verification techniques were a lot of work. They were more work, in fact, than the actual implementation itself. But we put this rigor into the design and implementation of S3’s strong consistency because that is what our customers need.

The Takeaway

We built S3 on the design principals that we called out when we launched the service in 2006, and every time we review a design for a new feature or microservice in S3, we go back to these same principles. Offering strong consistency by default, at no additional cost to customers, and with high performance was a huge challenge. S3 pulls from the experience of over 15 years of running cloud storage at scale and across millions of customers to innovate capabilities that aren’t available anywhere else, and we leveraged that experience to add strong consistency at the high availability that S3’s customers have come to appreciate. And by leveraging a variety of testing and verification techniques, we were able to deliver the correctness that customers require from a strongly consistent system. And most importantly, we were able to do it in a way that was transparent to customers and stay true to the core values of S3.