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This one’s for you, Cliff.

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Virtual Time and Global States of Distributed Systems

by Friedemann Mattern

A distributed system can be characterized by the fact that the global state is distributed and that a common time base does not exist. However, the notion of time is an important concept in every day life of our decentralized "real world" and helps to solve problems like getting a consistent population census or determining the potential causality between events. We argue that a linearly ordered structure of time is not (always) adequate for distributed systems and propose a generalized non-standard model of time which consists of vectors of clocks. These clock-vectors are partially ordered and form a lattice. By using timestamps and a simple clock update mechanism the structure of causality is represented in an isomorphic way. The new model of time has a close analogy to Minkowski's relativistic spacetime and leads among others to an interesting characterization of the global state problem. Finally, we present a new algorithm to compute a consistent global snapshot of a distributed system where messages may be received out of order.

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