The Fallacies of Distributed Systems

Prathamesh Sonpatki
3 min readJun 9, 2023
The Fallacies of Distributed Systems

In the realm of computer science, distributed systems have revolutionized how we perceive, manage, and employ data processing. A distributed system brings together multiple computer nodes interconnected by a network, harnessing their collective computational power for executing a variety of tasks. However, when designing these systems, it’s crucial to be mindful of certain fallacies that can lead to flawed system architectures and potential failures. This article aims to dissect the common misconities, or fallacies, of distributed systems to guide engineers in building robust, efficient, and resilient platforms.

This post is a reminder to myself when thinking and building distributed systems.

Fallacy 1: The Network is Reliable

Perhaps the most glaring misconception is that the network connecting distributed systems is 100% reliable. The truth is, network failures can and do occur due to numerous reasons, from hardware or software glitches to natural disasters. Therefore, systems should be designed to gracefully handle these failures without experiencing significant downtimes. Implementing practices like timeouts, retransmission of lost packets, and acknowledgment-based communications can significantly improve the resilience of distributed systems.

Fallacy 2: Latency is Zero

Many assume that the communication between nodes in a distributed system is instantaneous. However, network latency, caused by factors such as physical distance and network congestion, can lead to significant delays. As such, it’s essential to account for latency while designing distributed applications, especially for time-critical applications where high latency can severely hamper performance.

Fallacy 3: Bandwidth is Infinite

Another widespread fallacy is that network bandwidth, the maximum rate of data transfer, is unlimited. In reality, network resources are finite and subject to contention from multiple processes. Therefore, managing and optimizing bandwidth usage is essential for maintaining system performance.

Fallacy 4: The Network is Secure

Given the inter-connected nature of distributed systems, assuming the network is inherently secure is a fallacy. The system can be susceptible to a variety of attacks, including eavesdropping, spoofing, and denial of service attacks. Implementing robust security measures, like encryption, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems, is critical to safeguarding the system.

Fallacy 5: Topology Doesn’t Change

The assumption that the network topology, the arrangement of nodes and their interconnections, doesn’t change is flawed. Topologies can and do change due to network failures, addition or removal of nodes, or changes in the network infrastructure. Thus, distributed systems should be designed to adapt to dynamic network topologies.

Fallacy 6: There is One Administrator

Assuming that a distributed system will have a single administrator is incorrect. Given the system’s expansive nature, the administration often needs to be decentralized, with different individuals or teams handling different nodes. This distributed administration necessitates the need for efficient coordination and communication.

Fallacy 7: Transport Cost is Zero

While it might be tempting to think that transmitting data over the network is free, the reality is different. Data transport incurs costs in terms of bandwidth usage, network congestion, and energy expenditure. Therefore, it’s important to efficiently manage data transmission in distributed systems.

Fallacy 8: The Network is Homogeneous

The last fallacy is assuming that the network is homogeneous — that all nodes run the same hardware, software, and protocols. In reality, distributed systems often encompass a heterogeneous mix of nodes, making it essential for systems to be designed for interoperability.

Understanding and debunking these fallacies are vital in creating robust and effective distributed systems. They act as guiding principles, reminding system architects of the inherent uncertainties and variables in the field of distributed systems. By adopting a pragmatic approach that acknowledges these realities, we can design distributed systems that are more resilient, efficient, and capable of tackling the computational challenges of the future.