Introduction to Apache Zookeeper

leader-followers in zookeeper

In the Hadoop ecosystem, Apache Zookeeper plays an important role in coordination amongst distributed resources. Apart from being an important component of Hadoop, it is also a very good concept to learn for a system design interview.

If you would prefer the videos with hands-on, feel free to jump in here.

Alright, so let’s get started.


In this post, we will understand the following:

  • What is Apache Zookeeper?
  • How Zookeeper achieves coordination?
  • Zookeeper Architecture
  • Zookeeper Data Model
  • Some Hands-on with Zookeeper
  • Election & Majority in Zookeeper
  • Zookeeper Sessions
  • Application of Zookeeper
  • What kind of guarantees does ZooKeeper provide?
  • Operations provided by Zookeeper
  • Zookeeper APIs
  • Zookeeper Watches
  • ACL in Zookeeper
  • Zookeeper Usecases


If you are a beginner to Big Data concepts, it is highly recommended to go through the following posts before diving into the current one:

What is Apache Zookeeper?

In very simple words, it is a central data store of key-value using which distributed systems can coordinate. Since it needs to be able to handle the load, Zookeeper itself runs on many machines.

Zookeeper provides a simple set of primitives and it is very easy to program to.

It is used for:

  • synchronization
  • locking
  • maintaining configuration
  • failover management.

It does not suffer from Race Conditions and Dead Locks.

How Zookeeper achieves coordination?

Say, there is an inbox from which we need to index emails. Indexing is a heavy process and might take a lot of time. So, you have multiple machines which are indexing the emails. Every email has an id. You can not delete any email. You can only read an email and mark it read or unread. Now how would you handle the coordination between multiple indexer processes so that every email is indexed?

If indexers were running as multiple threads of a single process, it was easier by the way of using synchronization constructs of programming language.

But since there are multiple processes running on multiple machines which need to coordinate, we need central storage. This central storage should be safe from all concurrency-related problems. This central storage is exactly the role of Zookeeper.

Zookeeper Architecture

Zookeeper Architecture within the Cluster

In standalone mode, it is just running on one machine and for practical purposes we do not use stanalone mode. This is only for testing purposes as it doesn’t have high availability.

In production environments and in all practical use cases, the replicated mode is used. In replicated mode, zookeeper runs on a cluster of machines which is called an ensemble. Basically, zookeeper servers are installed on all of the machines in the cluster. Each zookeeper server is informed about all of the machines in the ensemble.

The zookeeper client is installed with the machines in the cluster, and each of the clients gets connected with one of the servers in the zookeeper ensemble.

These clients request and get response from the zookeeper servers they are connected to. Also, these clients keep sending signals(technically known as heartbeats) to mark their presence to the zookeeper servers. If one or more machines are not active(or they fail), they would no longer be able to send their heartbeats. This is an indication for zookeeper that those machine(which didn’t send heartbeats) have failed and there is a need for backup. In such a case, zookeeper notifies a responsible component(like YARN) so that the necessary actions could be taken and make the cluster resilient and highly available.

So basically, Zookeeper acts as a monitoring tool which keeps with it all the configuration data of the cluster.

Zookeeper Data Model

The way we store data in any store is called a data model. In case of zookeeper, it uses a data model like a directory tree. Think of the data model as if it is a highly available file system with few differences.

We store data in an entity called znode. The data that we store should be in JSON format which Java script object notation.

The znode can only be updated. It does not support append operations. The read or write is an atomic operation meaning either it will be full or would throw an error if failed. There is no intermediate state like half-written.

znode can have children. So, znodes inside znodes make a tree like heirarchy. The top level znode is “/”.

The znode “/zoo” is child of “/” which top level znode. duck is child znode of zoo. It is denoted as /zoo/duck

Though “.” or “..” are invalid characters as opposed to the file system.

Types of Znodes:

There are three types of znodes or nodes: Persistent, Ephemeral and Sequential.


Such a kind of znode remains in the zookeeper until deleted. This is the default type of znode.

This type of znodes are useful to persist the configuration information which needs to last even if some machines go down. For example, if a client node goes down, its specific information like what tasks it is executing and all needs to persisted, so that this data could be used by upcoming worker.


Ephemeral node gets deleted if the session in which the node was created has disconnected. Though it is tied to client’s session but it is visible to the other users.

This type of znodes are useful when we need to keep check of active machine in our cluster. If a machine associated with a znode is no longer active, then the znode gets deleted, implying the absence of the machine. This invokes the necessary action to be taken – like to activate or bring forth another machine as a backup – and make the system highly available.


Quite often, we need to create sequential numbers such as ids. In such situations, we use sequential nodes.

Sequential znode are created with number appended to the provided name. This number keeps increasing monotonically on every node creation inside a particular node. The first sequential child node gets a suffix of 0000000000 for any node.

Some Hands-on with Zookeeper

It is highly recommended to go through these, where you could do hands-on on our pre-configured lab installed with zookeeper. You could get e better idea of various primitives offered by Zookeeper by actually practicing them with examples, and that’s exactly what you would be doing here. All the best!

Election & Majority

As soon as the zookeeper servers on all of the machines in ensemble are turned on, the phase 1 that is leader selection phase starts. This election is based on Paxos algorithm.

The machines in ensemble vote other machine based on the ping response and freshness of data. This way a distinguished member called leader is elected. The rest of the servers are termed as followers. Once all of the followers have synchronized their state with newly elected leader, the election phase finishes.

The election does not succeed if majority is not available to vote. Majority means more than 50% machines. Out of 20 machines, majority means 11 or more machines.

If at any point the leader fails, the rest of the machine or ensemble hold an election within 200 millseconds.

If the majority of the machines aren’t available at any point of time, the leader automatically steps down.

The second phase is called Atomic Broadcast. Any request from user for writing, modification or deletion of data is redirected to leader by followers. So, there is always a single machine on which modifications are being accepted. The request to read data such as ls or get is catered by all of the machines.

Once leader has accepted a change from user, leader broadcasts the update to the followers – the other machines. [Check: This broadcasts and synchronization might take time and hence for some time some of the followers might be providing a little older data. That is why zookeeper provides eventual consistency no strict consistency.]

When majority have saved or persisted the change to disk, the leader commits the update and the client or users is sent a confirmation.

The protocol for achieving consensus is atomic similar to two phase commits. Also, to ensure the durability of change, the machines write to the disk before memory.

If you have three nodes A, B, C with A as Leader. And A dies. Will someone become leader?

Either B or C will become the leader.

If you have three nodes A, B, C with C being the leader. And A and B die. Will C remain Leader?

C will step down. No one will be the Leader because majority is not available.

As we discussed that if 50% or less machines are available, there will be no leader and hence the zookeeper will be readonly. Don’t you think zookeeper is wasting so many resources?

The question is why does zookeeper need majority for election?

Say, we have an ensemble spread over two data sources. Three machines A B C in one data center 1 and other three D E F in another data center 2. Say, A is the leader of the ensemble.

And say,The network between data centres got disconnected while the internal network of each of the centers is still intact.

If we did not need majority for electing Leader, what will happen?

Each data center will have their own leader and there will be two independent nodes accepting modifications from the users. This would lead to irreconcilable changes and hence inconsitency. This is why we need majority for election in paxos algorithm.

Sessions in Zookeeper

Lets try to understand how do the zookeeper decides to delete ephermals nodes and takes care of session management.

A client has list of servers in the ensemble. The client enumerates over the list and tries to connect to each until it is successful. Server creates a new session for the client. A session has a timeout period – decided by the client. If the server hasn’t received a request within the timeout period, it may expire the session. On session expire, ephermal nodes are deleted. To keep sessions alive client sends pings also known as heartbeats. The client library takes care of heartbeats and session management.

The session remains valid even on switching to another server.

Though the failover is handled automatically by the client library, application can not remain agnostic of server reconnections because the operation might fail during switching to another server.

Application of Zookeeper

Let us say there are many servers which can respond to your request and there are many clients which might want the service. From time to time some of the servers will keep going down. How can all of the clients can keep track of the available servers?

It is very easy using ZooKeeper as a central agency. Each server will create their own ephermal znode under a particular znode say “/servers”. The clients would simply query zookeeper for the most recent list of servers.

Lets take a case of two servers and a client. The two server duck and cow created their ephermal nodes under “/servers” znode. The client would simply discover the alive servers cow and duck using command ls /servers.

Say, a server called “duck” is down, the ephermal node will disappear from /servers znode and hence next time the client comes and queries it would only get “cow”.

So, the coordinations has been made heavily simplified and made efficient because of ZooKeeper.

What kind of guarantees does ZooKeeper provide?

Sequential consistency: Updates from any particular client are applied in the order Atomicity: Updates either succeed or fail. Single system image: A client will see the same view of the system, The new server will not accept the connection until it has caught up. Durability: Once an update has succeeded, it will persist and will not be undone. Timeliness: Rather than allowing a client to see very stale data, a server would prefer shut down.

Zookeeper APIs

You can use the ZooKeeper from within your application via APIs – application programming interface.

Though ZooKeeper provides the core APIs in Java and C, there are contributed libraries in Perl, Python, REST.

For each function of APIs, synchronous and asynchronous both variants are available.

While using synchronous APIs the caller or client will wait till ZooKeeper finishes an operation. But if you are using asynchronous API, the client provides a handle to the function that would be called once zooKeeper finishes the operation.


Whenever we execute a usual function or method, it does not go to the next step until the function has finished. Right? Such methods are called synchronous.

But when you need to do some work in the background you would require async or asynchronous functions. When you call an async function the control goes to the next step or you can say the function returns immediately. The function starts to work in the background.

Say, you want to create a Znode in zookeeper, if you call an async API function of Zookeeper, it will create Znode in the background while the control goes immediately to the next step. The async functions are very useful for doing work in parallel.

Now, if something is running in the background and you want to be notified when the work is done. In such cases, you define a function which you want to be called once the work is done. This function can be passed as an argument to the async API call and is called a callback.

Zookeeper Watches

Similar to triggers in databases, ZooKeeper provides watches. The objective of watches is to get notified when znode changes in some way. Watchers are triggered only once. If you want recurring notifications, you will have re-register the watcher.

The read operations such as exists, getChildren, getData may create watches. Watches are triggered by write operations: create, delete, setData. Access control operations do not participate in watches.

WATCH OF exists is TRIGGERED WHEN ZNODE IS created, deleted, or its data updated. WATCH OF getData is TRIGGERED WHEN ZNODE IS deleted or has its data updated. WATCH OF getChildren is TRIGGERED WHEN ZNODE IS deleted, or its any of the child is created or deleted

ACL in Zookeeper

ACL – Access Control Lists – determine who can perform which operations.

ACL is a combination of authentication scheme, an identity for that scheme, and a set of permissions.

ZooKeeper supports following authentication schemes: digest – The client is authenticated by a username & password. sasl – The client is authenticated using Kerberos. ip – The client is authenticated by its IP address.

Zookeeper Use-cases

Though there are many usecases of ZooKeeper. The most common ones are: Building a reliable configuration service A Distributed Lock Service Only single process may hold the lock

When not to use Zookeeper?

It is important to know when not to use zookeeper. You should not use it to store big data because the number of copies == number of nodes. All data is loaded in ram too. Also, there is a Network load for transfer all data to all nodes.

Use ZooKeeper when you require extremely strong consistency


In this post, we briefly understood some of the nitty-gritty details on various concepts included in the Zookeeper technology. In the next post, we will bolster our understanding of zookeeper with the help of a case study where will be able to appreciate the significance of zookeeper in a given distributed computing scenario.

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