Research Ethics

People rely on Jepsen to help them test their own systems, to make decisions about algorithms, to compare different databases against one another, and to suggest how to work with a particular system’s constraints. To put this work in context, I’d like to talk about Jepsen’s limitations and biases–technical, social, and fiscal.

Technical Limitations

Jepsen analyses generally consist of running operations against a distributed system in a dedicated cluster, introducing faults into that cluster, and observing whether the results of those operations are consistent with some model. This introduces various sources for error: bugs, bounds on the search space, and the problem of induction. Jepsen’s design also limits its use as a performance benchmark.

As software, Jepsen and the libraries it uses have bugs. I do my best to avoid them, but there have been bugs in Jepsen before and there will be again. These could lead to false negatives and false positives. I write automated tests and read histories by hand to double-check, but I can always make mistakes.

Jepsen operates on real software, not abstract models. This prevents us from seeing pathological thread schedulings, or bugs that arise only on particular platforms. Because Jepsen performs real network requests, we can’t explore the system’s search space as quickly as a model checker–and our temporal resolution is limited. Memory and time complexity further limit the scope of a test. However, testing executables often reveals implementation errors or subsystem interactions which a model checker would miss! We can also test programs without having to modify or even read their source.

Because Jepsen tests are experiments, they can only prove the existence of errors, not their absence. We cannot prove correctness, only suggest that a system is less likely to fail because we have not, so far, observed a problem.

Finally, I should note that Jepsen is a safety checker, not a benchmarking tool. It can emit performance analyses, but benchmark design is a complex, separate domain. Hardware, OS tuning, workload, concurrency, network behavior… all play significant roles in performance. Jepsen’s latency measurements are generally only comparable to the same software tested on the same platform. Its throughput measurements are not a performance benchmark; Jepsen controls its own request rate to reveal concurrency errors.

Conflicts of Interest

In addition to Jepsen’s technical limitations, there are social and financial motivations which influence the work. Nobody can be totally objective–all research is colored by the researchers’ worldview–but I can still strive to publish high-quality results that people can trust.

First, my personal motivations. I work on Jepsen because I believe it’s important, and because I think the work helps us build better systems. I believe that distributed systems should clearly communicate their requirements and guarantees, making tradeoffs explicit. I believe documentation should be complete and accurate, using formally analyzed concurrency models to describe a system’s invariants. I want every operator and engineer to have the tools and know-how to analyze the systems they rely on, and the systems they build.

My personal connections in the distributed systems world influence my work as well. I strive to be critical of the systems I’m affiliated with: for example, at Basho’s RICON 2013 conference, I demonstrated write loss in one of their database products. I recommend Kafka frequently, but also wrote about a data-loss issue in Kafka. Conversely, harsh critiques often lead to productive relationships: I spoke at Aerospike after publishing a negative report of their isolation guarantees, and a heated dispute with Salvatore Sanfillipo has led to friendly dialogue on the design of Disque.

There are also financial conflicts of interest when a vendor pays me to analyze their database. Few companies like seeing their product discussed in a negative light, which puts pressure on me to deliver positive results. At the same time, if I consistently fail to find problems, there’s no reason to hire me: I can’t tell you anything new, and I can’t help improve your product. Then there are second-order effects: companies often believe that a positive Jepsen post may suggest tampering, and encourage me to find problems. Database users have shown surprising goodwill towards vendors which are open to public criticism, and who commit to improvement.

Finally, when someone pays me to analyze any system–not just their own–it changes the depth and character of the investigation. Since I’m being paid, I can afford to devote more time to the analysis–a closer reading of the documentation, more aggressive test suites, and more time for back-and-forth collaboration with the vendor to identify the causes of a test failure and to come up with workarounds.


In an ideal world, I’d crank out a comprehensive analysis of every release of every database on the planet and make it available to the public. I want users to understand the software they use. I want to keep vendors honest, and help them find and fix bugs. I want to teach everyone how to analyze their own systems, and for us as an industry to produce software which is resilient to common failure modes.

That said, each analysis takes months of work, and I have to eat. I have to balance the public good, what clients ask for, and my own constraints of time and money. Here’s what I promise:

Most clients have asked that I operate with maximal freedom–they aren’t interested in influencing results. I think that’s great! Conversely, I decline requests for sponsored content and other fluff pieces; I don’t feel it’s consistent with Jepsen’s goals.

Finally, I want to emphasize that Jepsen analyses aren’t just database reviews. Each one is written as a case study in test design, and you should build on their techniques to evaluate your own systems. Everyone is free to use the Jepsen software to design their own tests for anything they please. It’s my sincere hope that we can collectively raise the bar for distributed systems safety.


2021-06-04: Jepsen no longer works on proof-of-work, proof-of-space, etc.