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Chapter 23

Pluribus-An Operational Fault-Tolerant Multiprocessor1

David Katsuki / Eric S. Elsam / William F. Mann

Eric S. Roberts / John C. Robinson

F. Stanley Skowronski / Eric W. Wolf

Summary The authors describe the Pluribus multiprocessor system, Outline several techniques used to achieve fault-tolerance, describe their field experience to date, and mention some potential applications. The Pluribus system places the major responsibility for recovery from failures on the software. Failing hardware modules are removed from the system, spare modules are substituted where available, and appropriate initialization is performed. In applications where the goal is maximum availability rather than totally fault-free operation, this approach represents a considerable savings in complexity and cost over traditional implementations. The software-based reliability approach has been extended to provide error-handling and recovery mechanisms for the system software structures as well. A number of Pluribus systems have been built and are currently in operation. Experience with these systems has given us confidence in their performance and mantainability, and leads us to suggest other applications that might benefit from this approach.


I. Introduction

The multiprocessor discussed in this paper had its beginnings in 1972 when the need for a second-generation interface message processor (IMP) [Heart et al., 1970] for the ARPA network (ARPANET) [Roberts and Wessler, 1970; Heart, 1975; Wolf, 1973] became apparent. At that time, the IMP's Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) had already installed at more than thirty-five ARPANET sites were Honeywell 316 and 516 minicomputers. The network was growing rapidly in several dimensions: number of nodes, hosts, and terminals; volume of traffic; and geographic coverage (including plans, now realized, for satellite extensions to Europe and Hawaii). A goal was established to design a modular machine which, at its lower end, would be smaller and less expensive than the 316's and 516's while being expandable in capacity to provide ten times the bandwidth of, and capable of servicing five times as many input-output (I/O) devices as, the 516 [Heart et al., 1973]. Related goals included greater memory addressing capability and increased reliability.

We decided on a multiprocessor approach because of its promising potential for modularity, for cost per performance advantages, for reliability, and because the IMP algorithm was clearly suitable for parallel processing by independent processors.

The IMP's communicate with host computers and with asynchronous terminals (IMP's with terminals attached are called TIP's [Ornstein et al., 1972]). Hosts use the network of IMP's and lines to communicate data messages of up to about 8000 bits; the IMP's divide these messages into packets up to about 1000 bits long. The functions performed by the IMP are those of a communications processor; they include storing and forwarding packets, generating headers, routing, retransmission, error checking, packet and message acknowledgment, message assembly and sequencing, flow control, line error detection, host and line status monitoring, and related housekeeping functions. The IMP's also send status and performance data to a network control center (NCC) which monitors and controls network operations [McKenzie et al., 1972; Ornstein and Walden, 1975]. The ARPANET IMP's operate 24 hours a day, often in unattended locations.

In applications of this sort, reliability requirements differ from those commonly found in other real-time systems. The IMP network forms only a part of a larger system; even a perfectly operating network is not sufficient to guarantee perfect overall system performance. Failures in the host, or in the interface between the host and IMP, may still introduce errors. What this means is that some sort of host-process to host-process error control is required for critical applications; the best that the IMP network can provide is a good environment for host-level error recovery processes. These processes need a network which rarely makes errors and which, when such errors do occur, can effectively process host-to-host retransmissions. In other words, occasional dropped messages and brief outages are acceptable; outages of more than a few minutes are undesirable even if scheduled in advance.

Once we realized that what was needed was not so much reliability as the ability to recover gracefully from failures, we began to see ways to provide a much more robust network by coding this type of fault-tolerance into our operating system and application algorithms, and by including special modular hard ware designs. The machine that emerged [Heart et al., 1973; Ornstein and Walden, 1975; Bressler, Kraley, and Michel, 1975; Ornstein et al., 1975; Heart et al., 1976] we call the Pluribus (Fig. 1 shows a typical Pluribus installation). It provides simple checking procedures such as parity, amputation features which allow failing equipment to be isolated and, optionally, redundant components. The software uses these features to detect, report, and isolate hardware failures. Since the symptoms of many subtle software failures are similar to those of intermittent hardware errors, fault-tolerant procedures which adequately recover from one can also recover from the other.

There is a spectrum of fault-tolerant approaches which are appropriate in various applications [Avizienis, 1976; Avizienis, 1975]; our approach opts for a relatively inexpensive system which

1Proc. IEEE, vol. 66, no. 10, October 1978, pp. 1,146-1,159.



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