General guidelines

General principles for creating and managing rqlite clusters

Practical cluster size

Firstly, you don’t have to run a cluster to use rqlite. A single-node rqlite system will work perfectly fine, and many people do that as they like having a SQLite database available over the network. You won’t have a highly-available system of course, and if that single node goes offline, you’ll need to restart it.

But if you do want to run a cluster, you should understand the basic requirement for systems built on the Raft protocol. For a cluster of N nodes in size to remain operational, at least (N/2)+1 nodes must be up and running, and be in contact with each other. For a single-node system (N=1) then (obviously) that single node must be running. For a 3-node cluster (N=3) at least 2 nodes must be running. For N=5, at least 3 nodes should be running, and so on.

Clusters of 3, 5, 7, or 9, nodes are most practical Clusters of those sizes can tolerate failures of 1, 2, 3, and 4 nodes respectively. It also doesn’t make much sense to run clusters with an even number of nodes.

Clusters with a larger number of nodes start to become unwieldy, due to the number of nodes that must be contacted before a database change can take place. There is no intrinsic limit to the number of nodes comprising a cluster, but the operational overload may increase with little benefit.

Read-only nodes

It is possible to run larger clusters if you just need nodes from which you only need to read. When it comes to the Raft protocol, these nodes do not count towards N, since they do not vote.

Creating a cluster

This section describes manually creating a cluster. If you wish rqlite nodes to automatically find other, and form a cluster, check out auto-clustering.

Let’s say you have 3 host machines, host1, host2, and host3, and that each of these hostnames resolves to an IP address reachable from the other hosts. Instead of hostnames you can use the IP address directly if you wish.

To create a cluster you must first launch a node that can act as the initial leader. Do this as follows on host1:

# Run this on host 1:
$ rqlited -node-id 1 -http-addr host1:4001 -raft-addr host1:4002 ~/node

It’s called the “Raft” address because that will be the port the node will use for communications related to the Raft distributed consensus protocol.

With this command a single node is started, listening for client requests on port 4001 and listening on port 4002 for intra-cluster communication requests from other nodes. Note that the addresses passed to -http-addr and -raft-addr must be reachable from other nodes so that nodes can find each other over the network – these addresses will be broadcast to other nodes during the Join operation. If a node needs to bind to one address, but advertise a different address to other nodes, you must also set -http-adv-addr and -raft-adv-addr.

-node-id can be any string, as long as it’s unique for the cluster. It also shouldn’t change, once chosen for this node. The network addresses can change however. This node stores its state in ~/node.

To join a second node to this leader, execute the following command on host2:

# Run this on host 2:
$ rqlited -node-id 2 -http-addr host2:4001 -raft-addr host2:4002 -join host1:4002 ~/node

If a node receives a join request, and that node is not actually the leader of the cluster, the receiving node will automatically redirect the requesting node to the Leader node. As a result a node can actually join a cluster by contacting any node in the cluster. You can also specify multiple join addresses, and the node will try each address until joining is successful.

Once executed you now have a cluster of two nodes. But for fault-tolerance you actually need a 3-node cluster, so launch a third node like so on host3:

# Run this on host 3:
$ rqlited -node-id 3 -http-addr host3:4001 -raft-addr host3:4002 -join host1:4002 ~/node

When simply restarting a node, there is no further need to pass -join. However, if a node does attempt to join a cluster it is already a member of, and neither its node ID or Raft network address has changed, then the cluster Leader will ignore the join request as there is nothing to do – the joining node is already a fully-configured member of the cluster. However, if either the node ID or Raft network address of the joining node has changed, the cluster Leader will first automatically remove the joining node from the cluster configuration before processing the join request. For most applications this is an implementation detail which can be safely ignored, and cluster-joins are basically idempotent.

You’ve now got a fault-tolerant, distributed, relational database. It can tolerate the failure of any node, even the leader, and remain operational.

Node IDs

You can set the Node ID (-node-id) to anything you wish, as long as it’s unique for each node.

Listening on all interfaces

You can pass to both -http-addr and -raft-addr if you wish a node to listen on all interfaces.

However you must then set -http-adv-addr and -raft-adv-addr to the actual network address (or hostname) the node can be reached on (adv stands for “advertised” address). This is so other nodes will use correct address to reach the node listening on If you didn’t do this, then the node would advertise that it was contactable on, which isn’t a reachable address.

Through the firewall

On some networks, like AWS EC2 cloud, nodes may have an IP address that is not routable from outside the firewall. Instead these nodes are addressed using a different IP address. You can still form a rqlite cluster however – check out this tutorial for an example. The key thing is that you must set -http-adv-addr and -raft-adv-addr so a routable address is broadcast to other nodes.

Growing a cluster

You can grow a cluster, at anytime, simply by starting up a new node (pick a never before used node ID) and having it explicitly join with the leader as normal. The new node will automatically pick up all changes that have occurred on the cluster since the cluster first started. In otherwords, after joining successfully, the new node will have a full copy of the SQLite database, just like every other node in the cluster.

Modifying a node’s Raft network addresses

It is possible to change a node’s Raft address between restarts. Simply pass the new address on the command line. You must also, however, explicitly tell the node to join the cluster again, by passing -join to the node. In this case what the leader actually does is remove the previous record of the node, before adding a new record of the node. You can also change the HTTP API address of a node between restarts, but an explicit re-join is not required if just the HTTP API address changes.

Note that this process only works if your cluster has, in addition to the node with the changing address, a quorum (at least) of nodes up running. If your cluster does not meet this requirement, see the section titled Dealing with failure.

One result of this is that you can’t change the network identifier of all nodes in a cluster at the same time. An example of when this might happens is if a node always comes up with a new network identifier at start-up, and you decide to restart your entire cluster at once. Since no node can contact any other node – because all the network identifiers have changed – then Raft can’t operate, and Raft consensus is required when changing any node’s network address. Another way of syaing this is that you must only change a minority of node addresses at once.

Removing or replacing a node

If a node fails completely and is not coming back, or if you shut down a node because you wish to deprovision it, its record should also be removed from the cluster (a node can be configured to do this automatically on shutdown if you prefer – see later). To remove the record of a node from a cluster, execute the following command at the rqlite CLI:> .remove <node ID>

You can also make a direct call to the HTTP API to remove a node:

curl -XDELETE http://host:4001/remove -d '{"id": "<node ID>"}'

where host is any node in the cluster. If you do not remove a failed node the Leader will continually attempt to communicate with that node. Note that the cluster must be functional – there must still be an operational Leader – for this removal to be successful. If, after a node failure, a given cluster does not have a quorum of nodes still running, you must bring back the failed node. Any attempt to remove it will fail as there will be no Leader to respond to the node-removal request.

If you cannot bring sufficient nodes back online such that the cluster can elect a leader, follow the instructions in the section titled Dealing with failure.

Removing a node automatically on shutdown

Sometimes it makes sense for a node to automatically remove itself when it gracefully shuts down. If you want this behaviour, pass -raft-cluster-remove-shutdown=true to rqlite at launch time. If the node is shut down gracefully (it receives SIGTERM for example) it will first contact the Leader and remove itself from the cluster, and then the rqlite process will terminate. As a result the Leader will not continue to contact the node after it shuts down. This removal operation also reduces the cluster quorum size.

Automatically removing failed nodes

rqlite supports automatically removing both voting (the default type) and non-voting (read-only) nodes that have been non-reachable for a configurable period of time. A non-reachable node is defined as a node that the Leader cannot heartbeat with. To enable reaping of voting nodes set -raft-reap-node-timeout to a non-zero time interval. Likewise, to enable reaping of non-voting (read-only) nodes set -raft-reap-read-only-node-timeout.

It is recommended that these values be set conservatively, especially for voting nodes. Setting them too low may mean you don’t account for the normal kinds of network outages and tempoary failures that can affect distributed systems such as rqlite. Note that the timeout clock is reset if a cluster elects a new Leader.

Example configuration

Instruct rqlite to reap non-reachable voting nodes after 2 days, and non-reachable read-only nodes after 30 minutes:

rqlited -node-id 1 -raft-reap-node-timeout=48h -raft-reap-read-only-node-timeout=30m data

For reaping to work consistently you must set these flags on every voting node in the cluster – in otherwords, every node that could potentially become the Leader. You can also set the flags on read-only nodes, but they will simply be silently ignored.

Dealing with failure

It is the nature of clustered systems that nodes can fail at anytime. Depending on the size of your cluster, it will tolerate various amounts of failure. With a 3-node cluster, it can tolerate the failure of a single node, including the Leader.

If an rqlite process crashes, it is safe to simply to restart it. The node will pick up any changes that happened on the cluster while the node was offline.

Recovering a cluster that has permanently lost quorum

This section borrows heavily from the Consul documentation.

In the event that multiple rqlite nodes are lost, causing a loss of quorum and a complete outage, partial recovery is possible using data on the remaining nodes in the cluster. There may be data loss in this situation because multiple servers were lost, so information about what’s committed could be incomplete. The recovery process implicitly commits all outstanding Raft log entries, so it’s also possible to commit data – and therefore change the SQLite database – that was uncommitted before the failure.

You may also need to follow the recovery process if a cluster simply restarts, but all nodes (or a quorum of nodes) come up with different network identitiers. This can happen in certain deployment configurations.

To begin, stop all remaining nodes. You can attempt a graceful node-removal, but it will not work in most cases. Do not worry if the remove operation results in an error. The cluster is in an unhealthy state, so this is expected.

The next step is to go to the data directory of each rqlite node you wish to bring back up. Inside that directory, there will be a raft/ sub-directory. You need to create a peers.json file within that directory, which will contain the desired configuration of your recovered rqlite cluster (which may be smaller than the original cluster, perhaps even just a single recovered node). This file should be formatted as a JSON array containing the node ID, address:port, and suffrage information of each rqlite node in the cluster.

Below is an example, of bringing a 3-node cluster back online.

    "id": "1",
    "address": "",
    "non_voter": false
    "id": "2",
    "address": "",
    "non_voter": false
    "id": "3",
    "address": "",
    "non_voter": false

id specifies the node ID of the server, which must not be changed from its previous value. The ID for a given node can be found in the logs when the node starts up if it was auto-generated. address specifies the desired Raft IP and port for the node, which does not need to be the same as previously. You can use hostnames instead of IP addresses if you prefer. non_voter controls whether the server is a read-only node. If omitted, it will default to false, which is typical for most rqlite nodes.

Next simply create entries for all the nodes you plan to bring up (in the example above that’s 3 nodes). You must confirm that nodes you don’t include here have indeed failed and will not later rejoin the cluster. Ensure that this file is the same across all remaining rqlite nodes. At this point, you can restart your rqlite cluster. In the example above, this means you’d start 3 nodes.

Once recovery is completed, the peers.json file is renamed to will not trigger further recoveries, and simply acts as a record for future reference. It may be deleted at anytime.

Recovering a multi-node cluster in this manner may still fail, in certain rare situations. The most robust way to recover a cluster as part of Disaster-Recovery process is to recover a single node first, then join new nodes to that node. Alternatively recover a single node and then retrieve a backup, which will allow you to recreate a new cluster from that backup.

Clusters with an even-number of nodes

Running clusters with an even number of voting i.e. Raft nodes is often an inefficient setup, providing little practical value. Consider, for instance, a comparison between two clusters: one containing three nodes and another containing four nodes. The collective agreement - or consensus - within these clusters is crucial for successfully executing a database write operation. A majority, or Quorum, of nodes within the cluster must concur on a given change for this operation to be successful.

The definition of this “majority” is (N/2)+1, where N is the cluster’s node count. So, for a 3-node cluster, the majority is 2, and for a 4-node cluster, it stands at 3. As such, a 3-node cluster can withstand the failure of one node without losing its ability to reach a consensus. However, a 4-node cluster offers the same tolerance level, meaning it too can only endure the loss of a single node without impeding its functionality.

This illustrates why running a 4-node cluster offers no distinct advantage over operating a 3-node cluster - both setups possess equivalent fault tolerance. Only a 5-node cluster improves fault tolerance, capable of handling the failure of two nodes. The same logic applies to 5-node vs. 6-node clusters, and so on.

The relationship between cluster sizes and Quorum

The term Quorum refers to the minimum number of nodes required to reach a consensus. It’s calculated as (N/2)+1, where N indicates the cluster size. Fault tolerance describes the maximum number of nodes that can fail without impairing the cluster’s write functionality.

Below is a table summarizing the quorum and fault tolerance for different cluster sizes:

Cluster size (N) Quorum Fault tolerance
1 1 0 nodes
2 2 0 nodes
3 2 1 node
4 3 1 node
5 3 2 nodes

Further reading

Because rqlite uses the same Raft implementation as Hashicorp Consul, much of its excellent documentation also applies to rqlite.

Last modified March 7, 2024: Update (033b859)