Designed to Fail

When it comes to reliability engineering, people often talk about things like fault injection, monitoring, and operations runbooks. These are all critical pieces for building systems which can withstand failure, but what’s less talked about is the need to design systems which deliberately fail.

Reliability design has a natural progression which closely follows that of architectural design. With monolithic systems, we care more about preventing failure from occurring. With service-oriented architectures, controlling failure becomes less manageable, so instead we learn to anticipate it. With highly distributed microservice architectures where failure is all but guaranteed, we embrace it.

What does it mean to embrace failure? Anticipating failure is understanding the behavior when things go wrong, building systems to be resilient to it, and having a game plan for when it happens, either manual or automated. Embracing failure means making a conscious decision to purposely fail, and it’s essential for building highly available large-scale systems.

A microservice architecture typically means a complex web of service dependencies. One of SOA’s goals is to isolate failure and allow for graceful degradation. The key to being highly available is learning to be partially available. Frequently, one of the requirements for partial availability is telling the client “no.” Outright rejecting service requests is often better than allowing them to back up because, when dealing with distributed services, the latter usually results in cascading failure across dependent systems.

While designing our distributed messaging service at Workiva, we made explicit decisions to drop messages on the floor if we detect the system is becoming overloaded. As queues become backed up, incoming messages are discarded, a statsd counter is incremented, and a backpressure notification is sent to the client. Upon receiving this notification, the client can respond accordingly by failing fast, exponentially backing off, or using some other flow-control strategy. By bounding resource utilization, we maintain predictable performance, predictable (and measurable) lossiness, and impede cascading failure.

Other techniques include building kill switches into service calls and routers. If an overloaded service is not essential to core business, we fail fast on calls to it to prevent availability or latency problems upstream. For example, a spam-detection service is not essential to an email system, so if it’s unavailable or overwhelmed, we can simply bypass it. Netflix’s Hystrix has a set of really nice patterns for handling this.

If we’re not careful, we can often be our own worst enemy. Many times, it’s our own internal services which cause the biggest DoS attacks on ourselves. By isolating and controlling it, we can prevent failure from becoming widespread and unpredictable. By building in backpressure mechanisms and other types of intentional “failure” modes, we can ensure better availability and reliability for our systems through graceful degradation. Sometimes it’s better to fight fire with fire and failure with failure.

Service-Disoriented Architecture

“You can have a second computer once you’ve shown you know how to use the first one.” -Paul Barham

The first rule of distributed systems is don’t distribute your system until you have an observable reason to. Teams break this rule on the regular. People have been talking about service-oriented architecture for a long time, but only recently have microservices been receiving the hype.

The problem, as Martin Fowler observes, is that teams are becoming too eager to adopt a microservice architecture without first understanding the inherent overheads. A contributing factor, I think, is you only hear the success stories from companies who did it right, like Netflix. However, what folks often fail to realize is that these companies—in almost all cases—didn’t start out that way. There was a long and winding path which led them to where they are today. The inverse of this, which some refer to as microservice envy, is causing teams to rush into microservice hell. I call this service-disoriented architecture (or sometimes disservice-oriented architecture when the architecture is DOA).

The term “monolith” has a very negative connotation—unscalable, unmaintainable, unresilient. These things are not intrinsically tied to each other, however, and there’s no reason a single system can’t be modular, maintainable, and fault tolerant at reasonable scale. It’s just less sexy. Refactoring modular code is much easier than refactoring architecture, and refactoring across service boundaries is equally difficult. Fowler describes this as monolith-first, and I think it’s the right approach (with some exceptions, of course).

Don’t even consider microservices unless you have a system that’s too complex to manage as a monolith. The majority of software systems should be built as a single monolithic application. Do pay attention to good modularity within that monolith, but don’t try to separate it into separate services.

Service-oriented architecture is about organizational complexity and system complexity. If you have both, you have a case to distribute. If you have one of the two, you might have a case (although if you have organizational complexity without system complexity, you’ve probably scaled your organization improperly). If you have neither, you do not have a case to distribute. State, specifically distributed state, is hell, and some pundits argue SOA is satan—perhaps a necessary evil.

There are a lot of motivations for microservices: anti-fragility, fault tolerance, independent deployment and scaling, architectural abstraction, and technology isolation. When services are loosely coupled, the system as a whole tends to be less fragile. When instances are disposable and stateless, services tend to be more fault tolerant because we can spin them up and down, balance traffic, and failover. When responsibility is divided across domain boundaries, services can be independently developed, deployed, and scaled while allowing the right tools to be used for each.

We also need to acknowledge the disadvantages. Adopting a microservice architecture does not automatically buy you anti-fragility. Distributed systems are incredibly precarious. We have to be aware of things like asynchrony, network partitions, node failures, and the trade-off between availability and data consistency. We have to think about resiliency but also the business and UX implications. We have to consider the boundaries of distributed systems like CAP and exactly-once delivery.

When distributing, the emphasis should be on resilience engineering and adopting loosely coupled, stateless components—not microservices for microservices’ sake. We need to view eventual consistency as a tool, not a side effect. The problem I see is that teams often end up with what is essentially a complex, distributed monolith. Now you have two problems. If you’re building a microservice which doesn’t make sense outside the context of another system or isn’t useful on its own, stop and re-evaluate. If you’re designing something to be fast and correct, realize that distributing it will frequently take away both.

Like anti-fragility, microservices do not automatically buy you better maintainability or even scalability. Adopting them requires the proper infrastructure and organization to be in place. Without these, you are bound to fail. In theory, they are intended to increase development velocity, but in many cases the microservice premium ends up slowing it down while creating organizational dependencies and bottlenecks.

There are some key things which must be in place in order for a microservice architecture to be successful: a proper continuous-delivery pipeline, competent DevOps and Ops teams, and prudent service boundaries, to name a few. Good monitoring is essential. It’s also important we have a thorough testing and integration story. This isn’t even considering the fundamental development complexities associated with SOA mentioned earlier.

The better strategy is a bottom-up approach. Start with a monolith or small set of coarse-grained services and work your way up. Make sure you have the data model right. Break out new, finer-grained services as you need to and as you become more confident in your ability to maintain and deploy discrete services. It’s largely about organizational momentum. A young company jumping straight to a microservice architecture is like a golf cart getting on the freeway.

Microservices offer a number of advantages, but for many companies they are a bit of a Holy Grail. Developers are always looking for a silver bullet, but there is always a cost. What we need to do is minimize this cost, and with microservices, this typically means easing our way into it rather than diving into the deep end. Team autonomy and rapid iteration are noble goals, but if we’re not careful, we can end up creating an impedance. Microservices require organization and system maturity. Otherwise, they end up being a premature architectural optimization with a lot of baggage. They end up creating a service-disoriented architecture.

Distributed Systems Are a UX Problem

Distributed systems are not strictly an engineering problem. It’s far too easy to assume a “backend” development concern, but the reality is there are implications at every point in the stack. Often the trade-offs we make lower in the stack in order to buy responsiveness bubble up to the top—so much, in fact, that it rarely doesn’t impact the application in some way. Distributed systems affect the user. We need to shift the focus from system properties and guarantees to business rules and application behavior. We need to understand the limitations and trade-offs at each level in the stack and why they exist. We need to assume failure and plan for recovery. We need to start thinking of distributed systems as a UX problem.

The Truth is Prohibitively Expensive

Stop relying on strong consistency. Coordination and distributed transactions are slow and inhibit availability. The cost of knowing the “truth” is prohibitively expensive for many applications. For that matter, what you think is the truth is likely just a partial or outdated version of it.

Instead, choose availability over consistency by making local decisions with the knowledge at hand and design the UX accordingly. By making this trade-off, we can dramatically improve the user’s experience—most of the time.

Failure Is an Option

There are a lot of problems with simultaneity in distributed computing. As Justin Sheehy describes it, there is no “now” when it comes to distributed systems—that article, by the way, is a must-read for every engineer, regardless of where they work in the stack.

While some things about computers are “virtual,” they still must operate in the physical world and cannot ignore the challenges of that world.

Even though computers operate in the real world, they are disconnected from it. Imagine an inventory system. It may place orders to its artificial heart’s desire, but if the warehouse burns down, there’s no fulfilling them. Even if the system is perfect, its state may be impossible. But the system is typically not perfect because the truth is prohibitively expensive. And not only do warehouses catch fire or forklifts break down, as rare as this may be, but computers fail and networks partition—and that’s far less rare.

The point is, stop trying to build perfect systems because one of two things will happen:

1. You have a false sense of security because you think the system is perfect, and it’s not.

or

2. You will never ship because perfection is out of reach or exorbitantly expensive.

Either case can be catastrophic, depending on the situation. With systems, failure is not only an option, it’s an inevitability, so let’s plan for it as such. We have a lot to gain by embracing failure. Eric Brewer articulated this idea in a recent interview:

So the general answer is you allow things to be inconsistent and then you find ways to compensate for mistakes, versus trying to prevent mistakes altogether. In fact, the financial system is actually not based on consistency, it’s based on auditing and compensation. They didn’t know anything about the CAP theorem, that was just the decision they made in figuring out what they wanted, and that’s actually, I think, the right decision.

We can look to ATMs, and banks in general, as the canonical example for how this works. When you withdraw money, the bank could choose to first coordinate your account, calculating your available balance at that moment in time, before issuing the withdrawal. But what happens when the ATM is temporarily disconnected from the bank? The bank loses out on revenue.

Instead, they make a calculated risk. They choose availability and compensate the risk of overdraft with interest and charges. Likewise, banks use double-entry bookkeeping to provide an audit trail. Every credit has a corresponding debit. Mistakes happen—accounts are debited twice, an account is credited without another being debited—the failure modes are virtually endless. But we audit and compensate, detect and recover. Banks are loosely coupled systems. Accountants don’t use erasers. Why should programmers?

When you find yourself saying “this is important data or people’s money, it has to be correct,” consider how the problem was solved before computers. Building on Quicksand by Dave Campbell and Pat Helland is a great read on this topic:

Whenever the authors struggle with explaining how to implement loosely-coupled solutions, we look to how things were done before computers. In almost every case, we can find inspiration in paper forms, pneumatic tubes, and forms filed in triplicate.

Consider the lost request and its idempotent execution. In the past, a form would have multiple carbon copies with a printed serial number on top of them. When a purchase-order request was submitted, a copy was kept in the file of the submitter and placed in a folder with the expected date of the response. If the form and its work were not completed by the expected date, the submitter would initiate an inquiry and ask to locate the purchase-order form in question. Even if the work was lost, the purchase-order would be resubmitted without modification to ensure a lack of confusion in the processing of the work. You wouldn’t change the number of items being ordered as that may cause confusion. The unique serial number on the top would act as a mechanism to ensure the work was not performed twice.

Computers allow us to greatly improve the user experience, but many of the same fail-safes still exist, just slightly rethought.

The idea of compensation is actually a common theme within distributed systems. The Saga pattern is a great example of this. Large-scale systems often have to coordinate resources across disparate services.  Traditionally, we might solve this problem using distributed transactions like two-phase commit. The problem with this approach is it doesn’t scale very well, it’s slow, and it’s not particularly fault tolerant. With 2PC, we have deadlock problems and even 3PC is still susceptible to network partitions.

Sagas split a long-lived transaction into individual, interleaved sub-transactions. Each sub-transaction in the sequence has a corresponding compensating transaction which reverses its effects. The compensating transactions must be idempotent so they can be safely retried. In the event of a partial execution, the compensating transactions are run and the Saga is effectively rolled back.

The commonly used example for Sagas is booking a trip. We need to ensure flight, car rental, and hotel are all booked or none are booked. If booking the flight fails, we cancel the hotel and car, etc. Sagas trade off atomicity for availability while still allowing us to manage failure, a common occurrence in distributed systems.

Compensation has a lot of applications as a UX principle because it’s really the only way to build loosely coupled, highly available services.

Calculated Recovery

Pat Helland describes computing as nothing more than “memories, guesses, and apologies.” Computers always have partial knowledge. Either there is a disconnect with the real world (warehouse is on fire) or there is a disconnect between systems (System A sold a Foo Widget but, unbeknownst to it, System B just sold the last one in inventory—oops!). Systems don’t make decisions, they make guesses. The guess might be good or it might be bad, but rarely is there certainty. We can wait to collect as much information as possible before making a guess, but it means progress can’t be made until the system is confident enough to do so.

Computers have memory. This means they remember facts they have learned and guesses they have made. Memories help systems make better guesses in the future, and they can share those memories with other systems to help in their guesses. We can store more memories at the cost of more money, and we can survey other systems’ memories at the cost of more latency.

It is a business decision how much money, latency, and energy should be spent on reducing forgetfulness. To make this decision, the costs of the increased probability of remembering should be weighed against the costs of occasionally forgetting stuff.

Generally speaking, the more forgetfulness we can tolerate, the more responsive our systems will be, provided we know how to handle the situations where something is forgotten.

Sooner or later, a system guesses wrong. It sucks. It might mean we lose out on revenue; the business isn’t happy. It might mean the user loses out on what they want; the customer isn’t happy. But we calculate the impact of these wrong guesses, we determine when the trade-offs do and don’t make sense, we compensate, and—when shit hits the fan—we apologize.

Business realities force apologies.  To cope with these difficult realities, we need code and, frequently, we need human beings to apologize. It is essential that businesses have both code and people to manage these apologies.

Distributed systems are as much about failure modes and recovery as they are about being operationally correct. It’s critical that we can recover gracefully when something goes wrong, and often that affects the UX.

We could choose to spend extraordinary amounts of money and countless man-hours laboring over a system which provides the reliability we want. We could construct a data center. We could deploy big, expensive machines. We could install redundant fiber and switches. We could drudge over infallible code. Or we could stop, think for a moment, and realize maybe “sorry” is a more effective alternative. Knowing when to make that distinction can be the difference between a successful business and a failed one. The implications of distributed systems may be wider reaching than you thought.

CAP and the Illusion of Choice

The CAP theorem is widely discussed and often misunderstood within the world of distributed systems. It states that any networked, shared-data system can, at most, guarantee two of three properties: consistency, availability, and partition tolerance. I won’t go into detail on CAP since the literature is abundant, but the notion of “two of three”—while conceptually accessible—is utterly misleading. Brewer has indicated this, echoed by many more, but there still seems to be a lot of confusion when the topic is brought up. The bottom line is you can’t sacrifice partition tolerance, but it seems CAP is a bit more nuanced than that.

On the surface, CAP presents three categories of systems. CA implies one which maintains consistency and availability given a perfectly reliable network. CP provides consistency and partition tolerance at the expense of availability, and AP gives us availability and partition tolerance without linearizability. Clearly, CA suggests that the system guarantees consistency and availability only when there are no network partitions. However, to say that there will never be network partitions is blatantly dishonest. This is where the source of much confusion lies.

Partitions happen. They happen for countless reasons. Switches fail, NICs fail, link layers fail, servers fail, processes fail. Partitions happen even when systems don’t fail due to GC pauses or prolonged I/O latency for example. Let’s accept this as fact and move on. What this means is that a “CA” system is CA only until it’s not. Once that partition happens, all your assumptions and all your guarantees hit the fan in spectacular fashion. Where does this leave us?

At its core, CAP is about trade-offs, but it’s an exclusion principle. It tells us what our systems cannot do given the nature of reality. The distinction here is that not all systems fit nicely into these archetypes. If Jepsen has taught us anything, it’s that the majority of systems don’t fit into any of these categories, even when the designers state otherwise. CAP isn’t as black and white as people paint it.

There’s a really nice series on CAP written recently by Nicolas Liochon. It does an excellent job of explaining the terminology (far better than I could), which is often overloaded and misused, and it makes some interesting points. Nicolas suggests that CA should really be thought of as a specification for an operating range, while CP and AP are descriptions of behavior. I would tend to agree, but my concern is that this eschews the trade-off that must be made.

We know that we cannot avoid network partition. What if we specify our application like this: “this application does not handle network partition. If it happens, the application will be partly unavailable, the data may be corrupted, and you may have to fix the data manually.” In other words, we’re really asking to be CA here, but if a partition occurs we may be CP, or, if we are unlucky, both not available and not consistent.

As an operating range, CA basically means when a partition occurs, the system throws up its hands and says, “welp, see ya later!” If we specify that the system does not work well under network partitions, we’re saying partitions are outside its operating range. What good is a specification for a spaceship designed to fly the upper atmosphere of planet Terah when we’re down here on Earth? We live in a world where partitions are the norm, so surely we need to include them in our operating range. CA does specify an operating range, but it’s not one you can put in an SLA and hand to a customer. Colloquially, it’s just a mode of “undefined behavior”—the system is consistent and available—until it’s not.

CAP isn’t a perfect metaphor, but in my mind, it does a decent job of highlighting the fundamental trade-offs involved in building distributed systems. Either we have linearizable writes or we don’t. If we do, we can’t guarantee availability. It’s true that CAP seems to imply a binary choice between consistency and availability in the face of partitions. In fact, it’s not a binary choice. You have AP, CP, or None of the Above. The problem with None of the Above is that it’s difficult to reason about and even more difficult to define. Ultimately, it ends up being more an illusion of choice since we cannot sacrifice partition tolerance.

You Cannot Have Exactly-Once Delivery

I’m often surprised that people continually have fundamental misconceptions about how distributed systems behave. I myself shared many of these misconceptions, so I try not to demean or dismiss but rather educate and enlighten, hopefully while sounding less preachy than that just did. I continue to learn only by following in the footsteps of others. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that folks buy into these fallacies as I once did, but it can be frustrating when trying to communicate certain design decisions and constraints.

Within the context of a distributed system, you cannot have exactly-once message delivery. Web browser and server? Distributed. Server and database? Distributed. Server and message queue? Distributed. You cannot have exactly-once delivery semantics in any of these situations.

As I’ve described in the past, distributed systems are all about trade-offs. This is one of them. There are essentially three types of delivery semantics: at-most-once, at-least-once, and exactly-once. Of the three, the first two are feasible and widely used. If you want to be super anal, you might say at-least-once delivery is also impossible because, technically speaking, network partitions are not strictly time-bound. If the connection from you to the server is interrupted indefinitely, you can’t deliver anything. Practically speaking, you have bigger fish to fry at that point—like calling your ISP—so we consider at-least-once delivery, for all intents and purposes, possible. With this model of thinking, network partitions are finitely bounded in time, however arbitrary this may be.

So where does the trade-off come into play, and why is exactly-once delivery impossible? The answer lies in the Two Generals thought experiment or the more generalized Byzantine Generals Problem, which I’ve looked at extensively. We must also consider the FLP result, which basically says, given the possibility of a faulty process, it’s impossible for a system of processes to agree on a decision.

In the letter I mail you, I ask you to call me once you receive it. You never do. Either you really didn’t care for my letter or it got lost in the mail. That’s the cost of doing business. I can send the one letter and hope you get it, or I can send 10 letters and assume you’ll get at least one of them. The trade-off here is quite clear (postage is expensive!), but sending 10 letters doesn’t really provide any additional guarantees. In a distributed system, we try to guarantee the delivery of a message by waiting for an acknowledgement that it was received, but all sorts of things can go wrong. Did the message get dropped? Did the ack get dropped? Did the receiver crash? Are they just slow? Is the network slow? Am slow? FLP and the Two Generals Problem are not design complexities, they are impossibility results.

People often bend the meaning of “delivery” in order to make their system fit the semantics of exactly-once, or in other cases, the term is overloaded to mean something entirely different. State-machine replication is a good example of this. Atomic broadcast protocols ensure messages are delivered reliably and in order. The truth is, we can’t deliver messages reliably and in order in the face of network partitions and crashes without a high degree of coordination. This coordination, of course, comes at a cost (latency and availability), while still relying on at-least-once semantics. Zab, the atomic broadcast protocol which lays the foundation for ZooKeeper, enforces idempotent operations.

State changes are idempotent and applying the same state change multiple times does not lead to inconsistencies as long as the application order is consistent with the delivery order. Consequently, guaranteeing at-least once semantics is sufficient and simplifies the implementation.

“Simplifies the implementation” is the authors’ attempt at subtlety. State-machine replication is just that, replicating state. If our messages have side effects, all of this goes out the window.

We’re left with a few options, all equally tenuous. When a message is delivered, it’s acknowledged immediately before processing. The sender receives the ack and calls it a day. However, if the receiver crashes before or during its processing, that data is lost forever. Customer transaction? Sorry, looks like you’re not getting your order. This is the worldview of at-most-once delivery. To be honest, implementing at-most-once semantics is more complicated than this depending on the situation. If there are multiple workers processing tasks or the work queues are replicated, the broker must be strongly consistent (or CP in CAP theorem parlance) so as to ensure a task is not delivered to any other workers once it’s been acked. Apache Kafka uses ZooKeeper to handle this coordination.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge messages after they are processed. If the process crashes after handling a message but before acking (or the ack isn’t delivered), the sender will redeliver. Hello, at-least-once delivery. Furthermore, if you want to deliver messages in order to more than one site, you need an atomic broadcast which is a huge burden on throughput. Fast or consistent. Welcome to the world of distributed systems.

Every major message queue in existence which provides any guarantees will market itself as at-least-once delivery. If it claims exactly-once, it’s because they are lying to your face in hopes that you will buy it or they themselves do not understand distributed systems. Either way, it’s not a good indicator.

RabbitMQ attempts to provide guarantees along these lines:

When using confirms, producers recovering from a channel or connection failure should retransmit any messages for which an acknowledgement has not been received from the broker. There is a possibility of message duplication here, because the broker might have sent a confirmation that never reached the producer (due to network failures, etc). Therefore consumer applications will need to perform deduplication or handle incoming messages in an idempotent manner.

The way we achieve exactly-once delivery in practice is by faking it. Either the messages themselves should be idempotent, meaning they can be applied more than once without adverse effects, or we remove the need for idempotency through deduplication. Ideally, our messages don’t require strict ordering and are commutative instead. There are design implications and trade-offs involved with whichever route you take, but this is the reality in which we must live.

Rethinking operations as idempotent actions might be easier said than done, but it mostly requires a change in the way we think about state. This is best described by revisiting the replicated state machine. Rather than distributing operations to apply at various nodes, what if we just distribute the state changes themselves? Rather than mutating state, let’s just report facts at various points in time. This is effectively how Zab works.

Imagine we want to tell a friend to come pick us up. We send him a series of text messages with turn-by-turn directions, but one of the messages is delivered twice! Our friend isn’t too happy when he finds himself in the bad part of town. Instead, let’s just tell him where we are and let him figure it out. If the message gets delivered more than once, it won’t matter. The implications are wider reaching than this, since we’re still concerned with the ordering of messages, which is why solutions like commutative and convergent replicated data types are becoming more popular. That said, we can typically solve this problem through extrinsic means like sequencing, vector clocks, or other partial-ordering mechanisms. It’s usually causal ordering that we’re after anyway. People who say otherwise don’t quite realize that there is no now in a distributed system.

To reiterate, there is no such thing as exactly-once delivery. We must choose between the lesser of two evils, which is at-least-once delivery in most cases. This can be used to simulate exactly-once semantics by ensuring idempotency or otherwise eliminating side effects from operations. Once again, it’s important to understand the trade-offs involved when designing distributed systems. There is asynchrony abound, which means you cannot expect synchronous, guaranteed behavior. Design for failure and resiliency against this asynchronous nature.

If State Is Hell, SOA Is Satan

More and more companies are describing their success stories regarding the switch to a service-oriented architecture. As with any technological upswing, there’s a clear and palpable hype factor involved (Big Data™ or The Cloud™ anyone?), but obviously it’s not just puff.

While microservices and SOA have seen a staggering rate of adoption in recent years, the mindset of developers often seems to be stuck in the past. I think this is, at least in part, because we seek a mental model we can reason about. It’s why we build abstractions in the first place. In a sense, I would argue there’s a comparison to be made between the explosion of OOP in the early 90’s and today’s SOA trend. After all, SOA is as much about people scale as it is about workload scale, so it makes sense from an organizational perspective.

The Perils of Good Abstractions

While systems are becoming more and more distributed, abstractions are attempting to make them less and less complex. Mesosphere is a perfect example of this, attempting to provide the “datacenter operating system.” Apache Mesos allows you to “program against your datacenter like it’s a single pool of resources.” It’s an appealing proposition to say the least. PaaS like Google App Engine and Heroku offer similar abstractions—write your code without thinking about scale. The problem is you absolutely have to think about scale or you’re bound to run into problems down the road. And while these abstractions are nice, they can be dangerous just the same. Welcome to the perils of good abstractions.

I like to talk about App Engine because I have firsthand experience with it. It’s an easy sell for startups. It handles spinning up instances when you need them, turning them down when you don’t. It’s your app server, database, caching, job scheduler, task queue all in one, and it does it at scale. There’s vendor lock-in, sure, yet it means no ops, no sysadmins, no overhead. Push to deploy. But it’s a leaky abstraction. It has to be. App Engine scales because it’s distributed, but it allows—no, encourages—you to write your system as a monolith. The datastore, memcache, and task queue accesses are masked as RPCs. This is great for our developer mental model, but it will bite you if you’re not careful. App Engine imposes certain limitations to encourage good design; for instance, front-end requests and datastore calls are limited to 60 seconds (it used to be much less), but the leakiness goes beyond that.

RPC is consistently at odds with distributed systems. I would go so far as to say it’s an anti-pattern in many cases. RPC encourages writing synchronous code, but distributed systems are inherently asynchronous. The network is not reliable. The network is not fast. The network is not your friend. Developers who either don’t understand this or don’t realize what’s happening when they make an RPC will write code as if they were calling a function. It will sure as hell look like just calling a function. When we think synchronously, we end up with systems that are slow, fault intolerant, and generally not scalable. To be quite honest, however, this is perfectly acceptable for 90% of startups as they are getting off the ground because they don’t have workloads at meaningful scale.

There’s certainly some irony here. One of the selling points of App Engine is its ability to scale to large amounts of traffic, yet the vast majority of startups would be perfectly suited to scaling up rather than out, perhaps with some failover in place for good measure. Stack Overflow is the poster child of scale-up architecture. In truth, your architecture should be a function of your access patterns, not the other way around (and App Engine is very much tailored to a specific set of access patterns). Nonetheless, it shows that vertical scaling can work. I would bet a lot of startups could sufficiently run on a large, adequately specced machine or maybe a small handful of them.

The cruel irony is that once you hit a certain scale with App Engine, both in terms of your development organization and user base, you’ve reached a point where you have to migrate off it. And if your data model isn’t properly thought out, you will without a doubt hit scale problems. It’s to the point where you need someone with deep knowledge of how App Engine works in order to build quality systems on it. Good luck hiring a team of engineers who understand it. GAE is great at accelerating you to 100 mph, but you better have some nice airbags for the brick wall it launches you into. In fairness, this is a problem every org hits—Conway’s law is very much a reality and every startup has growing pains. To be clear, this isn’t a jab at GAE, which is actually very effective at accelerating a product using little capital and can sustain long-term success given the right use case. Instead, I use it to illustrate a point.

Peering Through the Abstraction

Eventually SOA makes sense, but our abstractions can cause problems if we don’t understand what’s going on behind the curtain (hence the leakiness). Partial failure is all but guaranteed, and latency, partitioning, and other network pressure happens all the time.

Ken Arnold is famed with once saying “state is hell” in reference to designing distributed systems. In the past, I’ve written how scaling shared data is hard, but with SOA it’s practically a requirement. Ken is right though—state is hell, and SOA is fundamentally competing with consistency. The FLP Impossibility result and the CAP theorem can prove it formally, but really this should be intuitively obvious if we accept the laws of physics.

On the other hand, if you store information that I can’t reconstruct, then a whole host of questions suddenly surface. One question is, “Are you now a single point of failure?” I have to talk to you now. I can’t talk to anyone else. So what happens if you go down?

To deal with that, you could be replicated. But now you have to worry about replication strategies. What if I talk to one replicant and modify some data, then I talk to another? Is that modification guaranteed to have already arrived there? What is the replication strategy? What kind of consistency do you need—tight or loose? What happens if the network gets partitioned and the replicants can’t talk to each other? Can anybody proceed?

Essentially, the more stateful your system is, the harder it’s going to be to scale it because distributing that state introduces a rich tapestry of problems. In practice, we often can’t eliminate state wholesale, but basically everything that can be stateless should be stateless.

Making servers disposable allows you a great deal of flexibility. Former Netflix Cloud Architect Adrian Cockcroft articulates this idea well:

You want to think of servers like cattle, not pets. If you have a machine in production that performs a specialized function, and you know it by name, and everyone gets sad when it goes down, it’s a pet. Instead you should think of your servers like a herd of cows. What you care about is how many gallons of milk you get. If one day you notice you’re getting less milk than usual, you find out which cows aren’t producing well and replace them.

This is effectively how App Engine achieves its scalability. With lightweight, stateless, and disposable instances, it can spin them up and down on the fly without worrying about being in an invalid state.

App Engine also relies on eventual consistency as the default model for datastore interactions. This makes queries fast and highly available, while snapshot isolation can be achieved using entity-group transactions if necessary. The latter, of course, can result in a lot of contention and latency. Yet, people seem to have a hard time grappling with the reality of eventual consistency in distributed systems. State is hell, but calling SOA “satan” is clearly a hyperbole. It is a tough problem nevertheless.

A State of Mind

In the situations where we need state, we have to reconcile with the realities of distributed systems. This means understanding the limitations and accepting the complexities, not papering over them. It doesn’t mean throwing away abstractions. Fortunately, distributed computing is the focus of a lot of great research, so there are primitives with which we can build: immutability, causal ordering, eventual consistency, CRDTs, and other ideas.

As long as we recognize the trade-offs, we can design around them. The crux is knowing they exist in the first place. We can’t have ACID semantics while remaining highly available, but we can use Highly Available Transactions to provide strong-enough guarantees. At the same time, not all operations require coordination or concurrency control. The sooner we view eventual consistency as a solution and not a consequence, the sooner we can let go of this existential crisis. Other interesting research includes BOOM, which seeks to provide a high-level, declarative approach to distributed programming.

State might be hell, but it’s a hell we have to live. I don’t advocate an all-out microservice architecture for a company just getting its start. The complications far outweigh any benefits to be gained, but it becomes a necessity at a certain point. The key is having an exit strategy. PaaS providers make this difficult due to vendor lock-in and architectural constraints. Weigh their advantages carefully.

Once you do transition to a SOA, make as many of those services, or the pieces backing them, as stateless as possible. For those which aren’t stateless, know that the problem typically isn’t novel. These problems have been solved or are continuing to be solved in new and interesting ways. Academic research is naturally at the bleeding edge with industry often lagging behind. OOP concepts date back to as early as the 60’s but didn’t gain widespread adoption until several decades later. Distributed computing is no different. SOA is just a state of mind.

Fast, Scalable Networking in Go with Mangos

In the past, I’ve looked at nanomsg and why it’s a formidable alternative to the well-regarded ZeroMQ. Like ZeroMQ, nanomsg is a native library which markets itself as a way to build fast and scalable networking layers. I won’t go into detail on how nanomsg accomplishes this since my analysis of it already covers that fairly extensively, but instead I want to talk about a Go implementation of the protocol called Mangos.1 If you’re not familiar with nanomsg or Scalability Protocols, I recommend reading my overview of those first.

nanomsg is a shared library written in C. This, combined with its zero-copy API, makes it an extremely low-latency transport layer. While there are a lot of client bindings which allow you to use nanomsg from other languages, dealing with shared libraries can often be a pain—not to mention it complicates deployment.

More and more companies are starting to use Go for backend development because of its speed and concurrency primitives. It’s really good at building server components that scale. Go obviously provides the APIs needed for socket networking, but building a scalable distributed system that’s reliable using these primitives can be somewhat onerous. Solutions like nanomsg’s Scalability Protocols and ZeroMQ attempt to make this much easier by providing useful communication patterns and by taking care of other messaging concerns like queueing.

Naturally, there are Go bindings for nanomsg and ZeroMQ, but like I said, dealing with shared libraries can be fraught with peril. In Go (and often other languages), we tend to avoid loading native libraries if we can. It’s much easier to reason about, debug, and deploy a single binary than multiple. Fortunately, there’s a really nice implementation of nanomsg’s Scalability Protocols in pure Go called Mangos by Garrett D’Amore of illumos fame.

Mangos offers an idiomatic Go implementation and interface which affords us the same messaging patterns that nanomsg provides while maintaining compatibility. Pub/Sub, Pair, Req/Rep, Pipeline, Bus, and Survey are all there. It also supports the same pluggable transport model, allowing additional transports to be added (and extended2) on top of the base TCP, IPC, and inproc ones.3 Mangos has been tested for interoperability with nanomsg using the nanocat command-line interface.

One of the advantages of using a language like C is that it’s not garbage collected. However, if you’re using Go with nanomsg, you’re already paying the cost of GC. Mangos makes use of object pools in order to reduce pressure on the garbage collector. We can’t turn Go’s GC off, but we can make an effort to minimize pauses. This is critical for high-throughput systems, and Mangos tends to perform quite comparably to nanomsg.

Mangos (and nanomsg) has a very familiar, socket-like API. To show what this looks like, the code below illustrates a simple example of how the Pub/Sub protocol is used to build a fan-out messaging system.

My message queue test framework, Flotilla, uses the Req/Rep protocol to allow clients to send requests to distributed daemon processes, which handle them and respond. While this is a very simple use case where you could just as easily get away with raw TCP sockets, there are more advanced cases where Scalability Protocols make sense. We also get the added advantage of transport abstraction, so we’re not strictly tied to TCP sockets.

I’ve been building a distributed messaging system using Mangos as a means of federated communication. Pub/Sub enables a fan-out, interest-based broadcast and Bus facilitates many-to-many messaging. Both of these are exceptionally useful for connecting disparate systems. Mangos also supports an experimental new protocol called Star. This pattern is like Bus, but when a message is received by an immediate peer, it’s propagated to all other members of the topology.

My favorite Scalability Protocol is Survey. As I discussed in my nanomsg overview, there are a lot of really interesting applications of this. Survey allows a process to query the state of multiple peers in one shot. It’s similar to Pub/Sub in that the surveyor publishes a single message which is received by all the respondents (although there’s no topic subscriptions). The respondents then send a message back, and the surveyor collects these responses. We can also enforce a deadline on the respondent replies, which makes Survey particularly useful for service discovery.

With my messaging system, I’ve used Survey to implement a heartbeat protocol. When a broker spins up, it begins broadcasting a heartbeat using a Survey socket. New brokers can connect to existing ones, and they reply to the heartbeat which allows brokers to “discover” each other. If a heartbeat isn’t received before the deadline, the peer is removed. Mangos also handles reconnects, so if a broker goes offline and comes back up, peers will automatically reconnect.

To summarize, if you’re building distributed systems in Go, consider taking a look at Mangos. You can certainly roll your own messaging layer with raw sockets, but you’re going to end up writing a lot of logic for a robust system. Mangos, and nanomsg in general, gives you the right abstraction to quickly build systems that scale and are fast.

  1. Full disclosure: I am a contributor on the Mangos project, but only because I was a user first! []
  2. Mangos supports TLS with the TCP transport as an experimental extension. []
  3. A nanomsg WebSocket transport is currently in the works. []

Not Invented Here

Engineers love engineering things. The reason is self-evident (and maybe self-fulfilling—why else would you be an engineer?). We like to think we’re pretty good at solving problems. Unfortunately, this mindset can, on occasion, yield undesirable consequences which might not be immediately apparent but all the while damaging.

Developers are all in tune with the idea of “don’t reinvent the wheel,” but it seems to be eschewed sometimes, deliberately or otherwise. People don’t generally write their own merge sort, so why would they write their own consensus protocol? Anecdotally speaking, they do.

Not-Invented-Here Syndrome is a very real thing. In many cases, consciously or not, it’s a cultural problem. In others, it’s an engineering one. Camille Fournier’s blog post on ZooKeeper helps to illustrate this point and provide some context. In it, she describes why some distributed systems choose to rely on external services, such as ZooKeeper, for distributed coordination, while others build in their own coordination logic.

We draw a parallel between distributed systems and traditional RDBMSs, which typically implement their own file system and other low-level facilities. Why? Because it’s their competitive advantage. SQL databases sell because they offer finely tuned performance, and in order to do that, they need to control these things that the OS otherwise provides. Distributed databases like Riak sell because they own the coordination logic, which helps promote their competitive advantage. This follows what Joel Spolsky says about NIH Syndrome in that “if it’s a core business function—do it yourself, no matter what.”

If you’re developing a computer game where the plot is your competitive advantage, it’s OK to use a third party 3D library. But if cool 3D effects are going to be your distinguishing feature, you had better roll your own.

This makes a lot of sense. My sorting algorithm is unlikely to provide me with a competitive edge, but something else might, even if it’s not particularly novel.

So in some situations, homegrown is justifiable, but that’s not always the case. Redis’ competitive advantage is its predictably low latencies and data structures. Does it make sense for it to implement its own clustering and leader election protocols? Maybe, but this is where NIH can bite you. If what you’re doing is important and there’s precedent, lean on existing research and solutions. Most would argue write safety is important, and there is certainly precedent for leader election. Why not leverage that work? Things like Raft, Paxos, and Zab provide solutions which are proven using formal methods and are peer reviewed. That doesn’t mean new solutions can’t be developed, but they generally require model checking and further scrutiny to ensure correctness. Otherwise, you’ll inevitably run into problems. Implementing our own solutions can provide valuable insight, but leave them at home if they’re not rigorously approached. Rolling your own and calling it “good enough” is dishonest to your users if it’s not properly communicated.

Elasticsearch is another interesting case to look at. You might say Elasticsearch’s competitive advantage is its full-text search engine, but it’s not. Like Solr, it’s built on Lucene. Elasticsearch was designed from the ground-up to be distributed. This is what gives it a leg up over Solr and other similar search servers where horizontal scaling and fault tolerance were essentially tacked on. In a way, this resembles what happened with Redis, where failover and clustering were introduced as an afterthought. However, unlike Redis, which chose to implement its own failover coordination and cluster-membership protocol, Solr opted to use ZooKeeper as an external coordinator.

We see that Elasticsearch’s core advantage is its distributed nature. Following that notion, it makes sense for it to own that coordination, which is why its designers chose to implement their own internal cluster membership, ZenDisco. But it turns out writing cluster-membership protocols is really fucking hard, and unless you’ve written proofs for it, you probably shouldn’t do it at all. The analogy here would be writing your own encryption algorithm—there’s tons of institutional knowledge which has laid the groundwork for solutions which are well-researched and well-understood. That knowledge should be embraced in situations like this.

I don’t mean to pick on Redis and Elasticsearch. They’re both excellent systems, but they serve as good examples for this discussion. The problem is that users of these systems tend to overlook the issues exposed by this mentality. Frankly, few people would know problems exist unless they are clearly documented by vendors (and not sales people) and even then, how many people actually read the docs cover-to-cover? It’s essential we know a system’s shortcomings and edge cases so we can recognize which situations to apply it and, more important, which we should not.

You don’t have to rely on an existing third-party library or service. Believe it or not, this isn’t a sales pitch for ZooKeeper. If it’s a core business function, it probably makes sense to build it yourself as Joel describes. What doesn’t make sense, however, is to build out whatever that is without being cognizant of conventional wisdom. I’m amazed at how often people are willing to throw away institutional knowledge, either because they don’t seek it out or they think they can do better (without formal verification). If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Sometimes Kill -9 Isn’t Enough

If there’s one thing to know about distributed systems, it’s that they have to be designed with the expectation of failure. It’s also safe to say that most software these days is, in some form, distributed—whether it’s a database, mobile app, or enterprise SaaS. If you have two different processes talking to each other, you have a distributed system, and it doesn’t matter if those processes are local or intergalactically displaced.

Marc Hedlund recently had a great post on Stripe’s game-day exercises where they block off an afternoon, take a blunt instrument to their servers, and see what happens. We’re talking like abruptly killing instances here—kill -9, ec2-terminate-instances, yanking on the damn power cord—that sort of thing. Everyone should be doing this type of stuff. You really don’t know how your system behaves until you see it under failure conditions.

Netflix uses Chaos Monkey to randomly terminate instances, and they do it in production. That takes some balls, but you know you have a pretty solid system when you’re comfortable killing live production servers. At Workiva, we have a middleware we use to inject datastore and other RPC errors into Google App Engine. Building resilient systems is an objective concern, but we still have a ways to go.

We need to be pessimists and design for failure, but injecting failure isn’t enough. Sure, every so often shit hits the proverbial fan, and we need to be tolerant of that. But more often than not, that fan is just a strong headwind.

Simulating failure is a necessary element for building reliable distributed systems, but system behavior isn’t black and white, it’s a continuum. We build our system in a vacuum and (hopefully) test it under failure, but we should also be observing it in this gray area. How does it perform with unreliable network connections? Low bandwidth? High latency? Dropped packets? Out-of-order packets? Duplicate packets? Not only do our systems need to be fault-tolerant, they need to be pressure-tolerant.

Simulating Pressure

There are a lot of options to do these types of “pressure” simulations. On Linux, we can use iptables to accomplish this.

This will drop incoming and outgoing packets with a 10% probability. Alternatively, we can use tc to simulate network latency, limited bandwidth, and packet loss.

The above adds an additional 250ms of latency with 10% packet loss and a bandwidth limit of 1Mbps. Likewise, on OSX and BSD we can use ipfw or pfctl.

Here we inject 500ms of latency while limiting bandwidth to 1Mbps and dropping 10% of packets.

These are just some very simple traffic-shaping examples. Several of these tools allow you to perform even more advanced testing, like adding variation and correlation values. This would allow you to emulate burst packet loss and other situations we often encounter. For instance, with tc, we can add jitter to the network latency.

This adds 50±20ms of latency. Since network latency typically isn’t uniform, we can apply a normal distribution to achieve a more realistic simulation.

Now we get a nice bell curve which is probably more representative of what we see in practice. We can also use tc to re-order, duplicate, and corrupt packets.

I’ve been working on an open-source tool which attempts to wrap these controls up so you don’t have to memorize the options or worry about portability. It’s pretty primitive and doesn’t support much yet, but it provides a thin layer of abstraction.

Conclusion

Injecting failure is crucial to understanding systems and building confidence, but like good test coverage, it’s important to examine suboptimal-but-operating scenarios. This isn’t even 99th-percentile stuff—this is the type of shit your users deal with every single day. If you can’t handle sustained latency and sporadic network partitions, who cares if you tolerate instance failure? The tools are at our disposal, they just need to be leveraged.

From Mainframe to Microservice: An Introduction to Distributed Systems

I gave a talk at Iowa Code Camp this weekend on distributed systems. It was primarily an introduction to them, so it explored some core concepts at a high level.  We looked at why distributed systems are difficult to build (right), the CAP theorem, consensus, scaling shared data and CRDTs.

There was some interest in making the slides available online. I’m not sure how useful they are without narration, but here they are anyway for posterity.