Take It to the Limit: Considerations for Building Reliable Systems

Complex systems usually operate in failure mode. This is because a complex system typically consists of many discrete pieces, each of which can fail in isolation (or in concert). In a microservice architecture where a given function potentially comprises several independent service calls, high availability hinges on the ability to be partially available. This is a core tenet behind resilience engineering. If a function depends on three services, each with a reliability of 90%, 95%, and 99%, respectively, partial availability could be the difference between 99.995% reliability and 84% reliability (assuming failures are independent). Resilience engineering means designing with failure as the normal.

Anticipating failure is the first step to resilience zen, but the second is embracing it. Telling the client “no” and failing on purpose is better than failing in unpredictable or unexpected ways. Backpressure is another critical resilience engineering pattern. Fundamentally, it’s about enforcing limits. This comes in the form of queue lengths, bandwidth throttling, traffic shaping, message rate limits, max payload sizes, etc. Prescribing these restrictions makes the limits explicit when they would otherwise be implicit (eventually your server will exhaust its memory, but since the limit is implicit, it’s unclear exactly when or what the consequences might be). Relying on unbounded queues and other implicit limits is like someone saying they know when to stop drinking because they eventually pass out.

Rate limiting is important not just to prevent bad actors from DoSing your system, but also yourself. Queue limits and message size limits are especially interesting because they seem to confuse and frustrate developers who haven’t fully internalized the motivation behind them. But really, these are just another form of rate limiting or, more generally, backpressure. Let’s look at max message size as a case study.

Imagine we have a system of distributed actors. An actor can send messages to other actors who, in turn, process the messages and may choose to send messages themselves. Now, as any good software engineer knows, the eighth fallacy of distributed computing is “the network is homogenous.” This means not all actors are using the same hardware, software, or network configuration. We have servers with 128GB RAM running Ubuntu, laptops with 16GB RAM running macOS, mobile clients with 2GB RAM running Android, IoT edge devices with 512MB RAM, and everything in between, all running a hodgepodge of software and network interfaces.

When we choose not to put an upper bound on message sizes, we are making an implicit assumption (recall the discussion on implicit/explicit limits from earlier). Put another way, you and everyone you interact with (likely unknowingly) enters an unspoken contract of which neither party can opt out. This is because any actor may send a message of arbitrary size. This means any downstream consumers of this message, either directly or indirectly, must also support arbitrarily large messages.

How can we test something that is arbitrary? We can’t. We have two options: either we make the limit explicit or we keep this implicit, arbitrarily binding contract. The former allows us to define our operating boundaries and gives us something to test. The latter requires us to test at some undefined production-level scale. The second option is literally gambling reliability for convenience. The limit is still there, it’s just hidden. When we don’t make it explicit, we make it easy to DoS ourselves in production. Limits become even more important when dealing with cloud infrastructure due to their multitenant nature. They prevent a bad actor (or yourself) from bringing down services or dominating infrastructure and system resources.

In our heterogeneous actor system, we have messages bound for mobile devices and web browsers, which are often single-threaded or memory-constrained consumers. Without an explicit limit on message size, a client could easily doom itself by requesting too much data or simply receiving data outside of its control—this is why the contract is unspoken but binding.

Let’s look at this from a different kind of engineering perspective. Consider another type of system: the US National Highway System. The US Department of Transportation uses the Federal Bridge Gross Weight Formula as a means to prevent heavy vehicles from damaging roads and bridges. It’s really the same engineering problem, just a different discipline and a different type of infrastructure.

The August 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis brought renewed attention to the issue of truck weights and their relation to bridge stress. In November 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board determined there had been several reasons for the bridge’s collapse, including (but not limited to): faulty gusset plates, inadequate inspections, and the extra weight of heavy construction equipment combined with the weight of rush hour traffic.

The DOT relies on weigh stations to ensure trucks comply with federal weight regulations, fining those that exceed restrictions without an overweight permit.

The federal maximum weight is set at 80,000 pounds. Trucks exceeding the federal weight limit can still operate on the country’s highways with an overweight permit, but such permits are only issued before the scheduled trip and expire at the end of the trip. Overweight permits are only issued for loads that cannot be broken down to smaller shipments that fall below the federal weight limit, and if there is no other alternative to moving the cargo by truck.

Weight limits need to be enforced so civil engineers have a defined operating range for the roads, bridges, and other infrastructure they build. Computers are no different. This is the reason many systems enforce these types of limits. For example, Amazon clearly publishes the limits for its Simple Queue Service—the max in-flight messages for standard queues is 120,000 messages and 20,000 messages for FIFO queues. Messages are limited to 256KB in size. Amazon KinesisApache KafkaNATS, and Google App Engine pull queues all limit messages to 1MB in size. These limits allow the system designers to optimize their infrastructure and ameliorate some of the risks of multitenancy—not to mention it makes capacity planning much easier.

Unbounded anything—whether its queues, message sizes, queries, or traffic—is a resilience engineering anti-pattern. Without explicit limits, things fail in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Remember, the limits exist, they’re just hidden. By making them explicit, we restrict the failure domain giving us more predictability, longer mean time between failures, and shorter mean time to recovery at the cost of more upfront work or slightly more complexity.

It’s better to be explicit and handle these limits upfront than to punt on the problem and allow systems to fail in unexpected ways. The latter might seem like less work at first but will lead to more problems long term. By requiring developers to deal with these limitations directly, they will think through their APIs and business logic more thoroughly and design better interactions with respect to stability, scalability, and performance.

You Are Not Paid to Write Code

“Taco Bell Programming” is the idea that we can solve many of the problems we face as software engineers with clever reconfigurations of the same basic Unix tools. The name comes from the fact that every item on the menu at Taco Bell, a company which generates almost $2 billion in revenue annually, is simply a different configuration of roughly eight ingredients.

Many people grumble or reject the notion of using proven tools or techniques. It’s boring. It requires investing time to learn at the expense of shipping code.  It doesn’t do this one thing that we need it to do. It won’t work for us. For some reason—and I continue to be completely baffled by this—everyone sees their situation as a unique snowflake despite the fact that a million other people have probably done the same thing. It’s a weird form of tunnel vision, and I see it at every level in the organization. I catch myself doing it on occasion too. I think it’s just human nature.

I was able to come to terms with this once I internalized something a colleague once said: you are not paid to write code. You have never been paid to write code. In fact, code is a nasty byproduct of being a software engineer.

Every time you write code or introduce third-party services, you are introducing the possibility of failure into your system.

I think the idea of Taco Bell Programming can be generalized further and has broader implications based on what I see in industry. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn from The Systems Bible by John Gall, which provides valuable commentary on general systems theory. Gall’s Fundamental Theorem of Systems is that new systems mean new problems. I think the same can safely be said of code—more code, more problems. Do it without a new system if you can.

Systems are seductive and engineers in particular seem to have a predisposition for them. They promise to do a job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself or with a less specialized system. But when you introduce a new system, you introduce new variables, new failure points, and new problems.

But if you set up a system, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself. New problems are created by its very presence. Once set up, it won’t go away, it grows and encroaches. It begins to do strange and wonderful things. Breaks down in ways you never thought possible. It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function. Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system. You become anxious and push on it to make it work. Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is what you really wanted all the time. At that point encroachment has become complete. You have become absorbed. You are now a systems person.

The last systems principle we look at is one I find particularly poignant: almost anything is easier to get into than out of. When we introduce new systems, new tools, new lines of code, we’re with them for the long haul. It’s like a baby that doesn’t grow up.

We’re not paid to write code, we’re paid to add value (or reduce cost) to the business. Yet I often see people measuring their worth in code, in systems, in tools—all of the output that’s easy to measure. I see it come at the expense of attending meetings. I see it at the expense of supporting other teams. I see it at the expense of cross-training and personal/professional development. It’s like full-bore coding has become the norm and we’ve given up everything else.

Another area I see this manifest is with the siloing of responsibilities. Product, Platform, Infrastructure, Operations, DevOps, QA—whatever the silos, it’s created a sort of responsibility lethargy. “I’m paid to write software, not tests” or “I’m paid to write features, not deploy and monitor them.” Things of that nature.

I think this is only addressed by stewarding a strong engineering culture and instilling the right values and expectations. For example, engineers should understand that they are not defined by their tools but rather the problems they solve and ultimately the value they add. But it’s important to spell out that this goes beyond things like commits, PRs, and other vanity metrics. We should embrace the principles of systems theory and Taco Bell Programming. New systems or more code should be the last resort, not the first step. Further, we should embody what it really means to be an engineer rather than measuring raw output. You are not paid to write code.

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.