You Own Your Availability

There’s been a lot of discussion around “availability” lately. It’s often trumpeted with phrases like “you own your availability,” meaning there is no buck-passing when it comes to service uptime. The AWS outage earlier this week served as a stark reminder that, while owning your availability is a commendable ambition, for many it’s still largely owned by Amazon and the like.

In order to “own” your availability, it’s important to first understand what “availability” really means. Within the context of distributed-systems theory, availability is usually discussed in relation to the CAP theorem. Formally, CAP defines availability as a liveness property: “every request received by a non-failing node in the system must result in a response.” This is a weak definition for two reasons. First, the proviso “every request received by a non-failing node” means that a system in which all nodes have failed is trivially available.  Second, Gilbert and Lynch stipulate no upper bound on latency, only that operations eventually return a response. This means an operation could take weeks to complete and availability would not be violated.

Martin Kleppmann points out these issues in his recent paper “A Critique of the CAP Theorem.” I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with the formalizations made by CAP, just a matter of engineering practicality. Kleppmann’s critique recalls a pertinent quote from Leslie Lamport on the topic of liveness:

Liveness properties are inherently problematic. The question of whether a real system satisfies a liveness property is meaningless; it can be answered only by observing the system for an infinite length of time, and real systems don’t run forever. Liveness is always an approximation to the property we really care about. We want a program to terminate within 100 years, but proving that it does would require the addition of distracting timing assumptions. So, we prove the weaker condition that the program eventually terminates. This doesn’t prove that the program will terminate within our lifetimes, but it does demonstrate the absence of infinite loops.

Despite the pop culture surrounding it, CAP is not meant to neatly classify systems. It’s meant to serve as a jumping-off point from which we can reason from the ground up about distributed systems and the inherent limitations associated with them. It’s a reality check.

Practically speaking, availability is typically described in terms of “uptime” or the proportion of time which requests are successfully served. Brewer refers to this as “yield,” which is the probability of completing a request. This is the metric that is normally measured in “nines,” such as “five-nines availability.”

In the presence of faults there is typically a tradeoff between providing no answer (reducing yield) and providing an imperfect answer (maintaining yield, but reducing harvest).

However, this definition is only marginally more useful than CAP’s since it still doesn’t provide an upper bound on computation.

CAP is better used as a starting point for system design and understanding trade-offs than as a tool for reasoning about availability because it doesn’t really account for real availability. “Harvest” and “yield” show that availability is really a probabilistic property and that the trade with consistency is usually a gradient. But availability is much more nuanced than CAP’s “are we serving requests?” and harvest/yield’s “how many requests?” In practice, availability equates to SLAs. How many requests are we serving? At what rate? At what latency? At what percentiles? These things can’t really be formalized into a theorem like CAP because they are empirically observed, not properties of an algorithm.

Availability is specified by an SLA but observed by outside users. Unlike consistency, which is a property of the system and maintained by algorithm invariants, availability is determined by the client. For example, one user’s requests are served but another user’s are not. To the first user, the system is completely available.

To truly own your availability, you have to own every piece of infrastructure from the client to you, in addition to the infrastructure your system uses. Therefore, you can’t own your availability anymore than you can own Comcast’s fiber or Verizon’s 4G network. This is obviously impractical, if not impossible, but it might also be taking “own your availability” a bit too literally.

What “you own your availability” actually means is “you own your decisions.” Plain and simple. You own the decision to use AWS. You own the decision to use DynamoDB. You own the decision to not use multiple vendors. Owning your availability means making informed decisions about technology and vendors. “What is the risk/reward for using this database?” “Does using a PaaS/IaaS incur vendor lock-in? What happens when that service goes down?” It also means making informed decisions about the business. “What is the cost of our providers not meeting their SLAs? Is it cost-effective to have redundant providers?”

An SLA is not an insurance policy or a hedge against the business impact of an outage, it’s merely a refund policy. Use them to set expectations and make intelligent decisions, but don’t bank the business on them. Availability is not a timeshare. It’s not at will. You can’t just pawn it off, just like you can’t redirect your tech support to Amazon or Google.

It’s impossible to own your availability because there are too many things left to probability, too many unknowns, and too many variables outside of our control. Own as much as you can predict, as much as you can control, and as much as you can afford. The rest comes down to making informed decisions, hoping for the best, and planning for the worst.

What You Want Is What You Don’t: Understanding Trade-Offs in Distributed Messaging

If there’s one unifying theme of this blog, it’s that distributed systems are riddled with trade-offs. Specifically, with distributed messaging, you cannot have exactly-once delivery. However, messaging trade-offs don’t stop at delivery semantics. I want to talk about what I mean by this and explain why many developers often have the wrong mindset when it comes to building distributed applications.

The natural tendency is to build distributed systems as if they aren’t distributed at all—assuming data consistency, reliable messaging, and predictability. It’s much easier to reason about, but it’s also blatantly misleading.

The only thing guaranteed in messaging—and distributed systems in general—is that sooner or later, your guarantees are going to break down. If you assume these guarantees as axiomatic, everything built on them becomes unsound. Depending on the situation, this can range from mildly annoying to utterly catastrophic.

I recently ran across a comment from Apcera CEO Derek Collison on this topic which resonated with me:

On systems that do claim some form of guarantee, it’s best to look at what level that guarantee really runs out. Especially around persistence, exactly once delivery semantics, etc. I spent much of my career designing and building messaging systems that have those guarantees, and in turn developed many systems utilizing some of those features. For me, I found that depending on these guarantees was a bad pattern in distributed system design…

You should know how your system behaves when you reach the breaking point, but what’s less obvious is that providing these types of strong guarantees is usually very expensive. What price are we willing to pay, what level do our guarantees hold to, and what happens when they give out? In this sense, a “guarantee” is really no different from a SLA, yet stronger guarantees allow for stronger assumptions.

This all sounds quite vague, so let’s look at a specific example. With messaging, we’re often concerned with delivery reliability. In a perfect world, message delivery would be guaranteed and exactly once. Of course, I’ve talked at length why this is impossible, so let’s anchor ourselves in reality. We can look to TCP/IP for how this works.

IP is an unreliable delivery system which runs on unreliable network infrastructure. Packets can be delivered in order, out of order, or not at all. There are no acknowledgements, so the sender has no way of knowing if what they sent was received. TCP builds on IP by effectively making the transmission stateful and adding a layer of control. Through added complexity and performance costs, we achieve reliable delivery over an unreliable stack.

The key takeaway here is that we start with something primitive, like moving bits from point A to point B, and layer on abstractions to build stronger guarantees.  These abstractions almost always come at a price, tangible or not, which is why it’s important to push the costs up into the layers above. If not every use case demands reliable delivery, why force the cost onto everyone?

Exactly-once delivery is the Holy Grail of distributed messaging, and guaranteed delivery is the unicorn. The irony is that even if they were attainable, you likely wouldn’t want them. These types of strong guarantees demand expensive infrastructure which perform expensive coordination which require expensive administration. But what does all this expensive stuff really buy you at the end of the day?

A key problem is that there is a huge difference between message delivery and message processing. Sure, TCP can more or less ensure that your packet was either delivered or not, but what good is that actually in practice? How does the sender know that its message was successfully processed or that the receiver did what it needed to do? The only way to truly know is for the receiver to send a business-level acknowledgement. The low-level transport protocol doesn’t know about the application semantics, so the only way to go, really, is up. And if we assume that any guarantees will eventually give out, we have to account for that at the business level. To quote from a related article, “if reliability is important on the business level, do it on the business level.” It’s important not to conflate the transport protocol with the business-transaction protocol.

This is why systems like Akka don’t provide a notion of guaranteed delivery—because what does “guaranteed delivery” actually mean? Does it mean the message was handed to the transport layer? Does it mean the remote machine received the message? Does it mean the message was enqueued in the recipient’s mailbox?  Does it mean the recipient has started processing it? Does it mean the recipient has finished processing it? Each of these things has a very different set of requirements, constraints, and costs. Also, what does it even mean for a message to be “processed”? It depends on the business context. As such, it usually doesn’t make sense for the underlying infrastructure to make these decisions because the decisions usually impact the layers above significantly.

By providing only basic guarantees those use cases which do not need stricter guarantees do not pay the cost of their implementation; it is always possible to add stricter guarantees on top of basic ones, but it is not possible to retro-actively remove guarantees in order to gain more performance.

Distributed computation is inherently asynchronous and the network is inherently unreliable, so it’s better to embrace this asynchrony than to build on leaky abstractions. Rather than hide these inconveniences, make them explicit and force users to design around them. What you end up with is a more robust, more reliable, and often more performant system. This trade-off is highlighted in the paper “Exactly-once semantics in a replicated messaging system” by Huang et al. while studying the problem of exactly-once delivery:

Thus, server-centric algorithms cannot achieve exactly-once semantics. Instead, we will strive to achieve a weaker notion of correctness.

By relaxing our requirements, we end up with a solution that has less performance overhead and less complexity. Why bother pursuing the impossible? You’re paying a huge premium for something which is probably less reliable than you think while performing poorly. In many cases, it’s better to let the pendulum swing the other direction.

The network is not reliable, which means message delivery is never truly guaranteed—it can only be best-effort. The Two Generals’ Problem shows that it’s provenly impossible for two remote processes to safely agree on a decision. Similarly, the FLP impossibility result shows that, in an asynchronous environment, reliable failure detection is impossible. That is, there’s no way to tell if a process has crashed or is simply taking a long time to respond. Therefore, if it’s possible for a process to crash, it’s impossible for a set of processes to come to an agreement.

If message delivery is not guaranteed and consensus is impossible, is message ordering really that important? Some use cases might actually demand it, but I suspect, more often than not, it’s an artificial constraint. The fact that the network is unreliable, processes are faulty, and distributed communication is asynchronous makes reliable, in-order delivery surprisingly expensive. But doesn’t TCP solve this problem? At the transport level, yes, but that only gets you so far as I’ve been trying to demonstrate.

So you use TCP and process messages with a single thread. Most of the time, it just works. But what happens under heavy load? What happens when message delivery fails? What happens when you need to scale? If you are queuing messages or you have a dead-letter queue or you have network partitions or a crash-recovery model, you’re probably going to encounter duplicate, dropped, or out-of-order messages. Even if the infrastructure provides ordered delivery, these problems will likely manifest themselves at the application level.

If you’re distributed, forget about ordering and start thinking about commutativity. Forget about guaranteed delivery and start thinking about idempotence. Stop thinking about the messaging platform and start thinking about the messaging patterns and business semantics. A pattern which is commutative and idempotent will be far less brittle and more efficient than a system which is totally ordered and “guaranteed.” This is why CRDTs are becoming increasingly popular in the distributed space. Never write code which assumes messages will arrive in order when you can’t write code that will assume they arrive at all.

In the end, think carefully about the business case and what your requirements really are. Can you satisfy them without relying on costly and leaky abstractions or deceptive guarantees? If you can’t, what happens when those guarantees go out the window? This is very similar to understanding what happens when a SLA is not met. Are the performance and complexity trade-offs worth it? What about the operations and business overheads? In my experience, it’s better to confront the intricacies of distributed systems head-on than to sweep them under the rug. Sooner or later, they will rear their ugly heads.

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.


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.