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Kode vicious

Too Big to Fail

Too Big to Fail, illustration

Credit: Sfio Cracho

back to top  Dear KV,

Our project has been rolling out a well-known, distributed key/value store onto our infrastructure, and we have been surprised—more than once—when a simple increase in the number of clients has not only slowed things, but brought them to a complete halt. This then results in rollback while several of us scour the online forums to figure out if anyone else has seen the same problem. The entire reason for using this project's software is to increase the scale of a large system, so I have been surprised at how many times a small increase in load has led to a complete failure. Is there something about scaling systems that is so difficult that these systems become fragile, even at a modest scale?

Scaled Back

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Dear Scaled,

If someone tells you that scaling out a distributed system is easy they are either lying or deranged—and possibly both. Anyone who has worked with distributed systems for more than a week should have this knowledge integrated into how they think, and if not, they really should start digging ditches. Not to say that ditch digging is easier but it does give you a nice, focused task that is achievable in a linear way, based on the amount of work you put into it. Distributed systems, on the other hand, react to increases in offered load in what can only politely be referred to as nondeterministic ways. If you think programming a single system is difficult, programming a distributed system is a nightmare of Orwellian proportions where you almost are forced to eat rats if you want to join the party.

Non-distributed systems fail in much more predictable ways. Tax a single system and you run out of memory, or CPU, or disk space, or some other resource, and the system has little more than a snowball's chance surviving a Hawaiian holiday. The parts of the problem are so much closer together and the communication between those components is so much more reliable that figuring out "who did what to whom" is tractable. Unpredictable things can happen when you overload a single computer, but you generally have complete control over all of the resources involved. Run out of RAM? Buy more. Run out of CPU, profile and fix your code. Too much data on disk? Buy a bigger one. Moore's Law is still on your side in many cases, giving you double the resources every 18 months.

The problem is that eventually you will probably want a set of computers to implement your target system. Once you go from one computer to two, it is like going from a single child to two children. To paraphrase a joke, if you only have one child, it is not the same has having two or more children. Why? Because when you have one child and all the cookies are gone from cookie jar, you know who did it! Once you have two or more children, each has some level of plausible deniability. They can, and will, lie to get away with having eaten the cookies. Short of slipping your kids truth serum at breakfast every morning, you have no idea who is telling the truth and who is lying. The problem of truthfulness in communication has been heavily studied in computer science, and yet we still do not have completely reliable ways to build large distributed systems.

One way that builders of distributed systems have tried to address this problem is to put in somewhat arbitrary limits to prevent the system from ever getting too large and unwieldy. The distributed key store, Redis, had a limit of 10,000 clients that could connect to the system. Why 10,000? No clue, it is not even a typical power of 2. One might have expected 8,192 or 16,384, but that is probably a topic for another column. Perhaps the authors had been reading the Tao Te Ching and felt their universe only needed to contain 10,000 things. Whatever the reason, this seemed like a good idea at the time.

Of course the number of clients is only one way of protecting a distributed system against overload. What happens when a distributed system moves from running on 1Gbps network hardware to 10Gbps NICs? Moving from 1Gbps to 10Gbps does not "just" increase the bandwidth by an order of magnitude, it also reduces the request latency. Can a system with 10,000 nodes move smoothly from 1G to 10G? Good question, you would need to test or model that, but it is pretty likely a single limitation—such as number of clients—is going to be insufficient to prevent the system from getting into some very odd situations. Depending on how the overall system decides to parcel out work, you might wind up with hot spots, places where a bunch of requests all get directed to a single resource, effectively creating what looks like a denial-of-service attack and destroying a node's effective throughput. The system will then fail out that node and redistribute the work again, perhaps picking another target, and taking it out of the system because it looks like it, too, has failed. In the worst case, this continues until the entire system is brought to its knees and fails to make any progress on solving the original problem that was set for it.

Distributed systems that use a hash function to parcel out work are often dogged by this problem. One way to judge a hash function is by how well distributed the results of the hashing function are, based on the input. A good hash function for distributing work would parcel out work completely evenly to all nodes based on the input, but having a good hash function is not always good enough. You might have a great hash function, but feed it poor data. If the source data fed into the hash function does not have sufficient diversity (that is, it is relatively static over some measure, such as requests) then it does not matter how good the function is, as it still will not distribute work evenly over the nodes.

Take, for example, the traditional networking 4 tuple, source and destination IP address, and source and destination port. Together this is 96 bits of data, which seems a reasonable amount of data to feed the hashing function. In a typical networking cluster, the network will be one of the three well-known RFC 1918 addresses (,, or Let's imagine a network of 8,192 hosts, because I happen to like powers of 2. Ignoring subnettting completely, we assign all 8,192 hosts addresses from the space, numbering them consecutively– The service being requested has a constant destination port number (for example, 6379) and the source port is ephemeral. The data we now put into our hash function are the two IPs and the ports. The source port is pseudo-randomly chosen by the system at connection time from a range of nearly 16 bits. It is nearly 16 bits because some parts of the port range are reserved for privileged programs, and we are building an underprivileged system. The destination port is constant, so we remove 16 bits of change from the input to the function. Those nice fat IPv4 addresses that should be giving us 64 bits of data to hash on actually only give us 13 bits, because that is all we need to encode 8,192 hosts. The input to our hashing function is not 96 bits, but is actually fewer than 42. Knowing that, you might pick a different hash function or change the inputs, inputs that really do lead to the output being spaced evenly over our hosts. How work is spread over the set of hosts in a distributed system is one of the main keys to whether that system can scale predictably, or at all.

"The system is slow" is a poor bug report: in fact, it is useless.

An exhaustive discussion of how to scale distributed systems is a topic for a book far longer than this column, but I cannot leave the topic until I mention what debugging features exist in the distributed system. "The system is slow" is a poor bug report: in fact, it is useless. However, it is the one most often uttered in relation to distributed systems. Typically the first thing users of the system notice is the response time has increased and the results they get from the system take far longer than normal. A distributed system needs to express, in some way, its local and remote service times so the systems operators, such as the devops or systems administration teams, can track down the problem. Hot spots can be found through the periodic logging of the service request arrival and completion on each host. Such logging needs to be lightweight and not directed to a single host, which is a common mistake. When your system gets busy and the logging output starts taking out the servers, that's bad. Recording system-level metrics, including CPU, memory, and network utilization will also help in tracking down problems, as will the recording of network errors. If the underlying communications medium becomes overloaded, this may not show up on a single host, but will result in a distributed set of errors, with a small number at each node, which lead to chaotic effects over the whole system. Visibility leads to debuggability; you cannot have the latter without the former.

I am most surprised that some distributed systems work at all.

Coming back around to your original point, I am not surprised that small increases in offered load are causing your distributed system to fail, and, in fact, I am most surprised that some distributed systems work at all. Making the load, hot spots, and errors visible over the system may help you track down the problem and continue to scale it out even further. Or, you may find there are limits to the design of the system you are using, and you will have to either choose another or write your own. I think you can see now why you might want to avoid the latter at all costs.


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George V. Neville-Neil ( is the proprietor of Neville-Neil Consulting and co-chair of the ACM Queue editorial board. He works on networking and operating systems code for fun and profit, teaches courses on various programming-related subjects, and encourages your comments, quips, and code snips pertaining to his Communications column.

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.


R Oldehoeft

No doubt this is a problem of resource overcommitment. What resource is being overcommitted? Network capacity, node computing power or storage? Supply more of it, or use less of it to break through.

One of the most interesting lectures I ever attended was titled "Catastrophe Theory as Applied to Computer Science." Catastrophe Theory was a branch of mathematics involving multidimensional manifolds, where dropping from one surface onto another causes great systematic changes. CT is now folded into the study of dynamical systems.

Here's a CS example. Paged virtual memory systems work fine until real memory is overcommitted, resulting in a sudden large increase in OS overhead devoted to disk activity and concomitant system slowdown. A small change in memory commitment makes a huge change in performance.

Here's an example your non-CS friends can understand. Get a metal tape measure spooled in its case. Pay out the tape, and it remains horizontal for quite awhile as it gets longer. Then, suddenly, the tape end collapses to the floor. Now when retrieving the tape, the end remains on the floor until, suddenly, the tape regains its horizontal status at a shorter length than when it collapsed.

Note that, while watching the end of the tape measure on its circuit, it follows a classic hysteresis loop!

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