Six things I wish we had known about scaling
Looking back at the last few years of building Rapportive and
I realised that there were a number of lessons that we had to learn the hard way. We built some
reasonably large data systems, and there are a few things I really wish we had known beforehand.
None of these lessons are particularly obscure – they are all well-documented, if you know where to
look. They are the kind of things that made me think “I can’t believe I didn’t know that, I’m so
stupid #facepalm” in retrospect. But perhaps I’m not the only one who started out not knowing these
things, so I’ll write them down for the benefit of anyone else who finds themself having to scale
The kind of system I’m talking about is the data backend of a consumer web/mobile app with a million
users (order of magnitude). At the scale of Google, LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter (hundreds of
millions of users), you’ll have an entirely different set of problems, but you’ll also have a bigger
team of experienced developers and operations people around you. The mid-range scale of about
a million users is interesting, because it’s quite feasible for a small startup team to get there
with some luck and good marketing skills. If that sounds like you, here are a few things to keep in
1. Realistic load testing is hard
Improving the performance of a system is ideally a very scientific process. You have in your head
a model of what your system is doing, and a theory of where the expensive operations are. You
propose a change to the system, and predict what the outcome will be. Then you make the change,
observe the system’s behaviour under laboratory conditions, and thus gather evidence which either
confirms or contradicts your theory. That way you iterate your way to a better theory, and also
a better-performing implementation.
Sadly, we hardly ever managed to do it that way in practice. If we were optimising a microbenchmark,
running the same code a million times in a tight loop, it would be easy. But we are dealing with
large volumes of data, spread out across multiple machines. If you read the same item a million
times in a loop, it will simply be cached, and the load test tells you nothing. If you want
meaningful results, the load test needs to simulate a realistically large working set, a realistic
mixture of reads and writes, realistic distribution of requests over time, and so on. And that is
It’s difficult enough to simply know what your access patterns actually are, let alone simulate
them. As a starting point, you can replay a few hours worth of access logs against a copy of your
real dataset. However, that only really works for read requests. Simulating writes is harder, as
you may need to account for business logic rules (e.g. a sequential workflow must first update A,
then update B, then update C) and deal with changes that can happen only once (if your write changes
state from D to E, you can’t change from D to E again later in the test, as you’re already in state
E). That means you have to synchronise your access logs with your database snapshot, or somehow
generate suitable synthetic write load.
Even harder if you want to test with a dataset that is larger than the one you actually have (so
that you can find out what happens when you double your userbase, and prepare for that event). Now
you have to work out the statistical properties of your dataset (the distribution of friends per
user is a power law with x parameters, the correlation between one user’s number of friends and the
number of friends that their friends have is y, etc) and generate a synthetic dataset with those
parameters. You are now in deep, deep yak shaving territory. Step back from that yak.
In practice, it hardly ever works that way. We’re lucky if, sometimes, we can run the old code and
the new code side-by-side, and observe how they perform in comparison. Often, not even that is
possible. Usually we often just cross our fingers, deploy, and roll back if the change seems to have
made things worse. That is deeply unsatisfying for a scientifically-minded person, but it more or
less gets the job done.
2. Data evolution is difficult
Being able to rapidly respond to change is one of the biggest advantages of a small startup. Agility
in product and process means you also need the freedom to change your mind about the structure of
your code and your data. There is lot of talk about making code easy to change, eg. with good
automated tests. But what about changing the structure of your data?
Schema changes have a reputation of being very painful, a reputation that is chiefly MySQL’s fault:
simply adding a column to a table requires the
entire table to be copied. On a large
table, that might mean several hours during which you can’t write to the table. Various
exist to make that less painful, but I find it unbelievable
that the world’s most popular open source database handles such a common operation so badly.
Postgres can make simple schema changes without copying the table, which means they are almost
instant. And of course the avoidance of schema changes is a primary selling point of document
databases such as MongoDB (so it’s up to application code to deal with a database that uses
different schemas for different documents). But simple schema changes, such as adding a new field or
two, don’t tell the entire story.
Not all your data is in databases; some might be in archived log files or some kind of blob storage.
How do you deal with changing the schema of that data? And sometimes you need to make complex
changes to the data, such as breaking a large thing apart, or combining several small things, or
migrating from one datastore to another. Standard tools don’t help much here, and document databases
don’t make it any easier.
We’ve written large migration jobs that break the entire dataset into chunks, process chunks
gradually over the course of a weekend, retry failed chunks, track which things were modified while
the migration was happening, and finally catch up on the missed updates. A whole lot of complexity
just for a one-off data migration. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but it’s heavy lifting that you’d
rather not have to do in the first place.
Hadoop data pipelines can help with this sort of thing, but now you have to set up a Hadoop cluster,
learn how to use it, figure out how to get your data into it, and figure out how to get the
transformed data out to your live systems again. Big companies like LinkedIn have figured out how to
do that, but in a small team it can be a massive time-sink.
3. Database connections are a real limitation
In PostgreSQL, each client connection to the database is handled by a separate unix process; in
MySQL, each connection uses a separate thread. Both of these models impose a fairly low limit on the
number of connections you can have to the database – typically a few hundred. Every connection adds
overhead, so the entire database slows down, even if those connections aren’t actively processing
queries. For example, Heroku Postgres limits you to 60 connections on the smallest plan, and 500
connections on the largest plan,
although having anywhere near 500 connections is
In a fast-growing app, it doesn’t take long before you reach a few hundred connections. Each
instance of your application server uses at least one. Each background worker process that needs to
access the database uses one. Adding more machines running your application is fairly easy if they
are stateless, but every machine you add means more connections.
Partitioning (sharding) and read replicas probably won’t help you with your connection limit, unless
you can somehow load-balance requests so that all the requests for a particular partition are
handled by a particular server instance. A better bet is to use a
connection pooler, or to write your own data access
layer which wraps database access behind an internal API.
That’s all doable, but it doesn’t seem a particularly valuable use of your time when you’re also
trying to iterate on product features. And every additional service you deploy is another thing that
can go wrong, another thing that needs to be monitored and maintained.
(Databases that use a lightweight connection model don’t have this problem, but they may have other
4. Read replicas are an operational pain
A common architecture is to designate one database instance as a leader (also known as master)
and to send all database writes to that instance. The writes are then replicated to other database
instances (called read replicas, followers or slaves), and many read-only queries can be
served from the replicas, which takes load off the leader. This architecture is also good for fault
tolerance, since it gives you a warm standby – if your leader dies, you can quickly promote one
of the replicas to be the new leader (you wouldn’t want to be offline for hours while you restore
the database from a backup).
What they don’t tell you is that setting up and maintaining replicas is significant operational
pain. MySQL is particularly bad in this regard: in order to set up a new replica, you have to first
lock the leader to stop all writes
and take a consistent snapshot (which may take hours on a large database). How does your app cope if
it can’t write to the database? What do your users think if they can’t post stuff?
With Postgres, you don’t need to stop writes to set up a replica, but it’s still
some hassle. One of the things
I like most about Heroku Postgres is that it wraps all the
complexity of replication and WAL archiving behind a straightforward command-line tool.
Even so, you still need to failover manually if your leader fails. You need to monitor and maintain
the replicas. Your database library may not support read replicas out of the box, so you may need to
add that. Some reads need to be made on the leader, so that a user sees their own writes, even if
there is replication lag. That’s all doable, but it’s additional complexity, and doesn’t add any
value from users’ point of view.
Some distributed datastores such as MongoDB, RethinkDB and Couchbase also use this replication
model, and they automate the replica creation and master failover processes. Just because they do
that doesn’t mean they automatically give you magic scaling sauce, but it is a very valuable
5. Think about memory efficiency
At various times, we puzzled about weird latency spikes in our database activity. After many
PagerDuty alerts and troubleshooting, it usually turned out that we
could fix the issue by throwing more RAM at the problem, either in the form of a bigger database
instance, or separate caches in front of it. It’s sad, but true: many performance problems can be
solved by simply buying more RAM. And if you’re in a hurry because your hair is on fire, it’s often
the best thing to do. There are limitations to that approach, of course – a m2.4xlarge instance on
EC2 costs quite a bit of money, and eventually there are no bigger machines to turn to.
Besides buying more RAM, an effective solution is to use RAM more efficiently in the first place, so
that a bigger part of your dataset fits in RAM. In order to decide where to optimise, you need to
know what all your memory is being used for – and that’s surprisingly non-trivial. With a bit of
digging, you can usually get your database to report how much disk space each of your tables and
indexes is taking. Figuring out the working set, and how much memory is actually used for what, is
As a rule of thumb, your performance will probably be more predictable if your indexes completely
fit in RAM – so that there’s a maximum of one disk read per query, which reduces your exposure to
fluctuations in I/O latency. But indexes can get rather large if you have a lot of data, so this can
be an expensive proposition.
At one point we found ourselves reading up about the internal structure of an index in Postgres, and
realised that we could save a few bytes per row by indexing on the hash of a string column rather
than the string itself. (More on that in another post.) That reduced the memory pressure on the
system, and helped keep things ticking along for another few months. That’s just one example of how
it can be helpful to think about using memory efficiently.
6. Change capture is under-appreciated
So far I’ve only talked about things that suck – sorry about the negativity. As final point, I’d
like to mention a technique which is awesome, but not nearly as widely known and appreciated as it
should be: change capture.
The idea of change capture is simple: let the application consume a feed of all writes to the
database. In other words, you have a background process which gets notified every time something
changes in the database (insert, update or delete).
You could achieve a similar thing if, every time you write something to the database, you also post
it to a message queue. However, change capture is better because it contains exactly the same data
as what was committed to the database (avoiding race conditions). A good change capture system also
allows you to stream through the entire existing dataset, and then seamlessly switch to consuming
real-time updates when it has caught up.
Consumers of this changelog are decoupled from the app that generates the writes, which gives you
great freedom to experiment without fear of bringing down the main site. You can use the changelog
for updating and invalidating caches, for maintaining full-text indexes, for calculating analytics,
for sending out emails and push notifications, for importing the data into Hadoop, and
LinkedIn built a technology called Databus to
do this. The open source release of Databus is for Oracle DB,
and there is a proof-of-concept MySQL version
(which is different from the version of Databus for MySQL that LinkedIn uses in production).
The new project I am working on, Apache Samza, also sits
squarely in this space – it is a framework for processing real-time data feeds, somewhat like
MapReduce for streams. I am excited about it because I think this pattern of processing change
capture streams can help many people build apps that scale better, are easier to maintain and more
reliable than many apps today. It’s open source, and you should go and
try it out.
The problems discussed in this post are primarily data systems problems. That’s no coincidence:
if you write your applications in a stateless way, they are pretty easy to scale, since you can
just run more copies of them. Thus, whether you use Rails or Express.js or whatever framework
du jour really doesn’t matter much. The hard part is scaling the stateful parts of your system:
There are no easy solutions for these problems. Some new technologies and services can help –
for example, the new generation of distributed datastores tries to solve some of the above problems
(especially around automating replication and failover), but they have other limitations. There
certainly is no panacea.
Personally I’m totally fine with using new and experimental tools for derived data, such as caches
and analytics, where data loss is annoying but not end of your business. I’m more cautious with the
system of record (also known as source of truth). Every system has operational quirks, and the
devil you know may let you sleep better at night than the one you don’t. I don’t really mind what
that devil is in your particular case.
I’m interested to see whether database-as-a-service offerings such as
Firebase, Orchestrate or
Fauna can help (I’ve not used any of them seriously, so I can’t vouch for them
at this point). I see big potential advantages for small teams in outsourcing operations, but also
a big potential risk in locking yourself to a system that you couldn’t choose to host yourself if
Building scalable systems is not all sexy roflscale fun. It’s a lot of plumbing and yak shaving.
A lot of hacking together tools that really ought to exist already, but all the open source
solutions out there are too bad (and yours ends up bad too, but at least it solves your particular
On the other hand, consider yourself lucky. If you’ve got scaling problems, you must be doing
something right – you must be making something that people want.