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Approaches for Coping with Load

Now that we have discussed the parameters for describing load and metrics for measuring performance, we can start discussing scalability in earnest: how do we maintain good performance even when our load parameters increase by some amount?

An architecture that is appropriate for one level of load is unlikely to cope with 10 times that load. If you are working on a fast-growing service, it is therefore likely that you will need to rethink your architecture on every order of magnitude load increase —or perhaps even more often than that.

People often talk of a dichotomy between scaling up (vertical scaling, moving to a more powerful machine) and scaling out (horizontal scaling, distributing the load across multiple smaller machines). Distributing load across multiple machines is also known as a shared-nothing architecture. A system that can run on a single machine is often simpler, but high-end machines can become very expensive, so very intensive workloads often can’t avoid scaling out. In reality, good architectures usually involve a pragmatic mixture of approaches: for example, using several fairly powerful machines can still be simpler and cheaper than a large number of small virtual machines.

Some systems are elastic, meaning that they can automatically add computing resources when they detect a load increase, whereas other systems are scaled manually (a human analyzes the capacity and decides to add more machines to the system). An elastic system can be useful if load is highly unpredictable, but manually scaled systems are simpler and may have fewer operational surprises (see “Rebalancing Partitions” on page 209).

While distributing stateless services across multiple machines is fairly straightforward, taking stateful data systems from a single node to a distributed setup can introduce a lot of additional complexity. For this reason, common wisdom until recently was to keep your database on a single node (scale up) until scaling cost or high- availability requirements forced you to make it distributed.

As the tools and abstractions for distributed systems get better, this common wisdom may change, at least for some kinds of applications. It is conceivable that distributed data systems will become the default in the future, even for use cases that don’t handle large volumes of data or traffic. Over the course of the rest of this book we will cover many kinds of distributed data systems, and discuss how they fare not just in terms of scalability, but also ease of use and maintainability.

The architecture of systems that operate at large scale is usually highly specific to the application—there is no such thing as a generic, one-size-fits-all scalable architecture (informally known as magic scaling sauce). The problem may be the volume of reads, the volume of writes, the volume of data to store, the complexity of the data, the response time requirements, the access patterns, or (usually) some mixture of all of these plus many more issues.

For example, a system that is designed to handle 100,000 requests per second, each 1 kB in size, looks very different from a system that is designed for 3 requests per minute, each 2 GB in size—even though the two systems have the same data throughput.

An architecture that scales well for a particular application is built around assumptions of which operations will be common and which will be rare—the load parameters. If those assumptions turn out to be wrong, the engineering effort for scaling is at best wasted, and at worst counterproductive. In an early-stage startup or an unproven product it’s usually more important to be able to iterate quickly on product features than it is to scale to some hypothetical future load.

Even though they are specific to a particular application, scalable architectures are nevertheless usually built from general-purpose building blocks, arranged in familiar patterns. In this book we discuss those building blocks and patterns.

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