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Messaging Systems

A common approach for notifying consumers about new events is to use a messaging system: a producer sends a message containing the event, which is then pushed to consumers. We touched on these systems previously in “Message-Passing Dataflow” on page 136, but we will now go into more detail.

A direct communication channel like a Unix pipe or TCP connection between producer and consumer would be a simple way of implementing a messaging system. However, most messaging systems expand on this basic model. In particular, Unix pipes and TCP connect exactly one sender with one recipient, whereas a messaging system allows multiple producer nodes to send messages to the same topic and allows multiple consumer nodes to receive messages in a topic.

Within this publish/subscribe model, different systems take a wide range of approaches, and there is no one right answer for all purposes. To differentiate the systems, it is particularly helpful to ask the following two questions:

1. What happens if the producers send messages faster than the consumers can process them? Broadly speaking, there are three options: the system can drop messages, buffer messages in a queue, or apply backpressure (also known as flow control; i.e., blocking the producer from sending more messages). For example, Unix pipes and TCP use backpressure: they have a small fixed-size buffer, and if it fills up, the sender is blocked until the recipient takes data out of the buffer (see “Network congestion and queueing” on page 282).

If messages are buffered in a queue, it is important to understand what happens as that queue grows. Does the system crash if the queue no longer fits in memory, or does it write messages to disk? If so, how does the disk access affect the performance of the messaging system [6]?

2. What happens if nodes crash or temporarily go offline—are any messages lost? As with databases, durability may require some combination of writing to disk and/or replication (see the sidebar “Replication and Durability” on page 227), which has a cost. If you can afford to sometimes lose messages, you can probably get higher throughput and lower latency on the same hardware.

Whether message loss is acceptable depends very much on the application. For example, with sensor readings and metrics that are transmitted periodically, an occasional missing data point is perhaps not important, since an updated value will be sent a short time later anyway. However, beware that if a large number of messages are dropped, it may not be immediately apparent that the metrics are incorrect [7]. If you are counting events, it is more important that they are delivered reliably, since every lost message means incorrect counters.

A nice property of the batch processing systems we explored in Chapter 10 is that they provide a strong reliability guarantee: failed tasks are automatically retried, and partial output from failed tasks is automatically discarded. This means the output is the same as if no failures had occurred, which helps simplify the programming model. Later in this chapter we will examine how we can provide similar guarantees in a streaming context.

 
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