Home > Articles > Web Services > Cloud Computing

Designing Software in a Distributed World

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter from The Practice of Cloud System Administration: Designing and Operating Large Distributed Systems, Volume 2 is an overview of what is involved in designing services that use distributed computing techniques. These are the techniques all large web sites use to achieve their size, scale, speed, and reliability.
This chapter is from the book
  • There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.
  • —C.A.R. Hoare, The 1980 ACM Turing Award Lecture

How does Google Search work? How does your Facebook Timeline stay updated around the clock? How does Amazon scan an ever-growing catalog of items to tell you that people who bought this item also bought socks?

Is it magic? No, it’s distributed computing.

This chapter is an overview of what is involved in designing services that use distributed computing techniques. These are the techniques all large web sites use to achieve their size, scale, speed, and reliability.

Distributed computing is the art of building large systems that divide the work over many machines. Contrast this with traditional computing systems where a single computer runs software that provides a service, or client–server computing where many machines remotely access a centralized service. In distributed computing there are typically hundreds or thousands of machines working together to provide a large service.

Distributed computing is different from traditional computing in many ways. Most of these differences are due to the sheer size of the system itself. Hundreds or thousands of computers may be involved. Millions of users may be served. Billions and sometimes trillions of queries may be processed.

Speed is important. It is a competitive advantage for a service to be fast and responsive. Users consider a web site sluggish if replies do not come back in 200 ms or less. Network latency eats up most of that time, leaving little time for the service to compose the page itself.

In distributed systems, failure is normal. Hardware failures that are rare, when multiplied by thousands of machines, become common. Therefore failures are assumed, designs work around them, and software anticipates them. Failure is an expected part of the landscape.

Due to the sheer size of distributed systems, operations must be automated. It is inconceivable to manually do tasks that involve hundreds or thousands of machines. Automation becomes critical for preparation and deployment of software, regular operations, and handling failures.

1.1 Visibility at Scale

To manage a large distributed system, one must have visibility into the system. The ability to examine internal state—called introspection—is required to operate, debug, tune, and repair large systems.

In a traditional system, one could imagine an engineer who knows enough about the system to keep an eye on all the critical components or “just knows” what is wrong based on experience. In a large system, that level of visibility must be actively created by designing systems that draw out the information and make it visible. No person or team can manually keep tabs on all the parts.

Distributed systems, therefore, require components to generate copious logs that detail what happened in the system. These logs are then aggregated to a central location for collection, storage, and analysis. Systems may log information that is very high level, such as whenever a user makes a purchase, for each web query, or for every API call. Systems may log low-level information as well, such as the parameters of every function call in a critical piece of code.

Systems should export metrics. They should count interesting events, such as how many times a particular API was called, and make these counters accessible.

In many cases, special URLs can be used to view this internal state. For example, the Apache HTTP Web Server has a “server-status” page (http://www.example.com/server-status/).

In addition, components of distributed systems often appraise their own health and make this information visible. For example, a component may have a URL that outputs whether the system is ready (OK) to receive new requests. Receiving as output anything other than the byte “O” followed by the byte “K” (including no response at all) indicates that the system does not want to receive new requests. This information is used by load balancers to determine if the server is healthy and ready to receive traffic. The server sends negative replies when the server is starting up and is still initializing, and when it is shutting down and is no longer accepting new requests but is processing any requests that are still in flight.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account