Tag Archives: internet architectures

Sharding – What is it and why is it important?

Sharding is a way of partitioning your datastore to benefit from the computing power of more than one server.  For instance many web-facing databases get sharded on user_id, the unique serial number your application assigns to each user on the website.

Sharding can bring you the advantages of horizontal scalability by dividing up data into multiple backend databases.  This can bring tremendous speedups and performance improvements.

Sharding, however has a number of important costs.

  • reduced availability
  • higher administrative complexity
  • greater application complexity

High Availability is a goal of most web applications as they aim for always-on or 24×7 by 365 availability.  By introducing more servers, you have more components that have to work flawlessly.  If the expected downtime of any one backend database is 1/2 hour per month and you shard across five servers, your downtime has now increased by a factor of five to 2.5 hours per month.

Administrative complexity is an important consideration as well.  More databases means more servers to backup, more complex recovery, more complex testing, more complex replication and more complex data integrity checking.

Since Sharding keeps a chunk of your data on various different servers, your application must accept the burden of deciding where the data is, and fetching it there.  In some cases the application must make alternate decisions if it cannot find the data where it expects.  All of this increases application complexity and is important to keep in mind.

Sean Hull asks on Quora – What is Sharding and why is it important?

Auto-scaling – What is it and why is it important?

With cloud-based hosting solutions, new servers can be provisioned and “spun up” with a few options on the command line.  This opens a whole new dimension for infrastructure, allowing software scripts to bring new computing power into your web infrastructure.

Internet based applications often exhibit seasonal traffic patterns where traffic stays steady or grows slowly over a period, but then experiences a sharp spike in demand requiring much higher computing resources to meet customer demand.

Enter auto-scaling, an even more powerful feature of cloud-based offerings.  Define roles for your webservers and database servers, set capacity rules that control how much traffic will trigger new servers to be rolled out, and watch your infrastructure scale automatically to meet the needs of your internet application.

Amazon EC2 Outage – Failures, Lessons and Cloud Deployments

Now that we’ve had a chance to take a deep breath after last week’s AWS outage, I’ll offer some comments of my own.  Hopefully just enough time has passed to begin to have a broader view, and put events in perspective.
Despite what some reports may have announced, Amazon wasn’t down, but rather a small part of Amazon Web Services went down.  A failure, yes.  Beyond their service level agreement of 99.95% yes also.  Survivable, yes to this last question too.

Learning From Failure

The business management conversation du jour is all about learning from failure, rather than trying to avoid it.  Harvard Business Review’s April issue headlined with “The Failure Issue – How to Understand It, Learn From It, and Recover From It”.  The economist’s April 16th issue had some similarly interesting pieces one by Schumpeter “Fail often, fail well”,
and another in April 23rd issue “Lessons from Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima”.
With all this talk of failure there is surely one takeaway.  Complex systems will fail and it is in the anticipation of that failure that we gain the most.  Let’s stop howling and look at how to handle these situations intelligently.

How Do You Rebuild A Website?

In the cloud you will likely need two things.  (a) scripts to rebuild all the components in your architecture, spinup servers, fetch source code, fetch software and configuration files, configure load balancers and mount your database and more importantly (b) a database backup from which you can rebuild your current dataset.

Want to stick with EC2, build out your infrastructure in an alternate availability zone or region and you’re back up and running in hours.  Or better yet have an alternate cloud provider on hand to handle these rare outages.  The choice is yours.

Mitigate risk?  Yes indeed failure is more common in the cloud, but recovery is also easier.  Failure should pressure the adoption of best practices and force discipline in deployments, not make you more of a gunslinger!

Want to see an extreme example of how this can play in your favor?  Read Jeff Atwood’s discussion of so-called Chaos Monkey, a component whose sole job it is to randomly kill off servers in the Netflix environment at random.  Now that type of gunslinging will surely keep everyone on their toes!  Here’s a Wired article that discusses Chaos Monkey.

George Reese of enStratus discusses the recent failure at length.  The I would argue calling Amazon’s outage the Cloud’s Shing Moment, all of his points are wisened and this is the direction we should all be moving.

Going The Way of Commodity Hardware

Though it is still not obvious to everyone, I’ll spell it out loud and clear.  Like it or not, the cloud is coming.  Look at these numbers.

Furthermore the recent outage also highlights how much and how many internet sites rely on cloud computing, and Amazon EC2.
Way back in 2001 I authored a book on O’Reilly called “Oracle and Open Source”.  In it I discussed the technologies I was seeing in the real world.  Oracle on the backend and Linux, Apache, and PHP, Perl or some other language on the frontend.  These were the technologies that startups were using.  They were fast, cheap and with the right smarts reliable too.

Around that time Oracle started smelling the coffee and ported it’s enterprise database to Linux.  The equation for them was simple.  Customers that were previously paying tons of money to their good friend and confidant Sun for hardware, could now spend 1/10th as much on hardware and shift a lot of that left over cash to – you guessed it Oracle!  The hardware wasn’t as good, but who cares because you can get a lot more of it.

Despite a long entrenched and trusted brand like Sun being better and more reliable, guess what?  Folks still switched to commodity hardware.  Now this is so obvious, no one questions it.  But the same trend is happening with cloud computing.

Performance is variable, disk I/O can be iffy, and what’s more the recent outage illustrates front and center, the servers and network can crash at any moment.  Who in their right mind would want to move to this platform?

If that’s the question you’re stuck on, you’re still stuck on the old model.  You have not truely comprehended the power to build infrastructure with code, to provision through automation, and really embrace managing those components as software.  As the internet itself has the ability to route around political strife, and network outages, so too does cloud computing bring that power to mom & pop web shops.


  • Have existing investments in hardware?  Slow and cautious adoption makes most sense for you.
  • Have seasonal traffic variations?  An application like this is uniquely suited to the cloud.  In fact some of the gaming applications which can autoscale to 10x or 100x servers under load, are newly solveable with the advent of cloud computing.
  • Are you currently paying a lot for disaster recovery systems that primarily lay idle.  Script your infrastructure for rebuilding from bare metal, and save that part of the budget for more useful projects.