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Building Scalable Web Architecture and Distributed Systems


Using an index to access your data quickly is a well-known strategy for optimizing data access performance; probably the most well known when it comes to databases. An index makes the trade-offs of increased storage overhead and slower writes (since you must both write the data and update the index) for the benefit of faster reads.

Just as to a traditional relational data store, you can also apply this concept to larger data sets. The trick with indexes is you must carefully consider how users will access your data. In the case of data sets that are many TBs in size, but with very small payloads (e.g., 1 KB), indexes are a necessity for optimizing data access. Finding a small payload in such a large data set can be a real challenge since you can't possibly iterate over that much data in any reasonable time. Furthermore, it is very likely that such a large data set is spread over several (or many!) physical devices — this means you need some way to find the correct physical location of the desired data. Indexes are the best way to do this.

Figure 16: Indexes......

An index can be used like a table of contents that directs you to the location where your data lives. For example, let's say you are looking for a piece of data, part 2 of B — how will you know where to find it? If you have an index that is sorted by data type — say data A, B, C — it would tell you the location of data B at the origin. Then you just have to seek to that location and read the part of B you want. (See Figure 16.)

These indexes are often stored in memory, or somewhere very local to the incoming client request. Berkeley DBs (BDBs) and tree-like data structures are commonly used to store data in ordered lists, ideal for access with an index.

Often there are many layers of indexes that serve as a map, moving you from one location to the next, and so forth, until you get the specific piece of data you want. (See Figure 17.)

Figure 17: Many layers of indexes

Indexes can also be used to create several different views of the same data. For large data sets, this is a great way to define different filters and sorts without resorting to creating many additional copies of the data.

For example, imagine that the image hosting system from earlier is actually hosting images of book pages, and the service allows client queries across the text in those images, searching all the book content about a topic, in the same way search engines allow you to search HTML content. In this case, all those book images take many, many servers to store the files, and finding one page to render to the user can be a bit involved. First, inverse indexes to query for arbitrary words and word tuples need to be easily accessible; then there is the challenge of navigating to the exact page and location within that book, and retrieving the right image for the results. So in this case the inverted index would map to a location (such as book B), and then B may contain an index with all the words, locations and number of occurrences in each part.

An inverted index, which could represent Index1 in the diagram above, might look something like the following — each word or tuple of words provide an index of what books contain them.

being awesomeBook B, Book C, Book D
alwaysBook C, Book F
believeBook B

The intermediate index would look similar but would contain just the words, location, and information for book B. This nested index architecture allows each of these indexes to take up less space than if all of that info had to be stored into one big inverted index.

And this is key in large-scale systems because even compressed, these indexes can get quite big and expensive to store. In this system if we assume we have a lot of the books in the world — 100,000,000 (see Inside Google Books blog post) — and that each book is only 10 pages long (to make the math easier), with 250 words per page, that means there are 250 billion words. If we assume an average of 5 characters per word, and each character takes 8 bits (or 1 byte, even though some characters are 2 bytes), so 5 bytes per word, then an index containing only each word once is over a terabyte of storage. So you can see creating indexes that have a lot of other information like tuples of words, locations for the data, and counts of occurrences, can add up very quickly.

Creating these intermediate indexes and representing the data in smaller sections makes big data problems tractable. Data can be spread across many servers and still accessed quickly. Indexes are a cornerstone of information retrieval, and the basis for today's modern search engines. Of course, this discussion only scratched the surface, and there is a lot of research being done on how to make indexes smaller, faster, contain more information (like relevancy), and update seamlessly. (There are some manageability challenges with race conditions, and with the sheer number of updates required to add new data or change existing data, particularly in the event where relevancy or scoring is involved).

Being able to find your data quickly and easily is important; indexes are an effective and simple tool to achieve this.

Load Balancers

Finally, another critical piece of any distributed system is a load balancer. Load balancers are a principal part of any architecture, as their role is to distribute load across a set of nodes responsible for servicing requests. This allows multiple nodes to transparently service the same function in a system. (See Figure 18.) Their main purpose is to handle a lot of simultaneous connections and route those connections to one of the request nodes, allowing the system to scale to service more requests by just adding nodes.

Figure 18: Load balancer

There are many different algorithms that can be used to service requests, including picking a random node, round robin, or even selecting the node based on certain criteria, such as memory or CPU utilization. Load balancers can be implemented as software or hardware appliances. One open source software load balancer that has received wide adoption is HAProxy).

In a distributed system, load balancers are often found at the very front of the system, such that all incoming requests are routed accordingly. In a complex distributed system, it is not uncommon for a request to be routed to multiple load balancers as shown in Figure 19.

Figure 19: Multiple load balancers

Like proxies, some load balancers can also route a request differently depending on the type of request it is. (Technically these are also known as reverse proxies.)

One of the challenges with load balancers is managing user-session-specific data. In an e-commerce site, when you only have one client it is very easy to allow users to put things in their shopping cart and persist those contents between visits (which is important, because it is much more likely you will sell the product if it is still in the user's cart when they return). However, if a user is routed to one node for a session, and then a different node on their next visit, there can be inconsistencies since the new node may be missing that user's cart contents. (Wouldn't you be upset if you put a 6 pack of Mountain Dew in your cart and then came back and it was empty?) One way around this can be to make sessions sticky so that the user is always routed to the same node, but then it is very hard to take advantage of some reliability features like automatic failover. In this case, the user's shopping cart would always have the contents, but if their sticky node became unavailable there would need to be a special case and the assumption of the contents being there would no longer be valid (although hopefully this assumption wouldn't be built into the application). Of course, this problem can be solved using other strategies and tools in this article, like services, and many not covered (like browser caches, cookies, and URL rewriting).

If a system only has a couple of a nodes, systems like round robin DNS may make more sense since load balancers can be expensive and add an unneeded layer of complexity. Of course in larger systems there are all sorts of different scheduling and load-balancing algorithms, including simple ones like random choice or round robin, and more sophisticated mechanisms that take things like utilization and capacity into consideration. All of these algorithms allow traffic and requests to be distributed, and can provide helpful reliability tools like automatic failover, or automatic removal of a bad node (such as when it becomes unresponsive). However, these advanced features can make problem diagnosis cumbersome. For example, when it comes to high load situations, load balancers will remove nodes that may be slow or timing out (because of too many requests), but that only exacerbates the situation for the other nodes. In these cases extensive monitoring is important, because overall system traffic and throughput may look like it is decreasing (since the nodes are serving less requests) but the individual nodes are becoming maxed out.

Load balancers are an easy way to allow you to expand system capacity, and like the other techniques in this article, play an essential role in distributed system architecture. Load balancers also provide the critical function of being able to test the health of a node, such that if a node is unresponsive or over-loaded, it can be removed from the pool handling requests, taking advantage of the redundancy of different nodes in your system.


So far we have covered a lot of ways to read data quickly, but another important part of scaling the data layer is effective management of writes. When systems are simple, with minimal processing loads and small databases, writes can be predictably fast; however, in more complex systems writes can take an almost non-deterministically long time. For example, data may have to be written several places on different servers or indexes, or the system could just be under high load. In the cases where writes, or any task for that matter, may take a long time, achieving performance and availability requires building asynchrony into the system; a common way to do that is with queues.

Figure 20: Synchronous request

Imagine a system where each client is requesting a task to be remotely serviced. Each of these clients sends their request to the server, where the server completes the tasks as quickly as possible and returns the results to their respective clients. In small systems where one server (or logical service) can service incoming clients just as fast as they come, this sort of situation should work just fine. However, when the server receives more requests than it can handle, then each client is forced to wait for the other clients' requests to complete before a response can be generated. This is an example of a synchronous request, depicted in Figure 20.

This kind of synchronous behavior can severely degrade client performance; the client is forced to wait, effectively performing zero work, until its request can be answered. Adding additional servers to address system load does not solve the problem either; even with effective load balancing in place it is extremely difficult to ensure the even and fair distribution of work required to maximize client performance. Further, if the server handling requests is unavailable, or fails, then the clients upstream will also fail. Solving this problem effectively requires abstraction between the client's request and the actual work performed to service it.

Figure 21: Using queues to manage requests

Enter queues. A queue is as simple as it sounds: a task comes in, is added to the queue and then workers pick up the next task as they have the capacity to process it. (See Figure 21.) These tasks could represent simple writes to a database, or something as complex as generating a thumbnail preview image for a document. When a client submits task requests to a queue they are no longer forced to wait for the results; instead they need only acknowledgement that the request was properly received. This acknowledgement can later serve as a reference for the results of the work when the client requires it.

Queues enable clients to work in an asynchronous manner, providing a strategic abstraction of a client's request and its response. On the other hand, in a synchronous system, there is no differentiation between request and reply, and they therefore cannot be managed separately. In an asynchronous system the client requests a task, the service responds with a message acknowledging the task was received, and then the client can periodically check the status of the task, only requesting the result once it has completed. While the client is waiting for an asynchronous request to be completed it is free to perform other work, even making asynchronous requests of other services. The latter is an example of how queues and messages are leveraged in distributed systems.

Queues also provide some protection from service outages and failures. For instance, it is quite easy to create a highly robust queue that can retry service requests that have failed due to transient server failures. It is more preferable to use a queue to enforce quality-of-service guarantees than to expose clients directly to intermittent service outages, requiring complicated and often-inconsistent client-side error handling.

Queues are fundamental in managing distributed communication between different parts of any large-scale distributed system, and there are lots of ways to implement them. There are quite a few open source queues like RabbitMQ, ActiveMQ, BeanstalkD, but some also use services like Zookeeper, or even data stores like Redis.


Designing efficient systems with fast access to lots of data is exciting, and there are lots of great tools that enable all kinds of new applications. This article covered just a few examples, barely scratching the surface, but there are many more — and there will only continue to be more innovation in the space. This work is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. Please see the full description of the license for details at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/legalcode. This article was excerpted with permission from The Architecture of Open Source Applications, Volume II.

Kate Matsudaira has worked as the VP Engineering/CTO at several technology startups, including currently at Decide, and formerly at SEOmoz and Delve Networks (acquired by Limelight). Prior to joining the startup world she spent time as a software engineer and technical lead/manager at Amazon and Microsoft. You can read more on her blog and website.

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