We recently moved from Amazon on-demand “cloud” hosting to our own dedicated servers. It took about three months to order and set up the new servers versus a few minutes to get servers on Amazon. However, the new servers are 2.5X faster and so far, more reliable.
We love Amazon for fostering development and innovation. Cloud computing systems are great at getting you new servers. This helps a lot when you are trying to innovate because you can quickly get new servers for your new services. If you are in a phase of trying new things, cloud hosts will help you.
Cloud hosts also help a lot when you are testing. It’s amazing how many servers it takes to run an Internet service. You don’t just need production systems. You need failover systems. You need development systems. You need staging/QA systems. You will need a lot of servers, and you may need to go to a cloud host.
However, there are problems with cloud hosting that emerge if you need high data throughput. The problems aren’t with the servers but instead, with storage and networking. To see why, let’s look at how a cloud architecture differs from a local box architecture. You can’t directly attach each storage location to the box that it servers. You have to use network attached storage.
DEDICATED ARCHITECTURE: Server Box -> bus or lan or SAN -> Storage
CLOUD ARCHITECTURE: Server Box -> Mesh network -> Storage cluster with network replication
1) Underlying problem: Big data, slow networks
Network attached storage becomes a problem because there is a fundamental mismatch between networking and storage. Storage capacity almost doubles every year. Networking speed grows by a factor of ten about every 10 years – 100 times lower. The net result is that storage gets much bigger than network capacity, and it takes a really long time to copy data over a network. I first heard this trend analyzed by John Landry, who called it “Landry’s law.” In my experience, this problem has gotten to the point where even sneakernet (putting on sneakers and carrying data on big storage media) cannot save us because after you lace up your sneakers, you have to copy the data OVER A NETWORK to get it onto the storage media and then copy it again to get it off. When we replicated the Assembla data to the new datacenter, we realized that it would be slower to do those two copies than to replicate over the Internet, which is slower than sneakernet for long distance transport but only requires one local network copy.
2) Mesh network inconsistency
The Internet was designed as a hub and spoke network, and that part of it works great. When you send a packet up from your spoke, it travels a predictable route through various hubs to its destination. When you plug dedicated servers into the Internet, you plug a spoke into the hub, and it works in the traditional way. The IP network inside a cloud datacenter is more of a “mesh.” Packets can take a variety of routes between the servers and the storage. The mesh component is vulnerable to both packet loss and capacity problems. I can’t present any technical reason why this is true, but in our observation, it is true. We have seen two different issues:
* Slowdowns and brownouts: This is a problem at both Amazon and GoGrid, but it is easier to see at Amazon. Their network, and consequently their storage, has variable performance, with slow periods that I call “brownouts.”
* Packet loss: This is related to the capacity problems as routers will throw away packets when they are overloaded. However, the source of the packet loss seems to be much harder to debug in a mesh network. We see these problems on the GoGrid network, and their attempts to diagnose it are often ineffectual.
3) Replication stoppages
The second goal of cloud computing is to provide high availability. The first goal is to never lose data. When there is a failure in the storage cluster, the first goal (don’t lose data) kicks in and stomps on the second goal (high availability). Systems will stop accepting new data and make sure that old data gets replicated. Network attached storage will typically start replicating data to a new node. It may either refuse new data until it can be replicated reliably, or it will absorb all network capacity and block normal operation in the mesh.
Note that in a large complex systems, variations in both network speed and storage capacity will follow a power law distribution. This happens "chaotically." When the variation reaches a certain low level of performance, the system fails because of the replication problem.
I think that we should be able to predict the rate of major failures by observing the smaller variations and extrapolating them with a power law. Amazon had a major outage in April 2011. Throughout the previous 18 months, they had performance brownouts, and I think the frequency of one could be predicted from the other.
So, if your application is storage intensive and high availability, you must either:
1) Design it so that lots of replication is running all of the time, and you can afford to lose access to any specific storage node. This places limits on the speed that your application can absorb data because you need to reserve a big percentage of scarce network capacity for replication. So, you will have only a small percentage of network capacity available to for absorbing external data. However, it is the required architecture for very large systems. It works well if you have a high ratio of output to input, since output just uses the replicated data rather than adding to it.
If you try this replication strategy, you will need to deal with two engineering issues. First, you will think through replication specifically for your application. There are many new database architectures that make this tradeoff in various ways. Each has strengths and weaknesses, so if you design a distributed system, you will probably end up using several of these new architectures. Second, you will need to distribute across multiple mesh network locations. It's not enough just to have several places to get your data, in the same network neighborhood. If there is a problem, the entire mesh will jam up. Ask about this.
2) Use local storage