Information on this page is taken from Designing Data-Intensive Applications by Martin Kleppmann.

Even if a system is working reliably today, that doesn't mean it will necessarily work reliably in the future. One common reason for degradation is increased load: perhaps the system has grown from 10,000 concurrent users to 100,000 concurrent users, or from 1 million to 10 million. Perhaps it is processing much larger volumes of data than it did before.

Scalability is the term we use to describe a system's ability to cope with increased load. Any distributed system that can continuously evolve in order to support a growing amount of work is considered scalable.

Describing Load

First, we need to succinctly describe the current load on the system; only then can we discuss growth questions (what happens if our load doubles?). Load can be described with a few numbers which we call load parameters. The best choice of parameters depends on the architecture of your system: it may be requests per second to a web server, the ratio of reads to write in a database, the number of simultaneously active users in a char room, the hit rate on a cache, or something else. Perhaps the average case is what matters for you, or perhaps your bottleneck is dominated by a small number of extreme cases.

For example, two of Twitter's main operations are post tweet and view home timeline. Twitter sees 5k requests/second and 300k requests/second for these operations, respectively.

Describing Performance

Once you have described the load on your system, you can investigate what happens when the load increases. You can look at it in two ways.

  • When you increase a load parameter and keep the system resources (CPU, memory, network bandwidth, etc.) unchanged, how is the performance of your system affected?
  • When you increase a load parameter, how much do you need to increase resources if you want to keep performance unchanged?

In a batch processing system such as Hadoop, we usually care about throughput - the number of records we can process per second, or the total time it takes to run a job on a dataset of a certain size. In online systems, what's usually more important is the service's response time - that is, the time between a client sending a request and receiving a response.

Latency and response time are often used synonymously, but they are not the same. The response time is what the client sees: besides the actual time to process the request (service time), it includes network delays and queueing delays. Latency is the duration that a request is waiting to be handled - during which is it latent, awaiting service.

It's common to see the average response time of a service reported, but percentiles are usually better. The median (p50) is useful in addition to higher percentiles (p95, p99, p999). High percentiles of response times are also known as tail latencies.

Approaches for Coping with Load

How do we maintain good performance even when our load parameters increase by some amount?

People often talk of a dichotomy between scaling up (vertical scaling, moving to a more powerful machine) and scaling out (horizontal scaling, distributing the load across multiple smaller machines). Distributing load across multiple machines is also known as a shared-nothing architecture. A system that can run on a single machine is often simpler, but high-end machines can become very expensive, so very intensive workloads often can't avoid scaling out. In reality, good architectures usually involve a pragmatic mixture of approaches.

Some systems are elastic, meaning that they can automatically add computing resources when they detect a load increase, whereas other systems are scaled manually.

While distributing stateless services across multiple machines is fairly straightforward, taking stateful data systems from a single node to a distributed setup can introduce a lot of additional complexity. For this reason, common wisdom until recently was to keep your database on a single node (scale up) until scaling cost or high-available requirements forces you to make it distributed. As the tools and abstractions for distributed systems get better, this common wisdom may change, at least for some kinds of applications.

The architecture of systems that operate at large scale is usually highly specific to the application - there is no such thing as a generic, one-size-fits-all scalable architecture.