‘distributed computing’

How Fault Tolerant Is Coherence Really?

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Dessert Island Disks Top 3 reasons for using Coherence have to be: Speed, Scalability and Fault Tolerance.

When designing systems with Coherence it’s easy to get carried away with the latter, especially when you start to embed your own services and leverage the implicit fault tolerance.

But in all this excitement I’ve often found myself overlooking  what the guarantees really are. FailureMost people know that Coherence backs up your data on another node so that if one process is lost it can be restored (see diagram). They also may know that the number of backups Coherence takes, for each piece of data you store, is configurable. However it takes a little consideration to become totally clear on what guarentees of fault tollerance Coherence really provides, hence my summary here.

There are two questions worth considering:

  1. How many machines failures can occur simultaneously without the cluster loosing data?
  2. What is the maximum reduction in cluster size under which the cluster can operate without data loss?

These two aspects of fault tolerance seem quite similar at first glance but they are driven from very different aspects of the technology. The first refers to concurrent loss of hardware. After a machine is lost Coherence will redistribute backups on the remaining hardware so that every partition has a backup somewhere else. The first question above arises where a second machine is lost before this redistribution phase has had an opportunity to run.

The second question is to do with physical resources, most commonly RAM. If you loose 1/3 of the machines in your cluster do you have enough memory on the rest of them to store a primary and backup copy for the data the lost machines were holding (currently Coherence will try to make a backup even if it means throwing an OutOfMemoryError – something I’m told is being addressed)? Physical memory tends to be the problem here as it is a hard limit (hit a CPU limit and you slow down, hit a memory limit and you get corruption) but hitting a CPU limit is probably equally likely on most clusters. The important point is that you size your cluster with this in mind. That’s to say that you include enough memory headroom for primary and backup copies of the data after the loss of some number of machines (An algorithm for sizing your cluster can be found here).

Having done such analysis however, and I know many teams that do, it’s tempting to then think your cluster can survive the loss of 1/3 of it’s hardware (or whatever resource overhead they provisioned) because there is enough physical resource for Coherence to recover. This would be true if the loss of nodes were separated in time but not if they occurred simultaneously.

For the simultaneous failure of machines, in the current version of Coherence (3.5), you can quantify the products fault tolerance as this:

The limit of Coherence’s fault tolerance is the loss of more than one physical machine in a cluster.

So where does this assumed limit come from? Well Coherence positions backup data based on two conditions:

  • Backup data is placed on a different host to the primary, where possible.
  • Backups of the partitions in a single JVM are spread evenly over the cluster.

The implication is that the loss of a single machine with be handled with the added benefit that the even distribution of backup data across the cluster makes redistribution events rapid (think BitTorrant).

However the loss of a second machine will, most likely, cause data loss if some of the data from the first machine is backed up on the second. The cluster won’t loose much, but it will likely loose some.


One suggestion for combating this is to increase the backup count. Unfortunately, in the current version, this doesn’t help. Coherence is really smart about how it places the first backup copy; putting it on a different machine where possible and spreading the backups evenly across the cluster. But when it comes to the second backup it is not so clever. The problem of backup placement is O(n), hence this restriction. As a result, configuring a second backup provides no extra guarantee that the second backup will be held on a different machine to the first, hence loss of two machines may still cause data loss (but the probability of this has been reduced).

Luckily there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Coherence team are working on smarter tertiary backups, or so I’m told.

Merging Data And Processing: Why it doesn’t “just work”

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

If you’ve been using Coherence for a while (or any other distributed cache service like Gigaspaces or Gemstone) you may well have had that wonderful ‘penny dropping’ moment when considering the collocation of data and processing. Suddenly you can perceive architectures where you no longer need to move all that data around before operating  on it. Your grid already has it there at your disposal.

As a toy example lets consideaffinityr pricing a large portfolio of trades. The pricing algorithm would require trade and market data as input, but as these are logically distinct entities you are likely to store each in a different cache. But for efficiency you’ll need the data for the corresponding trade and the market data on the same node, so that wire calls to collocate them don’t need to be made prior to pricing.

Coherence gives you a great way to do this: Affinity instructs Coherence to store data in a certain way, that is to say it is grouped together so that all data items with the same ‘affinity key’ are kept together (see figures).

Thinking along these lines you’d think we might have solved our pricing problem. We can use affinity to keep the trade and maffinity2arket data together. As it happens this does work (depending somewhat on your data distribution). However it all falls to bits when you need to perform the processing to price the trade.

The problem is that you want to wrap the processing in a Coherence function that is ‘data aware’. Most likely an Aggretator or possibly an Entry Processor. The reasoning being this is that these functions will automatically route themselves to the nodes where the data resides.

The alternative approach is to use an invocable, but this is not data aware so you have to write extra code to route each request to the correct node (perfectly possible but not the most elegant or efficient solution).

So persisting with the data-aware functions as a wrapper for our pricing algorithm, lets say an Aggregator, you would quickly hit a problem with the way that Coherence is architected internally. Aggregators run inside the Cache Service (i.e. the service that manages data in Coherence) and the Cache Service threading model does not permit re-enterant calls [1].

So what does that mean? It means that, if you ran your Aggregator against the trades cache, you would not be able to call out from that Aggregator into the Market Data cache to get the data you require to price the trade. Such a call would ultimately cause a deadlock.

The  coherence-threadingdiagram demonstrates the CacheService threading model under a simulated deadlock. Even when the Cache service is configured with a thread pool there is the possibility that a re-entrant call will be scheduled back to the worker thread that is making that call, particularly in the case where the thread pool is small and the EntryProcessor workload is long.

A work around for this problem is to place the parent cache (or more precisely, the cache against which the Entry Processor or Aggregator is run) in a different Cache Service to the cache that the function is operating on. By splitting into at least two Cache Services the call to the ‘other’ cache will enter via a different Main thread to which invoked the Aggregator that you are currently running. This removes the possibility of deadlock.

InvocableHowever, for our use case, spitting the market data cache and trades cache into different cache services is not an option as it breaks Affinity. The data items will no longer collocate (as affinity is based on the hashing algorithm Coherence uses to store data, and that algorithm is at a cache service level).

So how do you solve this problem. Well you have two options.

  1. You sidestep the threading model by accessing the backing map directly. This way to can access the data in the market data cache using the thread you are on (without Coherence re-queuing it). The problem with this method is that it is a back door and that leaves you open to potential problems (could there be a time when you expect the item to be in the local JVM but it is not?)
  2. As mentioned earlier you wrap your request in an invocable (which does not have the same threading issues as it runs in the Invocation Service) and route it to the correct machine yourself. This is described in the final diagram.

As to which is best to do. Well I guess that depends how risk averse you are 😉 but for what it’s worth I use the former.

[1] http://coherence.oracle.com/display/COH35UG/Constraints+on+Re-entrant+Calls


Talks (View on YouTube)