Designing to fail

Cloud-savvy application architects don’t do things the same way that they’re done in the traditional enterprise.

Cloud applications assume failure. That is, well-architected cloud applications assume that just about anything can fail. Servers fail. Storage fails. Networks fail. Other application components fail. Cloud applications are designed to be resilient to failure, and they are designed to be robust at the application level rather than at the infrastructure level.

Enterprises, for the most part, design for infrastructure robustness. They build expensive data centers with redundant components. They buy expensive servers with dual-everything in case a component fails. They buy expensive storage and mirror their disks. And then whatever hardware they buy, they need two of. All so the application never has to deal with the failure of the underlying infrastructure.

The cloud philosophy is generally that you buy dirt-cheap things and expect they’ll fail. Since you’re scaling out anyway, you expect to have a bunch of boxes, so that any box failing is not an issue. You protect against data center failure by being in multiple data centers.

Cloud applications assume variable performance. Well-architected cloud applications don’t assume that anything is going to complete in a certain amount of time. The application has to deal with network latencies that might be random, storage latencies that might be random, and compute latencies that might be random. The principle of the distributed application of this sort is that just about anything that you’re talking to can mysteriously drop off the face of the Earth at any point in time, or at least not get back to you for a whlie.

Here’s where it gets funkier. Even most cloud-savvy architects don’t build applications this way today. This is why people howl about Amazon’s storage back-end for EBS, for instance — they’re used to consistent and reliable storage performance, and EBS isn’t built that way, and most applications are built with the assumption that seemingly local standard I/O is functionally local and therefore is totally reliable and high-performance. This is why people twitch about VM-to-VM latencies, although at least here there’s usually some application robustness (since people are more likely to architect with network issues in mind). This is the kind of problem things like Node.js were created to solve (don’t block on anything, and assume anything can fail), but it’s also a type of thinking that’s brand-new to most application architects.

Performance is actually where the real problems occur when moving applications to the cloud. Most businesses who are moving existing apps can deal with the infrastructure issues — and indeed, many cloud providers (generally the VMware-based ones) use clustering and live migration and so forth to present users with a reliable infrastructure layer. But most existing traditional enterprise apps don’t deal well with variable performance, and that’s a problem that will be much trickier to solve.

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Posted on December 3, 2010, in Infrastructure and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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