SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Archive for September 23rd, 2007

Congratulations Mozy guys, you’re rich! Now where the *&%@? is my data?

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 23, 2007

The news is out that Mozy has been acquired by EMC for $76M.  That’s a staggering multiple on the mere $1.9M in capital they raised.

I’m a Mozy user, but not a happy one.  I had been using Mozy on the recommendation of a friend.  Many others I know use it too.  The reason I’m not happy is there is using it and then there is USING it.  Let me explain.  I suffered a loss of data, had been backing up with Mozy, and wanted to restore the lost data.  My attempts were wholly unsuccessful for the most annoying of reasons.  I would log into Mozy to recover said data, select “Restore Files” from the menu, and then I’d never hear back from Mozy again.  It would say “Loading Backup Information” until the cows come home.  I left it running for a couple of days to no avail.  I’m not the only one with this problem.  I gave up on them about a month ago and set about recreating what I’d lost.  In the end, the most annoying loss was my large Outlook.pst file.  The rest was pretty easily recovered, not the least of which was because I’ve started using a lot of SaaS-style web applications.

Just for kicks, I tried again as I’m writing this article.  I gave it half an hour of looking at the “Loading” prompt before shutting it down.  You wonder if these EMC guys did any diligence before buying Mozy?  Perhaps they just don’t care.  Presumably EMC has the wherewithal to make whatever is wrong right.  But there has to be a certain amount of negativity out there.  OTOH, it’s a classic case of an app that appeared to work for a long time when in fact it was badly broken.  So long as you didn’t actually need your files, the backup worked fine.  Write only memory is not the answer for backing up data, no matter how smoothly it seems to work!  I’m still looking for an offsite backup alternative I like. 

The morals of this story:

–  Test restoration of a backup.  Yes, I know, the IT guys are snickering.  They knew that.  Apparently many of them still don’t “do as they say!”

–  RAID arrays can’t be read by different motherboards.  How stupid is that?  You have to go out on eBay to find the same board to read your RAID array.  Doh!  Someone ought to fix that silly gaff.

–  $1.9M is not enough capital to start a company like this.  Had EMC not come along, these guys were in trouble.

Congratulations Mozy guys, you’re rich!  Now where the *&%@? is my data?

Posted in Marketing, saas | 5 Comments »

Memcached: When You Absolutely Positively Have to Get It To Scale the Next Day

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 23, 2007

Why should “Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0” care about a piece of technology like memcached?  Because it just might save your bacon, that’s why. 

Suppose your team have just finished working feverishly to implement “Virus-a-Go-Go”, your new Facebook widget that is guaranteed to soar to the top of the charts.  You launch it, and sure enough you were right.  Zillions of hits are suddenly raining down on your new widget. 

But you were also wrong.  You woefully underestimated in your architecture what it would take to handle the traffic that is now beating your pitiful little servers into oblivion.  Angry email is flowing so fast it threatens to overwhelm your mail servers.  Worse, someone has published your phone number in a blog post, and now it rings continuously.  Meanwhile, your software developers are telling you that your problem is in your use of the database (seems to be the problem so much of the time, doesn’t it?), and the architecture is inherently not scalable.  Translation:  they want a lot of time to make things faster, time you don’t have.  What to do, what to do?

With appologies to Federal Express, the point of my title is that memcached may be one of the fastest things you can retrofit to your software to make it scale.  Memcached when properly used has the potential to increase performance by hundreds or sometimes even thousands of times.  I don’t know if you can quite manage it overnight, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  Hopefully next time you are headed for trouble, you’ll start out with a memcached architecture in advance and buy yourself more time before you hit a scaling crunch.  Meanwhile, let me tell you more about this wonder drug, memcached.

What is memcached? 

Simply put, memcached sits between your database and whatever is generating too many queries on it and attempts to avoid repetitious queries by caching the answer in memory.  If you ask it for something it already knows, it retrieves it very quickly from memory.  If you ask it for something it doesn’t know, it gets it from the database, copies it into the cache for future reference and hands it over.  Someone once said, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if the other guy already knows the answer to a hard question, he can blurt it out before you can figure it out.  And this is exactly what memcached does for you. 

The beautiful thing about memcached is that it can usually be added to your software without huge structural changes being necessary.  It sits as a relatively transparent layer that does the same thing your software has always done, but just a whole lot faster.  Most of the big sites use memcached to good effect.  Facebook, for example, uses 200 quad core machines that each have 16GB of RAM to create a 3 Terabyte memcached that apparently has a 99% hit rate.

Here’s another beautiful thought: memcached gives you a way to leverage lots of machines easily instead of rewriting your software to eliminate the scalability bottleneck.  You can run it on every spare machine you can lay hands on, and it soaks up available memory on those machines to get smarter and smarter and faster and faster.  Cool!  Think of it as a short term bandaid to help you overcome your own personal Multicore Crisis.

What’s Needed

Getting the memcached software is easy.  The next step I would take is to go read some case studies from folks using tools similar to yours and see how they’ve integrated memcache into their architectural fabric.  Next, you need to look for the right place to apply leverage with memcache within your application.  Memcached takes a string to use as a key, and returns a result associated with the key.  Some possibilities for keys include:

–  A sql query string

–  A name that makes sense:  <SocialNetID>.<List of Friends>

The point is that you are giving memcached a way to identify the result you are looking for.  Some keys are better than others–think about your choice of key carefully!

Now you can insert calls to memcached into your code in strategic places and it will begin to search the cache.  You’ll also need to handle the case where the cache has no entry by detecting it and telling memcached to add the missing entry.  Be careful not to create a race condition!  This happens when multiple hits on the cache (you’re using a cache because you expect multiple hits, right?) cause several processes to compete with who gets to put the answer into memcached.  There are straightforward solutions available, so don’t panic.

Last step?  You need to know when the answer is no longer valid and be prepared to tell memcached about it so it doesn’t give you back an answer that’s out of date.  This can sometimes be the hardest part, and giving careful thought to what sort of key you’re using is important to making this step easier.  Think carefully about how often its worth updating the cache too.  Sometimes availability is more important than consistency.  The more you update, the fewer hits on the cache will be made between updates, which will slow down your system.  Sometimes things don’t have to be right all the time.  For example, do you really need to be able to lookup which of your friends are online at the moment and be right every millisecond?  Perhaps it is good enough to be right every two minutes.  It’s certainly much easier to cache something changing on a two minute interval.

Memcached is Not Just for DB Scaling

The DB is often the heart of your scalability problem, but memcached can be used to cache all sorts of things.  An alternate example would be to cache some computation that is expensive, must be performed fairly often, and whose answer doesn’t change nearly as often as it is asked for.   Sessions can also be an excellent candidate for storage in memcached although strictly speaking, this is typically more DB caching.

Downsides to memcached

  • Memcached is cache hit frequency dependant.  So long as your application’s usage patterns are such that a given entry in the cache gets hit multiple times, you’re good.  But a cache won’t help if every access is completely different.  In fact, it will hurt, because you pay the cost to look in the cache and fail before you can go get the value from the DB.  Because of this, you will need to verify that what you’re caching actually has this behaviour.  If it doesn’t, you’ll need to think of another solution.
  • Memcached is not secure by itself, so it must either be deployed inside your firewall or you’ll need to spend time building layers around it to make it secure.
  • Memcached needs memory.  The more the merrier.  Remember that Facebook is using 16GB machines.  This is not such a happy story for something like Amazon EC2 at the moment, where individual nodes get very little memory.  I have heard Amazon will be making 3 announcements by end of year to help DB users of EC2.  Perhaps one of these will involve more memory for more $$$ on an EC2 instance.  That would help both the DB and your chances of running memcached on EC2.  There are other problems with memcached on EC2 as well, such as a need to use it with consistent hashing to deal with machines coming and going, and the question of latency if all the servers are not in the EC2 cloud. 
  • Memcached is slower than local caches such as APC cache since it is distributed.  However, it has the potential to store a lot more objects since it can harness many machines.  Consider whether your application benefits from a really big cache, or whether some of the objects aren’t better off with smaller, higher performance, local caches.

Alternatives to memcached

  • Other caching mechanisms are available.  Be sure you understand the tradeoffs, and don’t take someone else’s benchmarks for granted.  You need to run your own! 

  • Static Web Pages.  Sometimes you can pre-render dynamic behaviour for a web page and cache the static web pages instead.  If it works out, it should be faster than memcached which only caches a portion of work required to render the page, usually just the DB portion.  However, rendering the whole page is a lot of work, so you probably only want to consider it if the page will be hit a lot and changed very little.  I’ve seen tag landing pages (e.g. show me all the links associated with a particular tag) done this way and only updated once a day or a couple of times a day.  You may also not have a convenient way to do static pages depending on how your application works.  The good news is static pages work great with Amazon S3, so you have a wonderful infrastructure on which to build a static page cache.


Memcached would seem to be an absolutely essential tool for scaling web software, but I noticed something funny while researching this article.  Scaling gets 765,013 hits on Google Blog Search.  Multicore (related to scaling) gets 88,960 hits.  Memcached only gets 15,062.  I can only hope that means most people already know about it and find the concepts easy enough to grasp that they don’t consider it worth writing about.  If only 1 in  50 of those writing about scaling know about memcached, its time more learned.

Go forward and scale out using memcached, but remember that its a tactical weapon.  You should also be thinking about how to take the next step, which is breaking down your DB architecture so it scales more easily using techniques like sharding, partitioning, and federated architectures.  This will let you apply multiple cores to the DB problem.  I’ll write more about that in a later post.

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Posted in multicore, saas, software development, strategy, Web 2.0 | 11 Comments »

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