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Growing into Your Application

In 2001, the Agile Manifesto for software development was formulated because a group of people felt it was necessary to have more lightweight software development methodologies than were in use at that time. Though this movement has found its place in many different situations, it can be argued that the Web was a major factor in its widespread adoption. Application development for the Web has one major advantage over packaged software: in most cases it is distributed exactly once. Iterative development is much easier in such an environment.

Iterative (agile) infrastructure engineering is not really possible with physical hardware. There is always a significant hardware investment, which almost always results in scarcity of these resources. More often than not, it is just impossible to take out a couple of servers to redesign and rebuild a critical part of your infrastructure. With AWS, you can easily build your new application server, redirect production traffic when you are ready, and terminate the old servers. For just a few dollars, you can upgrade your production environment without the usual stress.

This particular advantage of clouds over physical hardware is important. It allows for applying an agile way of working to infrastructures, and lets you iteratively grow into your application. You can use this to create room for mistakes, which are made everywhere. It also allows for stress testing your infrastructure and scaling out to run tens or even hundreds of servers. And, as we did in the early days of Layar, you can move your entire infrastructure from the United States to Europe in just a day.

In the following sections, we will look at the AWS services you can expect to use in the different iterations of your application.

Start with Realistic Expectations

When asking the question, “Does the application have to be highly available?”, the answer is usually a clear and loud “yes.” This is often expensive, but the expectation is set and we work very hard to live up to it. If you ask the slightly different question, “Is it acceptable to risk small periods of downtime provided we can restore quickly without significant loss of data?”, the answer is the same, especially when it becomes clear that this is much less expensive. Restoring quickly without significant loss of data is difficult with hardware, because you don’t always have spare systems readily available. With AWS, however, you have all the spare resources you want. Later, we’ll show you how to install the necessary command-line tools, but all you need to start five servers is:

$ ec2-run-instances ami-480df921 -n 5

When it is necessary to handle more traffic, you can add servers—called instances in EC2—to relieve the load on the existing infrastructure. After adjusting the application so it can handle this changing infrastructure, you can have any number of instances doing the same work. This way of scaling—scaling out—offers an interesting opportunity. By creating more instances doing the same work, you just made that part of your infrastructure highly available. Not only is your system able to handle more traffic or more load, it is also more resilient. One failure will no longer bring down your app.

After a certain amount of scaling out, this method won’t work anymore. Your application is probably becoming too complex to manage. It is time for something else; the application needs to be broken up into smaller, interoperating applications. Luckily, the system is agile and we can isolate and extract one component at a time. This has significant consequences for the application. The application needs to implement ways for its different parts to communicate and share information. By using the AWS services, the quality of the application only gets better. Now entire components can fail and the app itself will remain functional, or at least responsive.

Simply Small

AWS has many useful and necessary tools to help you design for failure. You can assign Elastic IP addresses to an instance, so if the instance dies or you replace it, you reassign the Elastic IP address. You can also use Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes for instance storage. With EBS, you can “carry around” your disks from instance to instance. By making regular snapshots of the EBS volumes, you have an easy way to back up your data. An instance is launched from an image, a read-only copy of the initial state of your instance. For example, you can create an image containing the Ubuntu operating system with Apache web server, PHP, and your web application installed. And a boot script can automatically attach volumes and assign IP addresses. Using these tools will allow you to instantly launch a fresh copy of your application within minutes.

Most applications start with some sort of database, and the most popular database is MySQL. The AWS RDS offers MySQL as a service. RDS offers numerous advantages like backup/restore and scalability. The advantages it brings are significant. If you don’t use this service, make sure you have an extremely good reason not to. Scaling a relational database is notoriously hard, as is making it resilient to failure. With RDS, you can start small, and if your traffic grows you can scale up the database as an immediate solution. That gives you time to implement optimizations to get the most out of the database, after which you can scale it down again. This is simple and convenient: priceless. The command-line tools make it easy to launch a very powerful database:

$ rds-create-db-instance kulitzer \
        --db-instance-class db.m1.small \
        --engine MySQL5.1 \
        --allocated-storage 5 \
        --db-security-groups default \
        --master-user-password Sdg_5hh \
        --master-username arjan \
        --backup-retention-period 2

Having the freedom to fail (occasionally, of course) also offers another opportunity: you can start searching for the boundaries of the application’s performance. Experiencing difficulties because of increasing traffic helps you get to know the different components and optimize them. If you limit yourself in infrastructure assets, you are forced to optimize to get the most out of your infrastructure. Because the infrastructure is not so big yet, it is easier to understand and identify the problem, making it easier to improve. Also, use your freedom to play around. Stop your instance or scale your RDS instance. Learn the behavior of the tools and technologies you are deploying. This approach will pay back later on, when your app gets critical and you need more resources to do the work.

One straightforward way to optimize your infrastructure is to offload the “dumb” tasks. Most modern frameworks have facilities for working with media or static subdomains. The idea is that you can use extremely fast web servers or caches to serve out this static content. The actual dynamics are taken care of by a web server like Apache, for example. We are fortunate to be able to use CloudFront. Put your static assets in an S3 bucket and expose them using a CloudFront distribution. The advantage is that you are using a full-featured content delivery network with edge locations all over the world. But you have to take into account that a CDN caches aggressively, so change will take some time to propagate. You can solve this by implementing invalidation, building in some sort of versioning on your assets, or just having a bit of patience.

Growing Up

The initial setup is static. But later on, when traffic or load is picking up, you need to start implementing an infrastructure that can scale. With AWS, the biggest advantage you have is that you can create an elastic infrastructure, one that scales up and down depending on demand. Though this is a feature many people want, and some even expect out of the box, it is not applicable to all parts of your infrastructure. A relational database, for example, does not easily scale up and down automatically. Work that can be distributed to identical and independent instances is extremely well suited to an elastic setup. Luckily, web traffic fits this pattern, especially when you have a lot of it.

Let’s start with the hard parts of our infrastructure. First is the relational database. We started out with an RDS instance, which we said is easily scalable. It is, but, unaided, you will reach its limits relatively quickly. Relational data needs assistance to be fast when the load gets high. The obvious choice for optimization is caching, for which there are solutions like Memcached. But RDS is priceless if you want to scale. With minimum downtime, you can scale from what you have to something larger (or smaller):

$ rds-modify-db-instance kulitzer \
        --db-instance-class db.m1.xlarge \

We have a strategy to get the most out of a MySQL-based data store, so now it is time to set up an elastic fleet of EC2 instances, scaling up and down on demand. AWS has two services designed to take most of the work out of your hands:

  • Amazon ELB

  • Amazon Auto Scaling

ELB is, for practical reasons, infinitely scalable, and works closely with EC2. It balances the load by distributing it to all the instances behind the load balancer. The introduction of sticky sessions (sending all requests from a client session to the same server) is recent, but with that added, ELB is feature-complete. With Auto Scaling, you can set up an autoscaling group to manage a certain group of instances. The autoscaling group launches and terminates instances depending on triggers, for example on percentage of CPU utilization. You can also set up the autoscaling group to add and remove these instances from the load balancer. All you need is an image that launches into an instance that can independently handle traffic it gets from the load balancer.

ELB’s scalability comes at a cost. The management overhead of this scaling adds latency to the transactions. But in the end, human labor is more expensive, and client performance does not necessarily need ultra low latencies in most cases. Using ELB and Auto Scaling has many advantages, but if necessary, you can build your own load balancers and autoscaling mechanism. All the AWS services are exposed as APIs. You can write a daemon that uses CloudWatch to implement triggers that launch/terminate instances.

Moving Out

The most expensive part of the infrastructure is the relational database component. None of the assets involved here scales easily, let alone automatically. The most expensive operation is the join. We already minimized the use of joins by caching objects, but that is not enough. All the big boys and girls try to get rid of their joins altogether. Google has BigTable and Amazon has SimpleDB, both of which are part of what is now known as NoSQL. Other examples of NoSQL databases are MongoDB and Cassandra, and they have the same underlying principle of not joining.

The most radical form of minimizing the use of joins is to decouple, and a great way to decouple is to use queues. Two applications performing subtasks previously performed by one application are likely to need less severe joins. Internally, Amazon has implemented an effective organization principle to enforce this behavior. Amazon reorganized along the lines of the functional components. Teams are responsible for everything concerning their particular applications. These decoupled applications communicate using Amazon SQS and Amazon Simple Notification Service (SNS), and they share using Amazon SimpleDB and Amazon S3.

These teams probably use MySQL and Memcached and ELB to build their applications. But the size of each component is reduced, and the traffic/load on each is now manageable once more. This pattern can be repeated again and again, of course.

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