The stack powering tny.im: goodbye redundancy! The end of an era

I was casually going through my GitHub repos and came across PicoRed, a server redundancy manager I developed, with the immediate goal of managing the DNS records for the tny.im domain. The tny.im shortener used to be hosted by multiple servers in a Round-robin DNS configuration. The idea was that as servers went online and offline (or underwent maintenance, etc.), the DNS records would be automatically updated to reflect which servers are currently serving a service, in this case tny.im.

PicoRed is the successor to mersit, which served the same purpose but was written in very unidiomatic Python and was much clunkier than PicoRed (which is written in very unidiomatic Go, but used fewer resources and was somehow more stable). PicoRed and mersit were completely peer-to-peer, and this is because I couldn’t afford to have a “master” server that was stable enough and which I could be sure would have three nines of uptime.

The idea behind those tools is everything but novel; container orchestration, for example, requires similar tools to be deployed. For some reason, perhaps ignorance, back then I decided to write my own. (For an example of mersit/PicoRed done right, see Serf). I don’t regret it, of course: I learned a lot about distributed systems, and while my terrible consensus “algorithms” (a complete joke) worked, they taught me why things like Paxos and Raft had to be invented. The main takeaway was, “it’s complicated”. So for PicoRed I decided to use a library by Hashicorp that handled the hard parts for me (and that’s how my unidiomatic Go program was “somehow more stable”).

Three paragraphs into this post, and I’m still writing the introduction… these three paragraphs about distributed systems are just warming up for what’s coming, which is me saying that none of those homemade tools are in use anymore, and it’s not even because I switched to something better: tny.im, and some other services of the TNY network, are now served by a single server.

How did we get here? Back in 2014, I was a huge proponent of distributing every single service across many cheap servers, instead of buying a proper, rock-solid, big and expensive server from a reliable company. In theory, horizontally scaling would let one handle big amounts of traffic and improve availability at the same price, or even less – sounds great, right? These strong opinions were backed by the issues I was having with my BlueVM server. But now, we’re back to zero redundancy… what changed?

Well, my opinion is still the same: I’ll take horizontal scaling over vertical scaling any day, and the more redundancy that’s fit to pay, the better. The problem is when horizontally scaling begins to hurt performance and reliability instead of helping it, and that’s exactly what was happening in our case.

tny.im, dotAccount, PrizmID and my WordPress websites (this blog and the TNY network website) are powered by an extremely uninteresting LEMP stack. A LEMP stack is one composed by Linux, Nginx, MariaDB and PHP, or in other words, a LAMP stack but with Nginx instead of Apache. Until a few weeks ago, the “M” in this stack had the peculiarity of actually being MariaDB configured in master-master replication mode. What this means is that MariaDB was running on multiple servers, managing the same databases, and whenever a change was made, it was propagated to all of the other servers in the cluster (up to a few weeks ago, two servers; at some point in the distant past, up to five servers were used).

That’s how tny.im was served by multiple servers: simply by running the same PHP code in all servers, and having that code talk to the same database, replicated across all the servers. Of course, MariaDB master-master replication has its disadvantages. For one, performance is worse, because all database writes involve communication between the different MariaDB servers. This began to show on more database-intensive applications like dotAccount.

Perhaps more surprisingly, reliability is also worse. Perhaps I didn’t have MariaDB replication properly configured (after many attempts and hours spent, trust me), but it would sometimes break in wonderful states such as “WSREP has not yet prepared node for application use” whenever there was some network hiccup. This could happen as often as once a day, or once every two months (yes, networks are unpredictable like that). Whenever it broke, it would need to be manually restarted, and it would sometimes take multiple attempts until all the servers had their MariaDB running. In other words, exactly the opposite you want for a reliable system that requires minimum amounts of human supervision.

Perhaps PicoRed could have expanded into taking care of restarting the cluster, but since I couldn’t even get to a sequence of commands that, when executed on all servers at the right times, would reliably restart the MariaDB cluster, I kind of gave up. Lack of time and more interesting projects to develop, like Clouttery, meant that some stuff would inevitably get left behind, and my horrible mess of code called PicoRed ended up forgotten and eternally unfinished. Moving to proper solutions like Serf also required time that I didn’t have.

A few months ago I was notified that the provider of one of my VPS was closing, and all servers would be shut down by December 4th. I bought a new server, moved the stuff that wasn’t hosted anywhere else to it, but I really didn’t feel like reconfiguring the MariaDB cluster and PicoRed for the new server. PicoRed, in fact, stopped working in one of my servers (the one that wasn’t getting shut down) with some binary incompatibility error, a year or so ago. So I kind of gave up… reconfigured MariaDB so it stopped being a cluster, got rid of PicoRed, and said goodbye to one of the servers.

The new server is PHP and MariaDB/MySQL-free, and this probably won’t change. I would really like to move on from PHP and MariaDB to better languages and DBMSs. My main conclusion from the whole replication story is that MariaDB is not really prepared to scale horizontally, at least not without a lot of effort and “baby-sitting”.

I certainly have not given up on horizontal scaling, but I think that from on now, it’s best that I manage scaling at the application level instead of the database level, or alternatively, use a DBMS that was designed with horizontal scaling in mind, from the start. For the second option, it’s unfortunate that both CockroachDB and TiDB are still in a very premature state for production use.

I would rather not give up on relational databases; while it’s true that other types of database also cover some of the use cases of relational ones, I’m yet to know of any problem other than document storing that can’t be effectively solved with relational databases. (And for document storing, may I interest you in a relational database coupled with this strange thing called a filesystem?) Commercial solutions are obviously out of reach for me: it’s not like Segvault is a money-making machine; tny.im isn’t even profitable, despite all the ads!

I have grown to hate the mess of PHP and SQL that is tny.im so much, that shutting down the service (or at least getting it into a “read-only” mode) was once a topic for discussion at one of the TNY network meetings – all three of them. By the way, Segvault/TNY network is “hiring”, i.e. looking for new members with exciting project ideas, and if you had the patience to read this post this far, you may be a good candidate – contact me somehow.

Ads at tny.im earn me pocket change, that is used to offset the cost of the servers and domain names, and this shall be enough motivation to keep maintaining tny.im and supporting its users for some more years, updating MariaDB one version at a time.

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