Welcome!

Agile Computing Authors: Elizabeth White, Mark Ross-Smith, Yeshim Deniz, Carmen Gonzalez, Larry Alton

Related Topics: Agile Computing

Agile Computing: Article

Behind the Scenes at Facebook: Scaling Up FBChat Using Erlang

The secret for going from zero to seventy million users overnight is to avoid doing it all in one fell swoop

One of the things I like most about working at Facebook is the ability to launch products that are (almost) immediately used by millions of people. Unlike a three-guys-in-a-garage startup, we don't have the luxury of scaling out infrastructure to keep pace with user growth; when your feature's userbase will go from 0 to 70 million practically overnight, scalability has to be baked in from the start. The project I'm currently working on, Facebook Chat, offered a nice set of software engineering challenges.

Real-time presence notification

The most resource-intensive operation performed in a chat system is not sending messages. It is rather keeping each online user aware of the online-idle-offline states of their friends, so that conversations can begin.

The naive implementation of sending a notification to all friends whenever a user comes online or goes offline has a worst case cost of O(average friendlist size * peak users * churn rate) messages/second, where churn rate is the frequency with which users come online and go offline, in events/second. This is wildly inefficient to the point of being untenable, given that the average number of friends per user is measured in the hundreds, and the number of concurrent users during peak site usage is on the order of several millions.

Surfacing connected users' idleness greatly enhances the chat user experience but further compounds the problem of keeping presence information up-to-date. Each Facebook Chat user now needs to be notified whenever one of his/her friends
(a) takes an action such as sending a chat message or loads a Facebook page (if tracking idleness via a last-active timestamp) or
(b) transitions between idleness states (if representing idleness as a state machine with states like "idle-for-1-minute", "idle-for-2-minutes", "idle-for-5-minutes", "idle-for-10-minutes", etc.).
Note that approach (a) changes the sending a chat message / loading a Facebook page from a one-to-one communication into a multicast to all online friends, while approach (b) ensures that users who are neither chatting nor browsing Facebook are nonetheless generating server load.

Real-time messaging

Another challenge is ensuring the timely delivery of the messages themselves. The method we chose to get text from one user to another involves loading an iframe on each Facebook page, and having that iframe's Javascript make an HTTP GET request over a persistent connection that doesn't return until the server has data for the client. The request gets reestablished if it's interrupted or times out. This isn't by any means a new technique: it's a variation of Comet, specifically XHR long polling, and/or BOSH.

Having a large-number of long-running concurrent requests makes the Apache part of the standard LAMP stack a dubious implementation choice. Even without accounting for the sizeable overhead of spawning an OS process that, on average, twiddles its thumbs for a minute before reporting that no one has sent the user a message, the waiting time could be spent servicing 60-some requests for regular Facebook pages. The result of running out of Apache processes over the entire Facebook web tier is not pretty, nor is the dynamic configuration of the Apache process limits enjoyable.

Distribution, Isolation, and Failover

Fault tolerance is a desirable characteristic of any big system: if an error happens, the system should try its best to recover without human intervention before giving up and informing the user. The results of inevitable programming bugs, hardware failures, et al., should be hidden from the user as much as possible and isolated from the rest of the system.

The way this is typically accomplished in a web application is by separating the model and the view: data is persisted in a database (perhaps with a separate in-memory cache), with each short-lived request retrieving only the parts relevant to that request. Because the data is persisted, a failed read request can be re-attempted. Cache misses and database failure can be detected by the non-database layers and either reported to the user or worked around using replication.

While this architecture works pretty well in general, it isn't as successful in a chat application due to the high volume of long-lived requests, the non-relational nature of the data involved, and the statefulness of each request.

For Facebook Chat, we rolled our own subsystem for logging chat messages (in C++) as well as an epoll-driven web server (in Erlang) that holds online users' conversations in-memory and serves the long-polled HTTP requests. Both subsystems are clustered and partitioned for reliability and efficient failover. Why Erlang? In short, because the problem domain fits Erlang like a glove. Erlang is a functional concurrency-oriented language with extremely low-weight user-space "processes", share-nothing message-passing semantics, built-in distribution, and a "crash and recover" philosophy proven by two decades of deployment on large soft-realtime production systems.

Glueing with Thrift

Despite those advantages, using Erlang for a component of Facebook Chat had a downside: that component needed to communicate with the other parts of the system. Glueing together PHP, Javascript, Erlang, and C++ is not a trivial matter. Fortunately, we have Thrift. Thrift translates a service description into the RPC glue code necessary for making cross-language calls (marshalling arguments and responses over the wire) and has templates for servers and clients. Since going open source a year ago (we had the gall to release it on April Fool's Day, 2007), the Thrift project has steadily grown and improved (with multiple iterations on the Erlang binding). Having Thrift available freed us to split up the problem of building a chat system and use the best available tool to approach each sub-problem.

Ramping up

The secret for going from zero to seventy million users overnight is to avoid doing it all in one fell swoop. We chose to simulate the impact of many real users hitting many machines by means of a "dark launch" period in which Facebook pages would make connections to the chat servers, query for presence information and simulate message sends without a single UI element drawn on the page. With the "dark launch" bugs fixed, we hope that you enjoy Facebook Chat now that the UI lights have been turned on.

 

More Stories By Eugene Letuchy

Eugene Letuchy is a software engineer at Facebook.

Comments (0)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


@ThingsExpo Stories
"A lot of times people will come to us and have a very diverse set of requirements or very customized need and we'll help them to implement it in a fashion that you can't just buy off of the shelf," explained Nick Rose, CTO of Enzu, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 18th Cloud Expo, held June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
WebRTC sits at the intersection between VoIP and the Web. As such, it poses some interesting challenges for those developing services on top of it, but also for those who need to test and monitor these services. In his session at WebRTC Summit, Tsahi Levent-Levi, co-founder of testRTC, reviewed the various challenges posed by WebRTC when it comes to testing and monitoring and on ways to overcome them.
Every successful software product evolves from an idea to an enterprise system. Notably, the same way is passed by the product owner's company. In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Oleg Lola, CEO of MobiDev, will provide a generalized overview of the evolution of a software product, the product owner, the needs that arise at various stages of this process, and the value brought by a software development partner to the product owner as a response to these needs.
WebRTC services have already permeated corporate communications in the form of videoconferencing solutions. However, WebRTC has the potential of going beyond and catalyzing a new class of services providing more than calls with capabilities such as mass-scale real-time media broadcasting, enriched and augmented video, person-to-machine and machine-to-machine communications. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Luis Lopez, CEO of Kurento, introduced the technologies required for implementing these idea...
The WebRTC Summit New York, to be held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, announces that its Call for Papers is now open. Topics include all aspects of improving IT delivery by eliminating waste through automated business models leveraging cloud technologies. WebRTC Summit is co-located with 20th International Cloud Expo and @ThingsExpo. WebRTC is the future of browser-to-browser communications, and continues to make inroads into the traditional, difficult, plug-in web co...
The Internet of Things will challenge the status quo of how IT and development organizations operate. Or will it? Certainly the fog layer of IoT requires special insights about data ontology, security and transactional integrity. But the developmental challenges are the same: People, Process and Platform. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Craig Sproule, CEO of Metavine, demonstrated how to move beyond today's coding paradigm and shared the must-have mindsets for removing complexity from the develop...
While not quite mainstream yet, WebRTC is starting to gain ground with Carriers, Enterprises and Independent Software Vendors (ISV’s) alike. WebRTC makes it easy for developers to add audio and video communications into their applications by using Web browsers as their platform. But like any market, every customer engagement has unique requirements, as well as constraints. And of course, one size does not fit all. In her session at WebRTC Summit, Dr. Natasha Tamaskar, Vice President, Head of C...
Who are you? How do you introduce yourself? Do you use a name, or do you greet a friend by the last four digits of his social security number? Assuming you don’t, why are we content to associate our identity with 10 random digits assigned by our phone company? Identity is an issue that affects everyone, but as individuals we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Ben Klang, Founder & President of Mojo Lingo, discussed the impact of technology on identity. Sho...
DevOps is being widely accepted (if not fully adopted) as essential in enterprise IT. But as Enterprise DevOps gains maturity, expands scope, and increases velocity, the need for data-driven decisions across teams becomes more acute. DevOps teams in any modern business must wrangle the ‘digital exhaust’ from the delivery toolchain, "pervasive" and "cognitive" computing, APIs and services, mobile devices and applications, the Internet of Things, and now even blockchain. In this power panel at @...
With all the incredible momentum behind the Internet of Things (IoT) industry, it is easy to forget that not a single CEO wakes up and wonders if “my IoT is broken.” What they wonder is if they are making the right decisions to do all they can to increase revenue, decrease costs, and improve customer experience – effectively the same challenges they have always had in growing their business. The exciting thing about the IoT industry is now these decisions can be better, faster, and smarter. Now ...
WebRTC is about the data channel as much as about video and audio conferencing. However, basically all commercial WebRTC applications have been built with a focus on audio and video. The handling of “data” has been limited to text chat and file download – all other data sharing seems to end with screensharing. What is holding back a more intensive use of peer-to-peer data? In her session at @ThingsExpo, Dr Silvia Pfeiffer, WebRTC Applications Team Lead at National ICT Australia, looked at differ...
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place June 6-8, 2017 at the Javits Center in New York City, New York, is co-located with the 20th International Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. @ThingsExpo New York Call for Papers is now open.
WebRTC has had a real tough three or four years, and so have those working with it. Only a few short years ago, the development world were excited about WebRTC and proclaiming how awesome it was. You might have played with the technology a couple of years ago, only to find the extra infrastructure requirements were painful to implement and poorly documented. This probably left a bitter taste in your mouth, especially when things went wrong.
A critical component of any IoT project is what to do with all the data being generated. This data needs to be captured, processed, structured, and stored in a way to facilitate different kinds of queries. Traditional data warehouse and analytical systems are mature technologies that can be used to handle certain kinds of queries, but they are not always well suited to many problems, particularly when there is a need for real-time insights.
Big Data engines are powering a lot of service businesses right now. Data is collected from users from wearable technologies, web behaviors, purchase behavior as well as several arbitrary data points we’d never think of. The demand for faster and bigger engines to crunch and serve up the data to services is growing exponentially. You see a LOT of correlation between “Cloud” and “Big Data” but on Big Data and “Hybrid,” where hybrid hosting is the sanest approach to the Big Data Infrastructure pro...
Businesses are struggling to manage the information flow and interactions between all of these new devices and things jumping on their network, and the apps and IT systems they control. The data businesses gather is only helpful if they can do something with it. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Witeck, Principal Technology Strategist at Citrix, discussed how different the impact of IoT will be for large businesses, expanding how IoT will allow large organizations to make their legacy applica...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Catchpoint, a leading digital experience intelligence company, has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Catchpoint Systems is a leading Digital Performance Analytics company that provides unparalleled insight into your customer-critical services to help you consistently deliver an amazing customer experience. Designed for digital business, C...
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing IoT strategies, now is the perfect time to attend @ThingsExpo 2016 in New York. Learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is as "IoT-Ready" as it can be! Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, New York, is co-located with 20th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry p...
The 20th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. Cloud Expo, to be held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, brings together Cloud Computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, Containers, Microservices and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal ...
"There's a growing demand from users for things to be faster. When you think about all the transactions or interactions users will have with your product and everything that is between those transactions and interactions - what drives us at Catchpoint Systems is the idea to measure that and to analyze it," explained Leo Vasiliou, Director of Web Performance Engineering at Catchpoint Systems, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 18th Cloud Expo, held June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York Ci...