Welcome!

Agile Computing Authors: Elizabeth White, Sanjay Uppal, Liz McMillan, Jayaram Krishnaswamy, Nicholas Lee

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
SYS-CON Events announced today that Commvault, a global leader in enterprise data protection and information management, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7–9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Commvault is a leading provider of data protection and information management...
The cloud promises new levels of agility and cost-savings for Big Data, data warehousing and analytics. But it’s challenging to understand all the options – from IaaS and PaaS to newer services like HaaS (Hadoop as a Service) and BDaaS (Big Data as a Service). In her session at @BigDataExpo at @ThingsExpo, Hannah Smalltree, a director at Cazena, will provide an educational overview of emerging “as-a-service” options for Big Data in the cloud. This is critical background for IT and data profes...
SYS-CON Events announced today that VAI, a leading ERP software provider, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. VAI (Vormittag Associates, Inc.) is a leading independent mid-market ERP software developer renowned for its flexible solutions and ability to automate critical business functions for the distribution, manufacturing, specialty retail and service sectors. An IBM Premier Business Part...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Alert Logic, Inc., the leading provider of Security-as-a-Service solutions for the cloud, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Alert Logic, Inc., provides Security-as-a-Service for on-premises, cloud, and hybrid infrastructures, delivering deep security insight and continuous protection for customers at a lower cost than traditional security solutions. Ful...
Fortunately, meaningful and tangible business cases for IoT are plentiful in a broad array of industries and vertical markets. These range from simple warranty cost reduction for capital intensive assets, to minimizing downtime for vital business tools, to creating feedback loops improving product design, to improving and enhancing enterprise customer experiences. All of these business cases, which will be briefly explored in this session, hinge on cost effectively extracting relevant data from ...
With the Apple Watch making its way onto wrists all over the world, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a staple in the workplace. In fact, Forrester reported that 68 percent of technology and business decision-makers characterize wearables as a top priority for 2015. Recognizing their business value early on, FinancialForce.com was the first to bring ERP to wearables, helping streamline communication across front and back office functions. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Kevin Roberts...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Interoute, owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2015 at the Javits Center in New York, New York. Interoute is the owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform which encompasses 12 data centers, 14 virtual data centers and 31 colocation centers, with connections to 195 ad...
With an estimated 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020, several industries will begin to expand their capabilities for retaining end point data at the edge to better utilize the range of data types and sheer volume of M2M data generated by the Internet of Things. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Don DeLoach, CEO and President of Infobright, will discuss the infrastructures businesses will need to implement to handle this explosion of data by providing specific use cases for filte...
As enterprises work to take advantage of Big Data technologies, they frequently become distracted by product-level decisions. In most new Big Data builds this approach is completely counter-productive: it presupposes tools that may not be a fit for development teams, forces IT to take on the burden of evaluating and maintaining unfamiliar technology, and represents a major up-front expense. In his session at @BigDataExpo at @ThingsExpo, Andrew Warfield, CTO and Co-Founder of Coho Data, will dis...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Fusion, a leading provider of cloud services, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Fusion, a leading provider of integrated cloud solutions to small, medium and large businesses, is the industry's single source for the cloud. Fusion's advanced, proprietary cloud service platform enables the integration of leading edge solutions in the cloud, including clou...
Most people haven’t heard the word, “gamification,” even though they probably, and perhaps unwittingly, participate in it every day. Gamification is “the process of adding games or game-like elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation.” Further, gamification is about bringing game mechanics – rules, constructs, processes, and methods – into the real world in an effort to engage people. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Robert Endo, owner and engagement manager of Intrepid D...
Eighty percent of a data scientist’s time is spent gathering and cleaning up data, and 80% of all data is unstructured and almost never analyzed. Cognitive computing, in combination with Big Data, is changing the equation by creating data reservoirs and using natural language processing to enable analysis of unstructured data sources. This is impacting every aspect of the analytics profession from how data is mined (and by whom) to how it is delivered. This is not some futuristic vision: it's ha...
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.
Learn how IoT, cloud, social networks and last but not least, humans, can be integrated into a seamless integration of cooperative organisms both cybernetic and biological. This has been enabled by recent advances in IoT device capabilities, messaging frameworks, presence and collaboration services, where devices can share information and make independent and human assisted decisions based upon social status from other entities. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Heydt, founder of Seamless...
The IoT's basic concept of collecting data from as many sources possible to drive better decision making, create process innovation and realize additional revenue has been in use at large enterprises with deep pockets for decades. So what has changed? In his session at @ThingsExpo, Prasanna Sivaramakrishnan, Solutions Architect at Red Hat, discussed the impact commodity hardware, ubiquitous connectivity, and innovations in open source software are having on the connected universe of people, thi...
WebRTC: together these advances have created a perfect storm of technologies that are disrupting and transforming classic communications models and ecosystems. In his session at WebRTC Summit, Cary Bran, VP of Innovation and New Ventures at Plantronics and PLT Labs, provided an overview of this technological shift, including associated business and consumer communications impacts, and opportunities it may enable, complement or entirely transform.
There are so many tools and techniques for data analytics that even for a data scientist the choices, possible systems, and even the types of data can be daunting. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Harrold, Global CTO for Big Data Solutions for EMC Corporation, showed how to perform a simple, but meaningful analysis of social sentiment data using freely available tools that take only minutes to download and install. Participants received the download information, scripts, and complete end-t...
For manufacturers, the Internet of Things (IoT) represents a jumping-off point for innovation, jobs, and revenue creation. But to adequately seize the opportunity, manufacturers must design devices that are interconnected, can continually sense their environment and process huge amounts of data. As a first step, manufacturers must embrace a new product development ecosystem in order to support these products.
Manufacturing connected IoT versions of traditional products requires more than multiple deep technology skills. It also requires a shift in mindset, to realize that connected, sensor-enabled “things” act more like services than what we usually think of as products. In his session at @ThingsExpo, David Friedman, CEO and co-founder of Ayla Networks, discussed how when sensors start generating detailed real-world data about products and how they’re being used, smart manufacturers can use the dat...
When it comes to IoT in the enterprise, namely the commercial building and hospitality markets, a benefit not getting the attention it deserves is energy efficiency, and IoT’s direct impact on a cleaner, greener environment when installed in smart buildings. Until now clean technology was offered piecemeal and led with point solutions that require significant systems integration to orchestrate and deploy. There didn't exist a 'top down' approach that can manage and monitor the way a Smart Buildi...