Types and Tailcalls

Release It - Summary and Review

published on January 13, 2015

So I have finally finished reading Michael Nygard’s terribly named but quite interesting book Release It. It covers stability patterns and anti-patterns and offers some interesting ideas and concepts for improving stability.

Part I: Stability

The part on stability starts out with an interesting case study that describes how an uncaught exception in a connection pool caused the flight search application of an airline to hang which in turn caused a failure in all check-in systems. The uncaught exception was a programming error, but some errors will inevitably occur. However, these errors must not bring down the entire IT infrastructure of a company! It is thus critical to identify how small errors can cause entire applications to fail and what can be done to mitigate the spread of such failures. The former is examined in ‘Stability Antipatterns’, the latter in ‘Stability Patterns’.

Stability Antipatterns

  1. Integration Points

    Problems are often caused at integration points b/c the remote application may not always act as specified. There is a huge number of failure modes simply connected to TCP connections that an application must protect against if it integrates other applications.

    • Every integration point will eventually fail in some way.

    • There are many forms of failure

    • Peel back abstractions to discover failure modes

    • Failures can propagate quickly - stop them!

    • Use stability patterns to mitigate: Timeouts, Circuit Breaker, Decoupling Middleware, Handshaking

  2. Chain Reactions

    Occur when a failure somewhere makes failures somewhere else more likely, but do not causes this directly. For example when one server dies due to a memory leak and other servers must pick up the extra traffic these servers will be more likely to go down due to the same leak because they now must deal with more traffic.

    • One server down jeopardizes the rest

    • Hunt for resource leaks & timing bugs

    • Defend with bulkheads

  3. Cascading Failures

    Cascading failures happen when failures are one system can jump to the next system. For example, if a hung server somewhere causes client applications to hang because they wait for responses that never come (While they clearly cannot display a response then they should deal with not receiving one in time).

    • Deal with failures in remote systems

    • Scrutinize resource pools

    • Defend with Timeout and Circuit Breaker

  4. Users

    This deals with te resources that users use. For example memory used up for a user session.

    • Users consume memory

    • Users do weird things

    • Malicious users are out there

    • Users will gang up on you

  5. Blocked Threads

    Threads waiting for responses or resources to free up which never or are very slow to come or free up can cause the application to hang.

    Blocked threads can also be caused by deadlocks resulting from concurrency errors. This is obviously a large and complicated topic.

    • Blocked threads are the proximate cause of most system failures

    • Scrutinize resource pools

    • Use proven concurrency primitives (FP!!!)

    • Use Timeouts

    • Beware of vendor libraries.

  6. Attacks of Self-Denial

    E.g. deep-links which require sessions and a lot of internal requests of extremely attractive offers on shopping sites. Educate the marketing department.

    • Keep lines of communication open

    • Expect rapid redistribution of any valuable offer

  7. Scaling Effects

    Communication patterns that may have been fine with two servers might not scale (e.g. O(n) or worse connections required).

    • Examine production vs QA and dev environment to spot scaling effects.

    • Watch out for point-to-point communcation

    • Watch out for shared resources

  8. Unbalanced Capacities

    E.g. larger front-end capacities can overwhelm smaller back-end capacities

    • Examine server and thread counts

    • Stress both sides of the interface

  9. Slow Responses

    Extremely slow responses cna prevent timeouts from working yet have much the same effect as not receiving a response.

    • Slow responses trigger Cascading Failures: upstream systems also slow down.

    • Users will hit the reload button -> more traffic.

    • Consider to Fail Fast.

    • Hunt for memory leaks and resource contention.

  10. SLA Inversion

    The availability of a set of system is the product of their availabilities. Thus a system depending on five other systems which each provide a 99% guarantee can only guarantee 99%^5=95.1% availability.

    • Examine every dependency: DNS, Email, network equipment, database, …

    • Decouple dependencies: Make sure you can maintain service even when dependencies go down.

  11. Unbounded Result Sets

    Applications should also be more sceptical of their databases and e.g. limit the number of results that they are willing to process.

    • Limit to realistic data volumes.

    • Don’t rely on the producer, enforce limits yourself.

    • Put limits into other application level protocols.

Stability Patterns

  1. Use Timeouts

    Hung threads waiting for responses that may never come or come slowly can lead the entire application to block (all threads in a pool are hung). Use timeouts to report an error when this happens.

    • Apply to Integration Points, Blocked Threads, Slow Responses.

    • Give up and keep moving: it may not matter if we ge a response eventually, time is of the essence.

    • Delay retries: Most timeouts are caused by things that don’t resolve imediately, wait a little before trying again.

  2. Circuit Breaker

    A circuit breaker detects when there is a problem at an integration point and acts accordingly. A circuit breaker counts the number of failures, if these exceed a sensible threshold it triggers and prevents subsequent calls to talk to the integration point. After a timeout a single / few call(s) may be retried, if they work the circuit breaker goes back to its normal state, if not it stays open.

    • If there is a problem with an integration point stop calling it!

    • Use together with Timeouts: A Timeout detects the problem, a Circuit Breaker keeps us from retrying too often too soon.

    • Make it visible to operations: popping a Circuit Breaker usually indicates a serious problem.

  3. Bulkheads

    Bulkheads partition the system into independent units. When one unit fails the other units are still operational. There are trade-offs with efficient resource usage.

    • Very important when other applications depend on your system: the largest part should keep functioning when there is some problem.
  4. Steady State

    Applications should be able to run indefintely without requireing human interventions. The latter leads to fiddeling, which causes errors. This inlcudes cleaning up log-files and disk space at the same rate that they are produced.

    • Avoid human interaction, it causes problems.

    • Purge data with application logic (e.g. DB entries).

    • Limit caching.

    • Roll logs.

  5. Fail Fast

    This pattern deals with the problems caused by ‘slow responses’. An application should determine as soon as possbile if it can service a request and if not it should fail as quickly as possible. There are some trade offs with maintaining encapsulation here.

    • Verify integration points early: If required resources are not available it’s time to fail fast.

    • Validate input as early as possible.

  6. Handshaking

    Can be used to determine if an application can accept additional requests. This does double the number of requests and request-latency. Building in the ability to reject requests directly seems more useful to me.

  7. Test Harness

    A sufficiently evil test harness can test the response of an application to misbehaving integration points. It is the point of this test harness to test failure modes which are not specified. For example misbehaving TCP connections or extremely slow responses can be tested with such a test harness.

    Consider the following network failures:

    • It can be refused.

    • It can sit in a listen queue until the caller times out.

    • The remote end can reply with a SYN/ACK and then never send any data.

    • The remote end can send nothing but RESET packets.

    • The remote end can report a full receive window and never drain the data.

    • The connection can be established, but the remote end never sends a byte of data.

    • The connection can be established, but packets could be lost causing retransmit delays.

    • The connection can be established, but the remote end never acknowledges receiving a packet, causing endless retransmits.

    • The service can accept a request, send response headers (supposing HTTP), and never send the response body.

    • The service can send one byte of the response every thirty seconds.

    • The service can send a response of HTML instead of the expected XML.

    • The service can send megabytes when kilobytes are expected.

    • The service can refuse all authentication credentials.

    Remember these:

    • Emulate out-of-spec failures

    • Stress the caller: Slow responses, no responses, garbage responses

    • Leverage a killer harness for common failures

    • Supplement, don’t replace, other testing methods

  8. Decoupling Middleware

    Asynchronous middleware (e.g. Pub-Sub or messaging communication solutions) force the programmers with the possibility of not receiving a response right away and thus make systems more resilient. They are more difficult to work with than synchronous middleware (but represent the underlying architecture more correctly).

    • Total decoupling can avoid many failure modes.

    • Learn many architectures, choose the best one for the job.

Part II: Capacity

Another case study rings in the part on capacity: This one is on an online retailer that re-build their system from scratch over three years. When entering load testing it didn’t meet capacity requirements by a factor of 20, after months of testing this imporoved ten-fold.

It crashed badly when it went live, because all the tests had been simulating nice users: users that used the site how it was meant to. In the real world a lot of bots, search engines and other things used the site in non-anticipated ways which it was not prepared for.

Introducing Capacity

  1. Defining Capacity

    Performance: How fast does the system process a single transaction?

    Throughput: Number of transactions the system can process in a given timespan.

    Scalability: Used to describe either (a) how throughput changes under different loads or (b) modes of scaling supported by the system.

    Capacity: maximum throughput a system can sustain while meeting performance criteria (e.g. response time).

  2. Constraints

    Aka bottlenecks. At any given point, there will usually one (or more) things constraining capacity. Improving any other factors will not yield more capacity.

  3. Interrelations

    Things are not independent. Decreased performance in one layer can affect other layers.

  4. Scalability

    Horizontal vs. vertical scaling.

  5. Myths About Capacity

    While hardware as such (compared to programmer time) is cheap, dealing with inefficiencies can become more expensive. Optimization may still make sense. All of CPU, storage and bandwith may be more expensive than it seems at first sight.

Capacity Antipatterns

  1. Resource Pool Contention

    Requests waiting for resources to become available are a scalability problem.

  2. Excessive JSP fragments

    Java specific. JSP fragments reside in memory and can constrain application server memory.

  3. Ajax Overkill

    Ajax can be used to hammer a server. Don’t build an essantially static homepage with 100 Ajax requests.

  4. Overstaying Sessions

    Sessions memory and are removed with the timeout after user goes away. Should not be kept longer than necessary. Ideal: Information for user is still available even when session expires.

  5. Wasted Space in HTML

    Can add up.

  6. The Reload Button

    Slow requests increase load by causing users to hammer the reload button.

  7. Handcrafted SQL

    In Java land thy shall not work without an ORM.

  8. Database Eutrophication

    The database becomes bigger over time, so things that were OK at on point might not always be.

  9. Integration Point Latency

    Integration points take time to respond and latency adds up.

  10. Cookie Monsters

    Large cookies must be transfered back and forth a lot. Can’t be trusted.

Capacity Patterns

  1. Pool Connections

    Creating a new connection can take upwards of 250ms. So pooling makes sense. Some considerations:

    • connections with an error must be detected and fixed

    • for which scope should connections be checked out?

  2. Use Caching Carefully

    It’s a trade off, caching things that are seldomly used and not expensive to generate doesn’t make sense.

  3. Precompute Content

    When it changes much less frequently than it is requested (and it’s worth the effort).

  4. Tune the GC

    JVM specific. GC should ideally take no more than 2% of time.

Part III: General Design Issues


  1. Multihomed Servers: Contrary to the setup in dev and QA, servers will listen on multiple IPs, not all of them public. This must be accounted for in development.

  2. Routing: Different NICs might be on different VLANs, remote backend services might require connection through a VPN. Must pay attention to every integration point.

  3. Virtual IP Addresses: Cluster servers, some info on how virtual IP addresses can be moved from one NIC to another.


  1. Principle of Least Privilege: Processes should have as few privledges as possible.

  2. Configured Passwords: Should be kept separate from other configuration files, core dumps should be disabled for production (trade-offs …).


  1. Gathering Availability Requirements: High availability costs money and the requirements must thus be balanced with the costs. Rule of thumb: Each additional ‘9’ increases the implementation cost by a factor of 10 and the operational cost by a factor of 2.

  2. Documenting Availability Requirements: Once things go down everyone has a different opinion of what available was defined to mean. Important to really define it. Availability should be defined per feature and not be responsible for remote systems one has no control over. A good definition might answer the following questions:

  1. Load Balancing
  1. Clustering: Unlike in load balancing servers are aware of each. Can be used for load balancing (active/active) or failover. Do not scale linearly like load-balanced shared nothing architectures. Nygard considers them a band-aid for applications that don’t do clustering / scaling themselves.


Easy administration leads to good uptime.

  1. Does QA match Production?

    Most often it doesn’t. Differences in topology responsible for many outages. It’s advantageous to maintain a similar topology (e.g. seperation of services through firewalls, same multiplicty of connections) in QA as in production.

    The cost of downtime often exceeds the cost of the extra network gear required to run the same setup in QA and in production. Pennywise and pound foolish?

  2. Configuration Files

    Don’t keep configuration settings that must be changed by sys admins next to the essential (hard-wired) configuration for the application.

    Name configuration properties according to their function, e.g. ‘authenticationServer’ instead of ‘hostname’.

  3. Start-up and Shutdown

    Applications should start up and shut down cleanly and do some minimal checks that they are configured correctly before accepting work (Fail Fast).

  4. Administrative Interfaces

    GUIs look nice but command line interfaces are essential for automation.

Part IV: Operations


Transparency allows to gain an understanding of historical trends, present conditions and future projections. Transparency has four facets: historical trends, predictive forecasting, present status and instantaneous behaviour.

  1. Perspectives

    • Historical Trending

    • Records have to be stored somewhere -> OpsDB

    • Can be used to discover new relationships - should be available through tools such as Excel.

    • Forecasts

    • What’s the capacity?

    • When do we have to buy more servers?

    • Present Status

    • Memory

    • Garbage Collection

    • Worker threads for each thread pool

    • Database connections, for each pool

    • Traffic statistics for each request channel

    • Business transactions for each type

    • Users: demographics, percentage registered, number of users, usage patterns

    • Integration points: current state, times used, latency statistics, error count.

    • Circuit breakers: current state, error count, latency statistics, number of state transitions.

    The current state can be displayed on a dashboard, e.g. as a traffic light for the system and each component.

    • Instantaneous Behaviour: WTF is going on???

    Errors, log file entries, thread dumps, … Can, but may not immediately show up in Present Status.

  2. Desiging for Transparency

    Transparency is hard to add later. Both local and global visibility is necessary.

  3. Enabling Technologies: White box (visibility into the processes) vs. black box (only externally visible metrics)

  4. Logging

    • Make log file output easy to scan with the eye (p. 246)
  5. Monitoring Systems

  6. Standards, De Jure and De Facto

    • Simple Network Management Protocol: De Facto standard, ASN.1 a bit awkward.

    • JMX (Java Management Extensions) de facto standard in the Java world.

  7. Operations Database

    Good for historical data, forecasts and current status. Not well suited for instantaneous behavior. Receives reports from applications, servers and batch jobs.

    • Applications: status variables, business metrics, internal metrics

    • Servers: performance, utilization

    • Batch Jobs: start, end, abort, completion status, items processed

    The OpsDB can be used to produce a dashboard, various reports and for planning capacity.

    Observations should record their type, the measurement, the event and the status.

  8. Supporting Processes

    Must stay in feedback loop when providing data - automated report that nobody reads are worse than useless: The cost time and money to create and maintain and provide a false sense of security, yet nobody reads them.


  1. Adaptation Over Time

  2. Adaptable Software Desgin

    • Dependency Injection: enables loose coupling, aids testability

    • Object Design: Claim: it exists ;)

    • XP Coding Practices: Unit testing

    • Agile Databases:

    • databases must be able to change

  3. Adaptable Enterprise Architecture

    Prefer loosely clustered, somewhat independent services that can change independently

    • Dependencies Between Systems: Protocols

    Simultaneous updates at several endpoints is hard, this can be avoided by speaking multiple protocols (or versions of) for a limited time.

    • Dependencies Between Systems: Databases

    Don’t share databases between services!!!

  4. Releases Shouldn’t Hurt

    Painful releases mean software is released seldomly, automated, zero downtime releases rock!

My Takeaway

Apart from the title, I really did like this book and enjoyed reading it. I found the chapters on stability (anti-)patterns to be very valuable and enlightening. These are patterns that I will definteley introduce in my daily work and as such, even one successful pattern is worth many times the price of the book.

Almost inevitably, the other parts of the book were not quite able to deliver as much useful insights but many had some interesting tidbits nevertheless. While some chapters are a little light on information (e.g. Security and Networking), others (e.g. Transparency) provide useful ideas that will make you think of practical concerns while designing an application. I have certainly seen a number of systems that failed to deliver on every item discussed in the book.1. Some topics are covered on a fairly high level and can thus not provide the nitty-gritty detail needed when dealing with the discussed topics hands on, but this is inevitable when trying to cover such a broad range of topics.

All in all I did enjoy the book and recommend it. If you’re short on time I recommend focussing on the part on stability, particularly chapters 3, 4 and 5 which delivered the most value for me.

  1. Building a perfectly designed application that delivers on all fronts is much more difficult in practice than in theory of course. ;)

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