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Hard Drive Reliability

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Serving Clients Rather than Falling Over

Dawnstar Australis (yes, nickname – but I know him personally – he speaks with knowledge and authority) updates on The Real Victims Of The Click Frenzy Fail: The Australian Consumer after his earlier post from a few months ago.

Colourful language aside, I believe he rightfully points out the failings of the organising company and the big Australian retailers. From the Open Query perspective we can just review the situation where sites fall over under load. Contrary to what they say, that’s not a cool indication of popularity. Let’s compare with the real world:

  1. Brick & Mortar store does something that turns out popular and we see a huge queue outside, people need to wait for hours. The people in the queue can chat, and overall the situation can be regarded as positive: it shows passers-by that there’s something special going on, and that’s cool. If you don’t want to be in the crowd, you’ll come back later.
  2. Website is unresponsive/inaccessible. There’s nothing cool or positive about this, as the cause is not only unknown, but in fact irrelevant in the context. Each potential client is on their own. Things fail, so they go elsewhere (if there are substitutes) or potentially away completely (concert, it’ll sell out). The bad taste sticks, so if there are alternatives they will not only move there, but be quite vocal about it so others move also.

So you see, you really don’t want your site to go down because of popularity, or for any other reason. Slashdot years ago created a “degrade gracefully” mechanism, where parts of the site would go static. So where normally users would be able to comment and rate posts, they’d just be able to read. In the worst case, only the front page would remain active. On Sept 11 2001, Slashdot was one of the few big sites that actually remained accessible and provided regular news that people could then read even though the topic was not really in its normal scope. The point is, they proved the approach multiple times.

Contrarily, companies like Ticketek have surely got Enterprise Design architecture, however their site has been seen to fall over with events such as The Wiggles. They might be able to get away with this since they’re essentially a monopoly provider: if you want a ticket for this particular event, you need to go to them. But it’s not good. Generally they acted surprised, even though the huge load was entirely predictable. Is that just naive, or a hope to mislead the public, or negligent? You decide.

It’s really a failure in design of sorts. As to where exactly, only an architectural review would show, and it’ll be different for different sites. However, the real lesson is that it’s not about “Enterprise Design” at all, nor about using any particular high-profile hosting provider or involvement of other buzzwords. It’s about proper architecture and deployment and the database is only one aspects of this. It doesn’t have to end up particularly expensive either, it just has to be done right and there’s no single magical approach – each case is unique. Looking at this is best done early on (it tends to also work our better and cheaper), but we’ve helped clients out at much later stages also.  Ideally, we do like to help before there’s a raging fire.

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When Clever Goes Wrong & How Etsy Overcame – Arstechnica

In 2007, Etsy made a big bet on homegrown middleware to help with the site’s scalability. A half-year after it was taken live, the company decided to abandon it. As a senior software engineer at Etsy put it, “if you’re doing something ‘clever,” you’re probably doing it wrong.”

Read the full article at

I want to focus on the important lessons from this article, about middleware and using stored procedures in this fashion for a public web application, creating unscalable design complexity (smart and “proper” according to the old enterprise design teachings…) – causing infrastructure, development and maintenance hassles.

In the process they did replace PostgreSQL with MySQL but that’s not the critical change that made all the difference. PostgreSQL is a fine database system also.

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Oracle Blamed for Laws of Nature

A catchy headline, and I believe more accurate than Oracle Puts the Squeeze on SMBs with MySQL Price Hike (Network World) and MySQL price hikes reveal depth of Oracle’s wallet love [MySQL Jacking up MySQL Prices] (The Register). Slightly more realistic is Oracle kills low-priced MySQL support (again The Register).

First, let’s review what Oracle has actually done: they ditched the MySQL enterprise Basic and Silver offerings. For Oracle, that makes sense. Their intended client base is “enterprise” (high end, think big corporates) and their MySQL sales and cost structure reflects this. It’s not a new thing that came with MySQL at Oracle, because MySQL at Sun Microsystems and MySQL AB before it had the same approach.

A company simply cannot operate below its market – that is not simply a matter of choice, instead it is dictated by their processes and cost structure. Smart people like Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School have done ample research on this, here I’ll just give one simple example:

If you hire a sales person on commission and their quarterly quota is $100k, then they have to talk with clients that have at least a $10k-$20k potential (qualified leads), and they need to close (sign contract) with at least 10 within the period. They simply cannot spend any time on talking with potential $1k customers.

We may lament this state of affairs, but you can see how, given the choices made (sales person hired, commission system, quota), it’s as inevitable as an apple falling when you drop it. The way I describe this at Upstarta: if a company wants different results, they need to make sure that their business processes and cost structure lead them in that direction. But the simple fact is that most companies don’t have an internal feedback cycle that keeps an eye on these things, so they just go with the flow of consequences of common choices: aim for large(r) clients, grow turnover, get higher operational costs along the way – that in itself is a cycle and the only direction this particular one can go is up. As a natural consequence, over time old low-end offerings and clients need to be jettisoned – one way or another.

I say horay for Oracle to finally acknowledge this, since Sun Microsystems and MySQL AB before it did not (for whatever reason). This is years overdue. Whether the original MySQL company should have aimed to also serve smaller clients also is an entirely separate topic – and one which I covered at length previously (including internally in my time at MySQL AB), but it’s very much a station long passed. Once you float upward in the market, you can’t operate or move downward.

Now, are SMBs using MySQL actually getting squeezed by Oracle? They are not. There is no lock-in. This is about service contracts, not licensing. As we all know, MySQL is GPL licensed and internal use (even on a website or SaaS offering) is well within GPL parameters. There are a number of different companies offering service for MySQL, different types of service and delivery models and a corresponding wide range of pricing. So SMBs and anyone else has a choice, each can pick the type of service most suited to their needs. Let us celebrate and promote that freedom within the MySQL ecosystem, rather than being outraged about dropped apples falling!