Response-time optimization in systems that are queued

The best overall method of performance optimization is optimization for response time. Users care about response time, not load average or cache hit ratios. The job of a system is to accept some request and do the required work, and deliver a result. The time elapsed between the request and the result is the response time.

Methods of Response Time Optimization

Not all optimization methods are created equal. Here are a few I see commonly.

Response time in queued systems

Method R looks at where a system consumes time and sorts the biggest consumers to the top in a profile, then works on those first. Amdahl’s Law guarantees that this is the best way to improve the system’s performance.

Although the approach is correct, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It might be easy if a system is stable. But unstable systems, those suffering from queueing delay (usually characterized by response time with a high standard deviation, a.k.a. “spikes” or “blips”), are much harder to optimize. The queries that are performing badly can no longer be assumed to be the source of the performance problem. Instead, they might be “good” queries that are the victim of something else happening.

Unstable systems suffer from a) dependencies between requests, and b) statistical variations in request arrival time, which causes queueing. The classic case is lock contention. Suppose someone goes to your OLTP database and runs an ad-hoc query against the table of invoice line items, and locks the table. Normally that table has specific, fast, well-indexed queries against it, but as soon as the ad-hoc query locks it, the queries instantly pile up and “look bad.” The system becomes an unstable train wreck. Alas, database servers such as MySQL typically don’t give the DBA enough information to blame the problem on a source.

Internal contention inside the database software itself is another potential cause of queueing. I can no longer remember the number of times I’ve disabled the query cache in MySQL and solved a system’s random freezes. Typically, the only way to prove that the query cache mutex is the source of the problem is to take a backtrace in GDB. A complex piece of software without good instrumentation is pretty difficult to troubleshoot in conditions like this.

And that brings me back to Method R. I can see that the queries are suffering from unstable performance, but I cannot see directly how to optimize the system because it is un-instrumented. Unfortunately, falling back to system load optimization is often the best that can be done, in terms of maximum optimization with minimal cost. An expert can do this with as much rigor as possible, and hopefully with good knowledge of the system’s internals can find the source of the problem quickly, but it’s still a much harder problem.

And this is why it is a crime to write un-instrumented software: because when an un-instrumented system starts to get overloaded, it is very hard to determine the source of performance problems.