mopping up

Posted by anton
on Friday, August 24, 2007

this is a rant, inspired by working in both developer and admin roles over the years (i strongly believe in “eating your own dogfood” when it comes to building and running the apps, but this is a whole different topic).

my experience is that given a choice of manageability/logging/monitoring vs. extra performance i will always choose the former. the amount of time spent troubleshooting performance and stability issues on live application in production trumps any hardware (and sometimes even development) costs.

so instead of satisfying your inner ricer and deploying a highly-performing black box hotrod, spend the time to put the probes in, make it declaratively manageable; if your OS/hardware provides any sort of isolation and partitioning – consider it; take advantage of existing platforms and tools.

take Tibco BusinessWorks for instance. besides having their own suite of monitoring/management tools they allow (perhaps serendipitously) individual “worker engines” to be deployed in separate JVMs (which could be on different machines) so you can analyze and manage them using not only an existing ecosystem of Java tools, but also fall back on your regular OS tools – per-user, per-process, per-box.

the benefit of this simplicity becomes obvious once you have worked with apps that insist on packing everything into one JVM – worker engines, daemon-like processes, queuing, etc, etc. management and tuning becomes a nightmare; on a flipside it is guaranteed job security and high salaries.

so what can a developer do? besides the obvious, consider an api to talk to your application and tweak it as it is running (look at those ol’ smalltalk dudes), or better yet – a command-line scriptable console that exposes your app’s domain. here’s props to bea folks – their flagship server product for years had a python (jython to be exact)-based console that allowed one to connect to a running cluster and make changes to it on the fly. similar functionality is provided by rails stack, although technically you only get connectivity to the database, not the actual running application instance. still, it is a big step.

another tip of the hat in bea’s direction – their JVM for years had actually usable manageability tools; sun was late, and even when they started delivering them, the tools were really clunky (i am still waiting for something similar to jrcmd tool from sun that allows me to do simple things like collecting threaddumps from a jvm on all platforms, including windows and redirecting them to a given file, since jvm might be running with stdout sent to /dev/null). bea’s mission control has been around for a while in various forms – i want to be able to attach to my production JVM and look at GUI representation of memory distribution, object counts, stack traces, heap info; but on top of that it gives me an ability to explore and act upon exposed JMX beans both from the JVM and the app, set up triggers and alerts that start recordings, memory dumps, send emails, etc. this becomes indispensable, especially for hand-me-down apps or third-party software.

this is actually a big change in mentality – gradually people are realizing that they should be able to monitor stuff in production, live, as it is running. hence we have things like (under appreciated) dtrace, and more and more investment into the platforms that support that sort of runtime lightweight dynamic analysis. these days it is expected that apps should be on 24/7, and ability to dynamically redeploy things, reconfigure things, analyze things is crucial.

finally, i have seen way too many folks that consciously refuse to learn about how their code runs – the minimum about the OS, the network, the tools, the tuning. i am willing to consider and understand, as long as they have those that do know around. sadly, too often this responsibility gets shifted to the OS admins that could not care less.

all sorts of disclaimers apply – in many cases the apps are so small that one can pile them together and forget about them. the apps that will benefit most from the manageability stuff mentioned above are the ones that churn through a lot of data and have pretty strict uptime/latency requirements. in addition, it is assumed that there are a lot of people working on them, so tools and approaches should be somewhat uniform.

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