Queues

In small systems with minimal processing loads and small databases, writes can be predictably fast; however, in more complex and large systems, writes can take an almost non-deterministically long time. For example, data may have to be written on different servers or indices, or the system could be under high load. In such cases where individual writes (or tasks) may take a long time, achieving high performance and availability requires different components of the system to work asynchronously; a common way to do that is with queues.

Let’s assume a system where each client requests a task to be processed on a remote server. Each of these clients sends their requests to the server, and the server tries to finish the tasks as quickly as possible to return the results to the respective clients. This situation should work fine in small systems where one server can handle incoming requests as soon as they come. However, when the server gets more requests than it can handle, each client is forced to wait for other clients’ requests to finish before a response can be generated.

This kind of synchronous behaviour can severely degrade the client’s performance; the client is forced to wait, effectively doing zero work, until its request can be responded to. Adding extra servers to address high load does not solve the problem either; even with effective load balancing, ensuring the fair and balanced distribution of work required to maximize client performance is challenging. Further, if the server processing the requests is unavailable or fails, the clients upstream will also fail. Solving this problem effectively requires building an abstraction between the client’s request and the actual work performed to service it.

A processing queue is as simple as it sounds: all incoming tasks are added to the queue, and as soon as any worker has the capacity to process, they can pick up a task from the queue. These tasks could represent a simple write to a database or something as complex as generating a thumbnail preview image for a document.

Queues are implemented on the asynchronous communication protocol, meaning when a client submits a task to a queue, they are no longer required to wait for the results; instead, they need only acknowledgment that the request was received correctly. This acknowledgment can later be a reference for the work results when the client requires it. Queues have implicit or explicit limits on the size of data transmitted in a single request and the number of requests that may remain outstanding on the queue.

Queues are also used for fault tolerance as they can provide some protection from service outages and failures. For example, we can create a highly robust queue that can retry service requests that have failed due to transient system failures. It is preferable to use a queue to enforce quality-of-service guarantees than to expose clients directly to intermittent service outages, requiring complicated and often inconsistent client-side error handling. Queues are vital in managing distributed communication between different parts of any large-scale distributed system. There are many ways to implement them, and quite a few open source implementations of queues are available, like RabbitMQ, ZeroMQ, ActiveMQ, and BeanstalkD.

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