The Anatomy of Latency

Latency is a measure of the time delay experienced in a system. In data communications, latency would be measured as the round-trip delay between sending a packet and receiving response from the destination. In the world of web applications latency is the response time of a web site. In web applications latency is dependent on both the round trip time on the communication link and also the processing time of the application, Hence we could say that

latency = 2 * round trip time  + Processing time

The round trip time is probably less susceptible to increasing traffic than the processing time taken for handling the increased loads. The processing time of the application is particularly pernicious in that it susceptible to changing traffic. This article tries to analyze why the latency or response times of web applications typically increase with increasing traffic. While the latency increases exponentially as the traffic increases the throughput increases to a point and then finally starts to drop substantially.  The ideal situation for all internet applications is to have the ability to scale horizontally allowing the application to handle increasing traffic by simply adding more commodity servers to the application while maintaining the response times to acceptable limits. However in the real world this never happens.

The price of Latency

Latency hurts business. Amazon found out that every 100 ms of latency cost them 1% of sales.  Similarly Google realized that a 0.5 second increase in search results dropped the search traffic by 20%. Latency really matters.    Reactions to bad response times in web sites range from minor annoyance to complete frustration and loss of users and business.

The cause of processing latency

One of the fundamental requirements of scalable systems is that they should be loosely coupled. The application needs to have a modular architecture with well defined interfaces with the other modules.  Ideally, applications which have been designed with fairly efficient processing times of the order of O(logn) or O(nlogn)  will be immune to changing loads but will be impacted by changes in number of data elements  So the algorithms adopted by the applications themselves do not contribute the increasing response times for increase traffic. So finally what really is the performance bottleneck for increasing latencies and decreasing throughput for increased loads?

Contention- the culprit

One of the culprits behind the deteriorating response is the thread locking and resource contention. Assuming that application has been designed with Reader-Writer locks or message queue based synchronization mechanism then the time spent in waiting for resources to become free, while traffic increases, will result in the degraded performance.

Let us assume that the application is read-heavy, write-light and has implemented Reader-Writer synchronization mechanism. Further let us assume that a write-thread locks a resource for 250 ms.  At low loads we could have 4 such threads each locking the resource for 250 ms for a total span of 1s.  Hence in 1s there can be a maximum of 4 threads each of which has executed a write lock for 250 ms for a total of 1s. In this interval all reader threads will be forced to wait. When the traffic load is low the number of reader threads waiting for the lock to be released will be low and will not have much impact but as the traffic increases the number of threads that are waiting for the lock to be released will be increase. Since a write lock takes a finite amount of time to complete processing we cannot go over the 4 write threads in 1 second with the given CPU speed.

However as the traffic further increases the number of waiting threads not only increases but also consume CPU and memory. Now this adversely impacts the writer threads which find that they have lesser CPU cycles and less memory and hence take longer times to complete. This downward cycle worsens and hence results in an increase in the response time and a worsening throughput in the application.

The solution to this problem is not easy. We need to revisit the areas where the application blocks waiting for something. Locking besides causing threads to wait also adds the overhead of getting scheduled prior to being able to execute again. We need to minimize the time a thread holds a resource before allowing others threads access to it.

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