According to database pioneer Michael Stonebraker, Facebook is operating a huge, complex MySQL implementation equivalent to “a fate worse than death,” and the only way out is “bite the bullet and rewrite everything.”
Not that it’s necessarily Facebook’s fault, though. Stonebraker says the social network’s predicament is all too common among web startups that start small and grow to epic proportions.
During an interview this week, Stonebraker explained to me that Facebook has split its MySQL database into 4,000 shards in order to handle the site’s massive data volume, and is running 9,000 instances of memcached in order to keep up with the number of transactions the database must serve. I’m checking with Facebook to verify the accuracy of those numbers, but Facebook’s history with MySQL is no mystery.
The oft-quoted statistic from 2008 is that the site had 1,800 servers dedicated to MySQL and 805 servers dedicated to memcached, although multiple MySQL shards and memcached instances can run on a single server. Facebook even maintains a MySQL at Facebook page dedicated to updating readers on the progress of its extensive work to make the database scale along with the site.
The widely accepted problem with MySQL is that it wasn’t built for webscale applications or those that must handle excessive transaction volumes. Stonebraker said the problem with MySQL and other SQL databases is that they consume too many resources for overhead tasks (e.g., maintaining ACID compliance and handling multithreading) and relatively few on actually finding and serving data. This might be fine for a small application with a small data set, but it quickly becomes too much to handle as data and transaction volumes grow.
This is a problem for a company like Facebook because it has so much user data, and because every user clicking “Like,” updating his status, joining a new group or otherwise interacting with the site constitutes a transaction its MySQL database has to process. Every second a user has to wait while a Facebook service calls the database is time that user might spend wondering if it’s worth the wait.
Not just a Facebook problem
In Stonebraker’s opinion, “old SQL (as he calls it) is good for nothing” and needs to be “sent to the home for retired software.” After all, he explained, SQL was created decades ago before the web, mobile devices and sensors forever changed how and how often databases are accessed.
But products such as MySQL are also open-source and free, and SQL skills aren’t hard to come by. This means, Stonebraker says, that when web startups decide they need to build a product in a hurry, MySQL is natural choice. But then they hit that hockey-stick-like growth rate like Facebook did, and they don’t really have the time to re-engineer the service from the database up. Instead, he said, they end up applying Band-Aid fixes that solve problems as they occur, but that never really fix the underlying problem of an inadequate data-management strategy.
There have been various attempts to overcome SQL’s performance and scalability problems, including the buzzworthy NoSQL movement that burst onto the scene a couple of years ago. However, it was quickly discovered that while NoSQL might be faster and scale better, it did so at the expense of ACID consistency. As I explained in a post earlier this year about Citrusleaf, a NoSQL provider claiming to maintain ACID properties:
ACID is an acronym for “Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability” — a relatively complicated way of saying transactions are performed reliably and accurately, which can be very important in situations like e-commerce, where every transaction relies on the accuracy of the data set.
Stonebraker thinks sacrificing ACID is a “terrible idea,” and, he noted, NoSQL databases end up only being marginally faster because they require writing certain consistency and other functions into the application’s business logic.
Stonebraker added, though, that NoSQL is a fine option for storing and serving unstructured or semi-structured data such as documents, which aren’t really suitable for relational databases. Facebook, for example, created Cassandra for certain tasks and also uses the Hadoop-based HBase heavily, but it’s still a MySQL shop for much of its core needs.
Is ‘NewSQL’ the cure?
But Stonebraker — an entrepreneur as much as a computer scientist — has an answer for the shortcoming of both “old SQL” and NoSQL. It’s called NewSQL (a term coined by 451 Group analyst Matthew Aslett) or scalable SQL, as I’ve referred to it in the past. Pushed by companies such as Xeround, Clustrix, NimbusDB, GenieDB and Stonebraker’s own VoltDB, NewSQL products maintain ACID properties while eliminating most of the other functions that slow legacy SQL performance. VoltDB, an online-transaction processing (OLTP) database, utilizes a number of methods to improve speed, including by running entirely in-memory instead of on disk.
It would be easy to accuse Stonebraker of tooting his own horn, but NewSQL vendors have been garnering lots of attention, investment and customers over the past year. There’s no guarantee they’re the solution for Facebook’s MySQL woes — the complexity of Facebook’s architecture and the company’s penchant for open source being among the reasons — but perhaps NewSQL will help the next generation of web startups avoid falling into the pitfalls of their predecessors. Until, that is, it, too, becomes a relic of the Web 3.0 era.