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Building Global Web Apps with Multi-region Hosting

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SymfonyCon 2018 Presentation by Jordi Boggiano

This session will explore various setups and case studies from my attempts at hosting sites used by global audiences.

There are many ways this can be achieved with different levels of success, budgets and global-ness.

The talk will touch on Terraform, AWS, global DNS resolution and CDNs amongst other things.

Hello. So I hope you're having a good time so far, we're getting through the first day slowly. So, I'm Jordi Boggiano and I want to talk today about hosting applications across multiple regions or meaning geographically, across the whole planet ideally.

Hi Jordi!

Um, so just a quick word about myself. I've been doing internet things for quite a while now. I've also been leading Composer and Packagist development, a bunch of other open source projects. And for, let's say like work... kind of getting money, you know, because one has to at some point, I work part time at and part time for private Packagist, which is kind of helping to pay the composer development as well.

Why Host Across Multiple Regions?

So the first question is why would you want to host something across multiple regions? Because it, you know, it is definitely going to cause you some pain, like it's not the easy way. I mean, obviously I think the main reason for me is that you have used those across multiple places and latency tends to be like painful. So, there was this video that came by the other day, I don't know if you've seen it but it's like the effects of one and a half second of latency in the real world, you know. I mean it kinda shows it's a funny, like a silly example, but it's true that like a little bit of latency can really mess with people and it just makes for a really terrible experience.

Other point is like if you have hosting across multiple regions, one single region can go down and in theory, you know, you should have a resilient system in it. You should be able to stay up even in case of kinda critical host failures, which you know, these days it's like cloud infrastructure, it's like all magical and nothing ever breaks in theory. But you know, sometimes things go bad. Like it has happened that AWS has a complete region down even including like, you know, they have this concept of availability zones which in theory should be completely separated infrastructures. So in one single region you can host like different availability zones. And then, they guarantee you somehow that, you know, if one zone goes down, the others should stay up. This, in the past hasn't always been true. So it's not quite enough if you really want to be safe.

The third point is really, like most of us, I think are using CDN's for at least delivering web assets. This is a fairly common practice and it's very easy. Usually there is lots of tools and websites that help with that. But why don't, why don't we do it for the rest, like if we saw that it is valuable to do it for that. Why not the rest? So, why shouldn't you do it? I mean, I don't know: is anyone here like hosting things like on a global scale or like more than one region? It's kind of hard to see but I see a few hands. But like maybe three to five percent I guess. So this is not so common. So why don't you do it? I don't know. I mean, I came up with a few reasons why I didn't do it until recently.

Reasons Why You Typically Avoid Multi-Region Hosting

Maybe they don't match exactly yours, but, it's just a kind of a lead of where to go and where we could improve things. I think the first reason: we use the database. Like having the database in multiple regions is a major pain. Like this is really, like that's usually already a killer by itself. Like, if you don't have like a multi-master setup, then it gets really complicated to have synchronization across regions and if the master region goes down, then what happens to the replicas? It's tricky, what can you do there? I think like using one of those, you know, cloud databases from the get-go is probably a good idea. I think the issue is like usually people start with MySQL on their computer, and then everything is fine, but then five years down the line when you actually need the global scale, it's like it's too late and it can't rewrite the entire application. So this is a bit of an issue. Um, but like all the providers have some solutions and then you have like MongoDB for example is, you know, it's available no matter what platform you're using. Ah, there's another talk at the moment in the other track if you are interested. Um, anyway, you know, there are some solutions, I don't have a ton of experience with these so I don't wanna dive in too much, but you know there are things that can help you, but for that, usually you have to write the application really with this mindset from the very beginning.

Um, yeah. What I found is that really like the cloud providers, they sell this magical cloud thing but it's usually, actually doesn't help you that much. Like for at least for this problematic, I found that there are some limitations which are really annoying. Um, like one is Redis. It's just a simple example, but you can replicate Redis for aws within one region, can have as many replicas as you want, no problem. We cannot go beyond the regions. If you want to replicate in another region, there is no way. Um, so, sure you can host your own Redis and, you know, you can do things, but they just don't solve the problem for you.

Um, another issue we had, which thankfully fixed about a year ago was that so this concept of VPC. I don't know how familiar you are with us, but just to explain it really quick, it's like a, it's kind of like your private network for, for all your infrastructure within aws within one region. And, so ideally you want to keep things within the private network and only have one entry point for like the web, you know, like the http port on one entry and that's it. Like the rest shouldn't be reachable from the outside because that's just more secure that way. Um, if you have things in multiple regions, usually they need to talk to each other somehow. Like if you can't connect two VPC's to each other, that means you need to open everything up on the internet and that's like, ehm, like I don't really feel like trusting MySql or Postgres authentication to the Internet. Like, it's just bad things have happened elsewhere in the past. I'd rather not take the chance. So this thankfully has been fixed now so it's fine, but it's actually like guided some of my decisions in the past, which, so that's why I'm mentioning it.

And then finally I think awareness is also an issue in that most of the developers they work with like fast internet connections, they're usually close to their servers and so they just don't feel this pain of latency. Like it's usually, we're not the ones experiencing the problem, it's more like users in, on some random satellite connection or some far away country from your hosting location. Ah, so I think the demand internally is not there usually.

Case Studies

Um, yep, So that's that for the intro. Now I want to look at a couple of case studies. And kind of really the idea is just to share, like, a few approaches I took. I'm not saying this is like the ultimate solution and not trying to sell you the silver bullets. It's just ideas that might help if you are attempting this yourself because what I found is that there's not a lot of information on how to do this stuff. Like I've looked at this for years and it's just, I haven't found a lot of info. Usually those that do it, like mega corporations with insane budgets and they can afford to have, you know, hundreds of Dev ops engineers doing this stuff. Like for most small companies, that's just not an option. So anyway, let's dive in.

Case Study:

So first of all, I wanna, I wanna look at, which I guess is something you're all familiar with, so that kind of makes it a bit more interesting, maybe. Um so there we have like just, just to look at what the goals are with what we're trying to achieve, first of all, really high reliability. Because if this goes down, the repository, like with all the metadata composer just fails and things go bad very quickly. People tend to use Twitter very quickly. So, it's like, it has to be up. That's, that's just a reality. It also has to be simple, um, for different reasons, but I just like to keep things simple if I can, because it's, you know, we have a very small team, it's mostly me doing this. Um, so like, you know, this, again, like there's not a hundred Dev ops people that can do like crazy infrastructure. It has to be a simple solution that works well and that just also doesn't break because I can't be like on the watch 24/7, so. It has to be global because we have really users throughout the globe and ideally low cost because this being open source, well there's just not a big budget.

So what did we end up with? Um, I kind of have a self-built CDN. So we have like these primary servers that kind of generate files and all the metadata and then we have a set of mirrors that are spread throughout the world. And those just like synchronize from the primary. So the benefits from doing it ourselves versus using some of the existing providers, uh, is mainly invalidation: because we need really fast responses because when update, like the, they push something, you know, they want to run composer update like 10 seconds later and if it doesn't work, like if it doesn't find the new tag, they just pushed or something, then they come and complain this needs to happen fast. Um, these days, I think there are a few cdn providers which are actually, um, which offers like invalidation to the extent that we need. So I'm looking at maybe switching to, to one of them, but we'll see.

Um, then to kind of route people between the servers, like the replicas we have Route53, which is the DNS solution of AWS, um, which basically does like a latency-based routing. So it's like if you are close to this region you get routed to one of these servers in that region. Then we have health checks on all the servers. So if one of them goes down, or is not responsive anymore from AWS, it just gets killed off, and people don't get routed there anymore. We have like, you know, a few minutes of, DNS TTL. So it kind of, re-routes people fairly quickly.

And like, again, like in terms of simplicity, it's really easy to set up a new one. Like a few weeks ago we had this issue where, um, some of the mirrors were just unreachable for some people. But it was like, the problem is it wasn't a global failure. The servers themselves were fine, it was a routing issue on the Internet somehow. So the health checks didn't pick that up and it was just, some people were affected. I don't know, probably some of you in this room had some problems. Um, but like, I mean people were saying, you know, I got, I got, I tried at home and it was fine and in the office it's broken, like it was really strange. So, at some point I just couldn't do anything really about the Internet routing sadly, so I just a completely swapped these, these instances and like created new ones in some other, some other regions and like it takes me like 20 minutes or so. It's quickly up to speed. So, um, so that's good.

Uh, so the setup kind of looks like this where we have like multiple replica regions. And you see like for the... so the metadata is being pulled from the, from the primary to the replicas, but the website is not. So the website we only have it in one region still. That's just for simplicity, because yeah, I mean it's a bit more latency for the website users that are far away, but that's just a cost I was okay with. I mean that's a tradeoff you have to make. So when users go to the website, this is just a proxy from the replicas to the main one.

So, what are the problems? Well, as I just mentioned it, this is only the repository, not the website. So it's not a complete solution for sure, but it solves the, let's say the high availability needs we have, that are mostly at the repository level. Um, so that kind of solves the critical part. Another thing that was kinda weird with this is like I had reports of files sometimes like people will get a 404 when running composer. And it took me quite awhile to figure out what was going on, but it's, the problem was the, like as we route people like in a kind of round-robin fashion, like, whenever you resolve the DNS you just go to this server or that server within one region, there was a race condition actually, where one server could be up to speed with the latest metadata but the other one not yet in one, one single region. And so one request would go and hit one server and, like, it would get the filename to get next, and will try and get it and will hit the second server that wasn't up to speed and then you get a 404. and then, you know, if you retry it's fixed, like within seconds, usually it was fixing itself. So it was kinda hard to debug why, because every time someone reported it, I'm like: "I don't know, the file is there, I don't see the problem". Um, so there's a simple proxy hack there where it's just if the file is not there locally, it proxies it to the main region again instead of returning a 404 and that kind of solves it. Um, just, you know, little things that you don't necessarily think of when you, when you get started.

Case Study:

So second use case, um, second case study is team up. So that's a, it's a calendar application. So it's also used like pretty well, pretty much all around the world.

Um, so what are the goals here again? Global audience: we kind of need to be everywhere. Um, low latency just because it's not a good experience whenever you're like clicking something if you need to wait half a second, it's just not nice. The high reliability, I say full data access, obviously it's good if you can like, you know, work fully with the application. But the critical really critical part here is accessing the data because we've had times where we were down in the past and people send us emails like completely freaking out because their entire business was down. Like they just, somehow they use the calendar, this one source of information for everything they have to do. Which is good, I mean, it's quite fascinating to see all the use-cases there are out there, but it's just, that means this is extremely critical infrastructure for a lot of small businesses. And like yeah, we just felt really bad about like any downtime because we're like: "oh my God, this is just someone out there is like sitting in the office, like completely lost". Um, I mean it's the same when, you know, when Github is down or something and don't laugh too much. Like we have the same issues with some tools, right? Like industries, like different industries have different bottlenecks. But, and again, one of the goals there was low maintenance because we're a very small team, like only like four or five devs and so it's, yeah, there's just not a lot of manpower to keep this going, so it has to be somewhat self-sustainable and stable.

So what did we end up with? Um, so what we used wasTerraform. I don't know if you're familiar with it, it's kind of like puppet or Ansible, but for like setting up the, the infrastructure. So it's kind of a high level: just you configure all the servers, all the VPCs, all the routing, all the, lots of things. Um, and that allows you to automate things and that means it's pretty good because if you need to add a new region, you can just like copy a few lines and say ok, this, this one is now, like just load this all this config, but for this region and serve that region and you're done. You just run it and creates all the servers and everything.

Again, here we had to make some compromises with what is run where. So we have the primary region that has everything like websites, databases, background workers and all that. And then the replicas they have website, a database copy but no workers.

Um, other kind of trade-off is we're storing the sessions in Redis. And as I mentioned, you can't easily replicate across regions. We thought, well, I mean actually people usually don't go from one region to the next, like, you know, unless you are in a rocket or something, you don't transition from one region to the next that quickly, that losing a session would be a problem. So we just decided to have like local session buckets in every region and that's it. Like there's no, there's no concept of global session. So the reads, like if you were just looking at the data, this is handled locally in every single region. And then, when you write something, um, we're talking to the primary database in the primary region, uh, through this VPC peering because we built this early this year. So this was available thankfully.

Um, so it looks something like this, with a primary region, some replica region. As you see they're really the same apart from the workers: user comes, does a GET request is handled locally, no problem. Um, if the user does a POST doing some changes, we have the database writes going across. So we started with the region, the primary being in the US west coast and a replica in Europe.

So I don't know if you can spot the problem there, but the result was something like this. It was just not super fast. The reads were going fine of course, because they were handled locally, but like the writes were just horribly slow. Uh, so what happened? Like I felt really stupid when I realized this. I don't know why I didn't think of that before, but obviously every Redis call or SQL query that you do has to go from Europe to the US west coast, which means, yes, somewhere around 100 milliseconds of latency. So, you know, typical pages maybe running like 5, 10 queries. Well you multiply that by 100 milliseconds and you quickly end up witha response time that's actually way worse than hitting the US server directly.

So, yeah, it wasn't a very proud moment. But I thought okay, like I can see there's some issues I can fix here. I was like, one of the problems is already like establishing the connection. So a single, just doing a single query was pretty bad because establishing the MySql connection, including TLS, means usually like two round trips. So already just opening the connection, you're like 200 milliseconds, then you send the query and then it's just, it was really bad. So I thought okay, this proxy SQL I can use this to build connection pools, then we will reuse the connections, so we don't have to have these round trips every single time. So that helped, sure. I mean, it shaved off like these two round trips. Um, but yeah, it was still really unworkable. Like some, some of the pages were doing way too many requests and it was just, so way too many SQL queries and so it was just not really working.

So we changed the approach and I'm like, I'm a very stubborn person, so I didn't want to give up. So what we ended up with, I don't know if anyone else is doing this, maybe it's a crazy solution. Like I haven't had a lot of feedback on this, but feel free to let me know later. Uh, so we proxied the write. So if we see the POST is coming in or like a DELETE request, we say okay, this is gonna do some modifications on the primary database. So we don't want to handle this locally on the replicas, we just proxy the entire request.

The problem is you can't really do this like at the Nginx level easily because you don't have the sessions in the main region. So if you just proxy the request in Nginx that's the easy way to do it, but then you're missing the session data and so yeah, you just find yourself logged out when you're trying to do some modifications that doesn't really work. Uh, so I implemented this in php instead, and so in the application when we see requests coming in and it's a POST or something that's going to modify the content, we say, okay, we'll just take the local session, pack it up in a header forward everything including that header. We also for the client IP, obviously with the usual, like "forwarded" headers and so on.

To make sure that this is, you know, not possible to abuse because the problem is, we're now like, unserializing session data from headers, which, you know, it's not the best idea in terms of security or taking user content and like just dumping it into the session and serializing it, like you want to be really careful when you do things like that. Um, so definitely we do use HTTPS over the proxy link. Uh, it's also going through the VPC peering for additional security, and on top of that, we also sign the requests just to make sure that nobody can inject a request that would kind of deserialize session data.

So with all of this, not too bad. Then if like if this, somehow the proxying fails, then we will go back to actually dealing with the request locally as we would otherwise, and we do the slow SQL request over the ocean and it takes a while then to run, but at least it completes successfully. So, now it looks something like this. Um, so if you do a POST, you come through and then we send the same exact POST, but with some additional headers for the session, the client IP and the signature.

I hope this makes sense. So results kinda like, you know, faster turtle for sure, but still a turtle. So what happened here was like when I tried this, I was like trying to disable the replica and just hit the US servers directly, and I got and average of something like 120 milliseconds, like roundtrip time to, for any kind of request response. It Was around this ballpark. So it's not terrible because like, US is fairly a good link. Um, but then I noticed when I used the replica on the reads, I got about 20 milliseconds. That was super fast, hitting the local server, great. But when I did a POST, well I had this 20 milliseconds to reach the replica and then the replica internally would, for some reason add 200 milliseconds. And I was like, what the hell? I don't understand how it's much slower to execute from the replica within the AWS network and everything, I would think this runs faster than me hitting the US.

Ao yeah, it's just turned out to be, actually the proxy every time had to open a connection. Again you have this round trip time of like opening the SSL connection. So what can we do here? Well, we can again do some connection pooling. So, uh, so this time I added, a local Nginx proxy because we anyway have Nginx running on the local machine. So we just, instead of proxying to the US directly, we proxy to the local proxy, proxy in a way. Ok, it's getting complicated. But, so that way will you, I mean, this adds really nothing in terms of complexities like these ten lines of config in Nginx and like this never fails, it's quite reliable. You just have to make sure that you do a few things like this... oh, that's interesting. This laser pointer doesn't work at all on the screen. Anyway, I shall use the mouse.

Um, so you want to make sure here that you set the HTTP version to 1.1 to make sure that you have keep alive enabled, or you could use two workers, but I don't think Nginx supports it for proxying. Um, and the other one you really need, is this connection, overriding the connection header just in case the client has a connection close in the request just to make sure it's gone. Um, and then you set this keepalive on top.

Um, this kinda, it went well, but at first like I had very mixed results. Like I was trying it and it would sometimes be fast so I had like sometimes the request like a response within like 80 milliseconds. And then sometimes it was still doing this 200 millisecond overhead and I was like, I just don't get it, like it was really random. And then eventually I figured out that this keepalive 8, like the way Nginx works, it actually just allocates these eight buckets and then you have these worker processes in Nginx that says, you know, typically you set this to like the amount of CPU cores you have or double that or something. So, on a big server you maybe have like 16 or 32 of these Nginx processes and each of them actually has eight connections. And so depending on which one you hit, you hit one that has a connection open or not. And so like sometimes it was fast, sometimes it wasn't. And so like, it's just the kind of things that make you lose a lot of time for really small details. But I'm glad I understood where it was coming from because it was kind of not making me feel good to have this somewhat random result.

Um, okay. So what are the other problems that we're having with the solution now? Uh, because with this, now it's consistently faster to hit like the European server, this works really well. Um, the issue is while you're going across the ocean and more, so there is always something that's going to fail. Like there's always one request, that's gonna fail. Like if you do enough requests, some of them are going to fail sometimes. So that's why I kept this fallback step, so that in the worse case we can kind of handle it slower but at least it's handled.

Other issue I had, and this one I didn't get to the bottom of, is the load balancer on AWS sometimes times out these requests. And I just, I don't get it, like looking at all the logs, it seems to be hitting the servers, gets a response like within 20 milliseconds or so - it's not a timeout problem. But for some reason it just gets stuck at some point. I can never get back. So eventually we just had to decide to abandon the load balancer for the proxy request and we just hit the EC2 machines directly, which is not ideal, but that's just. like it, it actually works better in the end than with it.

Other challenges, as we are sending the session via the headers, session size is then limited because the header size has a limit. Um, so this may or may not be an issue for you, like we actually really hardly use the session, so it's really just for marking the user as logged in or not. So there's very little data in it. So this doesn't really hurt us, but, ya know, if you're storing like tons of stuff in the session, it definitely might be preventing this whole thing from flying.

So in the end we got to this point where it's like super fast. Um, so what are the downsides though? Just to quickly recap. In case the primary is down, we're still like in read only state in all the replicas. Like that's just something you can't really fix unless you have multi-master setup. I don't think we're getting there, like with our current team size. Like, AWS announced I think last year that they will at some point release a multi master Aurora, which is like this kind of AWS implemented the version of MySQL and Postgres and whatnot. I don't think this is out there yet, but I'm not sure. I haven't checked in a while. I also don't understand how they can possibly guarantee this will work. I can't just conceptually, it doesn't make any sense to me, but they have very smart people so maybe they figured out a way. It would be really amazing if we could just like switch from using MySQL or Postgres to using like a multi-master MySQL or Postgres, like by just pressing a button, that would be great. But we'll see.

Um, the workers, I mentioned they're only in the primary region, it just makes sense for latency reasons: those are writing lots of stuff. We just don't want to have them all over the place. It's a danger, yes, like if the whole region is down, that means the workers are down, but it's just something we have to live with. Other downside, definitely higher complexity than, you know, the other solution. But it also does a lot more. So I think it pays off for us.

So the end result of this kind of infrastructure: that's the history of all uptime, like from February 14, 2014 to now. We had lots of really bad months where it was like down to 99 percent uptime time. Like this is really bad. I don't remember the numbers but this is like really, really bad. And now in the last 9 months or so since we migrated, we have something that's more up to like 9, like four 9's almost. There was a glitch there in July, not sure what anymore, but otherwise it's really been super stable and we're really happy with this.


Ok, so just to sum up quickly, I think really this you have to take on a case by case approach. The first point is to look at the audience location obviously. I mean if you're doing some website that's only for like German users, you know, sure you want to probably host it in Germany or somewhere nearby, and you don't need to have like some, some region in Sydney because yeah, it just doesn't make any sense. So that's a per-project thing. I don't know, depends on what you're working on.

All the other issue is really: what are the requirements in terms of latency, like what's okay latency for you. Like, if you know, if you think taking something and you get a response like 300-400 milliseconds later is fine, then that's your number, right? Like you gotta look at what you want to achieve. Like we wanted to really try and bring this to kind of snappy, like instant feels, so you kind of, it's like, it's like a desktop app kind of. Um, but yeah, that's, that's again something you need to evaluate for yourself.

Then I think one of the big factor in like deciding how complex you go is the team size. Because I think anything is possible but like some solutions require really big teams and that's not always available. Then finally like the tech stack again, like go for a cloud database or wait for Amazon to solve physics and just come up with this magical database, that will do everything great. And that's that. Thank you very much.


I think we have like one and a half minutes for questions unless I got the time wrong, so I'm not sure if there are any questions. Yes. I don't know if we do microphones here or not. Okay: just shout, I'll repeat it.

So why are we only running the workers on the primary region?

Uh, because otherwise you would have this latency, like let's say, as they run in the background anyway, like having them near the user has no benefits. Ok, I can't hear you anymore sorry. Let's discuss this later. Anyway, yeah. So that's, that. Enjoy the rest of the conference. Thank you very much. If you have questions, please come by.