Node.js Apps and Periodic Tasks

397px-Kitchen_alarm_clock

When working on a distributed system of any size, sooner or later you will hit a problem and proclaim ‘well, this is a first’. My second proclamation in such situations is ‘this is a nice topic for the blog’. Truth to form, I do it again, this time with the issue of running periodic tasks, and the twist that clustering and high availability efforts add to the mix.

First, to frame the problem: a primary pattern you will surely encounter in a Web application is Request/Response. It is a road well traveled. Any ‘Hello, World’ web app is waving you a hello in a response to your request.

Now add clustering to the mix. You want to ensure that no matter what is happening to the underlying hardware, or how many people hunger for your ‘hello’, you will be able to deliver. You add more instances of your app, and they ‘divide and conquer’ the incoming requests. No cry for a warm reply is left unanswered.

Then you decide that you want to tell a more complex message to the world because that’s the kind of person you are: complex and multifaceted. You don’t want to be reduced to a boring slogan. You store a long and growing list of replies in a database. Because you are busy and have no time for standing up databases, you use one hosted by somebody else, already set up for high availability. Then each of your clustered nodes talk to the same database. You set the ‘message of the day’ marker, and every node fetches it. Thousands of people receive the same message.

Because we are writing our system in Node.js, there are several ways to do this, and I have already written about it. Of course, a real system is not an exercise in measuring HWPS (Hello World Per Second). We want to perform complex tasks, serve a multitude of pages, provide APIs and be flexible and enable parallel development by multiple teams. We use micro-services to do all this, and life is good.

I have also written about the need to use messaging in a micro-service system to bring down the inter-service chatter. When we added clustering into the mix, we discovered that we need to pay special attention to ensure task dispatching similar to what Node.js clustering or proxy load balancing is providing us. We found our solution in round-robin dispatching provided by worker queues.

Timers are something else

Then we hit timers. As long as information flow in a distributed system is driven by user events, clustering works well because dispatching policies (most often round-robin) are implemented by both the Node.js clustering and proxy load balancer. However, there is a distinct class of tasks in a distributed system that is not user-driven: periodic tasks.

Periodic tasks are tasks that are done on a timer, outside of any external stimulus. There are many reasons why you would want to do it, but most periodic tasks service databases. In a FIFO of a limited size, they delete old entries, collapse duplicates, extract data for analysis, report them to other services etc.

For periodic tasks, there are two key problems to solve:

  1. Something needs to count the time and initiate triggers
  2. Tasks need to be written to execute when initiated by these triggers

The simplest way to trigger the tasks is known by every Unix admin – cron. You set up a somewhat quirky cron table, and tasks are executed according to the schedule.

The actual job to execute needs to be provided as a command line task, which means your app that normally accesses the database needs to provide additional CLI entry point sharing most of the code. This is important in order to keep with the factor XII from the 12-factors, which insists one-off tasks need to share the same code and config as the long running processes.

 

There are two problems with cron in the context of the cloud:

  1. If the machine running cron jobs malfunctions, all the periodic tasks will stop
  2. If you are running your system on a PaaS, you don’t have access to the OS in order to set up cron

The first problem is not a huge issue since these jobs run only periodically and normally provide online status when done – it is relatively easy for an admin to notice when they stop. For high availability and failover, Google has experimented with a tool called rcron for setting up cron over a cluster of machines.

Node cron

The second problem is more serious – in a PaaS, you will need to rely on a solution that involves your apps. This means we will need to set up a small app just to run an alternative to cron that is PaaS friendly. As usual, there are several options, but node-cron library seems fairly popular and has graduated past the version 1.0. If you run it in an app backed by supervisor or PM2, it will keep running and executing tasks.

You can execute tasks in the same app where node-cron is running, providing these tasks have enough async calls themselves to allow the event queue to execute other callbacks in the app. However, if the tasks are CPU intensive, this will block the event queue and should be extracted out.

A good way of solving this problem would be to hook up the app running node-cron to the message broker such as RabbitMQ (which we already use for other MQ needs in our micro-service system anyway). The only thing node-cron app will do is publish task requests to the predefined topics. The workers listening to these topics should do the actual work:

node-cron

The problem with this approach is that a new task request can arrive while a worker has not finished running the previous task. Care should be taken to avoid workers stepping over each other.

Interestingly enough, a hint at this approach can be found in aforementioned 12-factors, in the section on concurrency. You will notice a ‘clock’ app in the picture, indicating an app whose job is to ‘poke’ other apps at periodic intervals.

There can be only one

A ‘headless’ version of this approach can be achieved by running multiple apps in a cluster and letting them individually keep track of periodic tasks by calling ‘setTimeout’. Since these apps share nothing, they will run according to the local server clock that may nor may not be in sync with other servers. All the apps may attempt to execute the same task (since they are clones of each other). In order to prevent duplication, each app should attempt to write a ‘lock’ record in the database before starting. To avoid deadlock, apps should wait random amount of time before retrying.

Obviously, if the lock is already there, apps should fail to create their own. Therefore, only one app will win in securing the lock before executing the task. However, the lock should be set to expire in a small multiple of times required to normally finish the task in order to avoid orphaned locks due to crashed workers. If the worker has not crashed but is just taking longer than usual, it should renew the lock to prevent it from expiring.

The advantage of this approach is that we will only schedule the next task once the current one has finished, avoiding the problem that the worker queue approach has.

Note that in this approach, we are not achieving scalability, just high availability. Of the several running apps, at least one app will succeed in securing the lock and executing the task. The presence of other apps ensures execution but does not increase scalability.

I have conveniently omitted many details about writing and removing the lock, retries etc.

Phew…

I guarantee you that once you start dealing with periodic tasks, you will be surprised with the complexity of executing them in the cloud. A mix of cloud, clustering and high availability makes running periodic tasks a fairly non-trivial problem. Limitations of PaaS environments compound this complexity.

If you visit TJ’s tweet above, you will find dozen of people offering alternatives in the replies (most of them being variations of *ron). The plethora of different solutions will be a dead giveaway that this is a thorny problem. It is not fully solved today (at least not in the context of the cloud and micro-service systems), hence so many alternatives. If you use something that works well for you, do share in the ‘Reply’ section.

© Dejan Glozic, 2014

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