Amazon Web Services or Joyent Accelerators: Reprise

In the Fall of 2006, I wrote a piece On Grids, the Ambitions of Amazon and Joyent, and followed up with Why EC2 isn’t yet a platform for ‘normal’ web applications and the recognition that When you’re really pushing traffic, Amazon S3 is more expensive than a CDN.

The point of these previous articles was to put what wasn’t yet called “cloud computing” into some perspective and to contrast what Amazon was doing with what we were doing. I ventured that EC2 is fine when you’re doing batch, parallel things on data that’s sitting in S3, and that S3 is economically fine as long as you’re not externally interacting with that data to a significant degree (then the request pricing kicks in). Basically it is incorrect that each are universally applicable to all problems and goals in computing, and that they’re cost-effective. An example of a good use case is a spidering application: one launches a number of EC2 instances, crawls a bunch of sites, puts that information into S3, and then launches a number of EC2 instances to build an index of that data and further store it on S3.

Beyond point-by-point features and cost differences, I believe there are inherent philosophical, technical and directional differences between Joyent and Amazon Web Services. This is and has been our core business, and it’s a business model, in my opinion, that competes directly with hardware vendors and customer taking direct possession of hardware and racking-and-stacking it in their own datacenters.

Cloud computing is meant to be inherently “better” than what most people can do themselves.

What’s changed with S3 and EC2 since these articles?

For S3? Nothing really. There are some additional data “silo” services now. SimpleDB is out and there has been some updates to SQS, but I would say that S3 is by far the more popular of the three. The reason is simple: it’s still possible for people to do silly things when storing files on a filesystem (like put a million directories in one directory), but it’s more difficult to do things as silly with a relational database (you still can, but they’re ultimately handled within the RDMS itself, for example, bad queries).

I’m consistently amazed by how many times I have to go over the idea of hashed directory storage.

For EC2 there’s been some improvements.

Annotating the list from “Why EC2 isn’t yet a platform for “normal” web applications we get:

1. No IP address persistence. EC2 now NATs and EC2 instances are on a private network. That helps. Are you able to get permanently assigned, VLAN’ed network address space? It’s not clear to me.

2. No block storage persistence. There is now an option to mount persistent storage in a “normal” way. Presumably it’s block storage over iSCSI (there’s not many options for doing this), hopefully it’s not a formalized FUSE to S3. We’ll see how this holds up performance-wise, now there’s a bit more predictability in data stored in EC2 but experience has shown me that it only takes one really busy database to tap out storage that’s supposed to be serving 10-100 customers. Scaling I/O is still non-trivial.

3. No opportunity for hardware-based load balancing. This is still the case.

4. No vertical scaling (you get a 1.7Ghz CPU and 1 GB of RAM, that’s it). There are now larger instances but the numbers are still odd. 7.5GB of RAM? I like powers of 2 and 10 (so does computer science).

5 & 6. Creation and handling of AMIs. Experience like this is still quite common, it seems.

Structure of modern applications

The three tiers of “web”, “application” and “database” are long dead.

Applications that have to serve data out (versus just pulling in like the spidering example earlier) are now typically structured like: Load Balancers/Application Switches (I prefer the second term) <-> Cache <-> Application <-> Cache <-> Data. Web and gaming applications are exhibiting similar structures. The caching tiers are optional and either can exist as a piece of middleware or as part of the one of the sandwiching tiers. For example, you might cache as part of the application, or in memcached, or you might just be using the query cache in the database itself. And while there are tiers, there are also silos that exist under their own namespaces. You don’t store static files in a relational database, your static assets are CDN’ed and served from e.g. assets[1-4], the dynamic sites from and users logged-in at Those are different silos.

How to scale each part and why do people have problems in the first place?

Each tier either has state or not. Web applications are over HTTP, an inherently stateless protocol. So as long as one doesn’t introduce state into the application, the application layer is stateless and “easy” to horizontally scale. However, since one is limited in the number of IP addresses one can use to get to the application, and network latency will have an impact at a point, the “front” has state. Finally, the back-end data stores have state, by definition. We end up with: stateful front (Network) <-> stateless middle <-> stateful back. So our options for scaling would be: Load Balancers/Application Switches/Networking (Vertical) <-> Cache (Horizontal or Vertical) <-> Application (Horizontal) <-> Cache (Horizontal or Vertical) <-> Data (Vertical).

The limit to horizontal scale is the network and its latency. For example, you can horizontally scale out multi-master MySQL nodes (with a small and consistent dataset), but you’ll reach a point (somewhere in the 10-20 node range on a gigabit network) where latency now significantly impacts replication time around that ring.

Developing and scaling a “web” application means that you (or someone) has to deal with networking and data management (and different types of data for that matter) if you want to be cost-effective and scalable.

The approach one takes through this stack matters: platform directions

With the view above you can see the different approaches one can take to provide a platform. Amazon started with data stores, made them accessible via APIs, offered an accessible batch compute service on top of those data stores, introduced some predictability into the compute service (by offering some normal persistence), and has yet to deal with load-balancing and traffic-direction as a service. Basically they started with the back and should be working their way to the front.

At Joyent, we had different customers, customers making the choice between staying with their own hardware, or running on Joyent Accelerators. We started with the front (great networking, application switching), persistence, we let people keep their normal backends (and made them fast) and we are working for better solutions (horizontal) for data stores. Solving data storage needs weren’t as pressing because many were already wedded to a solution like MySQL or Oracle. An example of solving problems at the outermost edge of the network would be the article, The wonders of fbref and irules serving pages from Facebook’s cache. This is an example of programming in application switches to offload 5 pages responsible for 80% of an application’s traffic.

Joyent product progression is the opposite of AWS’s. We solved load-based scale with a platform that starts with great networking, well performing Accelerators, Accelerators that are more focused to do particular tasks (e.g. a MySQL cluster). We are working on data distribution for geographic scale, and making it all easier to use and more transparent (solve the final “scale”, administrative scale).

The technology stack of choice does matter: platform technology choices

Joyent Accelerators are uniquely built on the three pillars of Solaris: ZFS, DTrace and Zones. This trio is currently only present in OpenSolaris. What you put on metal is your core “operating system”. Period. Even if you call it a hypervisor, it’s basically an OS that’s running other operating systems. We put a solid kernel on our hardware.

Accelerators are meant to be inherently more performant then a XEN-based EC2 instance per unit of hardware, and to do so within normal ratios: 1 CPU/4GB RAM, utilities available in 1,2,4,8,16,32,64 gb sized chunks. The uniqueness of DTrace adds unparalleled observability, it makes it possible for us to figure out exactly what’s going on in kernel and userland and act upon it for customers in production.

ZFS lets us wrap each accelerator in a portable dataset, and as we’ve stated many times before, it makes any “server” a “storage appliance”.

Add to this Joyent’s use of f5 BigIP load-balancers, Force10 networking fabric, and dual-processor, quad-core, 32GB RAM servers.

Open and portable: platform philosophy

At Joyent, I don’t see us having an interest in running large, monolithic “services” for production applications and services. Things need to remain modular, and breakage in a given part needs to have zero to minimal impact on customers. Production applications shouldn’t use a service like S3 to serve files, they should have access to software with the same functionality and being able to run it on their own set of Accelerators.

We want software that powers services to be open, available, and enable you to run it yourself here on Accelerators, or actually anywhere you want. We develop applications ourselves exactly like you do, we tend to open source them and this is exactly what we would want from a “vendor”. This route also minimizes request (“tick”) pricing. We don’t want to entirely replace people choices in databases, instead Accelerators have to be made to be a powerful, functional base unit for them. Want to run MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle, J-EAI/ejabberd, … then by all means do that. No vendor lock-in.

For both platforms, we have our work cut out for us.

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