Scaling Magento Series

Performance & Scaling of a Magento web site are often confused. As a store owner who may not be technical a close analogy with real life will help in talking to your hosting providers and other experts. It is no coincidence that hits to a website is called as traffic!

Performance of a website is like a car – higher performance cars drive faster and can cover a distance in a shorter time. Similarly, a higher performant website will serve a page fast. This is often measured as page load speed. A critical component of page load that the server is responsible for is server response time. Like measuring performance of a car, measuring the page load speed is done in test mode with little or no traffic. Sometimes the performance is measured at a random time without looking at other traffic to the site. That is like test driving a car through traffic.

Core Infrastructure is like an engine – Better CPU with L2/L3 cache, faster memory, better disk performance will improve the engine you use. There are simple commands in linux and ways to find this information. Refer here for CPU performance, memory performance and disk performance.

Good code is like good fuel – Just as bad fuel will hurt the performance of a car, bad code will hurt the performance of a website. Refer here for identifying bad code in Magento.

Page Load Time is like transmission – the mechanism that delivers speed to the page. This is achieved by optimizing in code the above-the-fold content, use of CDN,  use of browser cache, using gzip on all text content, optimizing images, delivering appropriately sized images, minifying css and js, optimizing the use of marketing pixels.

Scaling is like building highways and roads for the cars to move on. Highways are resources – CPU, memory, network that the hits to a website will utilize. The task of a Magento scaling expert is to architect a system – caches, servers and sizes, services to run on each server, connectivity of the servers and access from internet, etc.

Hits to a website is like traffic of random cars on the highway. Each vehicle seems to have a mind of its own, joining and leaving the highway. Each visitor to the website will take their own journey visiting different pages.

Observation : Like a car cannot drive at its highest speed possible at all times due to traffic, a website too cannot perform at its best best all the time. Understanding the factors that make the website perform at its optimal level all the time would be the task of both the developer and the server architect.

Observation  : Like in traffic we have vehicles of different performance, in a website all URLs do not perform equally. A category page may not perform the same way as product detail page for example.

Observation : Better throughput will be achieved with the same resources, if the vehicle performance is improved – some bottlenecks can be avoided if the vehicles moved faster. Similarly, a better performing website is likely to scale better.

Observation  : Like in traffic in order to scale one has to find the bottleneck in the highway that is causing the current slowdown, fix it and then look for the next bottleneck. This is a change in the hosting infrastructure and architecture, different from the website performance.

Observation  : A traffic designers job is to ensure maximum number of vehicles can pass the highway at the best speed for each vehicle. A hosting designers job is to ensure maximum traffic is handled in a way that each hit is best served.

What lessons can we learn from traffic management

Lesson : To better manage traffic highway system has to be designed that is scalable. Mostly by bottleneck analysis we can derive what needs to be done. For example, is database a bottleneck, is file system access a bottleneck, etc.

Lesson : When traffic increases, possibly beyond the capacity of the highway, traffic management has to account for one more variable – starvation. The amount of time a vehicle has to wait at a metered light to enter the highway. The longer the wait, more frustration from the drivers who will find a better route to their destination.

Lesson : On a highway lanes are drawn. A better hosting will make lanes – a thought we think is unique to our style of hosting Magento. The way most hosting providers take traffic is analogous to not having lanes with the hope that the maximum throughput will be achieved by letting hits contend for resources. The operating system stands to decide what process gets to use resources.

What are the recommended steps to achieve scaling?

As a first step to server side scaling, we move the database layer out to another instance or server. The main reason is that it is better to allocate resources in a single server when the workload is similar.

In general these techniques can be used for scaling

Caching. Simply stated do not recompute results that can be reused. The results could be HTML (either a complete page or a part of a page or a page with holes to be filled), or json (returning data to a API call) or sql query results, etc. Cache entries require either an expiry time or an invalidation event. Caches work better when stale content is not a major problem.

Queing. Another powerful technique is putting things to work in a queue vs doing them in real time. A queue would then have a poll for results to update when results are ready or a trigger to update. Magento makes it easy to write trigger events and many are used for 3rd party integrations. Unfortunately events are fired inline – when the visitor to the website waits for the response. It is better to use queing system Another popular event trigger is to email.

Tuning. Monitoring and tuning to improve scale as a continuous process. If you are not monitoring you cannot improve. Monitoring does not mean CPU and RAM. Measuring actual response times, cache hit / miss ratios, queue lengths and alerting and analysing these parameters.

Sharding. If database is the bottleneck, sharding – either vertically or horizontally – can help in reducing the load. This works equally well on mysql as well as nosql databases, but requires code to be reworked. A properly sharded database can cause parts of applications to be split allowing for greater app level scalability.

Laning services. Another powerful technique achievable by stateless APIs, SoA, microservice architecture and other design patterns. This allows easy scaling as busier lanes can be scaled out independently. Along with database sharding, lanes can be made very deep and can then be scaled out physically and geographically.

In our multi part series we take you through achieving scaling. The series is aimed at a store owner who need not be technical but is ultimately responsible to take a decision on the store. Until now you had to depend on an expert. However, there are no clear answers and the expert is making judgement calls based on most likely their prior experience. As a matter of fact no 2 webstores so results of efforts vary. This series will make you better informed.

We start by looking at a popular form of scaling – using FPC or Full Page Cache.

In order to help with scale, another important aspect is code quality specifically related to scaling. Scaling is difficult to achieve reliably if there is any externally dependent blocking service executed as part of the hit. Examples include sending email directly to a recipient or a external service, sending information from the server to an external service. All such processing should be done with some form of a queue handled either by an different process such as a cron job. Until Magento, the default email sending was inline for example, slowing the order success page being shown.

Autoscaling adds and removes servers (and hence resources) – something traffic managers cannot do with highways. This gives website scaling an advantage to be more elastic.

Part 1 : Full Page Cache (FPC)

Part 2 : Other Magento Caches

Part 3 : Code quality

Part 4 : Optimizing Checkout Flow

Part 5 : Hardware

Part 6 : Hosting

Part 7 : Auto scaling

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