AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

Scalability Warning Signs

Is your system trying to tell you that you're going to have scalability problems? We like to think that we couldn't have predicted problems at 10x our last year's traffic but there are often warning signs that we can heed if we know what to look for.

Unless you’re one of the incredibly lucky sites where the traffic spikes 100x overnight, scalability problems don’t sneak up on you. They give you warning signs that if you are able to recognize and react to appropriately, allow you to stay ahead of the issues. However, we’re often so head down getting the next release out the door that we don’t take the time to realize we’re experiencing warning signs until they become huge problems staring us in the face.  Here are a few of the warnings that we’ve heard teams talk about in the past couple of months that were clearly signs of problems on the horizon.

Not wanting to make changes – If you find yourself denying request for changes to certain parts of your system, this might be a warning sign that you have scalability issues with that component. A completely scalable system has components that can fail without catastrophic impact to customers. If you’re avoiding changes to a component because of the risk of problems this is a warning sign that you need to re-architect to eliminate or at least mitigate the risk.

Performance creep – If after each release you need to add hardware to a subsystem or you accept a performance degradation in a service you could have a scaling issue approaching quickly. Consistently increasing consumption of CPU or memory resources in a service with each release will lead you into an unsustainable situation. If today you’re comfortably sitting at 40% CPU utilization and you allow a modest 10% degradation in each release you have less than nine releases before you are well above 100% but the reality is you won’t get close to that without significant issues.

Investigating larger hardware – If you’ve started asking your vendors or VAR about bigger hardware you’re heading down the path of scalability problems. The scale of more computational resources per dollar is not linear, it’s closer to cubic or even exponential scales. Purchasing more expensive hardware might seem like the economical way out when you compare the cost of the first hardware upgrade versus developer time but run the calculation out several iterations. When you get to a Sun Fire™ E25K Server with Oracle Database 10g at a $6M price tag you might feel differently about the decision.

Asking vendors for advanced features – When you start exploring advanced options of your vendor’s software you’re likely heading down the path of increased complexity and this is a clear warning sign of scalability problems in your future. Besides potentially locking you into a vendor which lowers your negotiating power it puts the fate of your company in someone else’s hands, which wouldn’t make me sleep very well at night. See our post on using vendor features to scale for more information.

Watch out for these or similar warning signs that scalability problems are looming on the horizon. Dealing with the problems today while you have time to plan properly might not get you an award for being a firefighter but you’ll more likely deliver a quality product without costly interruption.


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