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Thread Pools and Erlang Models

Sizing, Danish Style

Folks in telecommunications and operations research have used Erlang models for almost a century. A. K. Erlang, a Danish telephone engineer, developed these models to help plan the capacity of the phone network and predict the grade of service that could be guaranteed, given some basic metrics about call volume and duration. Telephone networks are expensive to deploy, particularly when upgrading your trunk lines involves digging up large portions of rocky Danish ground or running cables under the North Sea.

The Erlang-B formula predicts the probability that an incoming call cannot be serviced, based on the call arrival rate, average call time, and number of lines available.  Erlang-C is similar, but allows for calls to be queued while waiting for service. It predicts the probability that a call will be queued. It can also show when calls will never be serviced, because the rate of arriving calls exceeds the system's total capacity to serve them.

Erlang models are widely used in telecomm, including GPRS network sizing, trunk line sizing, call center staffing models, and other capacity planning arenas where request arrival is apparently random. In fact, you can use it to predict the capacity and wait time at a restaurant, bank branch, or theme park, too.

It should be pretty obvious that Erlang models are widely applicable in computer performance analysis, too. There's a rich body of literature on this subject that goes back to the dawn of the mainframe. Erlang models are the foundation of most capacity management groups. I'm not even going to scratch the surface here, except to show how some back-of-the-envelope calculations can help you save millions of dollars.

One Million Page Views

In my case, I wanted to look at thread pool sizing. Suppose you have an even 1,000,000 requests per hour to handle. This implies an arrival rate (or lambda) of 0.27777... requests per millisecond. (Erlang units are dimensionless, but you need to start with the same units of time, whether it's hours, days, or milliseconds.) I'm going to assume for the moment that the system is pretty fast, so it handles a request in 250 milliseconds, on average.

(Please note that there are many assumptions underneath simply statements like "on average". For the moment, I'll pretend that request processing time follows a normal distribution, even though any modern system is more likely to be bimodal.)

Table 1 shows a portion of the Erlang-C table for these parameters. Feel free to double-check my work with this spreadsheet or this short C program to compute the Erlang-B and Erlang-C values for various numbers of threads. (Thanks to Kenneth J. Christensen for the original program. I can only claim credit for the extra "for" loop.)

Table 1. Erlang-C values at 250 ms / request

NPr_Queue (Erlang-C)

From Table 1, I can immediately see that anything less than 70 threads will never keep up. With less than 70 threads, the queue of unprocessed requests will grow without bound. I need at least 91 threads to get below a 1% chance that a request will be delayed by queueing.

Performance and Capacity

Now, what happens if the average request processing time goes up by 100 milliseconds on those same million requests? Adjusting the parameters, I get Table 2.

Table 2. Erlang-C values at 350 ms / request

NPr_Queue (Erlang-C)

Now we need a minimum of 99 threads before we can even expect to keep up and we need 122 threads to get down under that 1% queuing threshold.

On the other hand, what about increasing performance by 100 millseconds per request? I'll let you run the calculator for that, but it looks to me like we need between 42 and 59 threads to meet the same thresholds.

That swing, from 150 to 350 milliseconds per request makes a huge difference in the number of concurrent threads your system must support to handle a million requests per hour---almost a factor of 3 times. Would you be willing to triple your hardware for the same request volume? Next time anyone says that "CPU is cheap", fold your arms and tell them "Erlang would not approve." On the flip side, it might be worth spending some administrator time on performance tuning to bring down your average page latency. Or maybe some programmer time to integrate memcached so every single page doesn't have to trudge all the way to the database.

Summary and Extension

Obviously, there's a lot more to performance analysis for web servers than this. Over time, I'll be mixing more analytic pieces with the pragmatic, hands-on posts that I usually make. It'll take some time. For one thing, I have to go back and learn about stochastic process and Markov chains. Pattern recognition and signal processing I've got. Advanced probability and statistics I don't got.

In fact, I'll offer a free copy of Release It to the first commenter who can show me how to derive an Erlang-like model that accounts for a) garbage collection times (bimodal processing time distribution), b) multiple coupled wait states during processing, c) non-equilibrium system states, and d) processing time that varies as a function of system utilization.

Constraint, Chaos, Collapse

Patrick Muellr has an interesting post about being brainwashed into believing that the outrageous is normal. It's a good read. (Hat tip to Reddit, whence many good things.) As often happens, I wrote such a long comment to his post that I felt it worthwhile to repost here.

My comment revolves around this chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the last eighty years. (For the record, I'm not disputing anything about the rest of Patrick's post. In fact, I agree with most of what he says. This chart and my comments aren't central to his discussion about web development.) Some of you know that I've worked in finance before, and most of you know I have an interest in dynamics and complex systems. It's been an interesting year.

Here's a snapshot of the chart in question. It's from Yahoo! Finance, and the image links to the live chart.

Most of the chart looks like an exponential, which suggests the effect of compound growth. In a functioning capital-based system you'd expect exactly that. Capital invested produces more capital. Any time an output is also a required input, you get exponential growth. One of Patrick's other commenters points out that it looks almost linear when plotted on a logarithmic scale... a dead giveaway of an exponential.

No real system can produce infinite growth. Instead, they always hit a constraint. That could be a physical limitation on the available inputs. It could be a limit on the throughput of the system itself. In a sense, it almost doesn't matter what the constraint itself happens to be. Rather, you should assume that a constraint exists.

In systems with a chaotic tendency, the system doesn't slow down at all when approaching the constraint. In fact, it may be increasing at it's greatest rate just before the constraint clamps down hardest. In such cases, you'll either see a catastrophic collapse or a chaotic fluctuation.

I don't know what the true constraint was in the financial system. Plenty of other people believe they know, and I'm happy to let them believe what they like. Just from looking at the chart, though, you could make a strong case that we really hit the constraint in 1999 and the rest has been chaos since then.