Improving performance – A full stack problem

Improving the performance of a web system involves knowledge of how the entire technology stack operates and interacts. There are many simple and common tips that can provide immediate improvements for a website. Some examples include:

  • Using a CDN for assets
  • Compressing content
  • Making fewer requests (web, cache, database)
  • Asynchronous management
  • Optimizing your SQL statements
  • Have more memory
  • Using SSD’s for database servers
  • Updating your software versions
  • Adding more servers
  • Configuring your software correctly
  • … And the general checklist goes on

Understanding where to invest your energy first, knowing what the return on investment can be, and most importantly the measurement and verification of every change made is the difference between blind trial and error and a solid plan and process. Here is a great example for the varied range of outcome to the point about “Updating your software versions”.

On one project the MySQL database was reaching saturation, both the maximum number of database connections and maximum number of concurrent InnoDB transactions. The first is a configurable limit, the second was a hard limit of the very old version of the software. Changing the first configurable limit can have dire consequences, there is a tipping point, however that is a different discussion. A simple software upgrade of MySQL which had many possible improvement benefits, combined with corrected configuration specific for this new version made an immediate improvement. The result moved a production system from crashing consistently under load, to at least barely surviving under load. This is an important first step in improving the customer experience.

In the PHP application stack for the same project the upgrading of several commonly used frameworks including Slim and Twig by the engineering department seemed like a good idea. However applicable load testing and profiling (after it was deployed, yet another discussion point) found the impact was a 30-40% increase in response time for the application layer. This made the system worse, and cancelled out prior work to improve the system.

How to tune a system to support 100x load increase with no impact in performance takes knowledge, experience, planning, testing and verification.

The following summarized graphs; using New Relic monitoring as a means of representative comparison; shows three snapshots of the average response time during various stages of full stack tuning and optimization. This is a very simplified graphical view that is supported by more detailed instrumentation using different products, specifically with much finer granularity of hundreds of metrics.

These graphs represent the work undertaken for a system under peak load showing an average 2,000ms response time, to the same workload under 50ms average response time. That is a 40x improvement!

If your organization can benefit from these types of improvements feel free to Contact Me.

There are numerous steps to achieving this. A few highlights to show the scope of work you need to consider includes:

  • Knowing server CPU saturation verses single core CPU saturation.
  • Network latency detection and mitigation.
  • What are the virtualization mode options of virtual cloud instances?
  • Knowing the network stack benefits of different host operating systems.
  • Simulating production load is much harder than it sounds.
  • Profiling, Profiling, Profiling.
  • Instrumentation can be misleading. Knowing how different monitoring works with sampling and averaging.
  • Tuning the stack is an iterative process.
  • The simple greatest knowledge is to know your code, your libraries, your dependencies and how to optimize each specific area of your technology stack.
  • Not everything works, some expected wins provided no overall or observed benefits.
  • There is always more that can be done. Knowing when to pause and prioritize process optimizations over system optimizations.

These graphs show the improvement work in the application tier (1500ms to 35ms to 25ms) and the database tier (500ms to 125ms to 10ms) at various stages. These graphs do not show for example improvements made in DNS resolution, different CDNs, managing static content, different types and ways of compression, remove unwanted software components and configuration, standardized and consistent stack deployments using chef, and even a reduction in overall servers. All of these successes contributed to a better and more consistent user experience.

40x performance improvements in LAMP stack

Poor programming practices

When will it stop. These amateur programmers that simply cut/paste code really affect those good programmers in the ecosystem trying to make a decent living. I was reviewing a developed (but incomplete) PHP/MySQL system using a common framework (which in itself is irrelevant for this post).

In one source file there were 12 repetitions of the following code:

    if (!array_key_exists($id,$this->session->userdata['permissions']) OR
	!array_key_exists('id', $this->session->userdata['permissions'][$id]) OR
	!array_key_exists('scope', $this->session->userdata['permissions'][$id]['name'])){
      $this->session->set_flashdata('alert', 'You are not authorized to go there.');

It’s bad enough when code is repeated and not put in a simple re factored function. When it’s repeated 12 times in one file, and OMG over 100 times in the product, that is a recipe for bugs, and high maintenance codes due to extremely poor coding practice.

Upcoming book – Expert PHP and MySQL

This month will see the release of the book Expert PHP and MySQL which I was a co-author of. Initially this will be available for purchase in PDF format from the Wrox website and I am hopeful this will be available in print format for the MySQL Users Conference.

More then just your standard PHP and MySQL there is detailed content on technologies including Memcached, Sphinx, Gearman, MySQL UDFs and PHP extensions. We will be posting more information at You can download a PDF version of Chapter 1 Techniques Every Expert Programmer Needs to Know.

The book includes the following content:

  1. Techniques Every Expert Programmer Needs to Know
  2. Advanced PHP Constructs
  3. MySQL Drivers and Storage Engines
  4. Improved Performance through Caching
  5. Memcached MySQL
  6. Advanced MySQL
  7. Extending MySQL with User-defined Functions
  8. Writing PHP Extensions
  9. Full Text Search using SPHINX
  10. Multi-tasking in PHP and MySQL
  11. Rewrite Rules
  12. User Authentication with PHP and MySQL
  13. Understanding the INFORMATION_SCHEMA
  14. Security
  15. Service and Command Lines
  16. Optimization and Debugging

NY PHP – Sun & MySQL: A New Hope

Tonight’s New York PHP community meeting was a talk by Philip Antoniades the MySQL Systems Engineering Manager.

With an interesting topic opener “A New Hope” I could not resist to hear Philip’s official MySQL presentation.

Some small points I took away from the presentation.

  • Sun is committed to Postgres with Josh Berkus and a team of 20 people.
  • is the next version of Sun, I thought that was a cool internal name, be it obvious
  • A marketing slide of the highest traffic websites listed Meebo, yousendit, alexaholic, techcrunch, feedburneer, istockphoto and vimeo as reported by Pingdom. Not sure were they get their data, but Google, Yahoo, FaceBook, Wikipedia, MySpace, Fotolog are sites I think of as high traffic. Indeed 3 of these listed sites I’ve never heard of.
  • MySQL 5.1 is expected GA in late Q2 (no year was mentioned).
  • Falcon in 6.0 was listed as the “Next Generation” transaction Storage Engine, an interesting term I’d not heard of before.
  • Sun provides Hosted Database Services (i.e. the cloud) via
  • MySQL has had an influx of Sun Engineers (60-80).
  • MySQL is being benchmarked more on Sun H/W.

This talk did remind me it’s time to download Open Solaris. With the interesting comment that out of some 1,200 Sun Engineers over 1,000 were Macbook users gives me great confidence it will work just fine on my Macbook.

Out of other discussions there was talk of ZFS, so this will be interesting in what backup opportunities for MySQL without a true Online Backup solution may exist.
Also there was discussion with Sun’s GUI Tool NetBeans, and this casts light on how this will sit with the MySQL GUI team and MySQL Workbench.

Interesting times, this new hope.