Past Mistakes - Out of Process Commands

Some of the best lessons you can learn are from failure. I figured a series on mistakes I've made in the past would highlight where I went wrong and more importantly what to remember going forward. These real life examples vary from my early days of programming all the way up until present day.


I once wrote a feature that sent email to users on their behalf. On localhost this was fine. Fast, stable and good enough to get the job done.

Despite early successes, under load in a live environment, things were different. Sometimes the process would out right fail, requiring the user to retry. Other times it would be slow to process. This meant the users browser would hang while the email was being sent.

It was hard to replicate these problems. The actual code itself was pretty simple, there was nothing to optimize it seemed.

Mistakes

The core mistake was performing an operation out of process from within the life cycle of a HTTP request.

When sending the email was slow, the HTTP response was slow as the thread was blocked. This was blindingly obvious after the fact.

Frustratingly actually demonstrating or testing this feature was hard. Locally the server was nearby so latency was less. This started to introduce other red herrings such as was the server misconfigured?

What to do Instead

After the user has requested an email, record this fact and simply display a success message. Do this as quickly and simply as possible. While the message states an email has been sent this is not strictly true.

Instead the act of requesting the email is recorded. Ideally via a message queue or other durable storage solution. A separate service then monitors this queue and periodically sends out emails.

Users will not care if an email lands a few seconds or minutes after the fact. Additionally if anything goes wrong during this process no data is lost. The user will get their email eventually. Most e-commerce sites work in this exact manner.

This approach works great when commands from users cannot and should not fail. Examples such as processing payments or key user interactions would be excellent candidates.

Unfortunately not all out of process requests can be avoided. HTTP queries to retrieve data being one example. This cannot be faked. In these cases minimize the number and rely on other techniques, such as HTTP's excellent caching policies to reduce the affect on the system.

Lessons

  • Never perform commands that cannot fail out of process from within the same HTTP transaction.
  • Fear all out of process calls - they are costly, prone to failure and can cause chaos with your systems performance. Reduce and replace where possible.
  • When commands that should not fail are required, use a message queue to record the command prior to processing them.
  • Rely on HTTP caching policies to reduce the effect of queries that cannot be avoided.