Thursday Jun 12, 2014

Data management in unexpected places

Data management in unexpected places

When you think of network switches, routers, firewall appliances, etc., it may not be obvious that at the heart of these kinds of solutions is an engine that can manage huge amounts of data at very high throughput with low latencies and high availability.

Consider a network router that is processing tens (or hundreds) of thousands of network packets per second. So what really happens inside a router? Packets are streaming in at the rate of tens of thousands per second. Each packet has multiple attributes, for example, a destination, associated SLAs etc. For each packet, the router has to determine the address of the next “hop” to the destination; it has to determine how to prioritize this packet. If it’s a high priority packet, then it has to be sent on its way before lower priority packets. As a consequence of prioritizing high priority packets, lower priority data packets may need to be temporarily stored (held back), but addressed fairly. If there are security or privacy requirements associated with the data packet, those have to be enforced. You probably need to keep track of statistics related to the packets processed (someone’s sure to ask). You have to do all this (and more) while preserving high availability i.e. if one of the processors in the router goes down, you have to have a way to continue processing without interruption (the customer won’t be happy with a “choppy” VoIP conversation, right?). And all this has to be achieved without ANY intervention from a human operator – the router is most likely to be in a remote location – it must JUST CONTINUE TO WORK CORRECTLY, even when bad things happen.

How is this implemented? As soon as a packet arrives, it is interpreted by the receiving software. The software decodes the packet headers in order to determine the destination, kind of packet (e.g. voice vs. data), SLAs associated with the “owner” of the packet etc. It looks up the internal database of “rules” of how to process this packet and handles the packet accordingly. The software might choose to hold on to the packet safely for some period of time, if it’s a low priority packet.

Ah – this sounds very much like a database problem. For each packet, you have to minimally

· Look up the most efficient next “hop” towards the destination. The “most efficient” next hop can change, depending on latency, availability etc.

· Look up the SLA and determine the priority of this packet (e.g. voice calls get priority over data ftp)

· Look up security information associated with this data packet. It may be necessary to retrieve the context for this network packet since a network packet is a small “slice” of a session. The context for the “header” packet needs to be stored in the router, in order to make this work.

· If the priority of the packet is low, then “store” the packet temporarily in the router until it is time to forward the packet to the next hop.

· Update various statistics about the packet.

In most cases, you have to do all this in the context of a single transaction. For example, you want to look up the forwarding address and perform the “send” in a single transaction so that the forwarding address doesn’t change while you’re sending the packet. So, how do you do all this?

Berkeley DB is a proven, reliable, high performance, highly available embeddable database, designed for exactly these kinds of usage scenarios. Berkeley DB is a robust, reliable, proven solution that is currently being used in these scenarios.

First and foremost, Berkeley DB (or BDB for short) is very very fast. It can process tens or hundreds of thousands of transactions per second. It can be used as a pure in-memory database, or as a disk-persistent database. BDB provides high availability – if one board in the router fails, the system can automatically failover to another board – no manual intervention required. BDB is self-administering – there’s no need for manual intervention in order to maintain a BDB application. No need to send a technician to a remote site in the middle of nowhere on a freezing winter day to perform maintenance operations.

BDB is used in over 200 million deployments worldwide for the past two decades for mission-critical applications such as the one described here. You have a choice of spending valuable resources to implement similar functionality, or, you could simply embed BDB in your application and off you go! I know what I’d do – choose BDB, so I can focus on my business problem. What will you do?

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