The perils of negative scalability
By Dave on Sep 23, 2009
I've seen the following issue confound customers and colleagues of late, so thought it worth a blog entry.
Lets say you have an application that exhibits negative scalability. That is, if you were to plot throughput on the Y-axis and concurrency on the X-axis the shape of the curve would be convex downward -- performance climbs up to an apex and then falls off. (How can this happen? A common reason is that the communication overheads start to dominate and the benefit of concurrency is overcome by communication and synchronization costs). Under such circumstances it's common to introduce some type of admission control -- say, simple back-off or more elaborate mechanisms -- to restrict concurrency. Ideally, this yields an asymptotic curve where performance remains constant after reaching the peak, avoiding any fall-off.
If you tune the performance of such an application using the usual measure-analyze-modify cycle but pay attention only to the throughput values at high concurrency levels then you might be badly misled. The usual development feedback loop can fail because poor "optimizations" that slow down the code may actually serve as inadvertent implicit back-off (contention management or admission control) that will attenuate the negative scalability at higher concurrency levels but also needlessly impair performance at lower concurrency levels. Ideally, back-off should be applied only as needed, in response to contention.
A related effect is that inserting diagnostic probes might yield better performance in the region of negative scalability because of probe overhead -- a performance "Heisenbug" where performance improves when execution is more closely observed.
The take-away is that we should be careful to measure the performance of any proposed change over a wide range of concurrency values, and not just at the extremes.
An interesting human analog is Brooks's law. The same issues -- the overheads of orchestrating large numbers of humans or threads -- may underly both effects.