Paper Summary: Simple Testing Can Prevent Most Failures


Today evening, I decided to read paper Simple Testing Can Prevent Most Failures: An analysis of Production Failures in Distributed Data-intensive systems.

This paper asks an important question

Why widely used distributed data systems designed for high availability like Cassandra, Redis, Hadoop, HBase, and HDFS. experience failures and what can be done to increase their resiliency?

We have to answer this question keeping in mind that these systems are developed by some of the best software developers in the world following good software development practices and are intensely tested.

These days most of us are building distributed systems. We can apply the findings shared in this post to build systems that are more resilient to failure.

The paper shares:

Most of the catastrophic system failures are result of incorrect handling of non-fatal errors explicitly signalled in the software

This falls into 1) empty error handling blocks, or error blocks with just log statement 2) the error handing aborts the clusters on an overly-general exception 3) the error handling code contains expressions like “FIXME” or “TODO” in the comments.

Most of the developers are guilty of doing all the three above mentioned. Developers are good at finding that something will go wrong but they don’t know what to do when something goes wrong. I looked at the error handling code in one of my projects and I found the same behaviour. I had written TODO comments or caught general exceptions. These are considered to be bad practices but still most of us end up doing.

Overall, we found that the developers are good at anticipating possible errors. In all but one case, the errors were checked by the developers. The only case where developers did not check the error was an unchecked error system call return in Redis.

Another important point mentioned in the paper is

We found that 74% of the failures are deterministic in that they are guaranteed to manifest with an appropriate input sequence, that almost all failures are guaranteed to manifest on no more than three nodes, and that 77% of the failures can be reproduced by a unit test.

Most popular open source projects use unit testing so it could be surprising that the existing tests were not good enough to catch these bugs. Part of this has to do with the fact that these bugs or failure situations happens when a sequence of events happen. The good part is that sequence is deterministic. As a software developer, I could relate to the fact that most of us are not good at thinking through all the permutation and combinations. So, even though we write unit tests they do not cover all scenarios. I think code coverage tools and mutation testing can help here.

It is now universally agreed that unit testing helps reduce bugs in software. Last few years, I have worked with few big enterprises and I can attest most of their code didn’t had unit tests and even if parts of the code had unit tests those tests were useless. So, even though open source projects that we use are getting better through unit testing most of the code that an average developer writes has a long way to go. One thing that we can learn from this paper is to start write high quality tests.

The paper mentions specific events where most of the bugs happen. Some of these events are:

  1. Starting up services
  2. Unreachable nodes
  3. Configuration changes
  4. Adding a node

If you are building distributed application, then you can try to test your application for these events. If you are building applications that uses Microservices based architecture then these are interesting events for your application as well. For example, if you call a service that is not available how your system behaves.

As per the paper, these mature open-source systems has mature logging.

76% of the failures print explicit failure related messages.

Paper mentions three reasons why that is the case:

  1. First, since distributed systems are more complex, and harder to debug, developers likely pay more attention to logging.
  2. Second, the horizontal scalability of these systems makes the performance overhead of outputing log message less critical.
  3. Third, communicating through message-passing provides natural points to log messages; for example, if two nodes cannot communicate with each other because of a network problem, both have the opportunity to log the error.

Authors of the paper built a static analysis tool called Aspirator for locating these bug patterns.

If Aspirator had been used and the captured bugs fixed, 33% of the Cassandra, HBase, HDFS, and MapReduce’s catastrophic failures we studied could have been prevented.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this paper. I found it easy to read and applicable to all software developers.

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