Pilosa 1.4 Released

Pilosa 1.4 Released

9/18/2019 • 7 min read

Yesterday we cut Pilosa v1.4.0 — our first new minor version since April! While we haven’t made an official release since then, several of Molecula’s clients have been using much of the new Pilosa code for some time and some of the improvements are vast.

This release has a variety of fixes, changes, and additions, and you can get all the gory details in the changelog. I would, however, like to call out a few of the more interesting developments, and go into more detail on the general theme of “worker pools”.


  • Improved startup time by concurrently loading fragment data. This makes it possible to iterate faster when working with large data sets in Pilosa, and to recover from failures more quickly.
  • Using UnionInPlace for time range queries greatly reduces memory allocations for these queries which improves overall performance and stability. This makes a night and day difference for workloads which query time ranges.
  • Made integer fields unbounded by using sign+magnitude representation. This means one no longer needs to specify the minimum or maximum values for an integer field ahead of time, and integers will use exactly the number of bits they need to represent the data they have on a per-shard basis. The range grows and shrinks automatically.
  • Added fuzz tests to our roaring implementation, and fixed a number of subtle bugs. Big shout out to our interns for tackling this project!

Worker Pools

The Problem

To motivate this section, I need to describe a particular subtle issue that has been plaguing us for some time. Pilosa runs a background task which uses a gossip protocol to maintain cluster membership and share metadata around the cluster. This task issues constant heartbeats to check that all the nodes in the cluster are still around and healthy. If a node hasn’t been heard from after a particular amount of time or number of retries, it is marked as dead and the cluster may drop into a non-working state depending on how many replicas it has configured. The problem we’d been having was that the gossip task would erroneously identify nodes as having died when the cluster was under load.

The root cause of this issue was very difficult to track down, and I’m not sure we’ve 100% nailed it, but this is the best theory we have at this time:

Pilosa tends to have a relatively large number of objects on the heap. This means that Go’s garbage collector has to do a lot of work during its marking phase scanning through all of the data even though it is mostly long-lived and static. Normally this isn’t too much of a problem, though it does take a percentage of system resources. Go’s GC does almost all of its work concurrently with two very short STW (stop-the-world) phases where it has to make sure all running threads get to a safe point, stop them, and then do a small amount of work. Most code is chock-full of preemption points where the runtime can quickly stop all threads, do the GC work, and get them running again within microseconds. It’s possible, however, to write code with very tight loops which can block GC from running for arbitrarily long times. This is documented here, and is being worked on for future versions of Go.

What seems to happen is that Pilosa has many routines performing heavy query processing tasks which involve tight loops that may run for a few ms at a time. When the GC reaches a STW phase, it has to wait for all running routines to finish whatever tight loops they are in, and won’t let new routines be scheduled until it finishes its phase. So, every time GC has to run, there are two “spin down” phases where we have to wait for all running threads to get out of tight loops (meanwhile the threads which finish first are idle), and a significant percentage of CPU resources are taken up by GC work.

This problem is compounded if there are many goroutines all vying for attention from the scheduler, and there’s no way to tell the scheduler that this one tiny background task in a single one of those goroutines is actually somewhat latency sensitive, and “hey could you maybe run this one thing pretty regularly so that it doesn’t look like this whole machine has fallen off the face of the planet causing a total failure of the cluster until it re-establishes contact??”

So… in addition to a variety of other improvements we’ve made to reduce the amount of data and pointers visible to GC, and to reuse memory rather than re-allocating it, we thought it might be best to reduce the number of goroutines competing for scheduling attention at any given time.

Query Pool

We implemented a goroutine worker pool for queries. This was one of those fun cases where things worked very well until several dimensions of scale were being exercised simultaneously. One particular workload had huge amounts of data — a thousand Pilosa shards per node (each shard is roughly 1 million records), and was issuing dozens of concurrent queries.

Our original design had each query launching a separate goroutine per-shard, which in this case meant that tens of thousands of goroutines were being created and destroyed every second. It is absolutely a testament to the creators of Go and the efficiency of its runtime that things were still more-or-less working at this scale.

The classic solution to this problem is to create a fixed pool of long-lived goroutines and pass items of work to them through a channel. In this case, the per-shard query processing work is pretty CPU intensive, so there isn’t much point in having concurrency beyond the number of CPU cores available. Luckily Go provides us with a mechanism for determining the number of logical CPUs available with runtime.NumCPU(), so at startup time, we create a pool of goroutines of that size to process queries.

Amazingly, the actual performance issue that we were experiencing around this was not that 20,000 goroutines were popping in and out of existence each second, which the runtime handled pretty well, but that in some cases they were all contending for the same mutexes. We discovered via profiling that there was a lot of contention in our tracing subsystem which probabilistically samples queries and provides detailed timing and metadata about each processing step. Manually disabling tracing and other sources of lock contention resulted in similar performance to what we achieved after implementing the worker pool. With the worker pool, however, we were able to re-enable important services like tracing without running into lock contention issues.

Ingest Pools

Query processing wasn’t the only area we found where we could benefit from worker pools. In #2024 we added a different sort of pool which helped to make data ingest more efficient. Pilosa often has to decide between applying writes in memory and appending them to a file, or taking a full snapshot of a whole data fragment. Previously, it made this decision on a fragment-by-fragment basis, which could result in many snapshots being taken simultaneously. Now, there is a small pool of background routines which combs through fragments with outstanding writes, and limits concurrent snapshotting to more efficiently use the available I/O throughput. When the system is under heavy load, it will naturally skew more towards append only writes, and each snapshot will be covering more outstanding writes.

We also implemented a worker pool for import jobs so that large numbers of concurrent imports wouldn’t spawn unlimited numbers of goroutines potentially created the same performance and contention issues we’d seen with queries.

Wrapping Up

I’m very proud of the work the team has done between 1.3 and 1.4, but more than that, I’m excited for what we already have lined up for our next release. We decided to cut the 1.4 release with what we knew was a fairly stable codebase, even though there were a number of outstanding pull requests with interesting features and improvements.

Be on the lookout for another release before too long with interesting things like:

  • An extension interface for dynamically adding new query functionality to Pilosa.
  • An overhauled, and more scalable key translation system.
  • New types of queries (e.g. GROUP BY with aggregates over integer fields).
  • Contributions from viewers like you!

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