Design of non-blocking systems: How to improve the tail latencies and load average by optimizing the number of threads?


When a program executes, it carries out various types of activities such as computations, doing IO, waiting on a condition. At the execution time, these activities have to be mapped to OS-level threads, and we call this mapping the thread model of the language. Most programming languages use the blocking thread model. In a blocking thread model, when the program carries out a blocking action such as IO, the OS level thread also blocks. In contrast, a non-blocking system does not block an OS thread when the thread needs to block on a blocking operation (e.g. I/O) rather it frees up the OS thread. A blocking system, on the other hand, blocks the processing thread until the task is run to completion. On a blocking system, if we increase the number of OS threads available while increasing the load, throughput increases. However, at a certain point, throughput starts to degrade and latencies start to suffer. The tail latencies increase dramatically. This is because, as the number of OS threads in the system increases, the context switch overhead start to dominate and each request have to wait longer to be scheduled. In a blocking system, if all programs do only computations, the optimal number of OS threads would be the same as the number of cores. However, this does not work if threads also perform IO as IO could take significantly more time compared to CPU operations and in such cases, the CPU will idle while most threads waiting for IO. Non-blocking systems give us the best of both worlds by letting us do IO while keeping a small number of OS threads. As a result, the nonblocking model can provide better throughput and latency. Most programming languages only support a blocking model directly, and to build a nonblocking system, the programmer has to write clever code (e.g. using non-blocking IO).

On the other hand, programming languages such as Ballerina supports non-blocking models out of the box. Ballerina is a concurrent and strongly typed programming language optimized for integration. Ballerina provides a great higher level of abstraction while hiding the complexity of the code underneath. Its execution model is composed of lightweight parallel worker units that are non-blocking where no function can lock an executing thread manifesting sequence concurrency. These lightweight parallel workers are backed by a thread pool with a fixed number of threads (scheduler threads) where each thread gets mapped to an OS thread. Since the workers of Ballerina do not block we can maintain the size of this thread pool at a minimal value (i.e. close to the number of cores). The objective of this article is to investigate how the size of this thread pool impacts the performance.

Measuring the performance

Let us provide some details of the performance metrics that we use to evaluate the performance. There are two main metrics: throughput and latency. The throughput measures the rate at which the system performs the work. The latency is a measure of waiting. If we consider a client-server system, the latency (of a request) is the total round-trip time. The latency is not a single value rather a set of values which represent individual latencies of many requests. In other words, the latency exists in the form of a distribution. The question is how do we analyze the latency if it exists in the form of distribution? One option is to use the average. However, there are issues with just using the average for measuring the latency. Therefore, when we analyze the latency, we need to consider the (full) distribution of latencies. Let us now try to understand what this means in detail. The following figure shows the latency distribution of a system under different load conditions (note: higher numbers of concurrent users represent higher load)

Note the behavior of the tail of the distribution under different concurrency levels (concurrent users). The tail of the distribution represents long latencies. Hence we use the term “tail-latencies” to describe long latencies. A distribution with thicker and longer tails will have a higher probability of long latencies from occurring. In the above figure, we see an increase in the tail latencies with the increasing number of concurrent users. The tail-latencies are a major concern in high-performing concurrent systems. As such, system designers are continuously making efforts to reduce the tail latencies of systems. The most (basic) metric that we can use to get an idea about the tail latencies is the latency percentiles. There are other types of analysis we can do to analyze the tail of the distributions (e.g. tail index).

Performance Test Details

Let us now provide some details about the performance testing environment. The diagram below shows the deployment diagram.

We ran the performance tests on Amazon EC2 using a C4-Xlarge instance for Ballerina (ballerina-0.971.1) and C3-Xlarge instances for the workload generator (3 instances) and the back-service.

Performance Results

Let us now present the results for two use cases (1) simple pass-through and )(2) transformation. Under the simple pass-through scenario, the workload generator publishes the requests to the Ballerina service and the Ballerina service posts these requests to a back-end service, the back-end service echoes back the requests posted to it. The difference between simple pass-through and transformation is that under the transformation use case Ballerina service performs a message transformation in the middle of message flow. As already pointed out, Ballerina has a non-blocking architecture. Its concurrency model consists of lightweight workers backed by a thread pool with a fixed number of threads (processing threads) where each thread gets mapped to OS thread. Whenever there is a blocking operation (network I/O in this case) the workers go into a non-active mode and as a result, the processing thread never gets blocked.

The Impact of average latency and throughput

The following figures show how the throughput and average latency vary with the number of concurrent users (message size used 50 B) when we use 10 threads and 100 threads in the processing thread pool

We noticed that there is no significant difference in the average latency whether we use 10 or 100 threads in the pool. There is a minor improvement in the TPS when using 10 threads for the transformation scenario. The maximum improvement in TPS is about 7%. The important observation here is that just using 10 threads the system can serve a large number of users while achieving very high throughput (up to 17000 requests/second). This is because the threads never block when they perform IO (network I/O in this case).

The impact of tail latencies

Let us now investigate the impact of the number of threads on the tail latencies. The following figure shows the behavior of 99% latency percentiles when using 100 and 10 threads in the pool (scenario message transformation, message size 50B).

We do notice that as we increase the number of threads, it increases the occurrence of long-tail latencies. The way in which the number of threads impacts the tail latencies depends on the use case. For the I/O bound use cases (i.e. simple pass-through) we did not notice a significant degradation on the tail latencies with the increasing numbers of threads. However, as the workload becomes more and more CPU bound, having a large number of threads, increases the probability of long-tail latencies from occurring (indicated by higher latency percentile values). We note that 100 threads have higher 99% percentile values compared to that of 10 threads. One possible reason for the increase in the tail latencies under a large number of threads is the increased context switch overhead.

The impact of load average

Let us now discuss the impact of the number of threads on the load average. Our observation is that when using a large number of threads, there is a significant increase in the load average in particular for workloads that have both I/O and CPU operations. The following figure shows the behaviour for message transformation use case.

Let us now try to understand why we get high load average when the number of threads is high. There are a number of factors which contributes to the load average and one main one is the CPU run-queue length (OS level queue which contains tasks queued waiting to run). Let’s assume that we have 4 threads and this means that the server will process a maximum of up to 4 requests simultaneously at a given point in time. If a new request arrives while these requests are being served, the request will not be processed immediately rather it will be queued in an application level queue (not in a run-queue). As a result, there is less queueing at the OS level (i.e. run-queue) which leads to a lower load average. Numbers obtained for 4 and 100 threads are shown below.

4 threads: run-queue length = 8, load average = 5

100 threads: run-queue length 41, load average = 37

Advanced methods for analyzing latency distributions

The average, percentiles, maximum and standard deviation are the main metrics that are used in the industry when analyzing the latency numbers of systems. In addition to these, we can use advanced statistical methods to further analyze and understand properties of latency distributions. For example, we can try to characterize the tail of a latency distribution and see if the distribution is a heavy-tail or long-tail. A distribution with a long-tail has a heavier tail compared to an exponential distribution. This is illustrated in the following figure (heavy-tail distribution in blue, exponential distribution in red).


We have analyzed and identified the tail characteristics of different types of systems and I will share our results in our future blog posts and research papers.


In this blog post, we looked at the performance characteristics of non-blocking systems. We implemented our use cases using Ballerina, a programming language designed for the integration of systems. Ballerina has a non-blocking architecture. Our particular focus was to investigate how the number of processing threads impacts the performance. We noticed that a non-blocking system was able to handle a large number of concurrent users while achieving higher throughput and lower latency with a small number of threads. We then looked at how the number of processing threads impacts the performance. We noticed a minimal impact on throughput and average latency on the number of threads. However, as the number of threads increases, we see a significant increase in the tail latencies (i.e. latency percentiles) and load average.