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Designing Resilient Systems Beyond Retries (Part 1): Rate-Limiting

Why We Value Resiliency

Being resilient to many different failures is the best way to ensure a system is reliable and — more importantly — stays that way. At Grab, our architecture features hundreds of microservices, which is constantly stressed in an increasing number of different ways at higher and higher volumes. Failures that would be rare or unusual become more likely as our scale increases. For that reason, we proactively focus on — and require our services to think about — resiliency, even if they have historically been very reliable.

Challenges with Retries and Circuit Breakers

A common risk when introducing retries in a resiliency strategy is ‘retry storms’. Retries by definition increase the number of requests from the client, especially when the system is experiencing some kind of failure. If the server is not prepared to handle this increase in traffic, and is possibly already struggling to handle the load, it can quickly become overwhelmed. This is counter-productive to introducing retries in the first place!

Introducing Rate-limiting

In a large organisation such as Grab with hundreds of microservices, it becomes increasingly difficult to coordinate and maintain the correct circuit-breaker configurations as the number of services increases.

Types of Thresholds for Rate-limiting

The traditional approach to rate-limiting is to implement a server-side check which monitors the rate of incoming requests and if it exceeds a certain threshold, an error will be returned instead of processing the request. There are many algorithms such as ‘ leaky bucket’, fixed/sliding window and so on. A key decision is where to set the thresholds: usually by client, endpoint, or a combination of both.

  • Per-client, per-endpoint: For example, client A accessing the sendEmail endpoint. It is not necessary to configure thresholds at this granularity, but may be useful for critical endpoints.
  • Per-client: In addition to any per-client per-endpoint settings, client A could have a global threshold of 1000 requests/hour to any API.
  • Per-endpoint: This is the server’s catch-all guard to guarantee that none of its endpoints become overloaded. If client limits are properly configured, this limit should never be reached.
  • Server-wide: Finally, a limit on the number of requests a server can handle in total. This is important because even if endpoints can meet their limits individually, they are never completely isolated: the server will have some overhead and limited resources for processing any kind of request, opening and closing network connections etc.

Local vs Global Rate-limiting

Another consideration is local vs global rate-limiting. As we saw in the previous section, backend servers are usually pooled together for resiliency. A naive rate-limiting solution might be implemented at the individual server instance level. This sounds intuitive because the thresholds can be calculated exactly according to the instance’s computing power, and it scales automatically as the number of instances increases. However, in a microservice architecture, this is rarely correct as the bottlenecks are unlikely to be so closely tied to individual instance hardware.

Considerations When Implementing Rate-limiting

Care must be taken to ensure the rate-limiting service does not become a single point of failure. The system should still function when the rate-limiter itself is experiencing problems (perhaps by falling back to a local limiter). Since the rate-limiter must be in the request path, it should not add significant latency because any latency would be multiplied across every endpoint being monitored. Grab’s own Quotas service is an example of a global rate-limiter which addresses these concerns.

Up Next, Bulkheading, Load Balancing, and Fallbacks…

So we’ve taken a look at rate-limiting as a strategy for having resilient systems. I hope you found this article useful. Comments are always welcome.



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