Making MozReview Faster by Disregarding RESTful Design

January 13, 2016 at 03:25 PM | categories: MozReview, Mozilla | View Comments

When I first started writing web services, I was a huge RESTful fan boy. The architectural properties - especially the parts related to caching and scalability - really jived with me. But as I've grown older and gained experienced, I've realized that RESTful design, like many aspects of software engineering, is more of a guideline or ideal than a panacea. This post is about one of those experiences.

Review Board's Web API is RESTful. It's actually one of the better examples of a RESTful API I've seen. There is a very clear separation between resources. And everything - and I mean everything - is a resource. Hyperlinks are used for the purposes described in Roy T. Fielding's dissertation. I can tell the people who authored this web API understood RESTful design and they succeeded in transferring that knowledge to a web API.

Mozilla's MozReview code review tool is built on top of Review Board. We've made a number of customizations. The most significant is the ability to submit a series of commits as one logical review series. This occurs as a side-effect of a hg push to the code review repository. Once your changesets are pushed to the remote repository, that server issues a number of Review Board Web API HTTP requests to reviewboard.mozilla.org to create the review requests, assign reviewers, etc. This is mostly all built on the built-in web API endpoints offered by Review Board.

Because Review Board's Web API adheres to RESTful design principles so well, turning a series of commits into a series of review requests takes a lot of HTTP requests. For each commit, we have to perform something like 5 HTTP requests to define the server state. For series of say 10 commits (which aren't uncommon since we try to encourage the use of microcommits), this can add up to dozens of HTTP requests! And that's just counting the HTTP requests to Review Board: because we've integrated Review Board with Bugzilla, events like publishing result in additional RESTful HTTP requests from Review Board to bugzilla.mozilla.org.

At the end of the day, submitting and publishing a series of 10 commits consumes somewhere between 75 and 100 HTTP requests! While the servers are all in close physical proximity (read: low network latencies), we are reusing TCP connections, and each HTTP request completes fairly quickly, the overhead adds up. It's not uncommon for publishing commit series to take over 30s. This is unacceptable to developers. We want them to publish commits for review as quickly as possible so they can get on with their next task. Humans should not have to wait on machines.

Over in bug 1220468, I implemented a new batch submit web API for Review Board and converted the Mercurial server to call it instead of the classic, RESTful Review Board web APIs. In other words, I threw away the RESTful properties of the web API and implemented a monolith API doing exactly what we need. The result is a drastic reduction in net HTTP requests. In our tests, submitting a series of 20 commits for review reduced the HTTP request count by 104! Furthermore, the new API endpoint performs all modifications in a single database transaction. Before, each HTTP request was independent and we had bugs where failures in the middle of a HTTP request series left the server in inconsistent and unexpected state. The new API is significantly faster and more atomic as a bonus. The main reason the new implementation isn't yet nearly instantaneous is because we're still performing several RESTful HTTP requests to Bugzilla from Review Board. But there are plans for Bugzilla to implement the batch APIs we need as well, so stay tuned.

(I don't want to blame the Review Board or Bugzilla maintainers for their RESTful web APIs that are giving MozReview a bit of scaling pain. MozReview is definitely abusing them almost certainly in ways that weren't imagined when they were conceived. To their credit, the maintainers of both products have recognized the limitations in their APIs and are working to address them.)

As much as I still love the properties of RESTful design, there are practical limitations and consequences such as what I described above. The older and more experienced I get, the less patience I have for tolerating architecturally pure implementations that sacrifice important properties, such as ease of use and performance.

It's worth noting that many of the properties of RESTful design are applicable to microservices as well. When you create a new service in a microservices architecture, you are creating more overhead for clients that need to speak to multiple services, making changes less transactional and atomic, and making it difficult to consolidate multiple related requests into a higher-level, simpler, and performant API. I recommend Microservice Trade-Offs for more on this subject.

There is a place in the world for RESTful and microservice architectures. And as someone who does a lot of server-side engineering, I sympathize with wanting scalable, fault-tolerant architectures. But like most complex problems, you need to be cognizant of trade-offs. It is also important to not get too caught up with architectural purity if it is getting in the way of delivering a simple, intuitive, and fast product for your users. So, please, follow me down from the ivory tower. The air was cleaner up there - but that was only because it was so distant from the swamp at the base of the tower that surrounds every software project.

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