Some thoughts on AWS

2011-05-01 aws
The great EBS Outage of 2011

There have been a lot of very interesting articles posted recently about the cause and effects of the April 2011 AWS outages. This article is an attempt to tie some of them together.

The Great EBS Outage of 2011

According to Amazon, the outage was caused by:

[… H]igh error rates and latencies for EBS calls to these APIs across the entire US East Region. […] This quickly led to a “re-mirroring storm,” where a large number of volumes were effectively “stuck” while the nodes searched the cluster for the storage space it needed for its new replica.

This is interesting, because this kind of “storm” is an emergent behaviour of a very complex system masquerading as a very simple “block device”:

The promise of network block storage is wonderful: Take a familiar abstraction (the disk), sprinkle on some magic cloud pixie dust so that it’s completely reliable […] The reality, however, is that the disk has never been a great abstraction, and the long history of crappy implementations has meant that many behavioral workarounds have found their way far up the stack. […] It’s commonly believed that EBS is built on DRBD with a dose of S3-derived replication logic. […] Or maybe EBS is indeed bandaids and chicken wire. […] Do we need block devices in the cloud?

Mark Mayo @ Joyent

Indeed, “network block storage” like EBS is a good example of a “Leaky Abstraction”: from the outside, it is a nice simple block device, but in certain situations it displays rather different behaviour.

(Actually, arguably, even a local block device has leaks in its abstraction: if ask for block “A” then block “B” then block “C”, that may take a lot longer than if I’d asked for block “A” then block “C” then block “B”. Unless you somehow know something about the disk geometry, that’s not easy to predict.)

Two Ways of Looking At AWS

There are two ways to look at the AWS offerings: either as a hosting facility with amazingly quick provisioning but not very reliable gear, or as a PaaS where one element of the platform just happens to be an ephemeral but general purpose Linux box.

EC2 as hosting facility

EC2 nodes come with “ephemeral storage” on board, eg: some local physical block devices. The problem is, if your EC2 instance does get reset, the data in these devices is gone for good, and so if you want to treat EC2 instances like machines in a co-host, you need somewhere else for the system discs to go. You can put /tmp on the ephemeral storage, but that’s about all it is good for.

The usual solution for this is EBS. The EBS volume can be mounted just like a normal block device, written to like a normal block device, and if your instance dies, you can start a new instance pointing at that EBS volume and it is equivalent to rebooting a physical server: you’ve possibly lost something, but assuming you’re using journalling, it is likely recoverable.

Plenty of systems use this method – including Amazon’s own RDS product.

Sadly, however, EBS latency can be a bit unpredictable . Because you’re just treating it like a block device, there’s no easy way to deal with this unpredictability: you’re stuck waiting for the device to get back to you. Collecting multiple EBS volumes into a RAID0 actually makes the problem worse, as performance will be degraded if any of the volumes are running slow.

Additionally, if something goes wrong with EBS in a given AZ, and your instance fails as a result of it, you’ll probably try to replace it with a new instance in a different AZ. To do this, the EBS image must be “mirrored” across to the new AZ, which takes a lot of bandwidth. If many systems are doing this at once, this causes the “mirroring storm” mentioned in the Amazon quote above. This appears to be what caused the AWS outage to take so long to resolve and why it affected multiple AZs.

EC2 as ephemeral server

On the other hand, if you embrace the ephemeral point of view, you can dispense with EBS, and put all persistent state into the other components of AWS instead, such as SimpleDB and S3. Instances all boot on copies of an image stashed in S3, maintaining their own local state as they run. If an instance get hosed –even if all of them get hosed at once – you can just start up new ones from your image. Instances only use the local ephemeral discs for caching and such.

By avoiding EBS, this may provide a more reliable service. For example, Netflix:

Our architecture avoids using EBS as our main data storage service, and the SimpleDB, S3 and Cassandra services that we do depend upon were not affected by the outage […] One of the major design goals of the Netflix re-architecture was to move to stateless services.

Netflix Tech Blog

All persistent state is still sent across the network, but the level of abstraction is more appropriate. Instead of block reads/writes you have requests and responses. This makes it easier to detect and deal with any slowdown of the AWS internal network, and makes it easier for AWS to respond to problems. Instead of trying to mirror a “black box” between AZs, SimpleDB can use more intelligent replication strategies to be available in multiple AZs at once.

(You may also have to avoid ELB. ELB instance seem to use EBS for their disks. On the other hand, EBS slowdowns are unlikely to affet ELB all that much, and it is relatively easy to roll your own load balancer on an ephemeral server instance in any case.)

Quasi-ephemeral EC2

When is ephemeral storage not ephemeral? When it’s redundant.

The mention of Cassandra above brings up an interesting point: with sufficient redundancy, the instance ephemeral storage can be used to host a local database:

at the moment we run at least 12 Cassandra instances, with replication factor of three, and the “RackAwareStrategy” which keeps copies of data in each AZ. If we lost instances across zones faster than repair could keep up we might lose newly written data. To deal with this we have full and incremental backups on each instance, with the data being written to S3.

Adrian Cockcroft @ Netflix

When configured in a RAID0, the local ephemeral storage can offer “extremely high throughput and an acceptable random seek performance” . so this may be an attractive option if SimpleDB is insufficiently flexible for your needs.


EBS is very popular on AWS because it lets you treat AWS as a hosting facility. But this negates some of the great advantages AWS has to offer. AWS took a huge pounding over the recent EBS outages, but EBS is not all there is to AWS, and by avoiding EBS’s “leaky abstraction” you can get higher reliability and better performance out of AWS.

This quote from Netflix’s Tech Blog sums it up nicely:

We could have chosen the simplest path into the cloud, fork-lifting our existing applications from our data centers to Amazon’s and simply using EC2 as if it was nothing more than another set of data centers. However, that wouldn’t have given us the same level of scalability and resiliency that we needed to run our business. [Instead we] use S3 heavily as a durable storage layer and pretend that all other resources are effectively transient.

Netflix Tech Blog

Also, I’d like to thanks the authors of Amazon’s post-mortems and of all the articles and blog posts mentioned and otherwise for sharing their experiences!