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The Tail at Scale

Luiz André Barroso
Communications of the ACM, vol. 56 (2013), pp. 74-80


Systems that respond to user actions very quickly (within 100 milliseconds) feel more fluid and natural to users than those that take longer [Card et al 1991]. Improvements in Internet connectivity and the rise of warehouse-scale computing systems [Barroso & Hoelzle 2009] have enabled Web services that provide fluid responsiveness while consulting multi-terabyte datasets that span thousands of servers. For example, the Google search system now updates query results interactively as the user types, predicting the most likely query based on the prefix typed so far, performing the search, and showing the results within a few tens of milliseconds. Emerging augmented reality devices such as the Google Glass prototype will need associated Web services with even greater computational needs while guaranteeing seamless interactivity. It is challenging to keep the tail of the latency distribution low for interactive services as the size and complexity of the system scales up or as overall utilization increases. Temporary high latency episodes which are unimportant in moderate size systems may come to dominate overall service performance at large scale. Just as fault-tolerant computing aims to create a reliable whole out of less reliable parts, we suggest that large online services need to create a predictably responsive whole out of less predictable parts. We refer to such systems as latency tail-tolerant, or tail-tolerant for brevity. This article outlines some of the common causes of high latency episodes in large online services and describes techniques that reduce their severity or mitigate their impact in whole system performance. In many cases, tail-tolerant techniques can take advantage of resources already deployed to achieve fault-tolerance, resulting in low additional overheads. We show that these techniques allow system utilization to be driven higher without lengthening the latency tail, avoiding wasteful over-provisioning.