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Parallel Processing for the Real-Time Enterprise

Deploying Web services on a solid platform for growth

Service orientation, Web services, self-describing data, loosely coupled applications - choose your favorite term. The enterprise IT world is moving inexorably towards architectures that will allow rapid development of applications that provide real differentiated value to their businesses.

The goal is a virtualized, real-time, extensible enterprise architecture that can quickly offer new functionality, yet integrates easily with legacy assets. This architecture must be reliable, extensible, and manageable. It must offer the highest performance for peak loads, yet not be oversized, leaving assets underutilized for typical workloads. It should offer the highest availability without duplication of expensive components.

Is it possible to build such an architecture in today's budget-constrained environments? Are standards maturing quickly enough to at least settle on a plan? Can an enterprise embark on such a quest in an evolutionary manner?

The industry answer has been "Yes, probably." Although there are many emerging standards and systems vendor strategies there is agreement in at least two areas:

  1. A service-oriented architecture is a "good thing."
  2. The foundation for loosely coupled applications using self-describing data is XML.
The momentum behind service orientation/Web services and XML in recent years has been stunning. Today, the majority of Fortune 1000 enterprises are utilizing XML-formatted data both for business-to-business communication and for data center applications. Zapthink, an industry analyst company with a focus on service orientation, estimates that by 2006, 25% of all LAN traffic will be XML-based, indicating a massive growth in data center XML and service orientation. It is this very growth of XML in the data center that presents an emerging concern to data center architects and those responsible for providing a high-performance infrastructure to support service orientation - how do we parse, validate, and transform all this XML data?

It's becoming clear that XML processing has a significant overhead associated with it. Large documents require manipulation at several points in the data life cycle. If done inefficiently, up to 80% of application server processing can be consumed manipulating and reformatting XML.

Throw Servers at It
The traditional solution to application server performance issues is to increase the amount of processing power on tap. If the server farm is already part of a tiered architecture it can be relatively easy to scale the farm by just adding another. Many of the costs in doing this, however, are hidden beyond primary hardware acquisition expenses and include:

  • Server options such as memory, PCI controllers, and drives
  • Network infrastructure (cables, switch ports, etc.)
  • Software licenses for the application software
  • Database software licenses
  • Management software licenses
  • Deployment and configuration time
  • Test time in a simulated environment
  • Implementation and benchmarking
  • Ongoing management costs
These costs can quickly become prohibitive as the deployment of Web services and associated applications continues to grow. If industry estimates around the growth of data center XML LAN traffic are true, the average application server farm size will almost double by 2006. At some point, a more architecturally appropriate approach to solving this problem is required.

Upgrade to Bigger, Faster Servers
Moore's Law states that processing power effectively doubles every 18 months. Surely this provides an answer to the XML processing problem...unfortunately, it does not. While servers are indeed adopting new architectures and processors that increase the raw processing power available, it is the type of processing in addition to the amount of data center XML traffic that makes the XML problem at the same time unique and ubiquitous.

Processing of XML documents is most efficient using powerful document-processing languages like XSLT. XSLT allows the programmer to parse the XML document, transform data into other formats, and perform complex business logic dependent on the nature and content of the document. The tree structure of XML means that this is best done utilizing parallel processing methodologies that can traverse many variables at the same time. At any point in the tree, other processes may be spawned to perform logic on the data or on other tree elements. Complex style sheets representing real-world business logic and data transformations can consume significant processing cycles from an application server pool. These complex, highly parallel-processing tasks cannot be performed efficiently using a general-purpose architecture.

The Appliance Approach
At some point in the technology life cycle customers look to solve problems with a dedicated, custom-built device. This is the reason every household (with owners who enjoy consuming hot bread products) has a toaster instead of making toast in the oven (a general-purpose device that also cooks roast beef and bakes cakes).

In the same way, when general-purpose servers become inefficient at solving a particular problem, server appliances become the favored approach. Routers, switches, firewalls, and load balancers are all particular instances of dedicated solutions focused on performing one task, or a range of related tasks, in the most efficient manner.

Server appliances offer a range of advantages over the equivalent general-purpose server approach.

Simple and rapid deployment
Since these appliances are dedicated to a particular task the setup, configuration, and deployment of the solution becomes more "turnkey" in nature. The solution vendor knows exactly what this device is to be used for and, as such, can develop installation and management tools that are dedicated to that purpose.

Integration into existing environments
Regardless of the type of hardware, flavor of operating system, or nature of software and tools on the system, server appliances should fit seamlessly into any given enterprise environment. Appliances should be viewed as "black box" environments that are accessible via standard interfaces (TCP/IP, SOAP, etc.) and manageable with standard tools.

The highest availability
Any dedicated server appliance should offer higher availability than its general-purpose equivalent. In a dedicated device, the usage conditions and scenarios can be predefined, preconfigured, and tested. Most server appliances offer redundant components within a single box and provide load balancing and failover for even higher availability.

'Orders of magnitude' performance gains
The major reason for implementing an appliance approach to a given problem is that it just does a better job. It's architecturally the right thing to do. In many cases, server purchases can be deferred, or existing general-purpose servers redeployed, because the appliance solution offers significant performance advantages.

XML in Hardware - Performance Gains
Deploying an XML appliance can significantly reduce the bloat of additional application servers in an enterprise, increasing application performance and reducing the cost of XML data processing by a factor of 10-15. In addition, cost savings continue throughout the life of the implementation as management, sparing, infrastructure, and availability advantages begin to accumulate. The very fact that a single two-node cluster of appliances can replace dozens of general-purpose servers makes these savings apparent.

So, how are these performance gains realized? These incredible efficiencies are delivered through the appropriate mix of hardware and software technologies specifically designed and built for the unique processing of declarative data.

The engine
These hardware solutions may be built upon custom ASICs that perform parallel processing of XML and compiled XSLT in hardware. As shown in Figure 1, the solution interfaces to the outside world via standard networking interfaces and protocols such as HTTP, TCP/IP, SOAP, etc.

The data flows through the system as follows:

  1. XML documents are passed to the solution via one of these networking methods.
  2. The document is then parsed and validated in parallel using dedicated processing hardware.
  3. A custom transformation engine manages the processing of a precompiled style sheet using dedicated parallel application engines that process the document.
  4. The document is then reconstituted into the output format and passed out of the solution.
Each of these functions is accelerated by the use of dedicated hardware where appropriate, providing dramatic performance advantages over traditional sequential processing methodologies.

The compiler
Any parallel processing engine has to be coupled with highly efficient compiler technologies to ensure that the efficiency of the processing engine is realized. These compiler technologies expose the available parallel processing opportunities of a declarative programming model, allowing architecturally specific hardware engines to process data for Web services with more throughput than a general-purpose processor.

In the appliance case, the compiler software is fully aware of the hardware architecture beneath it, ensuring that the maximum processing efficiencies can be gained.

Enterprise-Class Solution Components
Any solution designed for business-critical applications within the enterprise data center also demands reliability, ease of use, availability, and scalability features. These features should include:

  • Software tools for rapid deployment
  • Configuration tools for Web services
  • Interfaces to standard SNMP-based management utilities
  • Fully redundant single-server platform
  • Support for failover and load balancing
  • Standard software APIs for integration with Web services
  • Adherence to data center industry standards
Revolution or Evolution in the Data Center?
As enterprise customers continue to search for architectures that can quickly adapt to the rapidly morphing business environment, XML (as the data standard) and Web services (as the processing standard) will become the foundation on which the majority of business logic is built.

Most enterprise customers cannot flip a switch to full service orientation. Legacy systems and applications abound in today's data center environment and will continue to remain critical to the health and success of the business. However, by basing the architecture on Web services and XML, legacy systems and data can be viewed as an asset and the organization can evolve to fully enabled service-orientated architecture in a controlled, step-wise fashion.

Web service appliances built specifically for the processing and manipulation of XML data can utilize architecturally advantaged methods to address both performance and cost challenges. This places extensible Web services and the organizations that use them on a very solid platform for growth and expansion for years to come.

More Stories By John Derrick

John Derrick is currently CEO of turnkey cloud provider Jelastic. He has extensive business leadership experience in the private and public cloud, big data, database, and enterprise markets. John focuses on the intersection of these markets, technology and teams to deliver solutions that really work for people. He has delivered product and profit at IBM, Chicory Systems, Conformative Systems, Intel, MIPS, and now Jelastic. Between these companies he has led and advised about 50 different startups and public companies.

John can be reached at john.derrick@jelastic.com.

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