Scaling up is hard: big hardware gets expensive fast. Scaling out is equally difficult; interesting design problems creep in to scale out solutions. One of the more troublesome issues architects face when scaling out is the issue of distributing identity. It’s often advantageous for object identity to be unique and portable across all database instances in an application – we may need to move a user from server A to server B. Once multiple database servers are involved, a centralized sequence generator can be come a single bottleneck or may even run out of values under heavy load. A solution is needed to generate unique values outside of the database while avoiding the performance problems of random, or semi-random, GUIDs.
Sequential Beginnings: Identity and IDENTITY
In the beginning, there was an empty schema. At this point an architect returned from the coffee pot and made a decision about database identities or GUIDs. There many valid reasons to make a decision in either direction – identities or sequences are controlled in the database and can be used to ensure a physical order to data. Who knew that spinning hard disks work better when data is sequential? (By the way, sequential GUIDs may not be sequential.)
You can make a lot of arguments for the right or wrong way to do things from a logical perspective, but DBAs do have a pretty good point when they say that randomness can cause problems for database performance. Generating sequential identifiers in the database may not be the most elegant solution to identity problems, but it does ensure that data is written in an order that makes sense in a world of spinning disk drives.
Database controlled sequential identity has one problem: sequential identities will need to be generated on a single server. Under sufficient load, that server will become a bottleneck for application scalability. To move past a single server as a bottleneck, a more robust and load tolerant solution is needed.
Distributing Identity: The Case for GUIDs
Architects and developers may be thinking that identities are great, but what happens when everything gets further apart?
As applications grow (or even by design), it becomes common to see teams become worried about distributing workload across many servers, using queues, or even splitting the data out into multiple databases or database servers. It’s at this point in the discussion that things get heated and people start throwing around the idea that GUIDs are the only way to solve this problem. Or that you just can’t rely on identity from the database and application generated identity is the only identity that matters.
This is where the war about numbers vs GUIDs gets nasty and someone gets their feelings hurt. Ignoring the size of GUIDs, I can say that I’ve witnessed several GUID collisions in production systems. GUIDs are only theoretically unique – they may even create a problem that you didn’t know you had.
A Better Solution for Distributed Identity
Combining distributed identity and ordered data seems like it’s a hard problem. Random GUIDs can’t be guaranteed to be unique, sequential GUIDs can’t be guaranteed to be non-overlapping, and database generated identities require a persistent connection to a database (or else they require a looser idea of identity than some folks are comfortable with).
Moving away from the database as the central keeper of all knowledge and identity is difficult and many teams seem to equate moving identity out of the database with moving all logic and functionality out of the database. This doesn’t have to be the case. The database can still be used to provide a considerable amount of declarative functionality and logic but identity generation can be moved outside of the database.
Twitter and Boundary have solved the problems of distributed sequencing by moving the work away from the data tier. Both solutions solve the problem by treating a number as if it were an array of information. The first portion of a sufficiently large number is a timestamp; the timestamp is stored as the number of milliseconds since a previous point in time. The next number is a worker identifier – this can be anything that uniquely identifies the device generating the sequence. Finally there’s a sequence itself. The sequence is typically small (between 8 and 16 bits) and it starts counting again from 0 every time the millisecond counter changes.
The machine identifier, usually the MAC address, doesn’t matter specifically, but we do need to be able to reliably generate separate sequences of IDs. This doesn’t have to be a MAC address, it could be any number of bytes that identify a unique source of sequences. By storing milliseconds since epoch as the first portion of the key, we’re able to produce a sequence that’s mostly ordered with some random jitter at the intermediate levels. On the whole, though, our inserts will be ordered.
If you’re on the .NET side of the house, I solved this problem with a library called Rustflakes. The implementation is lifted wholesale from Boundary’s flake and the generated sequence values are a .NET
decimal which lines up with SQL Server’s
DECIMAL data type – it’s nothing more than an ordered 128-bit number. Which, coincidentally, is the same size as a GUID.
Wrapping it Up
There’s no easy solution to this problem. GUIDs are an easier approach, but they introduce additional load and maintenance overhead on the data storage mechanism. Distributed sequences don’t solve all of the problems of GUIDs, but they provide additional flexibility for database administrators, developers, and application architects alike.