2.4 Scalability

Scalability is a non-functional property of a system that describes the ability to appropriately handle increasing (and decreasing) workloads. According to Coulouris et al. [Dol05], "a system is described as scalable, if it will remain effective when there is a significant increase in the number of resources and the number of users". Sometimes, scalability is a requirement that necessitates the usage of a distributed system in the first place. Also, scalability is not to be confused with raw speed or performance. Scalability competes with and complements other non-functional requirements such as availability, reliability and performance.

Horizontal and Vertical Scalability

There are two basic strategies for scaling--vertical and horizontal. In case of vertical scaling, additional resources are added to a single node. As a result, the node can then handle more work and provides additional capacities. Additional resources include more or faster CPUs, more memory or in case of virtualized instances, more physical shares of the underlying machine. In contrast, horizontal scaling adds more nodes to the overall system.

Both scaling variants have different impacts on the system. Vertical scaling almost directly speeds up the system and rarely needs special application customizations. However, vertical scaling is obviously limited by factors such as cost effectiveness, physical constraints and availability of specialized hardware. Horizontal scaling again requires some kind of inherent distribution within the system. If the system cannot be extended to multiple machines, it could not benefit from this type of scaling. But if the system does support horizontal scaling, it can be theoretically enlarged to thousands of machines. This is the reason why horizontal scaling is important for large-scale architectures. Here, it is common practice to focus on horizontal scaling by deploying lots of commodity systems. Also, relying on low cost machines and anticipating failure is often more economical than high expenses for specialized hardware.

Considering a web server, we can apply both scaling mechanisms. The allocation of more available system resources to the web server process improves its capacities. Also, new hardware can provide speed ups under heavy load. Following the horizontal approach, we setup additional web servers and distribute incoming requests to one of the servers.

Scalability and other Non-functional Requirements

In software engineering, there are several important non-functional requirements for large software architectures. We will consider operational (runtime) requirements related to scalability: high availability, reliability and performance. A system is available, when it is capable of providing its intended service. High availability is a requirement that aims at the indentured availability of a system during a certain period. It is often denoted as percentiles of uptime, restricting the maximum time to be unavailable.

Reliability is a closely related requirement that describes the time span of operational behavior, often measured as meantime between failures. Scalability, anticipating increasing load of a system, challenges both requirements. A potential overload of the systems due to limited scalability harms availability and reliability. The essential technique for ensuring availability and reliability is redundancy and the overprovisioning of resources. From a methodical viewpoint, this is very similar to horizontal scaling. However, it is important not to conflate scalability and availability. Spare resources allocated for availability and failover can not be used for achieving scalability at the same time. Otherwise, only one requirement can be guaranteed at once.

Performance of software architectures can have multiple dimensions such as short response times (low latencies) and high throughput along with low utilization. Again, increasing load of an application may affect the requirement negatively. Unless an application is designed with scalability in mind and there are valid scaling options available, performance may degrade significantly under load.

Note that in most web architecture scenarios, all of the requirements mentioned are desirable. However, especially when resources are limited, there must be some kind of trade-off favoring some of the requirements, neglecting others.

Scalability and Concurrency

The relation between scalability and concurrency is twofold. From one perspective, concurrency is a feature that can make an application scalable. Increasing load is opposed to increasing concurrency and parallelism inside the application. Thanks to concurrency, the application stays operational and utilizes the underlying hardware to its full extent. That is, above all, scaling the execution of the application among multiple available CPUs/cores.

Although it is important to differentiate between increased performance and scalability, we can apply some rules to point out the positive impacts of parallelism for scalability. Certain problems can be solved faster when more resources are available. By speeding up tasks, we are able to conduct more work at the same time. This is especially effective when the work is composed of small, independent tasks.

We will now have a look at a basic law that describes the speed-up of parallel executions. Amdahl's law [Goe06], as seen in equation 2.1, describes the maximum improvement of a system to expect when resources are added to a system under the assumption of parallel execution. A key point hereof is the ratio of serial and parallel subtasks. N is the number of processors (or cores) available, and F denotes the fraction of calculations to be executed serially.

speedup ≤ (1/(F + ((1-F)/N) ))


Note that in case of a web server, parallelizable tasks are predominant. However, highly interactive and collaborative web applications require increasing coordination between requests, weakening the isolated parallelism of requests.

From a different angle, concurrency mechanisms themselves have some kind of scalability property. That is basically the ability to support increasing numbers of concurrent activities or flows of execution inside the concurrency model. In practice, this involves the language idioms representing flows of executions and corresponding mappings to underlying concepts such as threads. For our considerations, it is also interesting to relate incoming HTTP requests to such activities. Or more precisely, how we allocate requests to language primitives for concurrency and what this implies for the scalability of the web application under heavy load.

Scalability of Web Applications and Architectures

It is the main scalability challenge of web applications and architectures to gracefully handle growth. This includes growth of request numbers, traffic and data stored. In general, increasing load is a deliberate objective that testifies increasing usage of the application. From an architectural point of view, we thus need so-called load scalability. That is the ability to adapt its resources to varying loads. A scalable web architecture should also be designed in a way that allows easy modification and upgrade/downgrade of components.