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Scalability of J2EE Applications: Effective Caching's Key

Scalability of J2EE Applications: Effective Caching's Key

Sooner or later all architects and developers of large-scale J2EE products face the same problem: their software's response time gets slower and slower, and the scalability of their solution is ending. This article investigates caching solutions that promise to help; sheds some light on their limitations; and describes an easy, lightweight, and effective caching mechanism that solves most of the issues.

Note: This article does not assess all possible ways of caching nor does it take solutions such as commercial external caching products into account.

The Problem
Whenever we build distributed software for a large scale - whether it's J2EE or not - we face the same challenge: keep response or transaction times low while increasing user load. The main problem is that essentially all software systems scale exponentially at some point (see Figure 1). Architecting and implementing a solution that keeps scalability linear and leaves enough room for increasing load as the business grows is a difficult task that requires experience.

A good architect keeps traffic, transaction times and volume, persistence layer design, and caching in mind when he or she drafts the first layout of a new architecture. Understanding concurrent access by n users on m data items is one of the major things an architect looks for.

Possible Solutions
Minimizing traffic in all tiers is the primary objective when creating a scalable solution. Figure 2 shows a typical three-tier system.

While the persistence tier in modern databases already provides significant caching capabilities, it's rarely enough for large-scale systems. What do other mechanisms do to increase performance and scalability, and to what tier/layer do they apply?

Stored Procedures?
I mention this because aside from caching, one suggestion I always hear is using stored procedures. I'd like to encourage everyone to consider different options. Using stored procedures splits the persistence layer over two physical tiers and usually improves only single user performance.

If you look at your application server's console, you might see, for example, that of the 500ms a servlet or JSP request takes, only 100ms are spent on the DB transaction side. Squeezing another 30ms out by using stored procedures rarely makes your system scale - you still need DB connections, cursors, and other resources.

Persistence Layer Caching
The easiest way to cache in J2EE systems is with entity beans (if we say entity beans let's only talk about CMP for the moment); I can hear the readers moan, but the fact remains: they are the only "good" way of caching in J2EE solutions. Why? Because the maximum cache size is controllable by setting the maximum number of beans and because the resource is in control of the container, as they can be passivated if memory is short. Usually, they are the only resource that is clusterable as well.

Why would most developers and architects say entity beans are bad for your performance? Because they are. In a single request use case, they have significant overhead compared to direct JDBC. But even in scalability assessments, entity beans often come out last, because their usage as a cache is determined by the possible cache hit rate, just like any other cache. The cache hit rate is determined by the number of reads versus the number of data items versus the number of writes.

Ultimately, if you use entity beans you really need to know what you're doing. While that might be true for any out-of-the-box mechanisms a container provides, it's especially true for entity beans. It's easy to get it wrong and a lot of containers have less than mediocre support for entity beans.

Entity beans make sense if:

  • Your reads and writes are few, then scalability is not your concern anyway and CMP EJBs are just as convenient.
  • Your reads are many, your writes and number of data items are few - this means maximum cache hit rate - you have just a few items to cache (most containers only perform well with a few thousand entity bean instances per CPU), and it rarely becomes stale because you hardly write.
In all other cases, entity beans just make things worse due to their management overhead. Figure 3 shows that cache efficiencies (like entity beans) depend on the number of reads versus the number of writes versus the number of rows (which is an oversimplified perception and not real math). Caching with entity beans works well within the green area.

One important fact needs to be considered as well: some application servers (WLS 6, WebSphere) do not support EntityBean clustering/ caching in clustered infrastructures. In other words, they often support only the caching of read-only entity beans if you run a cluster, which rules straight CMP out completely to increase scalability.

Let's have a quick look at BMP (mainly read-only or read-mostly BMP). These type of entity beans can be used to solve the problem of too many entity bean instances by allowing you to change the caching granularity: while CMP caches on a per-data-row basis, RO BMPs can essentially cache on any desired granularity level and are basically similar to the caching mechanism I'll discuss later. However, they still have a few disadvantages, such as the entity bean management overhead or (depending on your container implementation) the fact that they usually are - like all entity beans - single threaded: only one request at a time can access the cache.

In all other cases (mixed reads/ writes, lots of data, few reads many writes, etc.), how do we make our software scalable?

Web Tier Caching Using HTTP Session
If persistence layer caching through entity beans is ruled out, we have two tiers left where we could cache.

The most obvious choice developers often make is HTTP session caching. Since it caches at the uppermost tier, it should be most effective at minimizing traffic, right? However, using the HTTP session as a cache makes architects of large-scale systems shudder.

First, it caches on a per-session basis: it helps if one user performs the same or similar action 5,000 times but not if 5,000 users perform one action.

Second, the cache invalidation and GC is based on the session time-out - usually something like 60 minutes. Even if a user works for 10 minutes in your system, the data is cached for 60 minutes, which makes the cache size six times as big as it needs to be, unless you invalidate your session manually.

Finally, it removes one important task from the container: resource management. Since this cache cannot be cleared by the container, it often causes problems since the container cannot GC these objects even if memory resources become short. The container's GC cycles become more frequent and the GC has to walk over a large set of mainly stale objects in your session, making the cycles longer than they need to be.

Singletons and Application Context
The last place to cache is in the business layer (the following mechanism could be used in the Web tier as well). Since the HTTP session is not very effective at caching in high-traffic systems, the next best choice is using singletons to cache objects or data from the database.

Singletons (just like the application context) have the advantage that they again cache for all requests, but still are not a container-managed resource. Frequently singleton caches are implemented as a plain Hashtable and are unlimited in size, which causes almost the same problems as HTTP session caching.

I'd like to recall a simple but effective caching strategy that is singleton-based and uses a container such as a mechanism of resource management to keep resource usage to a minimum.

LRU Caching
The strategy used is called LRU (least recently used), also known as MRU (most recently used). Essentially, it only caches objects that are used frequently by limiting the cache size to a fixed number of items (hence the name), just like a container pool size for EJBs, thus keeping resource utilization controlled.

How does this work? Essentially it's a stack: if an object is requested from the stack and it's not there (cache miss), it's inserted at the very top. If your cache size is 1,000 items and the cache is full, the last item will fall off the stack and effectively be removed from the cache (see Figure 4).

In case an object is on the cache, it will be removed and reinserted at the top (see Figure 5).

This way, the most often used items will remain at the top, and the least used items will eventually drop off the stack. You can even keep track of your hits and misses easily and either query this information to reconfigure your cache or grow and shrink the maximum size dynamically. This way, you minimize usage of resources and maximize cache effectiveness. The stack implementation depends on your needs: choose an unsynchronized model if necessary to allow concurrent reads and minimize overhead.

Cache Invalidation
This cache works best in read-only or read-mostly scenarios. Unless you implement write-back or other write cache synchronization schemes or don't care that the cache is out of sync with the data source, you'll have to invalidate the cache, which decreases the cache hit rate and efficiency. For example, you can implement write-through caches fairly easily using dynamic proxy classes (JDK 1.3 introduced support for dynamic proxies) but that is a topic for another article.

Singleton-based LRU caching still has the typical problem of all singleton-based caches: a singleton is not a singleton in distributed systems (J2EE for that matter) but unique per classloader or server context (if you're lucky), and it's not kept in sync in clustered environments. There are, of course, mechanisms to implement the synchronization of distributed resources; some of them are difficult to implement or have scalability or availability issues; some work just fine. Distributed caching is not easy and if your requirements force you to go down this path, you might be well served choosing a commercial caching product.

The fact that you have several unsynchronized cache copies in clustered environments can be a big problem. The easy solution is using timed caches (just like read-only entity beans), which means that if a cached object is a certain age, it's considered stale and will be dropped from the cache. This is sufficient in most cases, but let's look at the following scenario.

Let's assume our invalidation time is 30 minutes (an object older than 30 minutes is considered stale). Cache A caches an object at 11:15, Cache B at 11:35. If the data item the cache is referring to is refreshed in the database at 11:40, Cache A will have the correct value at 11:45 when it expires but Cache B won't have it until 12:05 (see Figure 6). The problem now is that for 20 minutes you get different results - depending on which server you hit and on the use case this can be a big problem.

The solution for these cases is a timed cache that is refreshed at fixed points in time every n minutes, like at 12:00, 12:30, 1:00, etc. The advantage is that now all your caches are somewhat in sync (as in sync as the clocks on your servers are). The disadvantage is that the load on your servers increases quite a bit every time the caches are cleared, because they're cleared completely.

Which way you go depends on your business requirements; adjusting your refresh cycles largely depends on your data update frequency versus the cache hit rate you would like to achieve.

Of course, there are a variety of other ways to keep distributed copies of caches in sync, but these are not easy to implement and have a variety of side effects to consider.

Open Source and Commercial Caching Implementations
If your caching needs are more complex, or if you just don't want to "roll your own," you might want to give JSR 107 a look. This is the JCache JSR that specifies a distributed, resource-managed, Java-based cache. Even though little progress has been made to provide a production-ready implementation, there are several open source projects and products that are close to a JCache implementation and might provide what you need.

Commercial caching products should be considered if your caching requirements are complex (clustered environments, etc.). As mentioned earlier, distributed caching is not as easy at it seems and relying on an enterprise-class product often saves time and trouble.

Building a scalable solution often depends on making the right decisions in persistence mechanism and in caching. How, when, and where to cache is the trick; I hope this article helped you make the right decision.

References

  • JSR 104: www.jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=107
  • JCS and JCache at Apache: http://jakarta.apache.org/turbine/jcs/JCSandJCACHE.html
  • More Stories By Stefan Piesche

    Stefan Piesche is a Principal Architect for the Cobalt Group (HQ in Seattle) responsible for large-scale, distributed systems based on J2EE. In the past years I worked on several large-scale systems in Europe in the financial and airline industry.

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