DB Perf Is Like Cake: the Architecture Layer

22 April 2011

“Re-think it, and perf will come”

Layer 4 of The Layer Model is the architecture layer.

The architecture layer represents the high-level system design of your application, the technologies used, and how various systems interact with each other. If you change your architecture to be a better fit for your application, you will get far better performance. If you’re considering architecture work, that means you have tried all of the other, easier approaches to performance tuning. That means you have tuned your system’s hardware bottlenecks, tuned the indexes and queries being run, you have even tuned your table designs and data-access layer. What is left is an architectural solution.

How to Start

When people hear ‘architecture’, they often feel intimidated. Working with the entire system is daunting. Luckily, there’s a process that makes this easy. The key to architecture work is about choosing the right tools and design for the situation. Here’s a 4-step guide:

  1. What is the essence of the problem?
  2. What high-level designs do other people use for the same problem?
  3. Which design, after minor adjustments, is the best fit for your situation?
  4. What tools should you use for your modified system architecture?

The essence of the problem

Architectural challenges have a root problem. This is the essential issue, that, if fixed, makes all of the other problems much smaller. Since we are IT professionals, identifying root cause is something we’re good at.

What is the root problem with your system? Do you have single 80TB database powering your entire reporting system? A single OLTP system growing by 10X every month? Are there 80 critical system components that each need to talk to all of the others?

Knowing the problem is half the battle.

What other architectures do people use?

Brilliant innovators are very rare

Some of us can produce brilliant, never-before-seen system architectures that work. They’re rare. For the rest of us, we mimic the designs and best practices we hear about. Doing this is very wise; you can learn the strengths and weaknesses of many system designs without trying them out.

Luckily for us, the SQL Server community is very active. Chances are you have access to a nearby SQL Saturday, lots of helpful professionals on Twitter, and a gaggle of blogs with great resources. Most importantly, all of the people I’ve met in the community are easy to talk to.

I can learn more about architecture in an evening than in 6 months of reading. How? I offer to buy a 6 smart, experienced engineers a round of drinks after an event, and ask them lots of questions. Or I will find the one subject matter expert in this area, and expense a fancy dinner. Your manager should happily pay a $200 bill to avoid 6 months of project headaches.

Find out what others have done, and you benefit from decades of experience at a very low price.


The scales of IT are not blind

Now you know the core problem to solve, and what others have done that works.

You should pick a system architecture based on what you know. I do this in a 5-step process:

  1. What are the 2-3 most critical requirements for my system, and my business? Scale? Latency? Interoperability? Ease of adding new features?
  2. Which architectures _do not do well _with these requirements? Discard the ones that don’t fit.
  3. Of the remaining ideas, list the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  4. Pick one.
  5. Tweak the system design a bit, but only to address your critical requirements.

Choose the right design, using good judgment and a critical eye.

Using the right tools

Some stacks are more fragile than others

You now have a proposed system architecture. Now you need tools. The last step is to pick a technology stack for the job. I’ve saved this step for last because the choice of system architecture should dictate which technologies you use, and not the other way around. I like to do the following:

  1. List the top 3 most common technologies for the problem. Is it SQL Server? WCF? Memcached? Windows Azure AppFabric?
  2. List the strengths and weaknesses of each. If you are familiar with a technology stack, that is a key strength.
  3. Pick one.

Pick the right tools for your design, and you’ll have an architecture that can last for years.

The Good:

**Re-architecting a system can give you a faster, more scalable, and easier to use system for years. It can reduce dozens of headaches for users and IT in one fell swoop. It can also foster a sense of camaraderie between IT, developers, program managers, and the business. After all, you’re all in this together.

The Bad:

**This is high-risk work. Doing this without testing is a recipe for horror. Bad communications and planning dooms a project this size. A lot depends on the judgment and teamwork of a few key IT and development personnel.

The Ugly:

Done wrong, you can completely screw up your system architecture, alienate various teams from each other, and lose massive amounts of money as your customers flee.

But wait, there’s more!

Several people have asked me for examples of architecture re-work, design tuning, and so forth. I’ll be putting together several posts over the next few weeks with examples, best practices, and anti patterns.


DB Perf is Like Cake: The Design Layer

04 April 2011

“Refactor it, and perf will come”

Layer 3 of The Layer Model is the design layer. The design layer is the schema of your tables and the application interfaces into your database. Each table’s datatypes, the views and stored procedures used by applications, LINQ, Entity Framework…they are the design layer of your database. Clean up your design, and you will get better performance.

Work with your developers

To do any of this work, there must be a good working relationship between the DBA team and the development team(s). Everybody needs to get along. These tuning techniques require DBAs, database developers, and C# developers to work well together. All of us will be working outside of our comfort zone.

Data-Access Tuning

The way that applications access your database has a lot of influence on how well your application behaves, and the load on your database. Does your UI or middle-tier use LINQ everywhere? Is it all done through stored procedures? Some other way?

Luckily, developers are pretty conservative (read: lazy), so your application probably only uses one set of tools to access the databases.

Stored Procedures

If your application always calls stored procedures (‘sprocs’), then you’re in luck. There are a lot of things you can do for performance tuning on your own. I’d recommend the following approach:

1. Do query tuning for the stored procedures in your system. 2. Do you have multiple applications hitting the same database? Consider making different stored procedures for each one. That way you can tune each application independently, and not have to worry about the others. That way a set of stored procedures becomes the application<->database interface layer. 3. Make sure each stored procedure is doing the minimum amount of work necessary. If you only need to return 2 columns to your application, only return those 2, instead of all 20 in the table.

Object to Relational Mappers

If your application uses an Object-to-Relational Mapper (ORM) like LINQ, Entity Framework, or nHibernate, then brace yourself. ORM tools hide a lot of query information from DBAs. They don’t expose information on what queries they create, and those queries are often hard to tune because nobody can re-write them directly. They make it hard for anyone to understand what the application is doing with your database.

For this post, I’m going to stick with tuning LINQ to SQL, since it seems to be the most common ORM tool with my readers. Nowadays I can’t swing a stick without hitting someone who’s run into performance issues using LINQ to SQL. Some intrepid souls have even benchmarked the performance hit you might receive, and the results may make you want to cry.

Luckily, this problem is common enough that there are a lot of resources around how to go performance tuning. Some of my favorites are below.

All of these resources require that DBAs and developers work together. They often require that developers have access to a database that’s similar in size to your production system, to find out what’s going on. However, it’s a great way to speed up your systems and meet nerdy colleagues.

Table Tuning

Table tuning isn’t talked about very often. Why would you change the schema of a table for performance? Isn’t it usually done only for new features, or to add data integrity?

The reason is that your table schema can _dramatically _change how your queries behave. Consider these two examples, which can be used for the exact same application:

Let’s say the table had 1 million rows. The first table would need 197MB for the clustered index. It also needs an additional 2GB for the images being stored as LOBs. The second table would need 107MB for the clustered index, and nothing else. That’s a space savings of over 95%.

I’d recommend the following approach:

  1. Make sure it’s safe to redesign your tables. That means making sure stored procedures are used everywhere, or views, or you have agreement from the folks working with the ORM tools you have.
  2. Redesign the largest tables first.
  3. Resign the tables that have the worst blocking or deadlocks.
  4. Redesign ‘core’ tables. If a table is involved in over ~20% of your application’s queries, it’s a ‘core’ table
  5. Redesign anything else.

There are some great resources on table design. My favorite starting point, however, is Kimberly Tripp’s blog post on GUIDs.


The Good: Great performance improvements are possible (5x-100x is very achievable). Space savings come along as well.

The Bad: Development teams can be busy and tiring. There is a medium amount of development risk. If you don’t have a good database developer, you could make things worse, and break your applications in the process.

The Ugly: That application that is using LINQ to SQL on 1000 active spids against your lone OLTP database? It’s still there, even if the queries finish faster.