4 things you can do in your code now to make it more scalable later

No one likes to hear that they need to rewrite or re-architect an application because it doesn't scale. I'm sure no one at Twitter thought that they'd need to be overhauling their architecture because it gained popularity as quickly as it did.

Many developers, especially in the enterprise space, don't worry about the kind of scalability that sites like Twitter or LinkedIn need to concern themselves with, but they still need to be (or at least should be) concerned with scalability in general and the effects of inserting an application into a high-scalability environment, such as one fronted by a load balancer or application delivery controller.

There are some very simple things you can do in your code, when you're developing an application, that can ease the transition into a high-availability architecture and that will eventually lead to a faster, more scalable application.

Here are four things you can do now - and why - to make your application fit better into a high availability environment in the future and avoid rewriting or re-architecting your solutions later.

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1. Don't assume your application is always responsible for cookie encryption 

Encrypting cookies in today's privacy lax environment that is the Internet is the responsible thing to do. In the first iterations of your application you will certainly be responsible for handling the encryption and decryption of cookies, but later on, when the application is inserted into a high-availability environment and there exists an application delivery controller (ADC), that functionality can be offloaded to the ADC. Offloading the responsibility for encryption and decryption of cookies to the ADC improves performance because the ADC employs hardware acceleration.

To make it easier to offload this responsibility to an ADC in the future but support it early on, use a configuration flag to indicate whether you should decrypt or encrypt cookies before examining them. That way you can simply change the configuration flag later on and immediately take advantage of a performance boost from the network infrastructure.

2. Don't assume the client IP is accurate

If you need to use/store/access the client's IP address, don't assume the traditional HTTP header is accurate. Early on it certainly will be, but when the application is inserted into a high availability environment and a full-proxy solution is sitting in front of your application, it won't be. A full-proxy mediates between client and server, which means it is the client when talking to the server, so its IP address becomes the "client IP". Almost all full-proxies insert the real client IP address into the X-Forwarded-For HTTP header, so you should always check that header before checking the client IP address. If there is an X-Forwarded-For value, you'll more than likely want to use it instead of the client IP address.

This simple check should alleviate the need to make changes to your application when it's moved into a high availability environment.

3. Don't use relative paths

Always use the FQDN (fully qualified domain name) when referencing images, scripts, etc... inside your application. Furthermore, use different host names for different content types - i.e. images.example.com and scripts.example.com. Early on all the hosts will point to the same server, probably, but by insuring that you're using the FQDN now makes architecting that high availability environment much easier. While any intelligent application delivery controller can perform layer 7 switching on any part of the URI and arrive at the same architecture, it's much more efficient to load balance and route application data based on the host name.

By using the FQDN and separating host names by content type you can later optimize and tune specific servers for delivery of that content, or use the CNAME trick to improve parallelism and performance in request heavy applications.

4. Separate out API rate limiting functionality

If you're writing an application with an API for integration later, separate out the rate limiting functionality. Initially you may need it, but when the application is inserted into a high-availability environment with an intelligent application delivery controller, it can take over that functionality and spare your application from having to reject requests that exceed the set limits. Like cookie encryption, use a configuration flag to determine whether you should check this limitation or not so it can be easily be turned on and off at will.

By offloading the responsibility for rate limiting to an application delivery controller you remove the need for the server to waste resources (connections, RAM, cycles) on requests it won't respond to anyway. This improves the capacity of the server and thus your application, making it more efficient and more scalable.

By thinking about the ways in which your application will need to interact with a high availability infrastructure later and adjusting your code to take that into consideration you can save yourself a lot of headaches later on when your application is inserted into that infrastructure. That means less rewriting of applications, less troubleshooting, and fewer servers needed to scale up quickly to meet demand.

Happy coding!

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Published Sep 19, 2008
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