Cloud Computing: Vertical Scalability is Still Your Problem

Horizontal scalability achieved through the implementation of a load balancing solution is easy. It's vertical scalability that's always been and remains difficult to achieve, and it's even more important in a cloud computing or virtualized environment because now it can hurt you where it counts: the bottom line.

Horizontal scalability is the ability of an application to be scaled up to meet demand through replication and the distribution of requests across a pool or farm of servers. It's the traditional load balanced model, and it's an integral component of cloud computing environments. Vertical scalability is the ability of an application to scale under load; to maintain performance levels as the number of concurrent requests increases. While load balancing solutions can certainly assist in optimizing the environment in which an application needs to scale by reducing overhead that can negatively impact performance (such as TCP session management, SSL operations, and compression/caching functionality) it can't solve core problems that prevent vertical scalability.

The problem is that a single database table or SQL query that is poorly constructed can destroy vertical scalability and actually increase the cost of deploying in the cloud. Because you generally pay on a resource basis, if the application isn’t scaling up well it will require more resources to maintain performance levels and thus cost a lot more. Cloud computing isn’t going to magically optimize code or database queries or design database tables with performance in mind, that’s still squarely in the hands of the developers regardless of whether or not cloud computing is used as the deployment model.

The issue of vertical scalability is very important when considering the use of cloud computing because you’re often charged based on compute resources used, much like the old mainframe model. If an application doesn’t vertically scale well, it’s going to increase the costs to run in the cloud.

Cloud computing providers can't, and probably wouldn't if they could (it makes them money, after all), address vertical scalability issues because they are peculiar to the application. No external solution can optimize code such that the application will magically scale up vertically. External solutions can improve overall performance, certainly, by optimizing protocols, reducing protocol and application overhead, and reducing bandwidth requirements, but it can't dig into the application code and rearrange the order in which joins are performed inside an SQL query, rewrite a particularly poorly written loop, or refactor code to use a more efficient data structure. 

Vertical scalability, whether the application is deployed inside the local data center or out there in the cloud, is still the domain of the application developer. While developers can certainly take advantage of technologies like network-side scripting and inherent features in application delivery solutions to assist with efforts to increase vertical scalability, there is a limit to what solutions can do to address the root cause of an application's failure to vertically scale.

Improving the vertical scalability of applications is important in achieving the benefits of a reduction in costs associated with cloud computing and virtualization. Applications that fail to vertically scale well may end up costing more when deployed in the cloud because of the additional demand on compute resources required as demand increases.

Things you can do to improve vertical scalability

  1. Optimize SQL / database queries
  2. Take advantage of offload capabilities of application delivery solutions available
  3. Be aware of the impact on performance and scalability of decomposing applications into too finely grained services
  4. Remember that API usage will impact vertical scalability
  5. Understand the bottlenecks associated with the programming language(s) used and address them

Cloud computing and virtualization can certainly address vertical scalability limitations by using horizontal scaling techniques to ensure capacity meets demand and performance level agreements are met. But doing so may cost you dearly and eliminate many of the financial incentives that led you to adopt cloud computing or virtualization in the first place.

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Published Nov 25, 2008
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  • @tndal



    Interesting question. I'm not really sure who came up with the concept, but it's been a part of performance definitions since, oh, about 2000 when load balancing really took off and it was discovered that scaling one way did not necessarily affect scaling the other way.



    It sounds like you're claiming there's yet another scalability direction. Care to enlighten the rest of us?