Why speed is more important than scalability

Software developers creating web applications like to talk about scalability as if it is totally unrelated to computing efficiency. They also like to argue that abstractions are important. They will tell you that their DBAL, Router, View Egine, Dependency Injection and even ORM do not have that much overhead (only a little). They will argue that the learning curve pays off and that the performance loss is not that bad. In this post I’ll argue that page loading speed is more important than scalability (or pretty abstractions).

Orders of magnitude of speed on the web

Just to get an idea of speed, I tried to search for a web action for every order of magnitude:

  • 0.1 ms – A simple database lookup from memory
  • 1 ms – Serving small static content from RAM
  • 10 ms – An very simple API that only does a DB lookup
  • 100 ms – A complex page load that calls multiple APIs
  • 1000 ms – Nothing should take this long… 🙂

But I’m sure that your website has pages that take a full second or more (even this site has). How can that be?

CPUs and web farms

Most severs have 1 to 4 CPUs. Each CPU has 2 to 32 cores. If you do a single web request, then you are using (at most) a single core of a single CPU. Maybe that is why people say that page loading speed is irrelevant. If you have more visitors, then they will use other cores or even other CPUs. This is true, but what if you have more concurrent requests than visitors? You can simply add machines and configure a web farm, as most people do.

At some point you may have 16 servers running your popular web application with page loads that average at 300 ms. If you could bring down the page load time to 20 ms, you could run this on a single box! Imagine how much simpler that is! The “one big box” strategy is also called the “big iron” strategy. Often programmers are not very careful with resources. This is because a software developers tend to aim for beautiful abstractions and not for fast software.

Programming languages matter

Only when hardware enthusiasts and software developers work together you may get efficient software. Nice frameworks may have to be removed. Toys like Dependency Injection that mainly bring theoretical value may have to be sacrificed. Also languages need to be chosen for execution speed. Languages that typically score good are: C, C# (Mono), Go and even Java (OpenJDK). Languages that typically score very bad: PHP, Python, Ruby and Perl (source: benchmarksgame). This is understandable, as these are all interpreted languages. But it should be considered when building a web application.

Stop using web application frameworks

But even if you use an interpreted language (which may be 10x slower), then you can still have good performance. Unless of course you build applications consisting of tens of thousands of lines of code that all need to be loaded. Normally people would not do that as it would take too much time to write. (warning: sarcasm) In order to be able to fail – against all odds – people have created frameworks. These are tens of thousands of lines of code that you can install on your server. With it your small and lean application will still be slow (/sarcasm). I think it is fair to say that frameworks will make your web application typically 10-100x slower.

Now let that be exactly the approach that is seen in the industry as “best practice”. Unbelievable right?

5 reasons your application is slow

If you are on shared hardware (VM or shared webhosting), then you need to fix that first. I’m sure switching to dedicated hardware will give you a better (and more consistent) performance pattern. Still, each of the following problems may give you an order of a magnitude of speed decrease:

  1. Not enough RAM
  2. No SSD disks (or wrong controllers)
  3. Using an interpreted programming language
  4. A bloated web framework
  5. Not using Memcache where possible

How many of these apply to you? Let me know in the comments.

Finally

This post will probably be considered offending by programmers that like VMs, frameworks and interpreted languages. Please, don’t use that negative energy in the comments. Use it to “Go” and try Gorilla, I dare you! It is not a framework and it is fast, very fast! It will not only going to be interesting and a lot of fun, it may also change your mind about this article.

NB: Go is almost as fast as the highly optimized C code of Nginx (about 10-100x faster than PHP).

Share