Alchemy Database

I started the AlchemyDB project in early 2010. After two years, the project had graduated to become a hybrid Document-store/GraphDB/RDBMS/redis-store. AlchemyDB was then acquired by Aerospike in early 2012. The next 2 years were spent integrating AlchemyDB’s codebase/architecture/philosophy into Aerospike, eventually yielding Aerospike 3. Four years years after it’s inception, AlchemyDB has provided the right ammunition to catapult Aerospike into the visionary enterprise NOSQL quadrant.

Integrating AlchemyDB into Aerospike was, of course, much harder than expected. The bulk of this integration work was accomplished not by merging code, but by redoing AlchemyDB’s innovative features in Aerospike’s architecture. What was interesting is that the merging of the two platforms didn’t just result in features being dropped (e.g. GraphDB support), it also took an unchartered course and some new features were born of the process (e.g. LargeDataTypes).

All in all, I am genuinely pleased with the architecture that emerged from the integration. Aerospike 3 is a document-store, w/ robust secondary indexing, a high performance User-Defined-Function (UDF) implementation, ultra-low-latency aggregations (e.g. <1ms possible), SSD-optimized LargeDataTypes, and support for a subset of SQL. What’s more, ALL of these new features have the same good-ole Aerospike guarantees of performance, elasticity, fault-tolerance, etc… Complexity was added w/o significant compromise on the original product’s strengths.

The rest of this post will dive into the details of Aerospike 3’s LargeDataType feature. Aerospike’s LargeDataTypes are standard data-types (e.g. Stack, List, Map) but each instance is stored as many different physical pages tied-together logically via a directory. LargeDataTypes deal w/ the inherent flaw in the document model that over time documents themselves tend towards becoming BigData: the hotter the document, the larger it becomes, the more the DB bottlenecks on I/O & de/serialization.

Aerospike’s LargeDataTypes greatly benefit from piggybacking on Aerospike’s SSD optimized data-layer. For example: the LargeStack data-type has near optimal I/O when the use-case is predominantly pushing and popping a small number of items. This pattern of usage results in only the directory and the top page being accessed: a near optimal I/O which is independent of the size of the LargeStack, as the cold-parts of the LargeStack simply sit idle on SSD.

Diving even deeper: Aerospike’s LargeDataTypes are native database types at the API level, but under the covers they are user-space server-side code making calls into Aerospike’s linked-pages API (still private as of Mar 2014). The linked-pages API enables UDFs to access raw data pages on the server. It also insures that these raw data pages are logically linked & bound to the data-structure’s primary key record such that they are guaranteed to always be co-located on the same server as the primary-key’s record. This guarantee covers before, during, & after cluster re-orgs (both elastic and fault tolerant).

Implementing LargeDataTypes in server-side UDF space has one priceless advantage: extensibility. One customer benefited tremendously from byte-packing & compressing data in their LargeStacks (which held the bulk of their data). This extensibility was easily accomplished by cloning the LargeStack code (we named the clone: CompressedLargeStack) and then inserting a few lines of compression algorithms into the clone’s code. The customer’s client code switched to using CompressedLargeStacks and WHAMMY: 10X space reduction.

This customer story is an example of how such extensibility allows for the creation of new LargeDataTypes in UDF space. Aerospike users can now roll their own customized LargeDataTypes, as Aerospike’s engineers did for this customer’s use-case and before that for the LargeDataType implementations themselves. The linked-pages API that guarantees co-location of many pages bound to a single primary key, can be used to create a wide variety of different LargeDataTypes (e.g. Graphs, ScoreBoards, Tries, Sparse-bitmaps) in server-side user-space code. With proper data structure architecting, these user-created LargeDataTypes can grow arbitrarily large and still perform according to strict SSD based SLAs. This makes the linked-pages API a fantastic tool for certain high velocity BigData use-cases. 

The power of being able to define a customized data-type that:

    1. is a single logical entity, that is made up of many physical pages
    2. has strict transactional guarantees
    3. has a guarantee that all of the physical pages are located on a single server even during cluster re-orgs

enables customization down to the very data-type definition & functionality, to better fit a customer’s unique data.

My personal goal with Aerospike 3 was to deliver on NOSQL’s promise of storing & querying data in it’s most natural form. Enabling developers to easily roll their own data-types to better fit their unique data and to tweak those data-types to improve performance is an ace in the hole for those that need to continually push their system that much further.

I recently added a fairly feature rich Graph Database to AlchemyDB (called it LuaGraphDB) and it took roughly 10 days to prototype. I implemented the graph traversal logic in Lua (embedded in AlchemyDB) and used AlchemyDB’s RDBMS to index the data. The API for the GraphDB is modeled after the very advanced GraphDB Neo4j. Another recently added functionality in AlchemyDB, a column type that stores a Lua Table (called it LuaTable), led me to mix Lua-function-call-syntax into every part of SQL I could fit it into (effectively tacking on Document-Store functionality to AlchemyDB). Being able to call lua functions from any place in SQL and being able to call lua functions (that can call into the data-store) directly from the client, made building a GraphDB on top of AlchemyDB possible as a library, i.e. it didn’t require any new core functionality. This level of extensibility is unique and I am gonna refer to AlchemyDB as a “Data Platform”. This is the best term I can come up with, I am great at writing cache invalidation algorithms, but I suck at naming things 🙂

To elaborate what I mean when I say I mixed Lua-function-call-syntax into SQL (because it’s not clear and maybe not even good english:), here is an example AlchemyDB SQL call, w/ a bunch of LUA mixed in:
SELECT func1(colX), func2(nested.obj.x.y.z), col5 FROM table WHERE index = 33 AND func3(col3) ORDER BY func4(colX)

This request does the following:
1.) finds all rows from table w/ index = 33 (RDBMS secondary index traversal)
2.) filter rows out that don’t match lua function call: func3(col3) { func3() returns [true,false]}
3.) for every row that passes #2, run the functions [func1(colX), func2(nested.obj.x.y.z)] where ‘func1’ & ‘func2’ are previously defined lua functions, and ‘colX’ is a normal column and ‘nested.obj.x.y.z’ is a nested element in a LuaTable column, and combine the return values from the two function calls with col5’s contents to form a response row.
4.) these response rows are then sorted using the return value of the function call ‘func4(colX)’ as the cmp() function.

Besides SELECT calls, Lua-function-call-syntax has also been mixed into the SQL commands: INSERT, UPDATE, & DELETE, covering the 4 horseman of SQL. Full syntax found here.

In and of itself, this mixing of Lua-function-call-syntax into SQL could be viewed as a very developer friendly User-Defined-Functions mechanism and it is that. But the integration of Lua in AlchemyDB is much deeper, and it is the deepness of the integration that opens up new ways of programming within a datastore.

Alchemy’s GraphDB implemented its graph traversal logic in Lua (found here). Any global Lua function that was turned into byte-code (or possibly LuaJIT’ed to machine code) during interpretation is callable from the client via the LUAFUNC command. These Lua functions can call into the data-store (e.g. to get/set data) w/ the Lua alchemy() function. SQL Insert/Update/Delete triggers can be created via the LUATRIGGER command, enabling SQL commands to pass row data to Lua. The ability for both languages to call each other, done in a highly efficient manner using Lua’s virtual stack calling lua byte-code (meaning no interpretation in these cross language calls), allows the developer to treat AlchemyDB as if it were an AppServer w/ an embedded RDBMS (which BTW is another Alchemy Experiment).

A simple example of the Alchemy commands “LUAFUNC” and the Lua function “alchemy(,,,)” would be the function addSqlUserRowAndNode which creates a SQL row, and adds a GraphNode (via the createNamedNode() call) inside this row’s LUATABLE column.

function addSqlUserRowAndNode(pk, citypk, nodename)
alchemy('INSERT', 'INTO', 'users', 'VALUES', "(" .. pk .. ", " .. citypk .. ", {})");
alchemy('SELECT',"createNamedNode('users', 'lo', pk, '" .. nodename .."')", 'FROM', 'users', 'WHERE', 'pk = ' .. pk);
return "OK";

The lua function addSqlUserRowAndNode() can be called from the frontend w/ the following command
./alchemy-cli LUAFUNC addSqlUserRowAndNode 1 10 'A'

It is worth noting (at some point, why not here:) that as long as you keep requests relatively simple, meaning they dont look at 1000 table-rows or traverse 1000 graph-nodes, your performance will range between 10K-100K TPS on a single core w/ single millisecond latencies, these are the types of numbers people should demand for OLTP.

The most challenging feature of the GraphDB was the indexing of arbitrary relationships, which does not lend itself well to SQL’s CREATE INDEX syntax. In the example on the LuaGraphDB documentation page, the indexed relationship is “Users who HAS_VISITED CityX”, but the essence of indexing arbitrary relationships means indexing “Anything w/ SOME_RELATIONSHIP to SomethingElse (in a given or both directions) (possibly at a certain depth)”. And these indexed relationships can be nested graph relationships (i.e. Dude who KNOWS people who KNOW people who HAVE lotsOfCash), it is a bitch to frame in SQL’s syntax, so it made sense to keep the logic of indexing in Lua, for this use-case.

AlchemyDB’s GraphDB implemented the indexing of relationships using AlchemyDB’s Pure Lua Function Index (which for the record may be one of the top 5 worst names ever:). This index constructs & destructs itself via user defined lua function calls (i.e. you have to write them) declared in the CREATE INDEX statement, and leaves the population of the index (i.e. addToIndex() & deleteFromIndex()) to user defined functions (again you have to write them) AND it allows the index to be used in SQL’s where-clause, exactly the same as an indexed column is used (this part you dont have to write:). The GraphDB Pure-Lua-Function-Indexes every “USER who HAS_VISITED CityX” inside the Lua routines responsible for addRelationships() via function hooks registered during “construction” (sounds fuck all tricky, but its 10 lines of code). If someone then wants to find all the users who have visited CityX, it can be done in SQL, w/ a query like “SELECT * FROM users WHERE pure_lua_func_index() =”. A SQL query like this could also be used to find multiple start nodes (via an indexed lookup) in a complex graph traversal. This level of flexibility is not needed in most use cases, but it again represents a cyclical calling ability (Lua<->SQL) on a very deep level, and cyclical calling enables usecases².

This little experiment houses a RDBMS, a Nosql datastore (redis), a Document-Store (via the LUATABLE column type), and a GraphDB under ONE roof. They are unified, to a sane degree, by extending SQL and they can be integrated tightly via Lua function calls, as is needed. Any use-case that requires multiple types of data-stores and serves high velocity OLTP requests and fits w/in AlchemyDB’s various other quirks (InRam, single-threaded, single-node), can benefit greatly by using this approach to reduce the number of moving parts in their system, not need to sync data across/between data-stores, not need to store data redundantly, etc…

But the part I find really exciting about this: is that I added a GraphDB to a datastore in ten days, and the GraphDB is not too shabby. AlchemyDB’s bindings open up the possibility to add functionality to an already very able data-store in a highly extensible manner. It allows you to move your functionality to your data, and THIS is HUGE. It should be easy to create all sorts of efficient data-stores & data-based-services using this Data-platform, the GraphDB implementation proves the case.

And yes this was a lot of fun to code, and it was confusing as hell until it all came together and then it was surprisingly easy to code, it fit together smoothly, it felt right, and a GraphDB is neither a small nor a simple piece of software.

AlchemyDB: the lightweight OLTP Data Platform. Strong on functionality, flexibility, and being thoroughly misunderstood 🙂

p.s. The GraphDB code is brand new, and has been tested, but not enough, so if you use it be aware, there may be some bugs, but I’m busting my ass getting it production hardened, so if you have problems, just shoot me an email, I will fix’em. The branch for this code is called release_0.2_rc1.

I have recently posted on predictions that real time web applications are going in the direction of being entirely event driven, from client (WebSockets) to web-server (Node.js) to datastore (Redisql). My current project: Alchemy Database (formerly known as Redisql) hopes to be the final link in this event driven chain. Alchemy Database is taking a new step towards reducing communication between web-server and datastore (thereby increasing thruput), by implementing Datastore-Side-Scripting.

Often, in web applications, the communication between the web-server and the datastore requires 2+ trips involving sequential requests. For example: first the session is validated and then IFF the session is valid, the request’s data is retrieved from the datastore. The web-server must first wait for the “is-session-valid-lookup” to issue the “get-me-data-for-this-request-lookup” (the latter can even be a set of sequential lookups), which implies a good deal of blocking and waiting in the web-server’s backend. Having 2+ sequential steps in web-server datastore communication may seem trivial, but these steps are commonly the cause of SYSTEM bottlenecks. A single frontend request results in webserver threads blocking and waiting multiple times on sequential datastore requests. Each {block, wait, wake-up} in the web-server means 2 context switches, in addition to the latency of 1+ tcp request(s), which are 4-6 orders of magnitude slower than a RAM lookup.

In such cases, if sequential web-server-datastore request-response pairs can be reduced to a single request/response pair, overall system performance will increase substantially and the system will become more predictable/stable (fewer context-switches, less waiting, less requests, less I/O). Datastore-side-scripting can accomplish this, by pushing trivial logic into the datastore itself. In the example above, the only logic being performed is a “if(session_valid)” which has the cost of 2 context switches and a 2+ fold increase in response duration … which is absurd. In this use-case, pushing the “if(session_valid)” into the datastore makes sense on ALL levels.

Some argue, introducing scripting in the datastore is adding logic to the classic bottleneck in 3 tiered architectures, it will exacerbate bottlenecking, it is BAD. This point is valid in theory. In practice, the main bottleneck in ultra-high-performance in-memory-databases is network I/O. Adding NICs, not adding CPUs (or cores) is a better bet to scale vertically (ref: Handlersocket blog). This means, computers running Alchemy Database spend most of their time transporting packets, on request from: NIC->RAM->CPU and then on response from: CPU->RAM->NIC. The operating system’s marshaling of TCP packets takes up far more resources/time than the trivial in-memory lookup to GET/SET the request’s data. Meaning if a few more trivial commands (e.g. an IF block) are packed into the TCP request packet, the request’s duration is not significantly effected, but the overall system is benefited greatly, by taking (very lengthy) blocking/waiting steps in the web-server out of the equation.

Another name for Datastore-side-scripting is “Stored Procedures”, a term w/ lots of baggage. Stored Procedures are flawed on many levels, yet there was and is a need for them. The reality of Stored Procedures is their syntax is ugly in SQL and they open up all sorts of possibilities for developers, which have often been abused. Yet the basic concept of pushing logic into the database was recently mentioned as a future goal for the NOSQL movement. Tokyo Cabinet has embedded Lua deeply into its product (w/ 200 Lua commands), to allow datastore-side-scripting. Voltdb, a next generation SQL server, supports ONLY Stored Procedures and argues that in production they make more sense than ad-hoc SQL.

Stored Procedures are done in a hacked together SQL-like syntax, Datastore-side-scripting is done by embedding Lua. “The Lua programming language is a small scripting language specifically designed to be embedded in other programs. Lua’s C API allows exceptionally clean and simple code both to call Lua from C, and to call C from Lua”.

Lua provides a full (and tested) scripting language and you can define functions in Lua that access your datastore natively in C. I will explain this further, as it confused me at first. Alchemy Database has Lua embedded into it’s server, both Alchemy Database and the Lua engine are written in C. Alchemy Database will pass text given as the 1st argument of the Alchemy Database “LUA” command to the Lua engine. Additionally Alchemy Database has a Lua function called “client()” that can make Alchemy Database SET/GET/INSERT/SELECT/etc.. calls from w/in Lua. The Lua “client” function is written in C via Lua’s C bindings, so calling “client()” in Lua is actually running code natively in C. See its confusing, but the net effect is the following Alchemy Database command:
LUA 'user_id = client("GET", "session:XYZ"); if (user_id) then return client("GET", "data:" .. user_id); else return ""; end'
will perform the use case described above in a single webserver-to-datastore request and the Lua code is pretty easy to understand/write/extend.

Alchemy Database’s datastore-side-scripting was implemented in about 200 lines of C code, and defines a single Lua function “client()” in C, yet it opens up a whole new level of functionality. Performance tests have shown that running Lua has about a 42% performance hit server-side (i.e. 50K req/s) as compared to a single native Alchemy Database call (e.g. SET vs. LUA ‘return client(“SET”);), but packing multiple “client()” calls into a single LUA function does not cause a linear slowdown, meaning use cases that bottleneck on sequential webserver-datastore I/O will see a HUGE performance boost from pushing logic into the datastore.

I do want to stress Alchemy Database’s datastore-side-scripting is meant to be used w/ caution. Proper usage (IMO) of Lua in Alchemy Database is to implement very trivial logic datastore-side (e.g. do not do a for loop w/ 10K lookups), especially because Alchemy Database is single threaded and long running queries block other queries during their execution. Recommended usage is to try and pack trivial logical blocks into a single datastore request, effectively avoiding sequential webserver-to-datastore requests. Lua scripting does open up the possibility for map-reduce, Alchemy Database-as-a-RDBMS-proxy/cache, (and for pathological hackers) even usage as a zero-security front-end server … but that was not the intent of embedding Lua; if you use Lua in Alchemy Database in this manner, you are hacking, please know what you are doing.

Datastore-side-scripting is a balancing act that can be exploited for gain by careful/savvy developers or wrongly implemented for loss by sloppy programming/data-modelling … It gives more power to the Developer and consequently the developer needs to wield said power wisely.