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TP Monitoring Primer
What TP Monitoring Does
Pooling And Recycling
The Resource Limits Model
Calculating TP Limits
The Weight System


TP monitoring plays an important role in enterprise applications, affecting both the throughput, scalability and response time. EJB and Servlet containers hide TP monitoring from the application developer through high level APIs, and do little to explain the design choices and development model in regards to performance.

This document provides a primer to TP monitoring, explains their affect on application performance, and provides a background for some of the design choices behind various application servers.

TP Monitoring Primer

To explain what TP monitoring is all about, I will start with an example from the PC world. Imagine that you're running a PC with not too much RAM on yet, say 48MB, and two typical office applications. In order to work, each of these two applications gobbles up most of that 48MB. When used one by one, you seldom reach the memory limit and the applications perform acceptably. But when you try to load both of them at once and use them at the same time, they eat up all the available memory and then some more.

As a result, the operating system is forced to swap memory to disk, so that each application gets its share of RAM while the other one is partially swapped out. This process occurs every time you switch from one application to another, and constantly if both are used at the same time. From time to time, the PC stalls as the operating system is busy just swapping memory pages in and out, aka as thrashing.

Using the two applications at once you typically spend more time staring at the computer than working. So you go out and buy some more RAM. Well, I said this was a simple example, but it illustrates how eating too much of a machine's resources tends to slow it down.

Memory is not the only issue to deal with. There's an upper limit to how many concurrent threads a server can support efficiently. As more and more users are added to the system, the server will require more threads to address them, to the point where context switching (the switching between one live thread to another) starts eating into the CPU time available to the application itself. Some server operating systems tend to die even before reaching this point.

I/O operations also follow the rule. More memory, more CPU, better disks only buy you some room, but at the end the system always reaches a point where the load starts decreasing its performance. Obviously the more operations we perform, the less bandwidth each one gets. But the point made in the example above is that too many concurrent operations result in bandwidth wasted on keeping these operations, rather than the application itself.

Each server has an upper limit of N concurrent operations which it can perform at 100% utilization. Beyond that point, the cost of each additional operation decreases the server's utilization below 100%. Transaction processing monitoring is all about assuring the server stays at 100%.

What important does TP monitoring play in a scalable, distributed environment like EJB? The answer is: critical. There will always be bottleneck and expensive resources, be they the CPU or the network connecting multiple CPUs, the database or a connector to the order processing system. A scalable EJB server is highly dependent on the availability of a TP monitor.

What TP Monitoring Does

The short version: TP monitoring assures that the server always operates at high efficiency by keeping tabs on resource utilization. The TP monitor is responsible for managing loads, synchronizing operations, pooling connections, recycling threads, and giving performance metrics.

Traditionally TP monitoring existed in high end systems, where it mostly managed database transactions. EJB and Servlets brought TP monitoring down to medium level systems, where they are used to improve the throughput of Web applications, business processes, and a variety of other services.

In TP terminology a transaction is defined as an atomic operation, such as adding a product to the shopping cart, processing an order, or even serving the Web page with the product details. Transactions does not necessarily involve database updates, even a simple dynamic Web page can incur a cost when accessed million of types a day, and simple mechanism like thread and connection reusing can result in significant performance improvement.

When we deal with atomic operations, it is very easy to define metrics for performance measurement and tuning. Simple stress loading of a server by adding more and more client will reveal the server's maximum throughput. The unit of measurement is often the TPM, or transactions per minute.

If the server is only capable of performing a small number of transactions, typically it will reach maximum TPM before thrashing, context switching, or concurrent I/O takes it toll. It might not be able to service enough connections even before reaching the point of TPM. In such scenarios TP monitoring is typically used to enhance performance through resource pooling and recycling, and to place limits on resource consumption to guarantee some quality of service.

If the server is capable of performing a large number of transactions, it will reach a point where concurrency is too high and either it slows down due to the overhead of concurrency, or it attempts to consume more resources than are available to it. In these scenarios TP monitoring is used to keep the server at peak utilization and assure it never over consumes on resources.

Pooling And Recycling

Pooling and recycling can improve performance by saving the cost of creating new resources. Resources the benefit from pooling and recycling include threads, JDBC and LDAP connections, and complex objects (e.g. beans).

To understand the impact of pooling on server performance you can conduct a simple test. Open up a JDBC connection into the database and run SQL selects inside a loop. Now close and reopen the connection in each iteration. Depending on the database server in use, the later might be two to four times slower.

The TP monitor manages pooling through a special interface that is also responsible for transaction enlistment. Whenever the application requires a resource, it obtains one from the TP monitor, going through the pool. The TP monitor is responsible for actually creating the resource from it's factory and placing it in the pool. In the J2EE world this mechanism is done the the JNDI environment naming context. A request to a JDBC connection in the form of java:comp/env/jdbc/mydb does create and return a JDBC DataSource directly, but rather goes through the TP monitor's pool.

In TP terminology, databases, ERP connectors, remote connections and similar operations which incur a significant overhead compared to the actual application code, are referred to as resources and resource managers. A database connection would be the resource, while the database server would be the resource manager. The TP monitor takes extreme care to never consume more resources than the resource manager can efficiently handle, and to smartly reuse resources through pooling. A good TP monitor is never visible to the application, but its presence is felt under extreme loads.

The term resources is used generically, since the exact same mechanism can be extended to cover JMS, LDAP, ERP, and other resources. The connector architecture provides a uniform API that supports pooling and transaction enlistment across all types of resources.

The properties of a JDBC connection pool would typically be the maximum number of connections the database server can sustain, the size of the pool we want to maintain at all times (so as not to recreate connections), and the rate in which we release unused connections when the server goes from peak to idle.

So what happens if our database server can only deal with X connections, but we have X + 1 users knocking on our door? Without a TP monitor, user X + 1 will get some cryptic message as an attempt to open a new connection fails. And yes, database servers have known to crash under extreme loads. The TP monitor narrows down X + 1 users into X resources by queuing incoming requests, a more civilized approach to dealing with load.

EJB servers implement their internal pools of beans, and Servlet containers perform their own thread recycling. Although not requiring a TP monitor to exist, such form of pooling and recycling is part of the guarantee given by an enterprise server.

The Resource Limits Model

The EJB model allows beans, whether session or entity, to be pooled by the container. Pooling benefits applications where beans are fairly complex objects and bean creation is a heavy process. However, while useful by itself, the EJB pooling approach is insufficient as a TP working model.

Consider a scenario where the EJB server is known to only support 200 client hits at any given time. Let's assume for the moment that our database server only supports 200 concurrent connections, but in our system 201 users hit the server at once. Without setting the proper limits, the 201st user will get some cryptic error message as an attempt to open connection 201 fails.

The approach taken by most EJB server sets a limit on the size of the bean pool, limiting the number of beans available to service incoming calls at 200. The 201st user will simply wait until a bean is available to service the request, and at no point will more than 200 beans be used.

While simple and elegant, this approach doesn't work well in the real world. Suppose that our application now consists of two types of beans, A and B. If we place a 200 limit on both A and B, we can end up with 400 beans being used at once (200 + 200), while we only have 200 connections to service them. If we place a 100 limit on both A and B, our server will not perform efficiently. Only 100 users can be serviced with A, even if no users are using any of bean B.

Putting A and B in the same pool subject to the 200 limit is no solution either. Suppose that A also uses B, or B uses A (or both use C). The beans will start blocking each other as they reach the limits of the pool, even though they all share the same JDBC connection. (A connection is created once for all beans that use is within a single thread of execution).

Initially we were concerned with placing a limit on the number of users that are concurrently services by the server. Rather the resort to pooling beans, we should just look at client servicing as a form of transaction and apply TP monitoring to the problem. Whether serviced by A, B or C, each method invocation from the client will be subject to the same limit, while method invocations between beans will not be subject to any limitation.

As a side note of this model, consider how we approach limits based on the type of user. We can say, for example, that the server should always reserve at least X threads for serving out must important customers. Maybe we give this priority to paying customers that visit our Web site, or to our business partners or employees. But we make sure that a certain class of users can always be serviced, even as the server is busy serving a different class of users.

Since both classes of users might end up using the same Servlets and EJB beans, the approach we'll take is to identify them based on some authentication mechanism, perhaps through their role or the security realm. Once authenticated, we can associated them with different limits that affect all the resources they might consume. This is our way to guarantee quality of service (QoS) to our selected users.

Calculating TP Limits

If Na is the number of transactions the server is asked to perform in a given minute, below a certain threshold (N), the server will perform Na transactions per minute, regardless of how many Na there are. Of course, as we place more load, each transaction will take longer to perform as each transaction gets a smaller slice of CPU and I/O time. Beyond the point N, performance will decrease and as we increase Na (where Na > N) the actual number of transactions will fall further and further below N (actual TPM < N).

Each server has an upper limit of N concurrent transactions at which it can perform with 100% utilization. Beyond N concurrent transactions, utilization drops below 100% and overall performance degrades as a result of the cost of handling that many concurrent transactions.

The first trick in TP monitoring is placing a limit on the number of transactions that will be processed at any given instance. In our case that limit would be N. Placing this limit our server will scale up to maximum utilization at N, but will never degrade in performance beyond that point. This is typically where we rush out and buy some more hardware. With two servers, our limit will now be close to 2 x N (close, since load balancing incurs some overhead).

Placing a limit is not like placing a quota. If we placed a quota, say on how many number of TCP/IP sockets we have open or threads that are running, any attempt to go beyond that point will result in some runtime exception. In contrast, with TP monitoring, any attempt to go beyond that point will block all the excessive requests until they can be processed. Those, when user 501 tries to access a server that only supports 500 concurrent users, instead of getting an error message, that user will wait until the user can be serviced.

When peak demand happens in bursts, e.g. at 8:00AM when all employees log into the system, this scheme is good enough to let the system service them all without crashing. When peak demand tends to lengthen, e.g. a web site with a growing user base, there is no remedy but adding more hardware (or optimizing the software).

The Weight System

Assume that we learned that the maximum load on our server is Na concurrent transactions, given that each transaction performs a typical database operation. Our server is built around a number of Servlets performing database operations through session beans, and in general our N limit seems to work well in extreme loads.

As our system evolves we start adding new Servlets, not more expensive than the original ones, but these Servlets end up using two or three session beans each. Now at peak time our server is actually performing 1.5 * Na transactions, way above it's full utilization point, and we start seeing a degradation in performance. Since peak times are rather short (a minute or less), we don't consider adding another server. But due to inefficient utilization, they tend to drag for up to five minutes at a time.

What we need is to reduce Na to Na, such that 1.5 * Nb <= N. Since our system evolves at a rapid rate (as does our business), keeping track of Nb becomes an elusive task. This is where the weight system comes in.

The weight system assigns a weight to each transaction based on the number of resources used in that transaction and the weight of each resource. For example, Servlets that use a single session bean will have a weight of 1, while Servlets that use two session beans a weight of 2. The upper limit, N is now specified in the form of a maximum weight, and the maximum number of transactions running at any given instance is Nb, such that Avg(weight) * Nb <= N, and Avg(weight) is the average weight of all transaction combined.

The weight system is not only efficient, it is very simple to support. We simply let the TP monitor deal with it. For example, we can define that each session bean method, or entity bean load/store operation has a weight of one. As the server runs it will tally all the beans used in the transaction and calculate its weight in run time. We can then extract the average weight over a period of time. But in fact, we don't have to. The TP monitor will make sure that whatever the average weight is, we will never run more than Nb transactions, such that the total weight will be more than N, regardless of what Avg(weight) happens to be. And the average weight might change from day to day, from hour to hour.

Once we've identified the cost of an operation with a weight, we can even schedule jobs based on the weight system. For example, if we have a particularly heavy task, such as calculating sales margins with a weight of 20%, we can schedule this operation to occur when the server is below 70% capacity. We can also schedule it to happen during the night, but with the 24 hour nature of our Internet business, it's hard to now when night happens.


Java, Enterprise JavaBeans, JDBC, JNDI, JTA, JTS, JCA and other Java related APIs are trademarks or registered trademarks of Sun Microsystems, Inc. CORBA and IIOP are trademarks or registered trademarks of the Object Management Group, Inc. X/Open is a trademark of X/Open Company Ltd. All other product names mentioned herein are trademarks of their respective owners.
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