Elasticsearch London user group – The Guardian & Orchestrate test the limits

Last week I popped into the Elasticsearch London meetup, hosted this time by The Guardian newspaper. Interestingly, the overall theme of this event was not just what the (very capable and flexible) Elasticsearch software is capable of, but also how things can go wrong and what to do about it.

Jenny Sivapalan and Mariot Chauvin from the Guardian’s technical team described how Elasticsearch powers the Content API, used not just for the newspaper’s own website but internally and by third party applications. Originally this was built on Apache Solr (I heard about this the last time I attended a search meetup at the Guardian) but this system was proving difficult to scale elastically, taking a few minutes before new content was available and around an hour to add a new server. Instead of upgrading to SolrCloud (which probably would have solved some of these issues) the team decided to move to Elasticsearch with targets of less than 5 seconds for new content to become live and generally a quicker response to traffic peaks. The team were honest about what had gone wrong during this process: oversharding led to problems caused by Java garbage collection, some of the characteristics of the Amazon cloud hosting used (in particular, unexpected server shutdowns for maintenance) required significant tweaking of the Elasticsearch startup process and they were keen to stress that scripting must be disabled unless you want your search servers to be an easy target for hackers. Although Elasticsearch promises that version upgrades can usually be done on a live cluster, the Guardian team found this unreliable in a majority of cases. Their eventual solution for version upgrades and even more simple configuration changes was to spin up an entirely new cluster of servers, switch over by changing DNS settings and then to turn off the old cluster. They have achieved their performance targets though, with around 375 requests/second supported and less than 15 minutes for a failed node to recover.

After a brief presentation from Colin Goodheart-Smithe of Elasticsearch (the company) on scripted aggregrations – a clever way to gather statistics, but possibly rather fiddly to debug – we moved on to Ian Plosker of Orchestrate.io, who provide a ‘database as a service’ backed by HBase, Elasticsearch and other technologies, and his presentation on Schemalessness Gone Wrong. Elasticsearch allows you submit data for indexing without pre-defining a schema – but Ian demonstrated how this feature isn’t very reliable in practice and how his team had worked around it but creating a ‘tuplewise transform’, restructuring data into pairs of ‘field name, field value’ before indexing with Elasticsearch. Ian was questioned on how this might affect term statistics and thus relevance metrics (which it will) but replied that this probably won’t matter – it won’t for most situations I expect, but it’s something to be aware of. There’s much more on this at Orchestrate’s own blog.

We finished up with the usual Q&A which this time featured some hard questions for the Elasticsearch team to answer – for example why they have rolled their own distributed configuration system rather than used the proven Zookeeper. I asked what’s going to happen to the easily embeddable Kibana 3 now Kibana 4 has its own web application (the answer being that it will probably not be developed further) and also about the licensing and availability of their upcoming Shield security plugin for Elasticsearch. Interestingly this won’t be something you can buy as a product, rather it will only be available to support customers on the Gold and Platinum support subscriptions. It’s clear that although Elasticsearch the search engine should remain open source, we’re increasingly going to see parts of its ecosystem that aren’t – users should be aware of this, and that the future of the platform will very much depend on the business direction of Elasticsearch the company, who also centrally control the content of the open source releases (in contrast to Solr which is managed by the Apache Foundation).

Elasticsearch meetups will be more frequent next year – thanks Yann Cluchey for organising and to all the speakers and the Elasticsearch team, see you again soon I hope.

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