Michele Nasti

Thoughts on what I learn

Stress your server with WRT

Lately, I have been exploring a bug where the communication between two servers goes on timeout under heavy load. Let me explain this better: a huge number of incoming HTTP connections hits server A, which needs to call server B, and a relevant percentage of the calls between A and B go on timeout. The weird thing? A and B live on the same host, so basically A is calling localhost!

One may think that B is designed in a way that cannot handle such a big load: but this is not the case, we know for a fact that B can handle thousands of connections, only being limited by the size of the machine. So we needed to find the culprit and before everything else we needed to replicate the bug on our local.

This type of test falls under the name of stress tests, or load tests. You must throw at the server a large number of incoming requests to see how the server - or the cluster - behaves.

The tool we chose for the job is called wrk. It's a command-line app that, in its most basic form, is already very useful for stress testing.

To install on Mac:

brew install wrk

On every other system, the officially recommended path is to clone the repo, run make, and use the binary directly.

How to use the binary

Let's see a classic example:

wrk -t20 -c300 -d30 http://localhost:8080
  • -t specifies the number of threads to use. The best thing to do is to use between half and all the number of CPU cores. So, if your CPU has 20 cores, use a number between 10 and 20. More would just clog the system. In the example, 20 threads.
  • -c is the number of connections every thread will keep open. In the example, 300 connections per thread.
  • -d is the duration of the test, in seconds. In the example, 30 seconds.
  • http://localhost:8080 is the URL to hit. The request will be a simple GET.

Tips and Tricks

When I first started to run this command, I got that server A was always timing out. At first, I thought it was the bug, but no, the bug was that only a relevant percentage was timing out, not all of them. So, what's going on?

The friend that gave me the command to run was on an ARM machine with 24-core CPU, and he could replicate the same behavior in production. I, on an intel with just 6 cores, had to lower the number until I found the right combination of it.

So, in order to test that things are right, I started very soft:

wrk -t1 -c1 -d10 ...

One thread, one connection, 10 seconds, and finally I don't see the timeout. A good assessment that the server is working. After that, I started to increase the number of cores and connections, until I reached the options that replicate the bug:

wrk -t4 -c30 -d10 ...

This is the maximum load that my machine can handle before becoming unresponsive. But yes, now around 10% of connections time out, not all of them!

An example of a "good" response from wrk:

  3 threads and 30 connections
Thread Stats Avg Stdev Max +/- Stdev
Latency 857.73ms 392.03ms 1.93s 65.47%
Req/Sec 12.52 9.85 80.00 89.89%
293 requests in 10.04s, 101.29KB read
Socket errors: connect 0, read 0, write 0, timeout 15

Only 15 timeouts after 293 requests.

Why in the 20-threads, 300-connections scenario my server is running out? There are so many resources involved in handling the load, that server A does not find any CPU cycles to even start the request to server B!

An example of a 100% timed-out responses:

20 threads and 400 connections
Thread Stats Avg Stdev Max +/- Stdev
Latency 0.00us 0.00us 0.00us nan%
Req/Sec 10.67 24.25 100.00 87.22%
462 requests in 30.03s, 159.71KB read
Socket errors: connect 0, read 390, write 0, timeout 462
Requests/sec: 15.38
Transfer/sec: 5.32KB

You can see 462 requests and 462 timeouts!

So, not all machines are equal, numbers must be adjusted based on what your machine can physically handle. Blasting the server with too many connections will stop every server on earth, and does not provide the value.

But what was the bug?

My colleague noticed that we are creating a new instance of httpx client at every request, and this slowed down everything. httpx is a Python library to make HTTP requests, and it's considered the spiritual (faster) successor of request. To solve the bug, we created just one instance of the client, so that the connections are not dropped after the request. With this new setup, timeouts decreased to a non-significant number.