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Thinking Like an Architect: Understanding Failure Domains

Posted by Eric Wright on Apr 26, 2015 3:30:44 PM
Eric Wright
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There are a number of considerations when building any type of infrastructure. Whether you're building a software application or the underlying infrastructure, there is an important part of our design:  failure domains.

Failure domains are regions or components of the infrastructure which contain a potential for failure. These regions can be physical or logical boundaries, and each has its own risks and challenges to architect for.


Here is a simple example to look at. If you're running a web application with a single Apache server and a MySQL database on two servers, you have a few failure domains to account for on the infrastructure.

  • Web server - running a single instance of your web server is a rather obvious single point of failure
  • Database server - a single instance risks loss when the application is potentially unable to attach to the database
  • Network - while we were smart to separate the role of web and database server, this also introduces the network as a new point of failure
    These are fairly simple to see when we look at what our application environment is comprised of. So, what should we do?

Don't Hesitate, Mitigate

Mitigation is the reduction of risk by some form of action or design. Let's break down some simple mitigation strategies to help our example application.

Web Server

We should be adding additional web servers to be able to handle the requests which will provide redundancy and resiliency. This means adding a load balancer into the application infrastructure to accept inbound connections and distribute the requests across the new web server farm.

Database Server

Just like we did with our web server, we should be creating a horizontally scalable database architecture to allow for failures of certain nodes. This ensures data availability in the event of a localized outage. Luckily MySQL can be deployed in this way using MariaDB, which is a distributed relational database to allow for multi-node installations.


Since the network is a key component, it is also a key risk. We can add multiple network cards to the server, and attach the uplink ports to multiple switches so that we can withstand both a top of rack switch outage, and a single port outage, or even something as seemingly simple as a cable failure.

At the networking layer, we can have our network engineer ensure that the necessary failsafe designs are in place to prevent routing issues, switch issues, and multiple uplinks to the external network provider for better resiliency for network connectivity.

Sounds like we have a few good solutions in hand. This is where have to pause and think about the impact of our proposed solutions.

Mitigation Introducing Risk and Complexity

We added a mitigation strategy for some of our components, but this doesn't mean that the problem is solved. Have you ever heard this joke?:

I had a problem that I decided to use Regex statements to fix. Now I have two problems.

Adding a few extra web servers looked easy when we put it on the idea list. One thing about web farms is that they assume you have a queuing system into the database when you are doing write functions. So, although we fixed the issue of a single point of failure, we introduced complexity that may not be accounted for in the application design.

This is a key reason that we focus on some DevOps concepts and the importance of having the infrastructure and application teams fully engaged when making architecture decisions.

Widening the Domain

If we look at our mitigation strategy, we have added new servers, load balancers, and let's assume that we have also gone the extra distance to add a message queuing infrastructure to endure data integrity.

It would seem like we are done, right? Not quite.

If we widen the failure domain a little bit to something like a regional power outage, or network outage, we suddenly have a new set of problems.

We can easily get into what many call Analysis Paralysis. This is where we so end so much time looking for the ultimate solution, that we continually find reasons not to proceed. Hopefully we also love agile and lean processes so we have the ability to proceed in an iterative fashion and continually revisit to attend to deficiencies and a feature backlog that can include failure domain mitigation.

When you take a look at your application or server designs, you may also see that extending outside of a geographical region for redundancy is a potential solution. Perhaps bursting to the cloud, or to multiple clouds!

The point of our example was to highlight that we should be acutely aware of failure domains and scenarios as we architect our solution. Nobody wants to get caught out when the outage occurs and has to say 'I didn't think of that'.


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