in late 2016 we deployed the first version of our data synchronization API. It was a momentous occasion, and it all worked perfectly…at least until we turned on the software that actually used it. Actual traffic has a habit of doing that.

Long story short, we experienced a bunch of growing pains as we scaled our traffic up during those first few weeks, and this post is a follow-up to one of those issues in particular.

Specifically, the issue of particularly high read IOPS on the RDS instance that backed the sync API.

At the time, we investigated, didn’t find the root cause of the problem, threw money at i,t and ran away to do things that the business considered more important.

Why does it matter now?

Well, it happened again, and this time we can’t just throw money at it.

Sound familiar?

I’ve Come to Read From You Again

As I mentioned above, the main symptom was overly high read IOPS on our RDS server. Much higher than we expected for what we were doing.

This was an issue because of the way that data volumes work in AWS. You get some guaranteed IOPS (read and write combined) based on the size of the volume (1GB = 3 IOPS), while at the same time you get the capability to burst up to 3000 IOPS for brief periods of time.

The brief period of time is the important part, because it is actually modelled as a “balance” of IOPS credits that you consume if you go above your baseline, which get replenished if you’re below your baseline. Very very similar to the way that CPU credits work on EC2 instances. Back in late 2016, what exactly the balance was at any particular point in time was a bit of mystery though, because you couldn’t graph or alarm on it through CloudWatch. You only knew when it ran out and the performance of your database tanked because it was dependent on using more IOPS than its baseline.

Anyway, you can chart and alarm on the balance now, which is nice.

We tried a few things at the time, including scaling the underlying data volume (to give us more baseline), but it wasn’t enough.

We then increased the size of the RDS instance, and the high read IOPS vanished. I mean, that was obviously the best outcome, clearly. A problem we didn’t understand reacting in a completely unexpected way when we threw more power at it.

At the time, we thought that it might be related to EF querying the database on writes (to choose between an insert or update), but we never proved that hypothesis conclusively.

No-one in the business complained too loudly about the cost and everything was working swimmingly, so after an initial period of discomfort (mostly the engineers inside us sobbing quietly), we promptly forgot about it all together.

Because Some Usage Softly Creeping

A few weeks back, our data synchronization API started behaving strangely.

The first we knew about the problem was when our external monitoring service (Pingdom) reported that the API was down. Then up. Then down again. Then up again. So on and so forth.

Looking at the RDS metrics there were thousands of connections active to the database, causing us to hit connection limits. My first thought was that someone internal to the organisation had somehow got the credentials to the database and was running insane queries for business intelligence. I mean, thinking about that conclusion now, its completely bogus, because:

  1. No-one has the credentials to the master database but a few members of my team
  2. No-one even knows what the URL to access the master database is
  3. We created a read replica specifically for the organisation to use for business intelligence, so why would someone use the master
  4. You can’t even connect to the master database without being on our internal AWS VPN, which most people in the organisation don’t have access to

It didn’t help that when PostgreSQL runs out of connections, you can’t even connect to it with pgAdmin or something similar to see what the connections are doing.

Anyway, after falsely bombarding some innocent people with polite requests to “please stop doing things to our master database, its killing our API”, I shut down our data synchronization API and all the connections disappeared.

Because it was our API.

The calls were coming from inside the house.

Wrecked Everything While I was Sleeping

Luckily, the data synchronization API is probably the one API we can take down for a few hours and not have anybody really notice. As long as the database is available, the other API that actually allows access to the data can continue to do what it normally does, just with increasingly stale information. Its an eventually consistent model anyway, so some staleness is inherent.

We still only realistically had a few hours to dig into the issue before it became a real problem for actual users though.

Our only lead was the massive number of connections that were being established to the RDS instance. I managed to get a sample of what the connections were doing just as I shut the API down, and it wasn’t anything interesting. Just normal queries that I would expect from the API. Traffic hadn’t changed either, so we weren’t dealing with some weird DDOS attack or anything like that.

Well, to skip ahead, it turns out that the rise in the number of connections was a symptom, not the cause. The root issue was that we had burnt through our IO burst balance over the last few hours due to an increase in read IOPS. We’d almost done the same thing the day before, but it bottomed out at like 5% remaining because the days traffic started dropping off, so we didn’t notice. The lack of IOPS was causing each request to execute slower than normal, which just meant that there were more requests being executed in parallel.

Each API instance had a maximum number of connections that it could use, but the sum total across all of the instances was higher than the total number available to postgreSQL (whoops).

But why were we eating all of our delicious burst balance all of a sudden?

Well, a few days prior we started syncing a new table, and even though it was a small one, it increased the drain on the infrastructure.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t a case of read IOPS going from close to nothing to a massive number with that new table. Our read IOPS had actually increased to a ridiculous baseline a few weeks before that when we shipped a completely different table, and we just hadn’t noticed. The table we shipped recently had just been the straw that broke the camels back.

We turned both of the new tables off, restored the API and all was well.


Honestly, we really should have had some alarms. Any alarms. Literally any alarms on the things we were already suspicious of at the database level (connections, read IOPS, etc) would have given us some sort of warning that bad things were happening, weeks before they actually happened.

We have those alarms now, but it was still a pretty big oversight.

With the new tables turned off and stability and functionality restored, we looked to fix the problem.

Throwing money at it wasn’t really feasible, as we would have basically doubled the infrastructure costs, and it was already costing us a few thousand $US each month. No, this time we would have to understand the problem and fix is properly.

But that’s a topic for next time, because this post is already large.