David Beck


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Scalesmall W14 More Group Manager Information

18 Feb 2016 by David Beck on [LinkedIn] / [Feed]

I received very interesting and valuable responses about the previous post, so thanks again to José Valim and Deprecated BIF for the inputs and spending time to read my ramblings.

It became clear how much non-revolutionary the GroupManager is and similar things already existed, both in terms of group management and group communication. In this post I try to summarize the similarities and differences to some of the existing approaches.

I have made progress also with the group management code during the past week so the second part of this post will focus on the changes.


What is a group

It was a real eye opener to see how many ways people attacked this problem. Examples:

Group management in this context is about managing group membership information of a set of nodes or processes. Even if this description is simple the design space for an actual implementation is a lot larger. Questions:

  • remove dead members? allow dead members?
  • clear cut between application and library or VM code?
  • allow being a member of multiple groups?
  • group member distance

Remove dead members? Allow dead members?

The authors of the SWIM paper pointed out very well that there are two separate concerns in group management:

  • detecting nodes down and
  • managing the group membership information

I fully agree with this view. In SWIM this idea is used for piggybacking the membership information on top of the node failure detection.

I take this view even further, for practical and theoretical reasons too. The theoretical one is that I think it is valuable to maintain group membership information without monitoring the members or removing them when they are down. I treat the group topology as a shared database, nothing more. The other, more practical reason is that I don’t see any benefit of developing monitoring code since the BEAM VM is already able to monitor nodes. If for any reason it doesn’t fit my needs I may develop a solution or look for an existing one.

The other interesting aspect of this topic is why do I need to remove dead members from the group? It is pretty much of a design question. Some systems may need this functionality bundled with group management, others may not. I beleive by not bundling these together scalesmall group manager is more flexible.

Clear cut between application and library or VM code?

If we think about the software stack as layers of Runtime + Library + Application, it is an interesting decision of which part should be responsible for the group management.

In SD Erlang they seem to favor a low level integration into the BEAM VM. I think this is a reasonable choice, especially because the existing node monitiring code already lives there.

I have a few reasons why I want scalesmall group manager to be different:

  • I want the group management protocol to be compatible with other languages and a less tight integration with the BEAM VM makes this easier. So I may be able to group Elixir and non-Elixir nodes together. (Rust and Clojure are first two on my list.)
  • I want scalesmall to progress even if my group management code doesn’t get integrated into the mainstream Erlang code.
  • I want a non-traditional cut between Library and Application code. More on that below in the Exercise part.


Let’s define a use-case for the group manager: I have a huge customer database that I want to shard over a set of machines. For a start I don’t think about redundancy. Let’s suppose I have three machines: M1, M2 and M3. How would a group manager help in this?

Let’s define 3 groups:

  • "Customers A-H" : members: [M1]
  • "Customers I-Q" : members: [M2]
  • "Customers R-Z" : members: [M3]

Now add redundancy=2:

  • "Customers A-H" : members: [M1, M2]
  • "Customers I-Q" : members: [M2, M3]
  • "Customers R-Z" : members: [M3, M1]

This solution has a few problems and advantages. When a range outgrows the capacity of a single machine, I will need to split the range and assign more machines to it. To make this simple I should better use similar machines, which is another drawback. The advantage is that groups define who needs to talk to whom naturally. No unneed chatter takes place.

In scalesmall I would use a single group to solve this problem, because scalesmall membership information also contains a start_range and end_range which I could use as subgroups. From the layered design perspective this is a dirty hack. A clean separation of Application vs Library code would require the library not knowing about things like ranges. I chose this model because the simple set-like abtraction of group membership is not rich enough to my opinion.

Scalesmall way:

So the above exercise in scalesmall would require a single "Customers" group with these members:

  • (M1, A-H)
  • (M2, A-H)
  • (M2, I-Q)
  • (M3, I-Q)
  • (M3, R-Z)
  • (M1, R-Z)

Once I have a single group I potentially lose a nice property of the ‘3 groups’ approach above: the 3 groups are independent, so only the nodes who has actual work to do for a given shard need to communicate. If I have a single group then M3 may hear messages about the A-H range, even if it has nothing to do with it. This will be handled in scalesmall (in the future).

Allow being a member of multiple groups?

Scalesmall allows being a member of multiple groups which provides lots of flexibility when designing an architecture. One might assign groups based on the physical location, role, capacity or other factors.

Group member distance

A very interesting idea in SD Erlang is the way it defines distance between nodes. In scalesmall we have only two distance values.

  • near nodes: those we can access on UDP multicast
  • far nodes: everyone else

This is a simplistic model and I am tempted to design something more sophisticated in the future. The advantage with the current approach is that it learns about the network topology automatically and no additional information is needed.

Quick recap of scalesmall group management

  • scalesmall doesn’t check nodes health, neither does it remove dead nodes
  • scalesmall group membership information contains 3 additional information:
    • start range and end range
    • port
  • uses a gossip based communication, UDP multicast on the Local LAN and a logarithmic broadcast on top of TCP (more on this here and here)

Progress since last week

I reduced the technical debt around the group-manager code:

  • the messages became a lot smaller, because I added a manual serialization instead of the :erlang.term_to_binary (NB messages were compressed already in the previous release by snappy). This new serialization drops message sizes to 1/10th.
  • the messages are now encrypted and they have checksum too

To support message encryption one needs to define a key in the group manager configuration as group_manager.key:

use Mix.Config

config :group_manager,
  my_addr: System.get_env("GROUP_MANAGER_ADDRESS"),
  my_port: System.get_env("GROUP_MANAGER_PORT") || "29999",
  multicast_addr: System.get_env("GROUP_MANAGER_MULTICAST_ADDRESS") || "",
  multicast_port: System.get_env("GROUP_MANAGER_MULTICAST_PORT") || "29999",
  multicast_ttl: System.get_env("GROUP_MANAGER_MULTICAST_TTL") || "4",
  key: System.get_env("GROUP_MANAGER_KEY") || "01234567890123456789012345678912"

This new release became 0.0.5:

{:scalesmall, git: "https://github.com/dbeck/scalesmall.git", tag: "0.0.5"}

Future plans

I think scalesmall is now ready for focusing on a real task. I am constantly hesitating between these possible next steps:

  • make a showcase for a larger user base, like create a sharded database and integrate it into Phoenix
  • focus on the initial goal and create the small message server, and see who would be interested
  • make another learning experiment with Elm and add a UI for the GroupManager
  • pick a new language to experiment with and implement the same GroupManager there too (and make them compatible on the message level). my first choices would be Rust and Clojure

I have a bit of a debt on the testing front too, which I want to clear before jumping into one of the above. If you have any suggestions or inputs, please don’t hesitate to ping me on twitter or Disqus (below) or privately at david(dot)beck(dot)priv(at)gmail(dot)com.


  1. Ideas to experiment with
  2. More ideas and a first protocol that is not in use anymore
  3. Got rid of the original protocol and looking into CRDTs
  4. My first ramblings about function guards
  5. The group membership messages
  6. Design of a mixed broadcast
  7. My ARM based testbed
  8. Experience with defstruct, defrecord and ETS
  9. GroupManager code works, beta
  10. GroupManager more information and improvements