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How to Scale Vertically and Horizontally, and When to Use Sharding

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How to Scale Vertically and Horizontally, and When to Use Sharding

Written by Mike Jasperson, VP of IOT EDC


Deployment architecture describes the way in which an IOT application is deployed, or where each of the components are hosted on the network. There are deployment architecture considerations to make when scaling up an application. Each approach to deployment expansion can be described by the “eggs in a basket” analogy: vertical scale is like one person carrying a bigger basket, horizontal scale is like one person carrying more baskets, and sharding is like more than one person carrying the baskets (see below).



All of these approaches result in the eggs getting from point A to point B (they all satisfy the use case), but the simplest (vertical scale) is not necessarily the best. Sure, it makes sense on paper for one person to carry everything in one big basket, but that doesn’t ensure that all of the eggs arrive intact. Selecting the right deployment architecture is a way to ensure the use cases are satisfied in the best and most efficient ways possible, with the least amount of application downtown or data loss.


Vertical Scale - a.k.a. "one person carrying a bigger basket"


The most common scalability approach is to simply size the IOT server larger, or scale up the server. This might mean the server is given additional CPU cores, faster CPU clock speeds, more memory, faster disks, additional network bandwidth or improved network cards, and so on. This is a very good idea 

when the application logic is increased in complexity, when more data is therefore needed in memory at a time, or when the processing of said data has to occur as quickly as possible. For example, adding additional devices to the fleet increases the size of the “Thing Model” in the process and will require additional heap memory be available to the Foundation server.


However, there are limitations to this approach. Only so many concurrent operations and threads can be performed at once by a single server. Operations trying to read and write to the disks at once can introduce bottlenecks and reduce server performance. Likewise, “one person, one basket” introduces a single-point-of-failure operating risk. If for some reason the server’s performance does degrade or cease altogether, then all of the “eggs” go down with it. Therefore, this approach is important, but usually not sufficient on its own for empowering an enterprise level deployment.


Horizontal Scale - a.k.a. "one person, with two or more baskets"

imageAs of ThingWorx version 9.0, Foundation servers can be deployed in clusters, meaning more baskets to carry the eggs. More baskets means that if even one of these servers is active, the application remains up in the event of an individual node failure or maintenance. So clustered deployments are those which facilitate High Availability.


Clustered servers save on some resources, but not others. For instance, every server in a cluster will need to have the same amount of memory, enough to store the entire Thing Model. Each of the multiple baskets in our analogy has to have the same type of eggs. One basket can’t have quail eggs if the rest have chicken eggs. So, each server has to have an identical version of the application, and therefore enough memory to store the entire application.


Also keep in mind that not all application business logic can scale horizontally. Event queues are local to each ThingWorx node, so the events generated within each node are processed locally by that particular node, and not the entire network (examples are timer and scheduler-based activities). Likewise, data ingestion done through an extension or other background process, like MQTT, emits events within a node that therefore must be processed by that particular node, since that's where the events are visible. On the other hand, load distribution that happens external to ThingWorx in either the Connection Server (for AlwaysOn based data coming from ThingWorx SDKs, EMS, eMessage agents, or Kepware) or REST API calls through a load balancer (i.e. user activity) will be distributed across the cluster, facilitating greater scaling potential in terms of userbase and mashup complexity. Also note that batched data will be processed by the node that received it, but different batches coming through a connection server or load balancer will still be distributed.


Another consideration with clusters pertains to failure modes. While each node in the cluster shares a cache for many things, Stream and Value Stream queues are only stored locally. In the event of a node failure, other nodes will pick up subsequent requests, but any activity already queued on the failed node will be lost. For use cases where each and every data point is critical, it is important to size each node large enough (in other words, to vertically scale each node) such that queue sizes are constantly kept low and the data within them processed as quickly as possible. Ensuring sufficient network and database throughput to handle concurrent writes from the many clustered nodes is key as well.


Once each node has enough resources to handle local queues, the system is highly available with low risk for outages or data loss. However, when multiple use cases become necessary on single deployments, horizontal scaling may no longer be enough to ensure things run smoothly. If one use case is logic-heavy, something non-time-critical which processes data for later consumption, it can use too many resources and interfere with other, lighter but more time-critical use cases. Clustering alone does not provide the flexibility to prioritize specific operations or use cases over others, but sharding does.


Sharding - a.k.a. "more than one person carrying baskets"

imageSharding” generally refers to breaking up a larger IOT enterprise implementation into smaller ones, each with its own configuration and resources. More server maintenance and administration may be required for each ThingWorx implementation, but the reduction in risk is worth it. If each of the use cases mentioned above has its own implementation, then any unexpected issues with the more complex, analytical logic will not affect the reaction time of operators to time-sensitive matters in the other use case. In other words, “don’t keep all your eggs in one basket”.


The best places to break up an implementation lie along logical boundaries already accepted by the business. Breaking things down in other ways might look nice on paper, but encouraging widespread adoption in those cases tends to be an uphill battle.


In connected products use cases, options for boundaries could be regional, tied more towards business vertical, or centered around different products or models.  These options can be especially beneficial when data needs to stay in particular countries or regions due to regulatory requirements. In connected operations use cases, the most common logical boundaries would be site-based, with smaller IOT implementations serving just a smaller number of related factories in a particular area. Use-case or product-line boundaries can also make sense here, in-line with the above comments about keeping production-critical or time-sensitive use cases isolated from interference from business-support and analysis use cases.




Ideally, a shard model will put the IOT implementation “closer” to both the devices communicating with it and the users that interact with the data. This minimizes the amount of data to be sent or received over long distances, reducing the impact from bandwidth and latency on performance. When determining which approach is best, consider that smaller, more focused implementations offer more flexibility, but are harder to manage. Having different versions of the same applications deployed in multiple places can easily become a maintainability nightmare. It’s therefore best not to combine a regional model with a use case model when it comes to determining sharding boundaries. Also consider using deployment automation tools like Solution Central. These enable tracking and managing version-controlled deployments to multiple IOT implementations, whether they are deployed on-premise, or in the cloud, giving one central location of all source code.


Another benefit to sharding is the focused investment of server resources in a more targeted way. For instance, if one region is larger than another, it may need more CPU and memory. Or, perhaps only part of an application requires High Availability, the time-critical use cases which are best suited to small, clustered deployments. The larger, analysis-centered use cases can then remain non-clustered (but still vertically scaled of course). Sharding can also make access control simpler, as those who need access to only one region or use case can just be given a user account on that particular shard.


However, certain use cases need data from more than one shard in order to operate, turning the data storage and access control benefits into challenges. Luckily, ThingWorx has an excellent toolkit for overcoming such issues. For one thing, REST API calls are readily available in ThingWorx, allowing each shard to exchange information with each other, as well as other enterprise data systems, like ERP or Service Ticketing. Sometimes, lower-level data replication strategies are the way to go, say if downsampling or data transfer from one store to another is necessary, and built-in database tools can more easily handle the workload. Most of the time, however, REST API calls are used to define the business logic within the application layer so that copying data actively between shards is unnecessary, using fewer resources to control what information is shared overall.


There are several design approaches for REST API communication between shards, the two most common being the “peer” model and the “layered” model. In a peer model, one shard may call upon another shard using REST whenever it needs more information. In a layered model, there are “front-line” shards which handle most (if not all) of the device communication and time-critical use cases, things which require only the information in one shard to operate. Then there are also “back-line” shards that aggregate data from the many front-line shards, performing any operations that are less time-sensitive and more complex or analytical.


For any of these approaches, it remains important to keep your data archival and purge strategy in mind. It is a best practice in ThingWorx to only retain as much data as is absolutely necessary, purging the rest periodically. If the front-line shards only ever need the last 7 days of raw data for 5 properties, plus the last 52 weeks of min/max/average data, then implementing an approach where each shard computes the min/max/average values and then archives the older data to a shared “data lake” before purging it would be ideal. This data lake then serves as the data store for all back-line shard operations.


There is also the option to consider sharing some infrastructure between ThingWorx instances when using sharding in a deployment, which can create more flexible, scalable architectures, but can also introduce issues where more than one shard is affected when issues occur on only one shard. For instance, a common shared infrastructure piece is at the database level; each ThingWorx instance needs its own database, but a single database server instance (such as a PostgreSQL HA cluster) could serve separate database namespaces to multiple ThingWorx instances. This is an attractive option where an existing enterprise-scale database infrastructure with experienced DBAs is already in place.


Similarly, load balancers can often be configured to manage load for multiple servers or URLs. If properly configured, an experienced load balancer could direct traffic for multiple applications, but it can also create a bottleneck for inbound connections if not properly sized. Load balancers designed for High Availability can also be considered. Apache Zookeeper is another tool often deployed once for an entire cluster to monitor the health and availability of individual components, or to vote them in or out of operations if problems are detected. With all of these options, remember that sharing infrastructure increases the chances of sharing issues from one ThingWorx system to the next, which can reduce the overall infrastructure complexity at the cost of increased administrative complexity.


Bringing it All Together

Vertical and Horizontal scale are both effective ways to add more capacity and availability to software implementations, but there are typically some diminishing returns in the investment of additional infrastructure. For example, consider two large, vertically-scaled implementations – one running on a VM with 64 vCPUs and 256 GiB RAM, and another running on a VM with 96 vCPUs and 384GiB of RAM. While the 96-core server has 1.5 times the compute capacity, in sizing tests with 1 million simulated assets, these two systems tend to fall behind on WebSocket execution at approximately the same point.




In a horizontal scale example, with two nodes each sized the same (64 vCPU and 256GiB RAM), one would expect High Availability to occur, where one node picks up the other’s slack in a failover scenario. However, what if that singular node can’t handle the entire workload? Should both machines be sized vertically such that either can take on the full load, and if so, then what is the cost-benefit of that? It would be less expensive in this case to have a third server.



Optimizing the deployment architecture for a ThingWorx application will therefore usually involve a blended approach. With more than two nodes, High Availability is more readily obtained, as two servers can almost certainly share the load of the third, failed node. Likewise, some workload aspects do not scale well until multiple additional nodes are added. For instance, spreading out the user load from mashup requests across multiple nodes to give the singleton more resources for the tasks it alone can perform doesn’t have much benefit if there are just two nodes.


However, with horizontal scaling alone, the servers may still need to be vertically scaled larger than is ideal in terms of cost. Each one has to hold the entire Thing Model in memory, which means that sometimes, some of the nodes may be oversized for the tasks actually performed there. Sharding allows for each node to have a different Thing Model as necessary based around what boundaries are selected, which can mean saving on costs by sizing each server only as large as it really needs to be.


So, a combination of approaches is typically the best when it comes to deployment architecture. The key is to break things up as much as possible, but in ways that make sense. Determine where the boundaries of the shards will be such that each machine can be as light and focused as possible, while still not introducing more work in terms of user effort (having to access two system to get the job done), application development (extra code used to maintain multiple systems or exchange information between them), and system administration (monitoring and maintaining multiple enterprise systems).


Find the right balance for your systems, and you’ll maximize your cost-benefit ratio and get the most out of your ThingWorx application. Happy developing!


Hi @MikeJasperson , nice article describing the use of Sharding.  To add a wrinkle into the deployment options, how much would things change if customer had a solution that heavily utilized ThingWorx Flow, would you add two flow servers, one on each side of the Shard?  

Hi @amonk, its a good question with added complexity, so I am trying to avoid making a reply that is as long as the article 🙂 Technically, Flow can be deployed separately at each shard site, or a single Flow deployment can access multiple ThingWorx instances to push/pull data. Note that Flow is not intended to be a data migration/integration tool or a high volume data/telemetry processing tool.


The strategic decision between many Flow deployments or one could likely have multiple factors (latency, bandwidth, data segregation, data synchronization, security, availability requirements, etc), but one important factor is whether the sharded data is mainly being processed separately in real-time for local mashups or whether some portion of each shard is being gathered and summarized at a high level for a report or rollup status mashups.


The flexibility of Flow means there is no one right answer in many cases, so some evaluation and/or testing would likely be required within each deployment project as multiple sites come online. In addition, make sure that the business logic can handle cases where a network outage might temporarily disrupt the data flow between these distributed systems.


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