When debugging, assume an unreliable narrator
When we are handling a support call, we are often working with partial information about the state of the software at the customer site. Sometimes that is an unavoidable part of the job. When troubleshooting a system with patients' records, I can’t just ask the customer to schlep the data to my laptop so I can analyze it properly. Even if we could do that, there are a lot of cases that simply don’t reproduce anywhere but the live environment.
Part of the process of debugging an issue in a production environment is to be able to gather enough information on site that we can draw the appropriate conclusions from. RavenDB comes with a lot of tools to do just that. One of the most useful of those tools is the idea of the debug package. That is a simple idea, in the end. It gathers all the information we have about our system and packages that into a zip file. That zip file contains a lot of metrics, but it doesn’t contain customer data (aside from databases & index names, which are usually not sensitive).
There have been several separate cases recently where we were able to use the debug package to analyze what is going on and came back to the customer with answers. However, when hearing our explanations about what was the root cause of the issue, the customer rejected our hypothesis.
In one case, a customer was worried about the load that they were observing in their system. Not because there was an issue, but the number of requests that they observed was higher than was expected. The customer switched to using concurrent subscriptions recently and deployed a couple of worker nodes to spread the load of processing documents. However, the number of requests observed was far higher than they expected. Whereas before they had a single worker per subscription, and a known amount of work that they could easily measure, after switching to concurrent subscriptions they observed a big increase in the number of requests processed by RavenDB.
Given that they deployed their subscriptions to two workers, initially, it was expected that the amount of work that the cluster is processing would double. Instead, it was increased by tenfold. Looking at the metrics in the debug package, we could see that they had 10 instances of each subscription running, but the customer was insistent that they only deployed two workers nodes.
Our metrics said that there were 5 subscriptions from IP-1 and 5 subscriptions from IP-2. After some back and forth it was revealed that everyone was correct, but talking past each other. The customer deployed two worker nodes, yes. But each of those spawned 5 instances of the subscriptions to take advantage of concurrency inside the same worker node.
In the second case, we have a customer that noticed a marked increase in the amount of bandwidth that they were using. They traced that additional bandwidth to the internal communication between the nodes in the cluster. Given that they are running in the cloud, they were (rightly) concerned about the sudden jump in the bandwidth. We started the investigation process and… we didn’t like what we saw. The cluster had gone through three full node rebuilds in the past month. At least, that was what the data was telling us. But that didn’t make much sense.
Quite concerned that there is something really bad going on, we talked to the customer, who thought about this for a while, checked their own logs and explained what was going on. They are running on Lsv2-series Azure instances, and apparently, within the space of a few weeks, all three of their instances had been moved to another physical host. The Lsv2-series instances use local ephemeral NVMe drives. When they moved an instance between hosts, the effect was as if we were given a brand new hard disk. RavenDB was able to handle that scenario more or less seamlessly, with the other nodes in the cluster filling in for the down node and sending it all the data it lost. The effect of that, of course, was a big jump in network bandwidth while that was going on.
The customer wasn’t actually aware that this happened until they looked at the logs, RavenDB had it handled, and it was only noticed because of the bandwidth spike.
The point of this post isn’t to talk about how awesome RavenDB is (even if I do think it is pretty awesome). Nor is it to extoll how good our support team is at figuring out things about the customer setup that even the customer isn’t aware of.
The point of this post is that you have to take into account, quite clearly, that the details that the customer is providing may be outdated, wrong or just misleading. Not because of any malicious intention on their end, but because they give you the information they have, not what is actually going on.
It reminds me of an old trick in tech support: “Take the plug out of the socket, blow on both the socket and the plug, then insert it again”. The point isn’t to blow whatever dust may have been there, preventing good contact. The point is to ensure that the silly thing is actually plugged in, but you can’t ask if this is plugged in, because the person on the other side of the call would say: “Of course it is” and never check.