There is a continuing and welcome trend amongst large, modern technology companies like Google, Yahoo and Amazon to publish details of their systems at academic conferences. One of the problems that researchers at universities have is making a convincing case that their ideas would work well in the real world, since no matter how many assumptions are made there really is no substitute for field testing, and the infrastructure, workloads and data just aren’t available to do that effectively. However, companies have infrastructure to burn and a genuine use-case with genuine users. Using their experience and data to discover what does and doesn’t work, and what is and is not really important provides an invaluable feedback loop to researchers.
More than that, large systems are built from a set of independent ideas. Most academic papers leave the construction of a practical real-world system as an exercise for the reader. Synthesising a set of disparate techniques often throws up lots of gotchas which no papers directly address. Companies with businesses to run have a much greater incentive to build a robust system that works.
At 2007’s Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP), Amazon presented a paper about one of their real-world systems: “Dynamo: Amazon’s Highly Available Key-value Store”. It wound up winning, I think, the audience prize for best paper. In this post, I was planning to describe Dynamo ‘inside-out’, based on a reading group mandated close reading of the paper. However, trying to lucidly explain a dense 12 page paper leads to many more than 12 pages of explanation. So instead, I want to focus on one particular aspect of Dynamo which I think is the most interesting.