Field notes: It isn’t always about virtualization, except when it is

Talking recently with some customers, we discussed the fallacy of always trying to solve a new problem with the same method that found the solution of the proceeding problem. Some might recall the adage, “If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

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I am often asked to help comprehend complex performance problems our customers encounter. I don’t always have the right answer, and usually by the time the problem gets to me, a lot of good folks who are trained in solving problems have spent a lot of time trying to sort things out. I can generally be counted upon for a big-picture perspective, some non-product ideas and a few other names of folks to ask once I’ve proved to be of no help.

A recent problem appeared to have no clear solution. The problem was easy to repeat and thus demonstrable. Logs didn’t look out of the ordinary. Servers didn’t appear to be under load. Yet transactions that should be fast, say well under 10 seconds, were taking on the order of minutes. Some hands-on testing had determined that slowness decreased proportionally with the number of users attempting to do work (a single user executing a task took 30-60 seconds, two users at the same time took 1 to 90 seconds, three users took 2-3 minutes, etc.).

So I asked whether the environment used virtualized infrastructure, and if so, could we take a peek at the settings.

Yes, the environment was virtualized. No, they hadn’t looked into that yet. But yes, they would. It would take a day or too to reach the folks who could answer those questions and explain to them why we were asking.

But we never did get to ask them those questions. Their virtualization folks took a peek at the environment and discovered that the entire configuration of five servers was sharing the processing power customarily allocated to a single server. All five servers were sharing 4 GHz of processing power. They increased the resource pool to 60 GHz and the problem evaporated.

I can’t take credit for solving that one. It was simply a matter of time before someone else would have stepped back and asked the same questions. However, I did write it up for the deployment wiki. And I got to mention it here.