Heavy Traffic: 750,000 hits in 3 days

If I seem a little distracted …

2 weeks ago, I started a small blog called App Rejections. Here’s the traffic graph for the first two weeks. The tallest peak over towards the right is 25,000 unique visitors hitting the site:

traffic graph ar 3 days

It could have been worse; being a die-hard pessimist when it comes to server management, I’d left the webserver “throttled” to a fraction of max connections. The jumps in traffic when I selectively removed that throttling suggest that overall perhaps 10% of visitors couldn’t get through (as high as 35% at peak times).

I *believe* there will be no performance problems now. I should be able to take those peaks again without the server dieing – I’ve put some simple cheats in place, like a pre-generated static front page that I manually cache. Although I’m also hoping to double the RAM in that server (it’s only got 1GB right now!).

What happened?

Well, apart from the obvious (lots of news sites picked up the site, and a few big-hitters on Twitter too, the biggest being someone with almost 1 million followers. Awesome! But also … Argh! Webserver death!).

Actually, what happened was my own laziness combined with a cluster**** between Apache2 and PHP5.

Basically … PHP is a fine language with a sometimes-dubious runtime and a terrible set of libraries, much of which remained incompatible with Apache2 for a very long time. Allegedly, some core parts of PHP’s sphere of libs are *still* only compatible with Apache1 (or the backwards-compatible part of Apache2 – i.e. none of the performance boost). (really? is this still true? hard to believe)

And while I *should* have been running Apache2 in modern mode, ditto PHP5, the last time I checked PHP and my PHP libs, they weren’t yet compatible with Apache2. There are workarounds, but they were enough effort (and this is just a small server) that I hadn’t bothered. In particular, I probably should have setup FastCGI to workaround the PHP incompatibilities. But it’s been a LONG time since I’ve used FastCGI…

Running Debian, I’d left this server with the standard PHP setup: Apache2 in backwards-compatibility mode, and PHP in a default config. This server does relatively little webserving; I figured it wouldn’t matter much. Especially with the “pessimistic” Apache2 settings.

Unfortunately … Apache2 in compatibility mode reserves RAM per HTTP connection, and never releases it, even after its no longer needed. Even with my concurrent connections throttled to a low sensible number (20 in this case), *some PHP process somewhere* was taking advantage of the oodles of RAM, and sucking up all the RAM in my server.

For no reason that I can tell. Which is worrying.

I’ve now put PHP back down to a hard limit of a few tens of megabytes, and – so far as I can tell – no part of any PHP app is failing. I’ve also set a 100-requests limit per process, which will force Apache2 to recycle *all* RAM every twenty minutes or so at high load.

I’ve de-throttled the concurrency, so the webserver can still use all available RAM if it really wants to, but this time only under high traffic – not “merely because some crappy PHP script somewhere is getting greedy”. There’s no complaints in the error logs. I removed Cacti from this server a few months ago (there were bugs in the Debian graphs that I got fed up with), so it’s not that.

WordPress? Probably…

What I didn’t try, but should have

For some reason, I don’t have any PHP accelerator on that server. There was a reason, I can’t remember what it was.

If I had, then I believe I would still have had the same problems, mainly because the real problem was PHP using up too much RAM. But *maybe* things would have run a lot better – I don’t know, because I didn’t try.

The unfortunate pain of PHP and RAM

The thing that I find annoying in this (apart from the long slowness of getting full Apache2 compatibility) is the number of standard PHP apps that “demand” hundreds of megabytes of RAM each … per request. If you google the PHP error message for “script ran out of memory” (I can’t remember the exact text) for any particular webapp, you’ll find hundreds of hits from developers saying “edit php.ini to increase that limit to 200Mb” or similar.

At 200Mb, your 2Gb RAM webserver will thrash (and soon crash) the moment ten people try to view a webpage or download anything – CSS, JPG, GIF, etc – at the same time.

Ten people. Right. And that’s assuming you don’t have a database anywhere, or any other services running.

And the sad truth is that there’s nothing you can do about it (unless you have a *lot* of time to devote to rewriting the PHP apps yourself, or engaging in various convoluted sysadmin tricks like having two independent copies of the webserver – one for the app, one for the rest of the world).

A lot of modern CMS’s seem to “recommend/require” 70-120Mb. This is insane. What are they *doing* with all that RAM? More to the point … WHY?

In the end, it’s probably an example of my number 1 reason to avoid PHP:

99% of PHP programmers either have no idea what they’re doing … OR … so utterly over-engineer every PHP app that it does far too more than what PHP is meant for *and optimized for*

Sometimes I wonder whether as much as 30% of all PHP programmers secretly wish they were writing J2EE apps instead, but won’t admit it to themselves

The kind of things that a CMS is doing to soak up 100Mb per process make perfect sense inside a Java VM container – and, actually, will work fine without killing the server. They make no sense at all in a PHP project. You *need* a powerful VM to be doing that kind of thing.

Notes to anyone with similar problems

  1. If performance gets really bad, use the very old technique of:
    1. restart the webserver (this kicks off all the current users, *and* cleans out RAM)
    2. reload the main pages of the site in your browser, ASAP
    3. save those pages to disk
    4. edit apache’s site config, and add an AliasMatch line for each saved file (saving the front page of the site is always a good start, that’s what most incoming traffic is probably pointing to – use “AliasMatch ^/$ /var/www/path-to-saved-front-page.html”)
    5. restart the webserver
    6. try reloading the affected pages, while the server is under load, to check you didn’t get the AliasMatch rule wrong or something equally stupid
  2. Run “top”, and see how much RAM each apache2 process is using
  3. Edit apache2.conf/httpd.conf, and make sure that MaxClients is less than ((RAM in this server) / (answer from top above))
  4. Edit php.ini, find the line about max RAM usage, and laugh at the “recommended” default of 128Mb. You must be joking. Change it to something sensible – and then redo all previous steps above
  5. Run “ab” to rapidly loadtest your server from the commandline and check that the above things are working. Especially useful for forcing lots of traffic so that you can see all the processes jumping to the top of the list in “top”

But, really, if you don’t already know all that, you should probably be finding yourself a qualified sysadmin who does … or doing a lot more detailed learning instead of relying on some throwaway comments I’ve put on my blog! :)

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