With the first vendor-based 24 Hours of PASS approaching, it’s a good time to learn how to think critically.
Critical thinking doesn’t mean criticizing – it means seriously examining the evidence and basing your decision based on facts. For example, when reading a vendor benchmark or white paper, it means asking:
- What does the evidence say?
- What evidence is missing?
- How is the evidence being interpreted by the author?
- What’s the author’s bias, and what is my own bias?
- Are we purposely being misled?
- What conclusion should I draw from the evidence?
Let’s do a real-life example together.
Fusion-io’s SQL Server 2014 Performance Tests
It’s a 30GB database with 12,000 users that continuously query the database – that’s what the 0ms user delay and 0ms repeat delay mean. But what do they really mean? Thinking critically means taking a moment to think about each fact that’s presented in front of you.
Is This Load Test Realistic?
When you or I think about a system with 12,000 people using it, those meatbags take some time between queries. They click on a link, read the page contents, maybe enter some data, and click another link. That’s delay.
Fusion-io is setting up a very strange edge case here – there’s maybe a handful of systems in the world that have this style of access pattern, and the word “users” doesn’t come into play, because human beings aren’t running queries continuously with 0ms waits.
The database size doesn’t make sense either. On real-life systems like this, the database is way, way larger than 30GB.
So already, just from the database and load test description, this gives me pause. It doesn’t mean that the benchmark is wrong – the numbers may be completely valid for this strange edge case – but it gives me pause to question why the benchmark would be set up this way. Possibilities include:
- The load testers were tight on time, and they wanted to set up a worst-case scenario quickly
- The hardware & software only performs well in this strange edge case
- The load testers don’t have real-world experience with this type of load, so they made incorrect assumptions
Do Load Tests Have to Be Realistic?
The best load tests identify a real-world problem, then attempt to solve that problem in the best way. (Best means different things depending on the business goals – sometimes it’s fastest time to market, other times it’s the cheapest solution.) When you’re reading a load test, ideally you want to see the customer’s name, their pain point, how the solution solved that pain, and what load test numbers they got.
This document is not one of those.
And that’s completely okay – not every load test can be the best one. Load testing is really expensive: you need to lock down hardware, plus get staff who are very experienced in storage, SQL Server, and load testing. Even just writing this documentation, producing the graphs, and fact-checking it all is pretty expensive. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fusion-io spent $50k on this document, so they want it to tell the right story, and tell it fast.
The awesome thing about critical thinking is that just by reading the test parameters, we’ve already learned that this is an edge case scenario where Fusion-io is trying to tell a story. They’re not necessarily telling the story of a real world customer – they’re telling the story of SQL Server 2014 features and their own hardware.
Hardware Used for the Fusion-io Load Tests
For this load test, what storage did Fusion-io choose to compare?
More alarm bells. Say you needed to host a 30GB database – raise your hand if your employer would be willing to give you 24 hard drives or a 2.4TB SSD. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Granted, we buy storage for performance, not for capacity, but both sides of this load test are questionable. If I tried to tell my clients to buy a 2.4TB Fusion-io to handle a 30GB database, they’d fire me on the spot – rightfully. This setup just doesn’t make real-world sense.
I know it’s hard to hear me over the alarm bells, but let’s look at the mechanics of the test.
Performance Test: Starting Up the Database
Fusion-io tested database startup of in-memory tables, saying:
Cluster failover – wat? We’re talking about local storage here, not a shared storage cluster. If they’re talking about an AlwaysOn Availability Group where each node gets its own copy of the data, then there’s no database load startup time – the database is already in memory on the replicas.
If every second of uptime counts, you don’t use a single SQL Server with local SSDs.
So now we’re pretty far into alarm bell territory. The test case database is odd, the load test parameters aren’t real-world, the hardware doesn’t make sense, and even the test we picked doesn’t match up with the solution any data professional would recommend. Faster storage simply isn’t the answer for this test.
But let’s put the earplugs in and keep going to see the test results:
The Fusion-io maxes out at 1400 MB/sec, and spinning rust at 400. Fusion-io wins, right?
Not so fast. Remember that we’re reading critically, and we have to question each fact. What is this “Enterprise-Class Disk Array” and is it really representative of the name on the box?
For reference, 400MB/sec sequential reads is slower than a $100 desktop SSD. It’s also slower than 4Gb fiber, one of the slowest connection methods you can use for an “enterprise-class disk array”. Fusion-io, I served with enterprise-class disk arrays. I knew enterprise-class disk arrays. Enterprise-class disk arrays are a friend of mine. Fusion-io, you did not use an enterprise-class disk array in your tests. (Source quote for us old folks.)
When you’re thinking critically, sometimes it helps to put yourself in the author’s shoes. What is my mission in writing this document? Who’s paying my check? What’s the story I need to deliver? If I purposely wanted to sandbag a storage load test, I’d connect a large number of hard drives (thereby looking fast and expensive) through a very small connection, like antiquated 4Gb fiber. Then I’d leave out that crucial connection detail in the load test setup details. Voila. That way, when we tracked the length of time it took to load data from those drives, it’d look like an artificially long time because we’re trying to drink a lot of data through a tiny straw.
But if the numbers STILL didn’t make conventional storage look bad enough, I’d use a bigger database file so that the time difference seemed more drawn out.
Speaking of which, let’s take a closer look at the first sentence above that chart:
Heeeeey, wait a minute… I thought our in-memory OLTP database was 30GB?
Now, I could stretch the limits of credibility by saying, “Well, the entire database is 120GB, but the in-memory portion is only 30GB. I still need the rest of it in memory to warm up my cache, though.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold water because the test says it’s testing “how fast the transactional database could be brought online.” Even if the rest of the database isn’t in memory, it’s still online. The evidence numbers don’t match up to the text.
So Is Fusion-io’s Performance Test Valid?
The numbers might be correct, but the real question is how the data is interpreted. As Kendra Little says, performance numbers don’t tell a story – they help you tell a story. Here’s the story Fusion-io tells in the executive summary, and note that the top says it’s been “validated by Microsoft.” Let’s see what story Microsoft validated:
I’ll use these exact numbers to tell a different story:
Improve Customer Experience – note that these metrics are in microseconds. The user transaction wait time on the “enterprise-class disk array” was just 1.3 milliseconds. Most customers in the real world would kill for consistent 1ms storage writes. If your storage is running slower, you could switch over to this (crappy) disk array, get faster throughput, AND have the benefit of failover clustered instances with zero data loss and automatic failover. A single ioDrive, on the other hand, does not give you zero data loss failovers unless you switch to synchronous storage mirroring or database mirroring, and both of those will have higher latencies than the disk array used in the example. If you care about startup – as the test purports that it does – then the winner here is actually the disk array, crappy as it is. I would change my verdict here if the tests included the overhead of synchronous AlwaysOn Availability Groups or synchronous database mirroring in the Fusion-io example.
Serve More Customers – both of these systems got less throughput than the same hardware I tested last year that happened to be using $500 consumer SSDs. I’d be really curious to see how my Dell 720 compared to their Dell 720. (For reference, we had 8TB of usable capacity plus hot spares on the shelf for $8k.)
Improve Business Productivity – business productivity implies that real world users are sitting around waiting for the query to finish, but we’re talking about the difference between a 1.3ms transaction versus a .1ms transaction. If your users really can’t get their job done because their single transaction is taking that extra millisecond, allow me to introduce you to the magical world of batch processing instead of row-by-row singletons.
Deliver on Internal Service Level Agreements – the words “reduced startup time by 67%” are factually incorrect due to the 120GB switcheroo, and they conveniently leave out the cost of an actual system restart: Windows shutdown, BIOS post, Windows startup, and SQL Server startup. In reality, if you need higher SLAs, you use SQL Server 2014’s AlwaysOn Availability Groups so your secondary replica can already be online and ready to go.
Fusion-io’s product might indeed be better than its competition, but this misleading white paper doesn’t give you the real evidence you need to arrive at that conclusion – no matter who validated the paper.
Welcome to Marketing. The Product is You.
Sadly, this is how vendor marketing works today. It’s a race to the bottom with vendors using all kinds of tricky tactics to make their product seem better. Heck, even Microsoft marketing uses this tactic when they claim AlwaysOn Availability Groups give you 100% availability.
This is why I get so nervous when I see vendors take over community events like the 24 Hours of PASS. The very first session this year is on this topic, co-presented by the very same guys at Microsoft, Fusion-io, and Scalability Experts who built this white paper:
I get nervous when I push Publish on this post because I know these guys aren’t gonna be happy. The reality is that they got paid to write the white paper, and you’d better believe Fusion-io wanted a result that painted their drives in the best possible light. The authors achieved that goal, and they’re not going to be happy that I’m focusing my small flashlight on the contents of this paper. (Sorry, guys, but this is a story that needs to be told.)
But I have to publish this post because I think it’s important for the community to have real journalism. It’s important for us to reflect on what’s happening in the community, to question what we’re being told, and to get to the bottom of the truth. I knew this white paper had questionable evidence when I first saw it, and I let it go, but now that it’s become the anchor session for the 24 Hours of PASS, it’s time to start asking questions about marketing vendors at our community event.
PASS is us. The community is you and me.
When we let a vendor use material like this to teach our junior data professionals during the 24 Hours of PASS, what message are we sending?
This is absolutely, positively not okay with me. Is it okay with you?