Operations: Automatic or Manual Rebalancing

There is one important question with regard to rebalancing that we have glossed over: does the rebalancing happen automatically or manually?

There is a gradient between fully automatic rebalancing (the system decides automatically when to move partitions from one node to another, without any administrator interaction) and fully manual (the assignment of partitions to nodes is explicitly configured by an administrator, and only changes when the administrator explicitly reconfigures it). For example, Couchbase, Riak, and Voldemort generate a suggested partition assignment automatically, but require an administrator to commit it before it takes effect.

Fully automated rebalancing can be convenient, because there is less operational work to do for normal maintenance. However, it can be unpredictable. Rebalancing is an expensive operation, because it requires rerouting requests and moving a large amount of data from one node to another. If it is not done carefully, this process can overload the network or the nodes and harm the performance of other requests while the rebalancing is in progress.

Such automation can be dangerous in combination with automatic failure detection. For example, say one node is overloaded and is temporarily slow to respond to requests. The other nodes conclude that the overloaded node is dead, and automatically rebalance the cluster to move load away from it. This puts additional load on the overloaded node, other nodes, and the network—making the situation worse and potentially causing a cascading failure.

For that reason, it can be a good thing to have a human in the loop for rebalancing. It’s slower than a fully automatic process, but it can help prevent operational surprises.

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