Python Success Stories
AFNIC is the registry of the French .fr top-level internet domain. For many years, registration rules in .fr were very strict. On May 11th, 2004, the rules changed to a more liberal model, allowing many registrations that were not possible before. As a consequence of this change, the registry was faced with receiving a potentially unmanageable burst of requests. This is a problem known as a "landrush" faced by every DNS registry which changes its rules or introduces a new service, like Unicode domain names.
Since the rule of registries is "first come, first served", everybody wants to have their submission arrive immediately after the new domain space is available, in this case May 11th, 09:00, local time. In this context, some domain names were requested by three different clients within the very same second.
Machine crashes are a sad tradition at registries resulting in unexpected delays, clients frantically hitting Submit while trying to send a completed Web form, and bad press for the registry afterwards.
For a variety of reasons, this particular landrush was a technical success, with zero crashes. This article focuses on the role that Python played in this success.
Buffering the Requests
The AFNIC registration system was written years ago, mostly in Perl. It responds to registration requests, satisfies them, and then returns confirmation to the web client, all in one synchronous request/response cycle. Although this system works well during normal load, it simply cannot handle the load of a landrush. Even more modern systems that are parallelized across many machines will fail under the impossible load of a landrush, where web requests from clients must be answered in a synchronous manner.
To avoid this bottleneck without attempting to rebuild the whole registration system, AFNIC decided to place an asynchronous buffer between the client and the main registration application. This buffer was not a full-fledged system, it just received the requests, stored them in FIFO order, acknowledged them and later handed them over to the real registration system within the limits of its processing capacity.
This asynchronous buffer was written in Python and is named Suzanne, from the novel Un barrage contre le Pacifique by Marguerite Duras, where the hero's mother tries to protect her land from the waves of the Pacific ocean.
The requirements for Suzanne were simple: it had to be fast, robust, reliable, and it had to work the first time around, because there was no second chance. Protecting the data was extremely critical: while the big frenzy of domain name speculation is over, many companies are still ready to spend a lot of money for a domain name. If they miss the domain name they want because buggy software dropped a request, the registry is faced with bad press at the minimum, and possibly expensive litigation.
AFNIC uses many programming languages (Perl, Java, PHP, PL/SQL, and Ruby) but this was the first use of Python. Like Perl and Ruby, Python includes the standard libraries that were required by this project. Python was chosen for its readability and ease of use.
Most of the brutal load was handled by the Postfix mail system. All requests were received by email, which is asynchronous and thus avoids the above-mentioned limitations of synchronous processing. Suzanne was in charge of rotating mailboxes to keep them at a manageable size, and emitting acknowledgement emails. This process used Python's standard library modules mailbox, email, and smtplib, and the Cheetah templating system was used to create the acknowledgement messages.
When dealing with critical data accessed by several programs, all running at full speed under a heavy load, it is critical to to prevent hidden race conditions. Since Python currently lacks a standard global locking module, the glock module by Richard Gruet was used to lock the mailboxes.
Once messages had been processed and acknowledged, Suzanne had to send requests to the real registration system. Since SOAP is the standard in-house inter-application protocol, AFNIC created a Web service in Python, using ZSI and the standard library's BaseHTTPServer. The SOAP client was the registration system, running Perl.
This project used Python version 2.3 and various Unix platforms. Suzanne is very small: Just 2290 lines of Python, including the testing programs and the statistics programs.
Testing was the key to success in this application, which had to perform flawlessly during its first production run. Many bugs were uncovered by testing Suzanne under load, first in-house, with several machines sending as many requests as possible, and later by volunteers sending requests from the outside.
Some problems were encountered during the implementation. Working with mail boxes and email messages in Python is somewhat complicated by the many modules in the standard library provided for this purpose. For this application, these modules were often too low-level, requiring somewhat more work that was initially expected.
ZSI also caused some trouble, and was sometimes difficult to use. The authors used SOAPpy on other projects, which in hindsight may have been a better choice. Some of these problems stem from the fact that SOAP is complicated and difficult to deal with in general, and were not always the fault of Python or ZSI.
Nevertheless, development of the system was quite fast, the resulting code is simple and readable, and the system performed well.
Suzanne was able to handle the required processing with acceptable system load. Mail boxes were parsed and acknowledgements sent at a very satisfactory rate. And best of all, nothing crashed during the landrush, even with 12,000 messages in the first minute, a result of the fact that many clients developed custom programs to start submitting requests at exactly 09:00.
Suzanne performed so well that AFNIC is considering making it a permanent part of its infrastructure. If this is done, every request would go through Suzanne, allowing the registration system to work at its own pace regardless of unexpected peaks in future request activity.