Scaling the database out, not up.

When your database has grown beyond the performance capabilities of a single SQL Server, there are still ways get increase the system performance.  This requires using a technique called a Federating the database, this is also known as scaling the database out.  When you increase a servers capacity by increasing the CPU count within the SQL Server it is called scaling up the system.  When you increase a servers capacity by adding additional servers to the system it is called scaling out the system.  By scaling out the system we add additional entire servers to the database creating a database federation.  There are a couple of ways which you can create the database federation.  The technique that you use will depend on your own system requirements.

A database federation is not a high availability solution.  The correct solution to use for a high availability solution would be Microsoft Cluster Service (MSCS) or Database Mirroring (SQL 2005 and up).

There are some potential down sides to federating your database which you need to be aware of in order to make an informed decision.

1.       If any server in the federation is taken offline, the entire database system will become unavailable.  This is because the way the federation works requires online access to all nodes of the federation.  As the database which is being federated is probably an important asset to the company, this risk can be mitigated by using clustering in combination with database federation to provide a high availability solution to build your database federation on top of.

2.       Licensing for a database federation is extremely expensive.  SQL Server Enterprise Edition must be used, as database federation requires the use of distributed queries, which is an Enterprise Edition only feature.  Another reason for Enterprise Edition would be the number of CPUs supported.  As the system is apparently CPU bound (which is one of the key reasons to use a federated database) you will want to use SQL Servers which have as many CPUs as possible in them.  This would lead you to select servers along the line of the HP DL700 series of servers, of the SUN Fire 4600 series of servers.  Use of these massive servers will decrease the number of servers in your federation, thereby increasing the ease of setup of the federation.

3.       The design of a database federation is not a simple task.  It requires an intimate knowledge of the not only the database, but the entire application platform which works with the database backend.  In addition you need to have a solid grasp of not only the current system requirements, but of the far reaching expandability requirements of the database as well.  This knowledge is key as changing the design of your database federation is an extremely complex task, which if not done correctly can easily lead to ours of down time, and poor performance while data is moved from one node of the federation to another.

While these are some pretty important things to think about, federating your database has some major upsides as well.

1.       By federating your database, you will increase the amount of data that can be loaded into cache, as that data is loaded as each server loads its own data into its own cache.  This allows you to go well beyond the 64 Gigs of memory that Windows 2003 or Windows 2008 Enterprise Edition support.  With enough servers in the federation this will allow you to go beyond the 2 TB limit of Windows 2008 Data Center Edition.

2.       In addition to the additional data cache you have access to, you also get access to more CPUs than you would be able to fit in a single server, unless you where to purchase a very high end system such as an EMC Superdome, or one of the IBM iSeries servers.

3.       Given that the data is laid across multiple servers this then increase the number of disk controllers, or HBAs that you have access to, which can increase the available throughput to the disk.  It also increases the number of PCI busses which you have access to, thereby preventing any sort of contention as the data crosses through the HBAs or RAID Controllers and through the PCI bus on its way to the CPUs and RAM.


Now that we’ve gone over some of the basics of the federated databases, read through my next few posts as I talk about the various techniques which can be used to federate a database, and we go through the design processes to use each one within your database environment.



2 Responses

  1. When my database has grown beyond the performance capabilities of a single SQL Server, what are the ways get increase the system performance?

  2. Rashmimb,
    SQL Server will scale pretty large on a single physical server. Single servers come as large as 256 cores and 2 TB of memory. Scaling beyond those numbers requires quite a bit of database and application redesign to spread the load across multiple servers. There are ways to federate the application across multiple servers, but they aren’t easy (and can’t really be covered in a blog post or a comment).

    What size server do you have? What are the specs? What part of the server is being maxed out (disks, CPU, memory)?


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