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4.3 Efficiency

We have put significant effort into efficiency. One of our primary use cases is handling web activity data, which is very high volume: each page view may generate dozens of writes. Furthermore, we assume each message published is read by at least one consumer (often many), hence we strive to make consumption as cheap as possible.

We have also found, from experience building and running a number of similar systems, that efficiency is a key to effective multi-tenant operations. If the downstream infrastructure service can easily become a bottleneck due to a small bump in usage by the application, such small changes will often create problems. By being very fast we help ensure that the application will tip-over under load before the infrastructure. This is particularly important when trying to run a centralized service that supports dozens or hundreds of applications on a centralized cluster as changes in usage patterns are a near-daily occurrence.

We discussed disk efficiency in the previous section. Once poor disk access patterns have been eliminated, there are two common causes of inefficiency in this type of system: too many small I/O operations, and excessive byte copying.

The small I/O problem happens both between the client and the server and in the server’s own persistent operations.

To avoid this, our protocol is built around a “message set” abstraction that naturally groups messages together. This allows network requests to group messages together and amortize the overhead of the network roundtrip rather than sending a single message at a time. The server in turn appends chunks of messages to its log in one go, and the consumer fetches large linear chunks at a time.

This simple optimization produces orders of magnitude speed up. Batching leads to larger network packets, larger sequential disk operations, contiguous memory blocks, and so on, all of which allows Kafka to turn a bursty stream of random message writes into linear writes that flow to the consumers.

The other inefficiency is in byte copying. At low message rates this is not an issue, but under load the impact is significant. To avoid this we employ a standardized binary message format that is shared by the producer, the broker, and the consumer (so data chunks can be transferred without modification between them).

The message log maintained by the broker is itself just a directory of files, each populated by a sequence of message sets that have been written to disk in the same format used by the producer and consumer. Maintaining this common format allows optimization of the most important operation: network transfer of persistent log chunks. Modern unix operating systems offer a highly optimized code path for transferring data out of pagecache to a socket; in Linux this is done with the sendfile system call.

To understand the impact of sendfile, it is important to understand the common data path for transfer of data from file to socket:

  1. The operating system reads data from the disk into pagecache in kernel space
  2. The application reads the data from kernel space into a user-space buffer
  3. The application writes the data back into kernel space into a socket buffer
  4. The operating system copies the data from the socket buffer to the NIC buffer where it is sent over the network

This is clearly inefficient, there are four copies and two system calls. Using sendfile, this re-copying is avoided by allowing the OS to send the data from pagecache to the network directly. So in this optimized path, only the final copy to the NIC buffer is needed.

We expect a common use case to be multiple consumers on a topic. Using the zero-copy optimization above, data is copied into pagecache exactly once and reused on each consumption instead of being stored in memory and copied out to user-space every time it is read. This allows messages to be consumed at a rate that approaches the limit of the network connection.

This combination of pagecache and sendfile means that on a Kafka cluster where the consumers are mostly caught up you will see no read activity on the disks whatsoever as they will be serving data entirely from cache.

For more background on the sendfile and zero-copy support in Java, see this article.

End-to-end Batch Compression

In some cases the bottleneck is actually not CPU or disk but network bandwidth. This is particularly true for a data pipeline that needs to send messages between data centers over a wide-area network. Of course, the user can always compress its messages one at a time without any support needed from Kafka, but this can lead to very poor compression ratios as much of the redundancy is due to repetition between messages of the same type (e.g. field names in JSON or user agents in web logs or common string values). Efficient compression requires compressing multiple messages together rather than compressing each message individually.

Kafka supports this with an efficient batching format. A batch of messages can be clumped together compressed and sent to the server in this form. This batch of messages will be written in compressed form and will remain compressed in the log and will only be decompressed by the consumer.

Kafka supports GZIP, Snappy, LZ4 and ZStandard compression protocols. More details on compression can be found here.