Friday, September 19, 2008

What Is Terracotta?

There are so many ways to answer this question - of course our website has it's own way. I recently wrote an e-mail to someone who asked me about Terracotta, and I figured why not share it on my blog?

Here is my response (updated a bit to be more appropriate for a blog)...

Terracotta clusters at the level of the JVM. It is a 100% Java solution. We use the Java API and Memory Model as an abstraction layer into which we inject clustering.

There are some specific differences with the way that we implement clustering and the way that others do (in fact, in that regard, Terracotta is an entirely unique solution, I do not believe there is anything else like it).

There are two main differences in Terracotta -the programming model and the performance (the two go hand in hand, one cannot be had without the other).

For the programmer , Terracotta is injected at the Java level, meaning that programming a "distributed" application with Terracotta is no different than programming a multi-threaded or concurrent application. Terracotta makes use of all of the concurrent facilities built in to the Java language and API so that the definition and operation of those facilities are extended across a cluster - in other words each node that you add to the cluster simply becomes more threads available to your application.

Put another way, you program plain POJOs, and Terracotta manages replication services of those POJOs, maintains the identity of those POJOs and provides locking services using either synchronized/wait/notify or java.util.concurrent libraries e.g. ReentrantReadWriteLock - all across the cluster. (Again the model is simply threads in one node are no different than threads in another node - all standard Java operations "just work")

Of course this doesn't mean that programming across nodes separated by a network is free. Terracotta doesn't believe that an architect doesn't have to know about that interaction. We do think one has to architect for Terracotta, but we do not believe you should have to *program* to it. The analogy is much like that of the garbage collector - you don't program to the Java Garbage Collector, but you do architect your application around it's presence.

From a high level architectural level, Terracotta uses a tiered architecture. All application nodes talk to the Terracotta Server using TCP (never multicast, and never to one another, P2P is provably not scalable to provide coherent locking). The Terracotta Server can be clustered (called the Terracotta Server Array) for availability and scalability. It's a lot like the Database in that regard - the Terracotta Server (Array) is the composer in the symphony, coordinating the actions of the application nodes, and storing the data safely - all the way to disk in fact just like a database (and transparently from the application nodes perspective). When you need more availability or scalability, you just add more Terracotta Servers (no changes to your application are required).

The replicated data in Terracotta is 100% coherent across the cluster, and always stored safely to disk. This feature is unique to Terracotta given the performance levels it can achieve, which is the other main difference between Terracotta and all other solutions in the same space.

Other clustering solutions in the same space claim to have linear scaling, coherent data, and high performance - all delivered at the same time. That's basically a lie - none of them come even close to delivering all three at the same time (e.g. coherent data is possible but it's really slow, high scale can be achieved, but only for non-coherent data). And no product in the same space delivers the same performance that Terracotta does - it is simply in a class of its own since it is the only product that does not rely on brute force replication techniques such as Java Serialization. Coupled with some really innovative ways to eliminate or reduce network latency for locking, Terracotta provides a solution that can give data coherence guarantees, with amazing performance.

What all of this translates into is a solution that is flexible (a programmer can pick and choose his/her own programming stack and domain model), fast (no other clustering solution can send delta updates over the network), and more importantly, manageable. The Terracotta architecture is not an accident - it is an intentional design decision that ensures that managing a Terracotta Cluster is simple and efficient. Just like the proven 3-tier architecture of web application nodes and database servers, Terracotta stores application clustered memory in a well known location - the Terracotta Server Array. Loss of application nodes in a Terracotta Server Cluster, like in a 3-tier application, does not risk data-loss in any way, and likewise, loss of the Terracotta Server process(es) does not jeopardize the data in any way.

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