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On Noah - Part 1

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This is the first part in a series of posts going over Noah

As you may have heard (from my own mouth no less), I’ve got a smallish side project I’ve been working on called Noah.

It’s a project I’ve been wanting to work on for a long time now and earlier this year I got off my ass and started hacking. The response has been nothing short of overwhelming. I’ve heard from so many people how they’re excited for it and nothing could drive me harder to work on it than that feedback. To everyone who doesn’t run away when I talk your ear off about it, thank you so much.

Since I never really wrote an “official” post about it, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about what it is, what my ideas are and where I’d like to see it go in the future.

So why Noah?

fair warning. much of the following may be duplicates of information in the Noah wiki

The inspiration for Noah came from a few places but the biggest inspiration is Apache Zookeeper. Zookeeper is one of those things that by virtue of its design is a BUNCH of different things. It’s all about perspective. I’m going to (yet again) paste the description of Zookeeper straight from the project site:

ZooKeeper is a centralized service for maintaining configuration information, naming, providing distributed synchronization, and providing group services.

Now that might be a bit confusing at first. Which is it? Is it a configuration management system? A naming system? It’s all of them and, again, it’s all about perspective.

Zookeeper, however, has a few problems for my standard use case.

  • Limited client library support
  • Requires persistent connections to the server for full benefit

By the first, I mean that the only official language bindings are C and Java. There’s contributed Python support and Twitter maintains a Ruby library. However all of these bindings are “native” and must be compiled. There is also a command-line client that you can use for interacting as well - one in Java and two C flavors.

The second is more of a showstopper. Zookeeper uses the client connection to the server as in-band signaling. This is how watches (discussed in a moment) are communicated to clients. Persistent connections are simply not always an option. I can’t deploy something to Heroku or AppEngine that requires that persistent connection. Even if I could, it would be cost-prohibitive and honestly wouldn’t make sense.

Looking at the list of features I loved about ZK, I thought “How would I make that work in the disconnected world?”. By that I mean what would it take to implement any or all of the Zookeeper functionality as a service that other applications could use?

From that thought process, I came up with Noah. The name is only a play on the concept of a zookeeper and holds no other real significance other than irritation at least two people named Noah when I talk about the project.

So working through the feature list, I came up with a few things I REALLY wanted. I wanted Znodes, Watches and I wanted to do it all over HTTP so that I could have the broadest set of client support. JSON is really the defacto standard for web “messaging” at this point so that’s what I went with. Basically the goal was “If your language can make HTTP requests and parse JSON, you can write a Noah client”

Znodes and Noah primitives

Zookeeper has a shared hierarchical namespace similar to a UNIX filesystem. Points in the hierarchy are called znodes. Essentially these are arbitrary paths where you can store bits of data - up to 1MB in size. These znodes are unique absolute paths. For instance:


Each fully qualified path is a unique znode. Znodes can be ephemeral or persistent. Zookeeper also has some primitives that can be applied to znodes such as ‘sequence`.

When I originally started working on Noah, so that I could work with a model, I created some base primitives that would help me demonstrate an example of some of the use cases:

  • Host
  • Service
  • Application
  • Configuration

These primitives were actual models in the Noah code base with a strict contract on them. As an example, Hosts must have a status and can have any number of services associated with them. Services MUST be tied explicity to a host. Applications can have Configurations (or not) and Configurations can belong to any number of Applications or not. Additionally, I had another “data type” that I was simply calling Ephemerals. This is similar to the Zookeeper znode model. Originally I intended for Ephemerals to be just that - ephemeral. But I’ve backed off that plan. In Noah, Ephemerals can be either persistent or truely ephemeral (not yet implemented).

So now I had a data model to work with. A place to store information and flexibility to allow people to use the predefined primitives or the ephemerals for storing arbitrary bits of information.

Living the disconnected life

As I said, the model for my implementation was “disconnected”. When thinking about how to implement Watches in a disconnected model, the only thing that made sense to me was a callback system. Clients would register an interest on an object in the system and when that object changed, they would get notified by the method of their choosing.

One thing about Watches in Zookeeper that annoys me is that they’re one-shot deals. If you register a watch on a znode, once that watch is triggered, you have to REREGISTER the watch. First off this creates, as documented by the ZK project, a window of opportunity where you could miss another change to that watch. Let’s assume you aren’t using a language where interacting with Zookeeper is a synchronous process:

  • Connect to ZK
  • Register watch on znode
  • Wait
  • Change happens
  • Watch fires
  • Process watch event
  • Reregister watch on znode

In between those last two steps, you risk missing activity on the znode. In the Noah world, watches are persistent. This makes sense for two reasons. The first is that the latency between a watch callback being fired and proccessed could be much higher than the persistent connection in ZK. The window of missed messages is simply much greater. We could easily be talking 100’s of milliseconds of latency just to get the message and more so to reregister the watch.

Secondly, the registration of Watches in Noah is, by nature of Noah’s design and as a byproduct, disconnected from the consumer of those watches. This offers much greater flexibility in what watches can do. Let’s look at a few examples.

First off, it’s important to understand how Noah handles callbacks. The message format of a callback in Noah is simply a JSON representation of the changed state of an object and some metadata about the action taken (i.e. delete, create, update). Watches can be registered on distinct objects, a given path (and thus all the children under that path) and further refined down to a given action. Out of the box, Noah ships with one callback handler - http. This means that when you register a watch on a path or object, you provide an http endpoint where Noah can post the aforementioned JSON message. What you do with it from there is up to you.

By virtue of the above, the callback system is also designed to be ‘pluggable’ for lack of a better word. While the out of the box experience is an http post, you could easily write a callback handler that posted the message to an AMQP exchange or wrote the information to disk as a flat file. The only requirement is that you represent the callback location as a single string. The string will be parsed as a url and broken down into tokens that determine which plugin to call.

So this system allows for you to distribute watches to multiple systems with a single callback. Interestingly enough, this same watch callback system forms the basis of how Noah servers will share changes with each other in the future.

Wrap up - Part 1

So wrapping up what I’ve discussed, here are the key take aways:

  • Noah is a ‘port’ of specific Zookeeper functionality to a disconnected and asynchronous world
  • Noah uses HTTP and JSON as the interface to the server
  • Noah has both traditional ZK-style Ephemerals as well as opinionated Primitives
  • Noah uses a pluggable callback system to approximate the Watch functionality in Zookeeper
  • Clients can be written in any language that can speak HTTP and understand JSON (yes, even a shell script)

Part 2 and beyond

In part two of this series we’ll discuss some of the additions to Noah that aren’t a part of Zookeeper such as Tags and Links. Part 3 will cover the underlying technology which I am intentionally not discussing at this point. Part 4 will be a roadmap of my future plans for Noah.