Recently, I and a number of colleagues spent the better part of a week chasing down some baffling behavior in a kafka consumer. After a routine1 cluster upgrade, we observed that one of the partitions in a deal publication topic was lagging further and further behind, negatively affecting our production processes.

By the end of the week, we’d chased down the issue, and have determined that it was the result of the confluence of a number of factors which had been lying dormant until the right combination of circumstances arose. I think the combination is subtle and interesting enough to peel back the curtain a bit and see what it was that bit us.

Also, this might qualify as therapy… You’ve been warned.

A quick Kafka primer

Kafka is a distributed message log, where the brokers themselves are relatively simple. Each message topic is divided into partitions, which guarantee that the messages will be sent to consumers in the same order as they were received.

A producer can “control” where a message ends up by setting a partition key; this is used to deterministically assign the message to a partition. For the topics in question, we use the deal id. Messages about deal 2342565 will always go to partition 4. By ensuring that all messages for a deal go to the same partition, we prevent a scenario where an old change, processed late, can overwrite the newest values.

When processing a topic, each partition is claimed by a single consumer, which will process messages in order. If there are 12 partitions, and 4 consumers, then a properly balanced consumer group will have each consumer processing 3 partitions. In order for a topic to retain it’s ordering guarantees, the consumer must process those messages sequentially.

Because each topic may be handled by only one consumer, the fundamental unit of parallelization for a kafka topic is partitions. If you have more consumers than partitions, the leftover consumers will simply sit idle, waiting for a rebalance.

Our setup

As a part of our internal service architecture, we run a small kafka 0.8 cluster with a number of topics that broadcast changes made to our deals. This separates the services responsible for providing deal data to our public-facing web and mobile interfaces are disconnected from the applications that allow our internal teams to edit those deals.

A number of consumer processes are run on internal servers, and publish the contents of the deal_updated topic into the catalog service. These consumers are ruby daemons use the poseidon_cluster gem2 to interact with the remote brokers. The consumer uses a simple consumer group protocol, where each partition claimed by a consumer is processed in a single thread, round-robin fashion.

As near as I’m aware, outside of running in ruby, which is suffering from some weak driver support at the moment, this is a bog-standard kafka 0.8 setup. We’ve been running this configuration, without issue, for over a year.

Well, that is until …


Sometime late on the Monday following our cluster upgrade, we get a confused inquiry from our internal users: It seems that a small number of deals were not reflecting changes on their respective preview pages. After some digging around, we determined that a single partition was lagging behind, with nearly 2000 unprocessed messages.

Some further investigation of partition 7, and we noticed that most of the messages stuck in the partition queue had one of a small set of deal IDs. Parallel investigation determined that there were no relevant code changes made on any of the systems involved. Whatever broke was related, in some way, to the cluster upgrade over the weekend.

After the first day’s investigations, we had determined:

  • this particular consumer was using an outdated version of our kafka consumer gem.
  • The partition in question had a backlog consisting primarily of messages relating to the same small set of deal IDs
  • no other topics were adversely affected. Whatever the issue was, it was strictly related to this topic, or these consumer applications.
  • There were no code changes made to the applications.

It was, however, nearing the end of the day. Hoping we just had a horrible clump related to the weekend cluster outage, we forwarded the consumer’s progress pointer to the end of the partition, and force republished the deals that needed to make it through the message queue.

Our freshly caught up partition remained caught up for less than an hour.

I could swear I’ve seen this before

So, we knew that we had a number of seriously chatty deals. Investigation of the specific deals in question lead us to discover that these deals were also large, weighing in at just under 800kb of serialized JSON. Because of a web of after-save callbacks in the management application, they also tended to get published many times in a row. We would see a run of 2-300 copies of the same deal in the lagging partition, presumably with subtle differences in each step.

So, a partition flooded by runs of messages applying to the same deal ID. We’ve also figured out another piece of the puzzle, about what has changed with this topic: As one of our original topics, it had been generated with a very small number of partitions, an out-of-the-box default of 3. In the time since, we’ve updated that default to 12. When we upgraded the cluster over the weekend, we wiped out the existing topics, and our deal_changed topic got recreated with a larger number of partitions, which was when our problems started.

There’s a hint in that observation, and we missed it for another two days.

Our assumption was that we got unlucky. Two of these very clumpy deals just happened to end up landing on the same partition; if we could break them up, then two different consumers could be dedicated to the process of burning through that backlog, rather than just the one.

The way that kafka determines what partition a message goes onto more or less boils down to generating a hash from the partition key, and bucketing that in one of the available partitions:

  partition = message.partition_key.hash % parititon_count

Armed with that idea, we decided to create a few new partitions, and see if that would split up our clumps, and give the consumers the space they needed to burn down their backlog. So, we bumped from 12 to 20 partitions3, gave everything a chance to rebalance and work through the new distribution.

The good news: we broke up the clump.

The bad news: Now we had 2 lagging partitions.

We did, however, see glimmers of hope in the lag numbers, as they were slowly going down. It was nearing the end of the day, and with our production team not likely to be updating deals in the off-hours, we figured the queues would burn down overnight.

It has been said that software developers are some of the most optimistic people on the planet: “Surely, I’ve fixed that bug now!” and, of course, our sorry history of project estimation. I think it’s how we defend our sanity.

You might guess that our backlog was not burned off overnight.

It was around this time, I think, that I started making jokes about Cthulhu using my brainpan as a coffee mug.


One of the major pain points we were seeing was the repeated duplication of a message for the same deal, over and over. We knew this was the result of an after_save hook, but we weren’t expecting it to continue firing during the night, which is why there was almost no progress made on the backlog when we checked in the next morning.

It turns out that we have a cron job that, for certain types of deals, runs hourly, and updates every option that deal has. We attempted to avoid sending so many messages by adding the nasty-hack of storing a last-sent hash of each message in a global cache, and not resending the message if there was no change.

This had approximately zero impact.

Further investigation revealed that this cron job shut off each individual option in the deal, and then selectively turning some of them back on again, based on the results of a web-service call. The (biggest) problem deal had roughly 600 options, and serialized as an 800kb json blob.

This cron job was saving each option individually. Twice, for most – not every option gets turned back on. We were, essentially, sending 1000 messages, weighing in at 800kb each … roughly 800 megabytes of updates to the same deal. Every. Single. Hour.

Well. No wonder that partition is lagging behind.

I rigged up a shut-off block that turns off the republish after-save hook for anything run inside the block, then altered the cron task to explicitly republish once, when it’s finished all of it’s processing.

No more data-bomb; things should catch up and we should be smooth from there … only, this wasn’t a new deal, and it’s presumably been doing this for a while, so why did it suddenly start killing our consumers? There’s still more to find here.

We’re missing 30 seconds

Day three was spent adding instrumentation. I brought the consumer up to date with our kafka consumer gem, to catch up with some of the logging fixes that were present. Then, for good measure, I cut a new release that added some additional graphite instrumentation around message size and how long it takes to communicate with ZooKeeper. Brian performed his splunk wizardry, and Chris began a process of attempting to teach Newrelic how to read our consumers.

At this point, we had logs and stats, and we knew that, somehow, we were losing 10-30 seconds between messages on this topic. We just didn’t know where they were coming from. Every tracked and instrumented interaction showed normal time.

Somewhere in here, we got to playing with message fetch defaults, and an explanation on the consumer is in order:

In order not to be an excessively chatty protocol, the consumer pulls messages from kafka in chunks. It usually works out to around 50 or so messages, pulled from the kafka server at once. The chunk is processed, message-by-message until completed, then a chunk is pulled from the next partition. By round-robining through partitions like this, it prevents any one partition from totally blocking the consumer.

So, with that in mind, and looking at message sizes … we realized that, for these problem messages, a chunk would really only consist of a single deal. By increasing the maximum fetch size, we got the consumer to pull down around 10-20 of these larger messages at one time.

That did it. Our burnoff rate suddenly picked up, and trend-lines indicated we’d get through the lag-induced backlog in about 10-12 hours. Combined with the fix of not bombing the system, we should be in the clear now.

Problem solved. Only ….

One more ‘why?’

We were still missing 30 seconds or so, every run, that we couldn’t account for. The runs were now more efficient, but there was still a nagging suspicion that we weren’t quite there yet.

Brian started looking at various configurations, and eventually homed in on a networking timeout, set to 10 seconds. It didn’t look like a likely candidate – we were both quite skeptical – but, wouldn’t hurt to lower it.

So, we dropped the timeout from 10 seconds to 1, and deployed …. and soon, the lagging messages started falling like dominoes. Our 12 hour backlog, already a hard-fought win, was chewed up and spat out in about 20 minutes.

So … it’s a timeout. Which is when the light goes on. This is what changed, why we went from a perfectly functional system to something that just could not keep up, with exactly zero code changes.

A week prior, the topic had been configured with 3 partitions. The consumers are run on 6 separate worker boxes, and since a partition can only be claimed by a single consumer … we really had 3 active consumers, and 3 dormant ones, doing nothing. Each of those active consumers would just happily chew through it’s claimed partition, and outside of a few disk space alarms earlier in the year, we were generally unaware just how chatty some of our messaging had become.

Fast forward to after the topic rebuild; We now have 12 partitions – later 20 – being consumed by those same 6 boxes. Now, the consumers are no longer sitting idle, and they are no longer dedicated to a single partition. Assuming a normal balance, Consumer A is pulling data from partitions 3 and 10. It pulls a chunk of messages from partition 3, burns through them, and then grabs the next batch from partition 10.

Only, when partition 10 doesn’t have any messages, it blocks. To avoid heavy, constant network chatter, the consumer will block for 10 seconds, waiting for the server to accumulate enough messages to fill a chunk. If, after the timeout, there are no messages, the consumer shrugs, and moves on to the next partition.

Ordinarily, this doesn’t matter much. However, when you get into a pathological case – a heavily unbalanced set of partitions, made even worse through unbalanced message sizes … you can get into a case where the round-robin blocking is actively harmful … we had 10 completely up to date partitions, which would block while waiting for any new messages to come in, before finally moving back to the choked up topic, which would only yield a handful of messages because of block size limits. When we added partitions to try to force a redistribution, we actually made things worse by inserting additional blocking calls into the round-robin cycle.


Ultimately, it took four of us four days to crack this one open, and make it all the way down to root cause. A lot of that is because chasing down an intersection of small configuration differences can be difficult, generally, and made more difficult when not everyone is familiar with the system in question. This one involved a lot more kafka esoterica than I had prepared anyone to deal with … but, there are now several more people with a functioning knowledge of the guts of our kafka infrastructure, so that’s a good thing.

We’re still backfilling some additional instrumentation, but our graphite stats, and splunk logs were invaluable tools for getting into the running systems and being able to see what was going on. A little bit of foresight can save you from a lot of blind alleys when the panic sets in.

My read of the causes of the situation is largely that the old configuration, where we “had no problems” was doing an effective job of masking a problem that we suffered at a deeper level. The Real Problem was the unbalanced partitions and the large message size. There is little to be done about the message size; in this case, it’s inherent to the datagrams we’re pushing.

The sheer number of repeat messages, however, can and should be addressed. Relying on after-save hooks allows you to be remarkably un-intentional. Sure, this guarantees that you will never forget to synchronize your changes … but it also encourages carelessness. I am of the firm opinion that you should be mindful of when and how you talk to external systems4, and tying that conversation into a database lifecycle hook is the opposite of mindful. We got bit.

above is an all-too-common example of the cavalier way we treat the save methods.

  1. Not actually all that routine, as we blanked out all of our existing topics, chasing a clean start. This had the effect of changing the number of partitions on this topic.

  2. Yes, I know the gem is marked deprecated. It was not when we wrote the consumers that use it. This is one of the reasons our cluster is still on kafka 0.8.

  3. Something we were not able to do until we’d performed the previous weekend’s cluster upgrade …

  4. This includes your database, by the way. The cron job described