Intro To Distributed Systems: 2020 Ultimate Guide

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As our world becomes increasingly technological and more and more businesses go through their digital transformation process, our requirements in terms of computing are gaining in complexity. In this day and age, both individuals and companies are in “always on” mode. We expect to have constant access to distributed systems composed of business, social and entertainment applications, from any device, any place and at any time of day.

This relatively recent state of affairs obviously raises never-seen-before challenges. However well-designed, complex systems are inevitably subject to failures and outages at some point, and the role of distributed systems – i.e virtually all modern software applications in one form or another – is to ensure that these are as unobtrusive as possible.

The question is not so much if you should move to a distributed system, but when and how. Let’s take a look at how distributed systems work and their main advantages.

Distributed Systems
Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay


How Do Distributed Systems Work?

Virtually all of the software applications around these days are distributed software systems of some sort. Put simply, when someone talks about distributed systems, what they’re referring to is an ensemble of complex computing programmes that work together to the point where they appear to the end user as a single system. These machines work alongside each other and therefore can fail without bringing down the entire system. The components are located on separate network computers and operate by passing messages to each other. 

There are many different examples of distributed systems. These include but are not restricted to telecommunication networks, computer networks, routing algorithms, peer-to-peer networks, virtual reality communities, massively multiplayer online games and reservation systems, such as those used by airlines.

Let’s take the example of Netflix, a highly successful product that many people across the world are familiar with. While on the user end you see a streamlined, user-friendly platform, the reality is far more complex than it appears. In order to bring you what you need, the system comprises login functionality, an integrated search engine, user profiles, recommendation algorithms, databases, content delivery platforms and more. The same goes for many other software applications we use in our day-to-day and business lives. This include marketplaces such as Amazon, messaging apps and professional software such as Salesforce.

At the same time, relatively straightforward tasks such as retrieving data from a database or running programmes become far more complicated when you carry them out on a collection of machines rather than a single one. 

How Do Distributed Systems Work
Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay


Benefits Of Distributed Systems For Business Use

The potential advantages of using distributed systems are numerous. The most important factors are resiliency and data safety. Let’s look at it this way: if you’re keeping all your eggs in one basket (i.e depending on a single server), you’re making yourself vulnerable to major data loss if that server fails. If on the other hand your company website is dependant on a distributed set of servers, it will probably remain operational if one of them goes down.

Speed is another major advantage of distributed rather than single-computer systems. On a distributed database, queries are routed to the server with a given user’s data. This is opposed to overloading a single server with non-specific requests. Distributed systems also enable businesses to avoid bottlenecks by directing queries towards the servers that are physically closest to them or benefit from a speedier network connection.

One thing that is extremely important to businesses is scalability, and well-designed distributed servers make this a whole lot easier. In some cases, it’s possible just to add the requisite nodes and functionality and you’re on your way.

In an increasingly competitive business landscape, it’s essential for companies to guarantee a high level of performance and reliability and to be able to scale computer power as needed. 

Benefits Of Distributed Systems
Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay


Main Challenges Of Using A Distributed System

While distributed systems are a godsend from a business point of view when it comes to resiliency and scalability, they do pose a certain number of challenges, mainly related to their complexity when it comes to debugging, construction and design. Many distributed systems are purpose-built for the company that uses them. This adds an extra layer of complexity when problems do unfortunately arise.

One issue that tends to arise fairly frequently is that of performance monitoring. One of the main aims of distributed systems, as we discussed above, is reliability. Even if one node fails, the result must be indistinguishable for the end user. Therefore, being able to easily detect failure points and quickly resolve the issue at hand is essential. In this case, observability becomes a challenge due to the limited scalability of traditional monitoring systems.

Latency can also become an issue for end users. The more widely distributed the system, the harder it becomes to guarantee consistency. This can lead to engineers having to make trade-offs between availability and latency.

And as technology progresses in leaps and bounds, new challenges are arising for distributed systems. An obvious but nonetheless extremely important one is that of security. With next-gen systems integrating an ever-expanding range of computer devices, security is becoming a major concern. Added to this, more and more data means more and more storage. Distributed computing will have to focus on ever more efficient storage algorithms and systems.

In a nutshell, excellent architecture is essential for ensuring a great return on your IT investment.