As our world becomes increasingly technological and more businesses go through their digital transformation process, our requirements in terms of computing are becoming more complex. In this day and age, individuals and companies are in “always-on” mode. We expect to have constant access to distributed systems composed of business, social, and entertainment applications. And by continuous access, we mean from any device, in any place, and at any time of day.
This relatively recent state of affairs raises never-before-seen challenges. Although well-designed, complex systems are subject to failures and outages at some point. And the role of distributed systems — virtually all modern software applications in one form or another — is to ensure that these are as unobtrusive as possible.
The question is not 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.
Inside This Article
Virtually all software applications around these days are distributed software systems. When someone talks about distributed systems, they’re referring to an ensemble of complex computing programs. Those work together, appearing to the end-user as a single system. Therefore, those machines 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, computer, and peer-to-peer networks, routing algorithms, virtual reality communities, massively multiplayer online games, and reservation systems, such as those used by airlines.
Take for example Netflix, a 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. 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 includes 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 programs become far more complicated when you carry them out on a collection of machines rather than a single one.
The potential advantages of using distributed systems are numerous. The most important ones are resiliency and data safety. Let’s look at it this way. If you’re keeping all your eggs in one basket (depending on a single server), you’re vulnerable to major data loss if that server fails. Your company website, meanwhile, is dependent on a distributed set of servers. It may remain operational even if one server goes down.
Speed is another major advantage of distributed systems over 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 help businesses avoid bottlenecks. They direct queries towards servers that are physically closest to them or benefit from a speedier network connection.
One thing that is extremely important to businesses is scalability. 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. With that, they can scale computer power as needed.
While distributed systems are a godsend from a business point of view, they do pose a certain number of challenges. Those hurdles are mainly related to their debugging, construction, and design complexity. 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 arises frequently is that of performance monitoring. One of the main aims of distributed systems is reliability, as discussed. Even if one node fails, the result must be indistinguishable for the end-user. Therefore, detecting failure points and resolving the issue fast 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 is, 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 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. Additionally, more data means more storage. Distributed computing will have to focus on more efficient storage algorithms and systems.
In a nutshell, excellent architecture is essential for ensuring a great return on your IT investment.