An intro to sharding ((horizontal) scalability) & replica sets (durability)

Recommended Reading

Seven Databases in Seven Weeks (pp 165-173)
Scaling MongoDB (pp All!)
MongoDB: The Definitive Guide (Chapters 9-10)
MongoDB In Action (Chapters 8-9)

Intro to Sharding & Replication

What makes document DBs unique is their ability to efficiently handle arbitrarily nested, schemaless ‘documents’. What makes MongoDB special among document DBs is its ability to scale across several servers, by replicating (copying data to other servers) or sharding collections (splitting a collection into pieces) and performing queries in parallel. Both promote availability. More background here

Sharding has a cost: if one part of the collection is lost, the whole thing is compromised – what good is querying a database of world country facts if the southern hemisphere is down? Mongo deals with this implicit sharding weakness – via duplication.

Replication improves durability, but consequently generates issues not found in single-source databases. One problem is deciding which node gets promoted when a master node goes down. Mongo deals with this by giving each mongod service a vote, and the one with the freshest data is elected the new master.

The problem with even nodes
The concept of replication is simple enough. You write to one MongoDB server and that data is duplicated to others within the replica set. If one server is unavailable, then one of the others can be promoted and handle requests.
– MongoDB demands an odd number of total nodes in the replica set.

To see why an odd number of nodes is best, consider what might happen with a 4-node replica set. Let’s imagine two of the servers lose connectivity to the other two. One set will have the original master, but since it can’t see a clear majority of the network (2 vs 2) the master demotes. The other set also won’t be able to elect a master as it too can’t communicate with a clear majority of nodes. Both sets become unable to process requests and the system is effectively down.


CouchDB, on the other hand allows multiple masters. Unlike Riak, MongoDB always knows the most recent data. Mongo’s concern is strong consistency on writes and a) preventing a multi-master scenario and b) Understanding the primacy of data spread across nodes are both strategies to achieve this.

SHARDING facilitates handling very large datasets and extensibility aka horizontal scaling.

Rather than having a single server holding all the data, sharding splits the data onto other servers – I tend to think about database statistics within RDBMS engines here. Perhaps the first 3 chunks of data on the histogram on the left might go on shard 1; the 4th chunk on shard 2 and chunks 5, 6 & 7 on shard 3.

A shard is one or more servers in a cluster that are responsible for some subset of the data. If we had a cluster containing 1,000,000 documents representing users of a website, on shard might contain information about 200,000 of those users.

To evenly spread data across shards, MongoDB move subsets of the data from shard to shard. It figures out which subset(s) to move where based on a key that you choose. For example, we might choose to split up a collection of users based on the username field. MongoDB used range-based splitting: that is, data is split into chunks of given ranges eg [“a”, “d”)

A shard can consist of many servers. If there is more than one server in a shard, each server has an identical copy of the subset of data. In production, a shard will usually be a replica set.

Sharding requires some kind of library/lookup. Imagine we created a table to store city names alphabetically. We need some way to know that eg cities starting A-D go to server mongo2, P-Z on mongo4 etc. In MongoDB you create a config server. Certain versions(?) of MongoDB make this easier by autosharding, managing the spread of data for you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s