Navigating Through the Storm

Michał Grabowski

07 Dec 2023.11 minutes read

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Managing high throughput and preventing systems from overloading in our digital-driven world is vital for any online service's long-term success. Overloads not only cripple performance but can also lead to customer dissatisfaction and significant revenue loss.

Let's explore the intricacies of managing overloaded services, presenting in-depth strategies and insights for maintaining system resilience under load.


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The Perils of Overload

When a system is overwhelmed with more requests than it can effectively process, a cascade of problems can ensue, significantly undermining its performance and reliability.

One of the most immediate and noticeable consequences is the degradation of performance. In such scenarios, users may face frustratingly slow response times or complete timeouts in more severe cases. This not only hampers the user experience but can also erode trust in the system's reliability.

Another critical issue is the need for more resources on requests that are doomed to fail. Many will likely time out when the system is bombarded with excessive requests. Despite this, valuable processing power and memory are consumed in attempting to fulfill these requests, leading to an inefficient allocation of resources. This inefficiency is particularly problematic during periods of high demand, as it diverts resources away from potentially successful requests.

The situation can be further exacerbated by what is known as a 'retry storm.' This phenomenon occurs when clients, following standard protocols, automatically retry their requests after experiencing failures or timeouts.

While ordinarily a useful feature, in system overload situations, these retry attempts contribute to an already overwhelming load. This creates a vicious cycle, where the increased number of requests leads to more failures, which prompts more retries, adding to the system’s burden.

One critical issue we can face during such overloads is memory exhaustion. Modern systems rely heavily on in-memory operations for speed and efficiency. However, during periods of overload, the demand for memory can outstrip the available supply, leading to a shortage.

This shortage can cause services to crash or restart unexpectedly, introducing further instability into the system. In extreme cases, it can lead to a complete shutdown of services, as the system cannot process even a single request effectively. This disrupts ongoing operations and negatively affects the system’s health and user trust.

Causes of overload

Understanding and addressing the root causes of system overload is crucial for maintaining the efficiency and reliability of any digital system. Here's an in-depth exploration of the key factors contributing to system overload. By thoroughly understanding these factors, organizations can better prepare and scale their systems, ensuring resilience and reliability even under varying and challenging conditions.

Under-scaled Backend Services

The backbone of any digital system is its backend services. Problems often arise when these services aren't equipped to handle increasing loads. This under-scaling can manifest in various forms, such as insufficient hardware resources, limited processing power, or inadequate memory.

Poorly optimized databases are another common issue; they can become sluggish under heavy load, significantly impacting performance. Moreover, network capacity plays a pivotal role. If the network infrastructure can't support the transmitted data volume, it becomes a significant bottleneck, leading to system overload.

Faulty Deployments or Network Issues

Deployment phases are critical, and errors during this process, such as misconfigurations or overlooked settings, can lead to substantial resource drains. These issues might not be immediately apparent but can escalate over time, significantly damaging the system. Network stability is equally vital. Instabilities or bottlenecks in the network can exponentially increase the load on the system, leading to delays and disruptions in service.

Issues with Cloud Providers

In an era where cloud computing is ubiquitous, the performance of cloud providers is integral to the health of the systems relying on them. While these providers generally offer reliable services, they are not immune to experiencing outages or degraded performance. Such issues can have a cascading effect on the systems that depend on these services, leading to widespread performance degradation.

Traffic Pattern Fluctuations

User behavior is often unpredictable, and systems must be designed to handle varying traffic patterns. This includes predictable fluctuations, such as increased usage during certain hours of the day, and unpredictable ones, like those caused by viral trends or unforeseen events. Additionally, seasonal events or marketing campaigns can lead to sudden spikes in traffic, which can overwhelm systems unprepared for such surges.

Dependency Slowdowns

Modern digital systems frequently rely on a network of external services and APIs. While this interconnectivity brings many benefits, it also introduces vulnerabilities. If one of these external services slows down, experiences an outage, or faces any issues, the entire system can become a bottleneck.

This interdependence means that the overall system's performance is only as strong as its weakest link. As a general principle, services are designed to be autonomous, meaning they should possess all the data necessary to perform their tasks.

However, this is only sometimes achievable. There are instances where a service must rely on external resources. Given that we don't have control over these external resources, it's prudent to assume they may not always be reliable.

To mitigate this, it's essential to implement fundamental safeguards such as circuit breakers, limiters, and bulkheads. By doing so, we can judiciously manage our resources, including time, CPU, and network bandwidth.

Eyes wide open

To grasp the concept of system overload, we must first establish precise performance and resilience benchmarks. This is where Google's Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) approach becomes handy. SRE is a set of best practices and principles that are aimed at helping us create more resilient and available services.

SLOs set the desired performance goals, while SLIs measure a service's performance. For instance, an SLO may aim for a service to be available 99.9% of the time, with the SLI tracking the uptime. Similarly, response time SLOs might demand that 95% of server queries respond within 200 ms, with the SLI recording how many queries meet this standard.

SLOs are instrumental in identifying system overloads. When performance surpasses these predefined limits, it signals the need for corrective measures. SLOs are not merely for gauging system performance; they're vital for managing and addressing overloads, enabling swift identification of issues, and efficient allocation of resources. In scenarios of limited resources where SLOs are exceeded, prioritization decisions must be made, sometimes sacrificing less essential features like generating reports in the background.

Defining actual requirements based on client expectations is also critical. These parameters are necessary for making sound decisions. Remember, maintaining reliable services can be expensive and requires precise requirements. With well-designed performance metrics, identifying true system overload becomes easier.

Prompt detection of performance and stability issues is critical. Tracking metrics like error rates and response times can trigger automated responses such as load shedding, throttling, or autoscaling.

Handling the Load


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Effective load management balances resource availability, cost-efficiency, and system performance. Organizations can create robust, scalable, and resilient digital infrastructures capable of handling diverse load scenarios by combining scaling techniques with overprovisioning and sophisticated queueing systems.

Horizontal Scaling

This approach involves adding more servers to the existing pool, effectively distributing the workload across a larger number of nodes. Horizontal scaling is particularly effective in managing increased traffic, allowing for a flexible and dynamic response to changing load patterns. This method is often favored in cloud environments due to its scalability and flexibility.

Vertical Scaling

Unlike horizontal scaling, vertical scaling refers to adding more resources, such as CPU power or memory, to existing servers. This enhances the capacity of individual nodes to handle more intensive tasks or larger volumes of data. Vertical scaling can be a quicker fix than horizontal scaling, but it often has physical and practical limits.


Autoscaling dynamically adjusts the number of resources in response to the workload demand. It's an automated process that can scale horizontally and vertically, depending on the configuration. However, while autoscaling can trigger the provisioning of additional resources, this provisioning isn't immediate. The time taken to provision and deploy new resources can vary, and during this period, the system might still experience performance issues if the demand is high. This delay is a critical factor when implementing autoscaling to handle varying workloads.


Maintaining a buffer of additional capacity is a proactive measure to handle unforeseen surges in demand. This involves operating with more infrastructure than is typically required for everyday operations. Overprovisioning ensures that there is always a margin of extra capacity available to absorb spikes in load without impacting performance. While this approach incurs additional costs, it provides a safety net against sudden traffic increases and can be crucial for maintaining service availability and performance.


Implementing an advanced queueing mechanism is critical to managing how requests are processed in a system. By using queues, tasks can be organized and handled efficiently, ensuring that resources are allocated in a controlled manner. This can involve setting up priority queues, processing critical tasks ahead of less urgent ones, and maintaining system efficiency and responsiveness.

Rate Limiting

Rate limiting can be employed as a queueing strategy. This involves restricting the number of requests a user can make in a given time frame, which helps prevent the system from becoming overwhelmed by too many simultaneous requests. Rate limiting is particularly effective in mitigating the risks associated with traffic spikes.

Overload Management

A proactive approach to managing system overload is crucial for maintaining performance and reliability. By incorporating the strategies below, you can create a system that is not only capable of handling unexpected surges in demand but also recovers quickly and efficiently from them, ensuring continuous service availability and a positive user experience.

Proactive Scaling

The cornerstone of an effective overload management strategy is anticipating potential overload scenarios. You can scale your resources in advance by closely monitoring system usage trends and predicting times of high demand. A good example could be the Black Friday surge or any similar event. This scaling can be either vertical, involving the enhancement of existing resources, or horizontal, where additional resources are added. This proactive scaling ensures that the system can handle increased loads without performance degradation.

Cascading Failure Prevention

It's essential to understand the interconnected nature of modern systems, where an overload in one component can trigger a domino effect, leading to widespread failures. Identifying critical components and implementing safeguards against overload can prevent such cascading failures. This involves setting up thresholds and alarms that trigger protective measures when specific usage metrics are approached.

Efficient Work Management

In the event of an overload, it's crucial to ensure that ongoing work is well-spent. Implementing strategies like saving the state of partially completed tasks allows these tasks to be resumed or completed once the system stabilizes. This conserves resources, helps maintain data integrity, and reduces recovery time.

Resilience Building

Designing systems for resilience is critical to handling overloads effectively. This involves creating robust error-handling mechanisms that can gracefully manage unexpected surges in demand. Implementing failover mechanisms ensures that if one component fails, another can take over, thus maintaining service continuity. Additionally, regular stress testing of the system can help identify potential weak points and allow for preemptive strengthening.

Learn From Failure

Failures are a priceless source of knowledge. They present a tremendous opportunity to enhance the resilience and quality of our systems. Google Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) promotes a culture where teams learn from mistakes and strive for continuous improvement. This approach isn't limited to just technical aspects; it can also apply to refining deployment processes or monitoring systems. In this culture, each failure is viewed not as a setback but as a learning opportunity. It's an invitation to delve into the root cause when something goes wrong. Understanding the intricacies of the systems allows us to identify areas for improvement. This method fosters a proactive mindset among team members, encouraging them to anticipate and address potential issues before they escalate.

Advanced Techniques

Sophisticated techniques for managing system overload extend beyond basic strategies, focusing on more nuanced and dynamic ways to handle surges in demand. Each technique requires careful calibration, monitoring, and a deep understanding of the system's capabilities and limits. When implemented effectively, they can significantly enhance the system's ability to handle high loads while maintaining performance and reliability.

Load Shedding

This technique involves deliberately dropping some incoming requests to prevent the system from becoming overwhelmed. It's a strategic decision where non-essential requests are sacrificed to ensure that the most critical functions of the system continue to operate smoothly. By prioritizing certain types of traffic or requests, load shedding helps maintain the integrity and availability of crucial services.


Throttling controls the rate of incoming requests to prevent the system from becoming overloaded. It involves limiting the number of concurrent requests that can be processed. This can be done on a user basis, where each user is only allowed a certain number of requests per second, or on a system-wide basis, where the total number of requests the system processes is capped. Throttling ensures a more equitable and smoother distribution of the load across available resources, enhancing system performance under heavy demand.

Concurrency Control

This involves managing the number of in-flight requests at any given time to prevent any single component of the system from becoming a bottleneck. Controlling the concurrency level ensures that every part of the system is manageable with a few simultaneous processes. This requires a delicate balance; too few concurrent processes and the system must be utilized more. There are too many, and it risks becoming overwhelmed.


Backpressure is a mechanism that resists excessive input to the system by blocking further incoming requests or rerouting traffic to less strained system parts. This approach benefits distributed systems where specific nodes might be more heavily burdened than others. By implementing backpressure, the system can signal upstream components to slow down the request rate, thereby preventing system overloads and ensuring stability.


Effectively managing overloaded services in high-throughput environments requires a blend of technical knowledge, strategic foresight, and a proactive mindset. Organizations can navigate the complexities of system overload by understanding the root causes, implementing a mix of scaling, load shedding, and throttling techniques, and learning from industry practices. The key is not just in scaling up resources or reducing load but in intelligently managing and anticipating the demands placed on your system.

Reviewed by: Bartek Żyliński, Krzysztof Ciesielski

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