1. Own a piece of mySociety: servers to give away

    After several years of hosting, mySociety has migrated out of Easynet’s Brick Lane Data Center, and we now live on virtual machines hosted at a top secret location in the north of England. Most of our old hardware is no longer in use. It’s redundant. We don’t need it any more. But we don’t want to throw it all in a skip, that would be terrible.

    Sooo… we’d like to find a lovely new home for it all. And this unique opportunity to own a piece of mySociety may be of interest to YOU.

    Here are the technical details of the various machines we are getting rid of – check it out for what’s currently available.

    Update: all gone!

    The Rules:

    1. The servers don’t come with disks: as part of our privacy procedures, all disks have been removed and destroyed to protect our and our users’ data.

    2. You’ll need to be able to pick them up ASAP from a central London location (WC2).

    3. You’ll need to be available to do so during office hours or very shortly afterwards (evenings or weekends aren’t possible, sorry).

    4. Note that they are large and heavy so you may well need a car.

    For more information, or even better, if you’re thinking “Sold! I’ll take the lot!”, then get in touch with Abi, our friendly office manager, on hello@mysociety.org.

    If you feel guilty about relieving a registered charity of its assets, you can even make us a donation (voluntary, but we’d be appropriately grateful).

  2. How Mapumental works

    Here is a diagram of how the backend of Mapumental works. Take it in the spirit that Chris Lightfoot set when he made a similar diagram for the No. 10 petitions site – although many such diagrams are useless, hopefully this one contains useful information.

    (Click on the diagram for a large version)

    Below, I’ve explained what the main components are, and some interesting things about them.

    Everything can, at least in theory, run on lots of servers. Currently we are only actually using one server for web requests, because of problems with HAProxy. We’re runnning isodaemons on two different servers.

    Basic web application – it started out as raw Python, but the more Matthew hacks on it the more Django libraries he pulls in. Soon it’ll be indistinguishable from a Django app. When someone enters a new postcode, it adds it to the work queue in the PostgreSQL database, then refreshes waiting for the job to be finished. Then it displays the flash application (made by Stamen), set up to load the appropriate tile layers.

    Tile server and cache – This uses the Python-based TileCache, calling Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (GDAL) to help render the tiles from points. It was originally written by Stamen, and expanded by mySociety. GDAL isn’t perfect, it doesn’t have fancy enough algorithms for my liking. e.g. Using a median rather than a weighted mean.

    Isodaemons – These are controlled by a Python script, but the bulk of the code is custom written in C++. Slightly crazily, this can find the quickest route by public transport for each of 300,000 journeys from every station in the UK to a particular station, arriving at a particular time, in 10 to 30 seconds.

    I had no idea how to do this, but luckily I live in Cambridge, UK. It’s a city fit to bursting with computer scientists. Many of the jobs are dull, and need little computing, never mind science – like writing interface layers for SQL server. So if you have a real interesting problem it’s easy to get help!

    The universal advice was to use Dijkstra’s algorithm, which needed a bit of adaptation to work efficiently over space-time, rather than just space. Normally it is used for planning routes round a map, but public transport isn’t like that, you have to arrive in time for each particular train, so time affects what journeys you can take.

    I originally wrote it in Python, which was not only too slow, but used up far far too much RAM. It could never have loaded the whole dataset in. However, the old Python code is still run by the test script, to double check the C++ code against. It is also still used to make the binary timetable files, see below.

    Travel times, 1 binary file / postcode – I briefly attempted to insert 300,000 rows into PostgreSQL for each postcode looked up, but it was obvious it wasn’t going to scale. Going back to basics, it now just saves the time taken to travel to each station in a simple binary file – two bytes for each station, 600k in total. The tile server then does random access lookups into that file, as it renders each tile. It only needs to look up the values for the stations it knows are on/near the tile.

    There’s various other bits:

    • cron jobs for sending out invites
    • converting timetable data from ATCO-CIF to the binary format
    • loading static layer data into the database
    • precaching every tile for static datasets
    • Squid and Apache and FastCGI both sit in front of the web applications
    • for speed, we cache the mapping background tiles from Cloudmade
    • when zoomed out, there is code to cull which stations are used to draw tiles
    • of course, a bunch of test code

    Thanks to everyone who helped make Mapumental, we couldn’t have done it without lots of clever people.

    I realise the above is a sketchy overview, so please ask questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

  3. Internal links, and search engine crawlers

    TheyWorkForYou now finds whenever an old version of Hansard is referenced (which they do by date and column number, e.g. Official Report, 29 February 2008, column 1425) and turns the citation into a link to a search for the speeches in that column on that date. This only really became feasible when we moved server, upgraded Xapian, and added date and column number metadata (among others), allowing much more advanced and focussed searching – the advanced search form gives some ideas. Perhaps in future we’ll be able to add some crowd-sourcing game to match the reference to the exact speech, much like our video matching (nearly 80% of our archive done!). 🙂

    Kudos to Google and Yahoo! for spotting this change within a couple of days, as they’re now so busy crawling everything for changes that they’re slowing the whole website down… 😉

  4. Please Donate to help us expand TheyWorkForYou

    Some lovely new volunteers have been working their socks off to add the Scottish Parliament to TheyWorkForYou. Yay!

    Unfortunately, the server that TheyWorkForYou sits on is almost full, so we can’t launch their hard work. Boo!

    TheyWorkForYou isn’t an externally funded project, and we need funding from other sources to keep it growing and improving. So if the season has filled you with generosity of spirit, why not drop us a few pennies to pay for some upgrades? Any extra beyond what we need will go into the general pot to keep mySociety running and the developers from starving.

  5. Rails packages for Debian Sarge

    On our servers we only install software from Debian packages, or our own software with install scripts from our own CVS. This at first seems a bit mad, especially to Ruby on Rails people who love their gems. But it’s a sane way of managing lots of servers (we’ve got 7 Debian servers, and 2 FreeBSD servers to run at the moment).

    Of course, you could install packages on them from CPAN, from Ruby Gems, by compiling them yourself and putting them in /usr/local. But you’d have to have another system for each packages system to keep track of what you’d installed and what version, and to worry about security updates. And you’d lose some of the benefits of dependency checking.

    Most of our servers are, inevitably, still running Debian Sarge (the latest and greatest when we started them a few years ago). We’re going to gradually upgrade them to Debian Etch, but it is going to take a while. In the fast moving world of Rails this isn’t particularly helpful, so you have to backport packages. I couldn’t find any, so have made some myself.

    You can find packages for Rails 1.2.5-1 on Sarge in our Debian package repository. Yeah, still an old version for you people “living on the edge”, but it’s the one in Etch (the latest Debian stable), and is way better than 0.13.1-1 that we had before 🙂

  6. Good morning

    So, I’ve just had a shower and I’m waiting for Matthew and Tom to turn up. As time goes on, mySociety seems to get more geographically disparate, and I look forward to meeting my coworkers. Then for 1pm we’ll be heading to CB2 for the mySociety developers meeting. Feel free to come along any time afternoon or evening, whatever your skills or interest in mySociety.

    I haven’t posted on here for ages, since October. I’ve been away on holiday quite a lot, and when I’ve not been away I’ve been busy, partly with systems administration. We’ve set up lots of servers in the last month for the E Petitions site. When you go from 3 servers to 7 servers, there’s another step change in sorting out systems administration tools. For example, I had to change the monitoring script so every server wouldn’t monitor every other. And I had to work out the quirks and bugs in the system we have for storing config files for different classes of server in CVS. Because we only had one class of server before.

    I’ve also had to learn lots about server monitoring and load balancing. Things have slowed down a bit now, to maybe 10 hits per second. But a few weeks ago the road pricing petition was often getting 50 hits per second. I’ve never worked on a site with that level of traffic before. You find all the bugs in your code, all the missing indices in PostgreSQL, all the badly tweaked FastCGI parameters. I’ve been sucking knowledge off Chris like a sponge, so tools like strace and vmstat begin to become instinctive. Seemingly nobody offers a book or a course which teaches this stuff well – every server setup is different, everyone knows different ways to tune and profile. But maybe you can tell me different in the comments.

    Louise has been busily working away on lots of things. Amongst that is a major change to WriteToThem, to let you write to all the members in a multi-member constituency in one go. The last day or two, she’s been installing the WriteToThem test code on one of our servers, when it has only run on my laptop before. This will be fantastic – hopefully can get Matthew to be bolder about making changes to WriteToThem, if he has a test script he can easily run (getting Matthew to be bold isn’t normally a problem, but he seems mildly less bold when it comes to the WriteToThem queue daemon).

    Tom and I have also been busy on a second travel maps report for the DfT. More on that soon. Lots of running screen scraping jobs on TransportDirect which take days. On the subject of Tom, he seems to have got expert at “stacking meetings” next to each other. In one day last week he had 7 meetings!

  7. What we’re up to

    Much of my August seems to have been absorbed with maintenance tasks.

    For example, Chris and I spent a few days tightening up WriteToThem’s privacy. I made sure the privacy statement correctly describes what happens with backup files, and failed messages. I reduced the timeouts on how long we keep the body of failed messages. I made sure we delete old backup files of the WriteToThem database. I wrote scripts to run periodically to check that no bugs in our queueing demon can accidentally mean we keep the body of messages for longer than we say. I added a cron job to delete Apache log files older than a month for all our sites. As AOL know to their cost, the only really private data is deleted data.

    Earlier in the month, I handled some WriteToThem support email for the first time in ages. We get a couple of hundred messages a week, which Matthew mainly slogs through. It’s good for morale to do it, as we get quite a lot of praise mail. It is also hard work, as you realise how complicated even our simple site and the Internet are, and it leads to fixing bugs and improving text on the site. I made a few improvements to our administration tools, and things like the auto-responder if people reply to the questionnaire, to try and reduce the amount of support email, and make it easier to handle.

    I did some more work on the geographically cascading pledges (like this prototype one), but I’m still not happy with them. In the end, I realised that it is the structure of wording of the pledge that is the key problem. Our format of “If will A but only if N others will B” just isn’t easily adapted to get across that the pledge applies separately in different geographically areas. Working out how to fix that is one of the things we’ll brainstorm about in the Lake District (see below).

    The last couple of days I’ve been configuring one of our new servers who is called Balti, and getting the PledgeBank test harness working on it. Until now, it has only been run on my laptop. This is partly heading towards making a proper test harness for the ePetitions site, running on a server so we properly test nothing can be broken before deploying a new version.

    Matthew has wrapped up the TheyWorkForYou API now, and is working on Neighbourhood Fixit next. Chris has been doing lots more performance work for the ePetitions site. And he’s been making some funky monitoring thing to detect PostgreSQL database lock conflicts, which we get occasionally and are hard to debug

    Tom’s in Berlin at the moment, he gave a talk last night, and I think has been to see some people from Politik Digital. As we’ve been discussing on the mySociety email list, there’s an EU grant we’re likely to apply for in collaboration with them.

    On Friday, we’re all going to the Lake district for a week, with some of the trustees and volunteers intermittently. We very conveniently and cheaply all work from home, so it’s good and necessary to meet up for a more sustained period of time at least once a year. Last year we were in Wales.

  8. ‘The Government Says’ on the new Friends and Family Server

    All mySociety’s servers are named after British food food and drink – tea, cake, pimms etc. A couple of weeks ago we finally set up haggis.ukcod.org.uk as a server for little unofficial projects of all sorts. It is shiny, brand new, bullet fast and looking for people in the mySociety volunteer community to love it.

    The first user is one of our most regular volunteers, Sam Smith, who has migrated and upgraded his never-quite-officially-launched site TheGovernmentSays.com. If you like the way TheyWorkForYou can email you when politicians talk about words or phrases of interest to you, then you will most likely find this indespensible – the same functionality but for government press releases and news from across the public sector.

    If you’d be interested in an account on Haggis in order to do some mySocietyish work, just let us know.

  9. How (not) to survive a Slashdotting

    So, PledgeBank got Slashdotted a couple of weeks ago when Mike Liveright’s $100 laptop pledge was linked from a post about the laptop. We didn’t cope very well.

    Unfortunately, PledgeBank is a pretty slow site. Generating the individual pledge page (done by mysociety/pb/web/ref-index.php) can take anything up to 150ms. That’s astonishingly slow, given the speed of a modern computer. What takes the time?

    It’s quite hard to benchmark pages on a running web server, but one approach that I’ve found useful in the past is to use an analogue of phase-sensitive detection. Conveniently enough, all the different components of the site — the webserver, the database and the PHP process — run as different users, so you can easily count up the CPU time being used by the different components during an interval. To benchmark a page, then, request it a few times and compute the amount of CPU time used during those requests. Then sleep for the same amount of time, and compute the amount of CPU time used by the various processes while you were sleeping. The difference between the values is an estimate of the amount of CPU time taken servicing your requests; by repeating this, a more accurate estimate can be obtained. Here are the results after a few hundred requests to http://www.pledgebank.com/100laptop, expressed as CPU time per request in ms:

    Subsystem User System
    apache ~0 ~0
    PostgreSQL 55±9 6±4
    PHP 83±8 4±4

    (The code to do the measurements — Linux-specific, I’m afraid — is in mysociety/bin/psdbench.)

    So that’s pretty shocking. Obviously if you spend 150ms of CPU time on generating a page then the maximum rate at which you can serve users is ~1,000 / 150 requests/second/CPU, which is pretty miserable given that Slashdot can relatively easily drive 50 requests/second. But the really astonishing thing about these numbers is the ~83ms spent in the PHP interpreter. What’s it doing?

    The answer, it turns out, is… parsing PHP code! Benchmarking a page which consists only of this:

    /* ... */
    require_once '../conf/general';
    require_once '../../phplib/db.php';
    require_once '../../phplib/conditional.php';
    require_once '../phplib/pb.php';
    require_once '../phplib/fns.php';
    require_once '../phplib/pledge.php';
    require_once '../phplib/comments.php';
    require_once '../../phplib/utility.php';

    reveals that simply parsing the libraries we include in the page takes about 35ms per page view! PHP, of course, doesn’t parse the code once and then run the bytecode in a virtual machine for each page request, because that would be too much like a real programming language (and would also cut into Zend’s market for its “accelerator” product, which is just an implementation of this obvious idea for PHP).

    So this is bad news. The neatest approach to fixing this kind of performance problem is to stick a web cache like squid in front of the main web site; since the pledge page changes only when a user signs the pledge, or a new comment is posted, events which typically don’t occur anywhere near as frequently as the page is viewed, most hits ought to be servable from the cache, which can be done very quickly indeed. But it’s no good to allow the pledge page to just sit in cache for some fixed period of time (because that would be confusing to users who’ve just signed the pledge or written a comment, an effect familiar to readers of the countless “Movable Type” web logs which are adorned with warnings like, “Your comment may take a few seconds to appear — please don’t submit twice”). So to do this properly we have to modify the pledge page to handle a conditional GET (with an If-Modified-Since: or If-None-Match: header) and quickly return a “304 Not Modified” response to the cache if the page hasn’t changed. Unfortunately if PHP is going to take 35ms to process such a request (ignoring any time in the database), that still means only 20 to 30 requests/second, which is better but still not great.

    (For comparison, a mockup of a perl program to process conditional GETs for the pledge page can serve each one in about 3ms, which isn’t much more than the database queries it uses take on their own. Basically that’s because the perl interpreter only has to parse the code once, and then it runs in a loop accepting and processing requests on its own.)

    However, since we unfortunately don’t have time to rewrite the performance-critical bits of PledgeBank in a real language, the best we can do is to try to cut the number of lines of library code that the site has to parse on each page view. That’s reduced the optimal case for the pledge page — where the pledge has not changed — to this:

    /* ... */
    require_once '../conf/general';
    require_once '../../phplib/conditional.php';
    require_once '../../phplib/db.php';
    /* Short-circuit the conditional GET as soon as possible -- parsing the rest of
     * the includes is costly. */
    if (array_key_exists('ref', $_GET)
        && ($id = db_getOne('select id from pledges where ref = ?', $_GET['ref']))
        && cond_maybe_respond(intval(db_getOne('select extract(epoch from pledge_last_change_time(?))', $id))))
    /* ... */

    — that, and a rewrite of our database library so that it didn’t use the gigantic and buggy PEAR one, has got us up to somewhere between 60 and 100 reqs/sec, which while not great is enough that we should be able to cope with another similar Slashdotting.

    For other pages where interactivity isn’t so important, life is much easier: we can just emit a “Cache-Control: max-age=…” header, which tells squid that it can re-use that copy of the page for however long we specify. That means squid can serve that page at about 350reqs/sec; unfortunately the front page isn’t all that important (most users come to PledgeBank for a specific pledge).

    There’s a subtlety to using squid in this kind of (“accelerator”) application which I hadn’t really thought about before. What page you get for a particular URL on PledgeBank (as on lots of other sites) vary based on the content of various headers sent by the user, such as cookies, preferred languages, etc.; for instance, if you have a login cookie, you’ll see a “log out” link which isn’t there if you’re an anonymous user. HTTP is set up to handle this kind of situation through the Vary: header, which the server sends to tell clients and proxies on which headers in the request the content of the response depends. So, if you have login cookies, you should say, “Vary: Cookie”, and if you do content-negotiation for different languages, “Vary: Accept-Language” or whatever.

    PledgeBank has another problem. If the user doesn’t have a cookie saying which country they want to see pledges for, the site tries to guess, based on their IP address. Obviously that makes almost all PledgeBank pages potentially uncachable — the Vary: mechanism can’t express this dependency. That’s not a lot of help when your site gets featured on Slashdot!

    The (desperately ugly) solution? Patch squid to invent a header in each client request, X-GeoIP-Country:, which says which country the client’s IP address maps to, and then name that in the Vary: header of the outgoing pledges. It’s horrid, but it seems to work.

  10. Time shifting

    So, we’ve been a bit quiet on this blog, but naturally busy. I just did my invoice and timesheet for last month, and remembered how bitty it has been. In one day I often do things to 3 websites, and that is just CVS commit messages – no doubt I handled emails for more. This makes it quite hard to summarise what has been happening, and also quite hard to measure how much time we spend maintaining each website.

    We’ve recently made a London version of PledgeBank, which I’ll remind Tom to explain about on the main news blog. It is a PledgeBank “microsite”, with a special query for the front page and all pledges page that shows only pledges in Greater London. Which is conveniently almost exactly a circle radius 25km with centre at 51.5N -0.1166667E. I worked that out by dividing the area (found on the Greater London Wikipedia page) by pi and taking the square root And rounding up a bit.

    Yesterday we launched a new call for proposals – head on over, and tell us your ideas for new civic websites. It is another WordPress modification, but this time to the very blog that you’re reading now. The form for submitting proposals I made anew, It creates a new WordPress low-privileged user by directly inserting into the database, and then calls the function wp_insert_post to create a post by them in a special category. The rest of the blogging software then trivially does comments, RSS, search, email alerts and archiving.

    Meanwhile, Chris has written some monitoring software for our servers, to alert us of problems and potential problems. Perl modules do the tests, things like enough disk space and that web servers that are up. I’ve been tweaking it a bit, for example adding a test to watch for long-running PostgreSQL queries which indicate a deadlock. We’ve got a problem in the PledgeBank SMS code which causes deadlocks sometimes, which we’re still debugging.