Exponential Backoff in Service Startup

I recently added exponential backoff to service startup. Read how here.

At work we have discovered time and again that services can end up restarting over and over. The typical solution to this is to set a limit on restart count, but sometimes that just adds pointless toil. Imagine that a database is down for an hour; the web app fails to start because it can’t connect. After having to deal with a database outage do you really want to go start all of your web workers?

The types of issues you run into when this happens are pretty varied, but off the top of my head we ran into CPU usage issues, excess logging that could often saturate a disk, or pressure on backend services that was basically pointless.

After this happened in a handful of different services I decided to write a tool that would allow you to add exponential backoff to startup of a given service. I’d like to add it to all of our services, but just haven’t found the time. Here’s the code:


use strict;
use warnings;

use Time::HiRes 'sleep';
use List::Util 'min';

my $max = shift || 300;

my $file = "/run/shm/backoff-$ENV{UPSTART_JOB}";

if (-e $file) {
  my @stat = stat $file;
  my $ctime = $stat[10];

  # if the file was created more than 2 * max sleep time ago, we assume that the
  # service worked and start over.
  unlink $file
     if $ctime < time - $max * 2;

my $attempt = 0;
open my $fh, '<', $file;
if ($! == 2) { # ENOENT 2 No such file or directory
   close $fh;
} else {
   $attempt = <$fh>;
   update_attempt($attempt + 1);
   close $fh;

sleep rand min($max, 2 ** $attempt);

sub update_attempt {
   my $attempt = shift;

   open $fh, '>', $file
      or die "couldn't write to $file: $!";
   print $fh $attempt;
   close $fh;

I built this for Upstart; in Upstart services get an UPSTART_JOB environment variable set automatically to the name of the unique service (or job) that is running, so I am able to automatically keep state per service based on that variable. systemd does not appear to support the automatic addition of an envvar based on the name of the unit, but you can of course set the envvar yourself.

Here’s an example upstart job using this:

description "Kill workers that deserve it"

start on filesystem and started networking
stop on shutdown

respawn limit unlimited


   exec /var/starterview/bin/zr-plack-reaper
end script

That’s it; pretty simply right? If anyone knows of other init systems that set a similar variable, I am interested in knowing about it, if only so that I could theoretically support other init systems with the same script.

(The following includes affiliate links.)

The main book I’d recommend checking out that elaborates on this kind of thing is The SRE Book. It’s long and can get pretty in depth, but even just reading chapters 18 through 22 will (I think) go into this topic.

The other one, only because it’s a great book and this post contains Perl, is Higher-Order Perl. The elevator pitch for that book is something like: “Did you ever want to learn Lisp but wanted a language with enough syntax that you can actually read it? Check this book out.” Maybe that’s ironic because it’s Perl?

Posted Thu, Feb 22, 2018

If you're interested in being notified when new posts are published, you can subscribe here; you'll get an email once a week at the most.