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When Should I Fail Over? Using Observability to Answer Critical Questions in the War Room

Building observability into your application is critical - not only from systems perspective but also from a business perspective. Learn how you can build observability and use it for making failover decisions.

Published Jul 7, 2023

As a professional working in the software space, you've probably been in one or more "war rooms", where it's all hands on deck to get the systems back up and running. The first question that gets asked in those meetings is, “What’s the business impact?” After the application has failed over and recovered, the question becomes, “Are we good to declare if business is back to normal?” Many times, the answers come with a hesitation as no one knows clearly whether business has been restored to steady state.

In this blog, I will walk you through a serverless application, and with that application I will show you a way to build observability to answer these questions confidently.

Let's walk through 'DeviceProtectionOrders' microservice. This is the service that processes the requests when your customers add a protection plan for their device(s), either directly through your website or through your clients. I have architected this service using serverless technologies - API Gateway (a fully-managed, scalable API management service), Lambda Functions (serverless compute) and DynamoDB (a fast, flexible NoSQL database) - where AWS does the undifferentiated heavy lifting of infrastructure management and data replication. All these services are Regional in scope, meaning you don’t have to worry about which AZ(s) you should deploy them to. AWS deploys them to multiple AZs, taking that complexity away from you.

Since this is a critical application, I have deployed it to two AWS Regions: us-east-1 (primary) and us-west2 (standby), following the warm standby disaster recovery (DR) strategy. Under normal circumstances, all requests will go to the primary Region, and in case of an event that impacts ability to run the application in the primary Region, the application would fail over and requests would go to the standby Region. Shown below is the multi-region architecture for this service:

Multi-region application architecture
Figure 1. Multi-Region application architecture

When your customer submits a device protection order, that request goes to Route53 (#1 in the diagram) which resolves the DNS to the API Gateway endpoint, and the request then goes to the API Gateway (#2). API Gateway, in turn, invokes the Lambda function (#3) to process the request and save the details to DynamoDB table (#4). Since deviceprotectionorders table is a global table, DynamoDB automatically replicates it to the standby Region (#5).

Going back to the opening remark on identifying the business impact, you need to design for two things: first, business instrumentation, like which Region the request is being processed in, what’s the order value, etc.; second is a health check that validates multiple layers of your application. In the architecture diagram below, we have an approach for implementing instrumentation as well as a health check using CloudWatch custom metrics, metric filters with CloudWatch logs, and CloudWatch Synthetics Canary.

application-architecture-with-observability-components
Figure 2. Application architecture with observability components

This diagram depicts two flows. First is the business flow, marked with numbers 1 to 6 (a simpler version of this flow was presented in Figure 1). In this flow, there is an additional step, step 2, representing the health check that will be used in failing over (and which we'll discuss more soon). You will also notice step 6, which wasn't in Figure 1. This step represents business metrics implementation and will be covered in detail in the "Building Business-Level Health Checks" section.

The second flow, marked with letters A to D, represents health check implementation, which we will walk through in the "Implementing Deep Health Checks" section.

You can use metrics provided out of the box for API Gateway, Lambda, and DynamoDB to see how each of these individual services are doing. For example, “PutItem” latency can show how long DynamoDB writes are taking. Based your normal operations, you can establish a baseline. Anything beyond that threshold could be a symptom of an issue with DynamoDB. Similarly, “5XX Error”, “Latency”, and other metrics from API Gateway can tell you about API Gateway service degradation. Likewise, you can observe a pattern for Lambda metrics "Errors", "Duration", "Throttles", "ConcurrentExecutions", "Invocations" and any deviation from that pattern would be a signal of application or Lambda service impairment. Having this level of detail in one place will help you decide if you need a war room bridge and if you need to fail over.

As shown below, I have created a CloudWatch Dashboard - "DeviceProtectionOrders-GlobalDashboard". I am pulling metrics for all of the above AWS services from both primary Region and standby Region so that I can see state of my system holistically in one place.

Service Metrics
Figure 3. Service specific metrics

In this cross-Region dashboard, I have organized metrics from both the Regions in two columns: the left side shows various metrics from the primary Region and the right side shows corresponding metrics from the standby Region. You can easily add metrics in the form of graphs, alarms, and text widgets to this dashboard.

As you can observe from the "LambdaFunctionMetrics-PrimaryRegion" widget, normally Lambda Invocations is at 120 per hour between 9am and 9pm each day and goes to zero outside of that window (following the time your customers are using your application). If you see deviations from this number, or see more than normal 'Errors' or 'Throttles', that could be an indication of application or AWS service degradation. Similarly, the "APIGateway-PrimaryRegion" widget shows that the latency is between 125ms and 325ms over a period of time (5 days shown in the dashboard) normally. If you notice latency greater than this range for a sustained period of time, it may be an indication of an issue either with your application or AWS services.

Since we are not serving any production traffic in the standby Region, we only see data for a few metrics in the standby Region. I see data in "APIGateway-StandbyRegion" and "DatabaseReadWriteLatency-StandbyRegion (GetItem)" because of the health check hitting the API Gateway, triggering a health check Lambda function that reads from the DynamoDB table (explained in the "Implementing Deep Health Checks" section below). Additionally, I would see a non-zero graph for "DatabaseReadWriteLatency-StandbyRegion (PutItem)", showing that orders data in the primary Region is being replicated to the standby Region at DynamoDB table level.

This view gives you a good understanding of your application's steady state from a systems perspective.

While these out-of-the-box service metrics are good indicators of the health of individual services, you may also want to have health checks that indicate the overall health of your application as a whole - as well as to provide a view from your customer's perspective.

There are three strategies to measure EC2 instance health: liveness checks, local health checks, and dependency health checks, described in this documentation on implementing health checks.

Applying the same concept for this architecture, you can build a liveness check by hitting your API endpoint and the API returning a mock response without checking the downstream application components (Lambda function and DynamoDB in this case). I will refer to this as a "shallow health check" in this blog. You can extend the health check further so that it invokes the Lambda function, which reads a single, dummy record from the DynamoDB table and then returns a response back thereby checking all dependencies. I am calling this a "deep health check". It is important to understand dependencies in your application and accordingly choose the depth of your health check. For example, if your application depends on an external dependency - say, a third party payment system (or another application outside of your application boundary) - you may not want to include that in your deep health check.

For this example, I have implemented a deep health check using all application components (API Gateway, Lambda, DynamoDB) and CloudWatch Synthetics Canary. I have added another RESTFul resource health to the API Gateway in both the Regions. The Synthetics canary in each Region invokes the /health API endpoint in each respective Region (shown with circle 'A' in "Figure 2. Application architecture with observability components"), which in turn triggers a Lambda function called ‘HealthCheck’ ('B' in Figure 2). This function queries a single dummy record from the DynamoDB table ('C' in Figure 2). If successful, it pushes a custom metrics to CloudWatch shown as 'D' in Figure 2. If Synthetic canary is successful, that means all layers of the application are working as expected.

Note that the Canary hits a separate endpoint /health instead of your business endpoint /deviceprotectionorder. That's a tradeoff I have chosen in favor of keeping health check logic and business logic separate. If you want your health check to hit your business endpoint, you can add extra logic like a query param, request header, etc. by which you can separate out the health check metrics so that they don't skew your business metrics.

For graphing this deep health check, I have chosen a sample count every minute, which renders as a flat line over the period of time as shown below.

Deep health checks
Figure 4. Deep health checks

A flat line means the application is healthy in both primary and standby Regions as canaries are successfully hitting all layers of the application and reporting success every 2 minutes. You would see gaps in this line for intermittent health check failures and would see this line not moving if there were failures for sustained periods of time.

This also gives you a view from customers' perspectives (i.e. if you see a failed deep health check, that means your customers might also be seeing errors).

So far, we have built observability from systems' as well as customers' perspectives - and we've built a deep health check. Let's focus on implementing business metrics next.

With the observability we have built so far, we can easily detect an impairment. But the question still remains, "how do you quantify the impact of that service impairment"? For that, you can instrument your microservice code in Lambda to generate business-level signals. For example, every time your request is processed, you can push a custom metric, ‘OrderValue’, which is the amount of the order from the request. Your customer can choose a device protection plan from single-device plan for $29.99 or multiple-device plan for $49.99 or family device plan for $69.99. If you get 2 such orders every minute, you can expect the average order value to be between $29.99 and $69.99 in 5 minute intervals.

Based on this reasoning, I have added code for instrumenting the dollar value of each order processed and pushed it as a custom metric - ‘AvgOrderValue-PrimaryRegion’ - shown as #6 in "Figure 2. Application architecture with observability components". You can add this custom metric to the dashboard as shown below:

Business metric
Figure 5. Business metrics

The "AvgOrderValue-PrimaryRegion" graph shows a 5-minute average of the dollar value of orders processed in the primary Region.

Further, you can enable CloudWatch anomaly detection for ‘AvgOrderValue-PrimaryRegion’ as shown in the picture above (the gray-shaded area shows the anomaly band for the average order value metric). Anomaly detection uses machine learning algorithms which also account for seasonality (could be hourly, daily, or weekly) and trend changes of metrics.

Anomaly detection gives you a powerful way to establish baselines as well as predict metrics trends in future. As discussed earlier, your average order value could be between $29.99 and $69.99 in a 5-minute interval. But based on the actual trends, anomaly detection gives you better predictability, which is closer to the real average order value as seen in the gray band above, rather than the wider range of $29.99 to $69.99.

You can also instrument the Lambda function to emit another custom metric - 'OrderProcessedIn' - which is the Region where the requests are processed. In normal state, all orders will be processed in the primary Region as shown in the first graph - ‘OrderProcessedIn-PrimaryRegion’. The corresponding graph from the standby Region on the right side - ‘OrderProcessedIn-StandbyRegion’ - shows no data as expected in normal conditions.

With these custom metrics and anomaly detection, when you join the war room, you can easily tell which Region your customer requests are being processed in and also quantify the impact if your service is impaired.

From an operations standpoint, it would be important to be able to see system-level metrics, deep health checks, and business metrics in single dashboard. I have created a CloudWatch Dashboard with all metrics (system & business) and health checks. I'm pulling all these metrics from both primary Region and standby Region to provide that single view as shown below:

Full dashboard
Figure 6. Overall health dashboard

Additionally, you can create alarms based on these metrics using either a static threshold or anomaly bands powered by AI. I created two alarms: first is a 'DeepHealthCheckFailure' alarm based on the "RegionalDeepHealthCheck" metric for which I used a static value (count less than 2 in 5 mins for 2 consecutive times) as shown below:

DeepHealthCheckFailure alarm
Figure 7. DeepHealthCheckFailure alarm

The second alarm is 'LowOrderValueAlarm', based on the "AvgOrderValue" business metric for which I used anomaly detection (i.e. order value lower that average order value band):

Business alarm - LowOrderValue
Figure 8. Business alarm- LowOrderValue

Further, I created a composite alarm using the 'DeepHealthCheckFailure' and 'LowOrderValueAlarm' alarms. This alarm depicts the overall health of the application based on a deep health check as well as business metrics. The code block below shows the composite alarm rule:

1
2
ALARM("LowOrderValueAlarm") AND
ALARM("DeepHealthCheckFailure")

As you would expect, the 'DP-orders-overall-health-alarm-east1' alarm is green in steady state as shown in the dashboard above.

Now that we have observability built into our system, we can design failing over from the primary Region to the standby Region in multiple ways. We can perform the failover manually, or initiate the failover manually but automate the failover steps, or let our application fail over automatically.

One of the ways is to add a new DNS record or update an existing DNS record in Route53 so that the traffic is shifted from the primary Region to the standby Region. Be mindful that this failover strategy uses a control plane operation. Because of the complexity involved, control planes for global services (Route53, IAM, S3, etc.) are hosted in a single Region. So if you are trying to fail over from a Region the Route 53 control plane is hosted in, and if control plane is also impaired, you will not be able to update the DNS record and fail over.

Alternatively, you can implement your failover using data plane operations with Route 53 Application Recovery Controller or 'standby takes over primary' as discussed in Creating Disaster Recovery Mechanisms Using Amazon Route 53. Both of these approaches remove your dependency on a control plane for failing over.

Another approach would be to let the application fail over automatically using Route 53 failover policy based on a health check alarm associated with the DNS records in Route53.

For most implementations, we usually see all stakeholders join the war-room conference call, assess the situation and initiate the failover manually. This is because in most cases, there are multiple application dependencies involved and before failing over an application we need to think about failing over those dependencies as well. And in order to do so, failover needs to be coordinated for all these applications and dependencies. This often involves a sequence to be followed in carrying out failover for multiple applications.

For this blog, I have implemented automated failover using Route 53 failover policy when the 'DeepHealthCheckFailure' alarm goes off. This is because the DeviceProtectionOrders application is a relatively simple and independent application and doesn't require any sequential failover activity based on other dependencies.

Even if you decide to trigger failover manually, having layers of observability, including business-level metrics, you will not only enable you to tell what the business impact is but also to make that war room decision easier.

To simulate a Region-level service impairment, I stopped the Synthetics Canary which was generating the custom health check metric. As soon as health checks are missed 2 consecutive times, the alarm goes off and Route53 starts sending traffic to the standby Region as captured in the picture below:

Failover initiated
Figure 9. Failover initiated

To answer the final question (“Are we good to declare that business is back to normal?”), apart from the system metrics, you can look at the business metrics from the standby Region which is now serving all of your customer requests. When you observe that the business metrics - in this case, average order amount goes back to normal range - you can infer that the system has been restored to normal state and you can close the war room bridge:

Business back to normal in standby Region
Figure 10. Business back to normal in standby Region

It is important to detect service impairments and be able to translate them into business terms so that business stakeholders can understand the impact. Through this blog, I showed you a way to build that level of observability to tell clear business impact and to use this information in making failover decisions.

You can try out the concepts covered in this blog as well as explore other observability tools using One Observability Workshop that may help you further in answering when should you fail over.

Keep building!