Building Applications With Cassandra: Experience And Gotchas

Recently I’ve summarized some experience on quickly getting started with Cassadra. And for this post I’d like to keep writing about some of our experience using and operating Cassandra. Hopefully it could be useful to you, and help you avoid future unwanted surprises.

Election and Paxos

Cassandra is always considered to be favoring the “AP” in “CAP” theorem, where it guarantees eventual consistency for availability and performance. But when really necessary, you can still leverage Cassandra’s built-in “Light-weight Transaction” for elections to determine a leader node in the cluster.

Basically, it works by writing to a table with your own lease:

INSERT INTO leases (name, owner) VALUES ('lease_master', 'server_1') IF NOT EXISTS;

The IF NOT EXISTS triggers the Cassandra built-in Light-weight Transaction and can be used to declare a consensus among a cluster. With a default TTL in the table, this can be used for leases control, or master election. For example:

CREATE table leases (
name text,
owner text,
) WITH default_time_to_live = 16;

So that the lease owner needs to keep writing to the lease row for heartbeats.

I’m not sure about the performance characteristics of Cassandra’s election behavior with other applications (etcd, Zookeeper, …) and it’ll be interesting to see a study. But since those are already more full-featured and well-understood in keeping consensus, I’d recommend delegating this behavior to them unless you’re stuck with Cassandra for your application.

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Building Applications With Cassandra: A Very Quick Guide

Cassandra Overview

Cassandra as an open-source NoSQL database has gained popularity in cloud and big data applications. Inspired by DynamoDB, it also has good latency, tunable consistency, easy to achieve scalability, and high-availability with cluster setup.

Our team’s been using Cassandra as the backend for an application we’ve been shipping to customers. We chose it for its high-availability setup, and good performance. We used to store time-series data and some simple configuration data as Key-value pairs. So it felt like a natural choice. And in our experience over time, it has proven to be highly capabable at serving our purposes.

With impressive availability, scalability, and read/write performance, Casandra also comes with its limitations. We cannot design data models the same way we did with traditional relational databases with SQL interface. And it doesn’t come with many of the guarantees from traditional databases, like consistency level, transactions, cascading deletion, etc. Like other NoSQL databases, Cassandra was designed to optimize batch write operations with good read and write latency. It fits applications without too much update/delete operations, especially ones with no high amounts of transactions.

So the best use cases for Cassandra can be:

  • You have a high volume of data with availability concerns.
  • Most data is sequential read/write or append, e.g.: logs, time-series, IoT applications, track records, messages, etc.
  • You don’t have complex data relations between data entities that requires high amount of transactions.

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