Make it Parallel

How to run consume a queue with multiple independent workers in Postgres, and survive!

Make it Parallel
Photo by davide ragusa / Unsplash

The first version of my queue system was very simple, in the end, it proved to be too simple for a real-life scenario.

I knew I couldn’t use a queue or messaging tools like RabbitMQ because of my requirements (uniqueness, scheduling, costs) so after some googling, I resolved to DIY and I chose PostgreSQL as database and centralized queue management.

The general idea was to query a table to get “what to do next?“.

Here is the simple schema:

taskId | taskSubject | nextIteration
1      | buy milk    | today
2      | do laundry  | tomorrow

And the simple query to fetch the task was:

SELECT * FROM my_queue
WHERE nextIteration < NOW()
ORDER BY nextIteration ASC

Beautiful in its own simplicity, isn’t it? When a worker resolves a task it just needs to update the nextItaration to the preferred date. Each job should decide how long to wait until the next execution.

I ran my tests and I was happy.

Do I need to mention here that my “tests” were running on my local machine, with just one consumer attached to the queue?

Yes, I guess it’s an important part of this story. My tests were successful - or so I believed back then - and I did spend the next few days implementing the actual logic of the workers.

And then it came the deployment day.

My startup received quite a good deal of credits from AWS so I was thrilled to scale up my system and unleash the true power of parallel computing.

Oh boy, I was so young!
— 6 months ago

My local testing was giving me a throughput of ~20 tasks/sec with one consumer machine running the workers.

Of course, my scaling expectations were quite linear: 2 machines means 40 t/s, 4 machines 80 t/s, and so forth… realistic uh? Somewhere deep inside I knew that linearity was just a little too much of an expectation but I rate myself a genius, so why not?

Without further hesitation, I hit the autoscaling group accelerator and displaced 10 consumer machines. My chest was exploding with early shouts of joy for 200 tasks per second were just a few seconds away…

You need to know that this queue system was meant to handle something around 2-3 billions tasks in total, probably ~120 millions tasks need to run daily.

In a day we have 86400 seconds and that calls for near 1900 tasks per second as target throughput.

Which calls for something around 70 consumers machines if they can handle 20 t/s. That’s the number that made me smile when I saw my local test results.

Welcome to my little big data adventure!

Bip! bip! bip! Suddenly I receive the “deployment succeeded” notification (1) and I rushed to my terminal to get the throughput estimate and… NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

Still stuck at 20 tasks per second 🧐

How comes? 10 machines working at full speed, an RDS database with enough power in it to serve NASA for their next manned mission to Mars… and is it still producing the very same results of the single development machine? That was bad news.

I dug deep into the logs produced by each machine and a terrible pattern slowly began to take shape before my eyes:

every task was given out to every consumer machine.

My cluster was doing parallel computing all right, but it was just doing the same job in parallel 10 times. Far away from what I had in mind.

When I recovered from the shock I realized it was a reasonably simple problem of concurrent access to the same task. I had actually prepared no mechanism to lock one task once it’s been picked up.

A creative genius like myself doesn’t have to wait much for his smart-ass brain to come up with a decent solution (that will quickly turn not-so-decent-after-all):

When a consumer picks up a task it will lock the task by setting nextIteration some minutes in the future.
task = (
  SELECT * FROM my_queue
  WHERE nextIteration < NOW()
  ORDER BY nextIteration ASC

UPDATE my_quee 
SET nextIteration = NOW() + '5 minutes'
WHERE id =

This way I was getting two birds with one stone:

  • bird number one, I could lock the queue so no tasks will be picked by two machines because of WHERE nextIteration < NOW()
  • bird number two, if a worker hits an error the task will be picked up by another worker a few minutes later. I was sure I had a self-healing queue in my hands. 😎 Nobel prize here I come! 😎

Stunned by my brilliant solution I hit the red button again and deployed. This time I was a little bit more cautious in my expectations, but still, it should work, shouldn’t it? Simple idea, simple query… what could possibly go

Bip! bip! bip! It’s ready and it’s live. One rushed terminal typing minute later I got my new throughput result: ~40 t/s. Whaaat? Better than before but still far away from the 200 t/s need.

This was a bad moment in my life. I felt like the problem couldn’t be solved. If I wasn’t able, who was? That stupid Postgres must not be the right tool. We must take our startup down because it can not be done. Google? Facebook? They are surely cheating with their data… Somehow… Maybe not… Maybe somebody else faced the same issue… Maybe…

a business woman who is stressed and frustrated
Photo by Elisa Ventur / Unsplash

And I finally began doing what I should have been doing since the beginning: I hit “google” on my keyboard and started to research concurrent updates in Postgres.

Yes buddy, the only safe assumption one can make about a technical problem is that someone else already faced it and solved it. No matter what problem. Sure there will be exceptions to this rule but I challenge you to come to me with an example!

To search for a solution that you don’t know is tricky.

Way more tricky than just throwing code to a solution like I did so far. It requires more creativity than coding and a very open mind as you have to turn, shift and adapt your search keywords all along the way, as your understanding of the problem slowly gets better and better.

Basically, this is part of my collection to promote black stock images.
Photo by Benjamin Dada / Unsplash

It took a few days for me to find the solution to this problem. It is not a difficult solution, it was difficult for me to get to find the proper keywords that got me to the proper Stackoverflow thread with the proper answer. The most difficult part was to recognize the correct answer.

Here it is, it turned out I was very close to the solution and that my smart-ass brain is not that bad after all. I just didn’t know enough about the tool I was using - Postgres - which happens to be an amazing tool with amazing features. The first feature that I got to learn in my little big data adventure is SELECT ... FOR UPDATE:

UPDATE my_queue 
SET nextIteration = NOW() + '5 minutes'
  SELECT id FROM my_queue
  WHERE nextIteration < NOW()
  ORDER BY nextIteration ASC

Can you see it is just the combination of my original two queries? The concurrency problem I faced during my second test was due to the fact that by the time Postgres executes the UPDATE query, some other consumer already manage to slip in it’s SELECT request.

By combining the SELECT/UPDATE in one single request, and locking the table’s row with the FOR UPDATE statement I leverage Postgres smart-ass geniuses to handle the concurrent access problem for me.

Well, that is really it for this story. I have more to tell as I didn’t quite get the life lesson this first time. My brain is quite slow in that respect.

And for the life lesson, I can squeeze it in a simple sentence:

Learn the tools you’re using

I was using Postgres just as a simple data repository. I was doing in the application level what many smart engineers already did in Postgres. That's dumb.

Cm’on! We have amazing open-source tools that we can use to improve our work, our effectiveness, and the value that we produce. Let’s not be so arrogant (as I was) as not to respect their creators and read what they have done.

(1) the notification from AWS is for storytelling purposes only. They have no such thing as "bip - bip - bip". I wish they had! Somebody should tell ‘em we want it!