Scale Is Not Infiniteedit

Throughout this chapter we have spoken about many of the ways that Elasticsearch can scale. Most scaling problems can be solved by adding more nodes. But one resource is finite and should be treated with respect: the cluster state.

The cluster state is a data structure that holds the following cluster-level information:

  • Cluster-level settings
  • Nodes that are part of the cluster
  • Indices, plus their settings, mappings, analyzers, warmers, and aliases
  • The shards associated with each index, plus the node on which they are allocated

You can view the current cluster state with this request:

GET /_cluster/state

The cluster state exists on every node in the cluster, including client nodes. This is how any node can forward a request directly to the node that holds the requested data—every node knows where every document lives.

Only the master node is allowed to update the cluster state. Imagine that an indexing request introduces a previously unknown field. The node holding the primary shard for the document must forward the new mapping to the master node. The master node incorporates the changes in the cluster state, and publishes a new version to all of the nodes in the cluster.

Search requests use the cluster state, but they don’t change it. The same applies to document-level CRUD requests unless, of course, they introduce a new field that requires a mapping update. By and large, the cluster state is static and is not a bottleneck.

However, remember that this same data structure has to exist in memory on every node, and must be published to every node whenever it is updated. The bigger it is, the longer that process will take.

The most common problem that we see with the cluster state is the introduction of too many fields. A user might decide to use a separate field for every IP address, or every referer URL. The following example keeps track of the number of times a page has been visited by using a different field name for every unique referer:

POST /counters/pageview/home_page/_update
  "script": "ctx._source[referer]++",
  "params": {
    "referer": ""

This approach is catastrophically bad! It will result in millions of fields, all of which have to be stored in the cluster state. Every time a new referer is seen, a new field is added to the already bloated cluster state, which then has to be published to every node in the cluster.

A much better approach is to use nested objects, with one field for the parameter name—referer— and another field for its associated value—count:

    "counters": [
      { "referer": "",  "count": 2 },
      { "referer": "", "count": 10 },

The nested approach may increase the number of documents, but Elasticsearch is built to handle that. The important thing is that it keeps the cluster state small and agile.

Eventually, despite your best intentions, you may find that the number of nodes and indices and mappings that you have is just too much for one cluster. At this stage, it is probably worth dividing the problem into multiple clusters. Thanks to tribe nodes, you can even run searches across multiple clusters, as if they were one big cluster.