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Posted on by andres castano

Google Cloud Platform: Reducing operation cost of an IoT application

Introduction

After rolling out PaperCut Views on the Google Cloud Platform, we realised that the operation cost was more affected by the instance running time than by the number of IO operations, storage, cache, etc. In this article, I will show the problems we found in our original architecture and the changes we made to reduce the operation cost by reducing the instance running time, hoping that our experience could help other teams doing similar products on the GCP.

What is PaperCut Views?

PaperCut Views is our free printing analytics, insights and supply forecast product targeted to small and home offices.

It is hosted in the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) which is a great provider of cloud services, and particularly, it is running on AppEngine, their platform as a service. One of its big benefits for IoT applications such as PaperCut Views, is that it can auto scale horizontally, spinning up new instances as needed according to the load of the application.

Why did we want to refactor?

IoT applications generally have to deal with a lot of events. PaperCut Views at the moment of writing this article was receiving 1.7 million events per day thanks to the 75k registered printers. These numbers are growing around 15k new printers per month representing 300.000 events more per day. Given that this is a free product, we wanted to try and reduce the operation cost so that we could keep the same level of service to our growing customer base.

Our approach to cost reduction

The first natural approach to reduce costs would be to reduce the number of events per printer (which we did), but we soon realised that our architecture also needed to be improved. In the following sections I will show an overview of our initial architecture, the problems we found on it and the changes we made to reduce the costs.

Our initial architecture

The following is a simplified version of the moving parts of the architecture we had at launch time:

PaperCut Views Architecture

In the previous diagram, the clients are installed in our customer’s organisations to capture the information of the printers and send events such as job printed, toner level changed etc to the cloud. These events are processed by our cloud application which updates various metrics such as total pages printed per month, toner and paper forecast etc. The metrics are calculated organisation wide as well as per printer. Then, the users would be able to see the metrics via our web application.

When we went live, our design was oriented to limit the datastore operations per event, hoping that the reduced number of IO actions kept the costs low. Since we needed real time metrics in our dashboard,  we decided to calculate them every time we received an event and store them on big datastore documents containing all of the metrics; one document for each organisation and one for each printer. Each document was fetched updated and saved once per event.

Event processing

Soon after we went live, we realised that the cost was more affected by the AppEngine instances running time than by the IO or  storage, so we started to plan the refactor.

Problem 1: High contention spots

As you can see, every time some action happened in any printer in an organisation, the two big documents were updated. This resulted in high contention spots in our storage, which despite we sharded the documents, it caused a lot of retries due to optimistic locking. In other words, if multiple events modify the documents inside a transaction at the same time, the first one to finish will commit, the others would need to retry. This kept the instance busy for a longer period of time trying to fetch, update and save a document since the whole cycle needed to be repeated until all events were calculated.

So, first refactor goal: Keep the storage high contention spots under control, even at the expense of duplicated data and more IO

The approach we took was to store some metrics in different documents. This implied more fetches per event but this also meant that the events that didn’t affect that particular metric, wouldn’t modify the document, therefore less contention and less retries caused by the optimistic locking errors.

Smaller metrics

After doing this, we had less instances attending the same number of events. However, there were still some cases in which the processing time of an event was long.

Problem 2: Cross-group transactions

It was common that a single event would modify multiple metric documents. For that, we created a transaction around them to keep the modifications consistent (see paper forecast metrics in the previous diagram). Modifying multiple documents in GCP datastore generally* implies a cross-group transaction, which takes longer to commit increasing the chances of optimistic locking and again, more instance uptime.

Second refactor goal: Avoid modifying more than one document per transaction.

For this, we decided to adopt eventual consistency using domain events according to DDD principles. The idea is that the documents could be updated independently and asynchronously, achieving consistency after a short period of time. We rely on Google Pub/Sub for this, since it guarantees the delivery of the events among other things.

Domain Events

With this approach, the total instance time was reduced because the transactions were much faster and also because by modifying one document at a time we reduced the chances of contention. Until now, this has been the most effective change for us when it comes to cost reduction. As a side effect, we ended up with smaller documents and better segregated logic.

Problem 3: Big nested documents

At the beginning, when we decided to store all metrics related to an organisation in one document, we ended up with big nested structures with lots of data in them. Fetching this type of documents takes more time than fetching smaller documents, like for example, a document storing just a few user details.

Third refactor goal: Keep document size small.

This was a side effect of the previous two changes, and while it might not be critical by itself, when combined with reducing contention spots and eventual consistency can produce a significant reduction on instance time which again, is the most expensive item in our monthly invoice from google.

Is that all?

No, there are other areas that are worth checking. In our team, we are currently working on:

Reducing unnecessary liveliness: Do you really need all events to be processed on real time? For PaperCut Views, the answer is no. Some metrics can be recalculated daily or monthly.This would mean that events won’t be processed as they arrive but in batch at the end of the day.

We are currently streaming the events directly into BigQuery, the GCP Data warehouse, and we are working on calculating the non-real-time metrics directly out of there.

Splitting into multiple services: Views at this moment is mostly a monolith. Having multiple services will allow us to tune each instance type according to the kind of load they are handling and so, we will be able to assign less powerful and cheaper instances to the services that are not critical and bigger ones to the ones that process real time data.

Wrapping it up

After analysing the operation cost breakdown, we realised that IO operations are not as critical as instance running time in the GCP, particularly in AppEngine. We aimed our optimisations on reducing the processing time.

We focused our refactor in:

  • Reducing the datastore contention spots by sharding, splitting the documents and/or duplicating data.
  • Adopting eventual consistency to be able to store one kind of document per transaction.
  • Keeping a small document size.

Being the second one the most effective so far for our case.

We are still working on improving PaperCut Views as well as designing some other exciting products that would take advantage of all of our learnings on the Google Cloud Platform. Our team has grown in size and diversity, so I am sure we will have a whole lot of stories and learnings to share.

Stay tuned and thank you for reading!

 

About the author:

Andres Castano is a senior developer and the team lead of PaperCut Views. He joined PaperCut 2 years ago and has been actively involved in the architecture and technical direction of the product. He comes from Colombia and in his free time he likes to go out for a run, play soccer and attend the different technical meetings happening in Melbourne.  

 

Check out his personal blog at: https://afcastano.github.io or follow him on twitter @afcastano

 

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Posted on by Maria Piera

It feels good to give a little

I was so happy when I heard that the PaperCut Leadership team had decided to sponsor the first ever Illuminate Gala Ball.  Not just because the cause was close to my heart – autism support and awareness – but also because it made me feel good to know that the company I worked for was prepared to give to help others.

Illuminate is the brainchild of Paul and Natasha Finamore – they have 2 sons on the autism spectrum and wanted to give back a little to the organisations that had supported them and their kids.  With a view to help even more kids and parents, they thought big and pulled off a great fundraising night.  There was laughter and tears, dancing and auctions. Over $60,000 was raised to be shared between Autism Spectrum Australia  and the Helping Hands Centre .

I have to draw the similarity between Paul and Natasha, and PaperCut’s two founders Chris and Matt – 2 people with a vision and the determination and the work ethic to turn that into something.  Paul has had a long business relationship with PaperCut so supporting Paul in this endeavour was like helping out a family member.  

PaperCut has grown so much over the last few years but one thing that hasn’t changed over the 4 years that I have been here  is the strong sense of identity I feel as part of the PaperCut family.  I know that I am working for an employer that really does care for its staff, and endeavours to support them through life’s ups and downs.  That mindset is extended to the wider community through the support of various charitable projects aimed at supporting kids – and the belief that all people have something to contribute and nurturing diversity is a worthwhile cause.  

PaperCut sponsors students from Sir John Monash Science school to attend the SuperComputing conference and intern; we provide work placements for high school kids who are interested in learning about tech jobs; we take undergraduate interns from Swinburne Uni computer science degree; and we support TLC for Kids who provide activity kits for kids in long term hospital care.  With over 100 staff in the Melbourne office alone, there’s always someone collecting for something – be it one of our kids schools, sports clubs or a favourite charity etc. All this helps in providing us with a sense of community.

But it is not just monetary support that is important.  One of the overarching themes of Paul and Natasha’s speeches on the night of the Illuminate Gala Ball was one of greater understanding and acceptance of children with autism, and indeed of people with any differences.  Parents of kids with autism often find themselves socially isolated and judged because their kids are different.   We live today in a very diverse world, so if there is one learning I can urge everyone to make is that every day, everyone is dealing with something.  Give what you can to others – a smile, a hello, a wave, a helping hand, and friendly chat – and yes, if you feel you can, please give to whatever charity or group you feel is worthy.  We also now live in a world where companies aspire to have diversity in their workforce – it is generally understood that from diversity, we can learn and grow.

So apart from having a great night out with my husband and some work colleagues, I was able to personally contribute to a cause that I believe in and, I must admit, it felt good to be able to give a little. At PaperCut, apart from all the hard work we all do, I see many people giving a little and showing support in many different ways every day. It warms my heart to know that I’m working for an organisation that values this generosity, values diversity and has a strong sense of community.

About the Author:

Maria has worked in the tech industry all her career and has been with PaperCut Software for the last 4 years.  Working in the Melbourne marketing team, Maria co-ordinates the trade shows and other events worldwide. Outside of work, Maria devotes her time to her family and can often be found volunteering for a good cause.  With one child on the autism spectrum, Maria has first hand experience of the struggles that children with special needs face and is passionate about providing them with the best opportunities to reach their full potential.

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Posted on by Geoff Smith

Avoiding an Expensive Data Leak

The new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in the EU highlight the responsibilities all organisations have to protect customer data.  In the EU, penalties for leakage of personal data are increasing a hundredfold and other jurisdictions are likely to follow suit.

The printed document is the oldest source of data leaks, and protection of printed output remains an important issue to this day.  The first line of defence is to prevent unwanted copies of a document being printed and PaperCut MF’s find-me printing does that very well.  But once printed, a paper document left behind in the cafe or on a train seat is typically anonymous, making it impossible to determine when and by whom it was printed.   PaperCut NG and MF also provide innovative solutions to this problem – but more about that later.

At PaperCut, we’ve been tackling print security for a long time.  Our original hackers were armies of school and university students looking for a way to get a free print or copy.  And you wouldn’t believe the things that a motivated student will try!

Behind the scenes at PaperCut, we have been making changes to better equip ourselves for a security conscious world.   Recently we established our own Security Response Team (SRT), which formally brings together our company’s top security talent to raise the bar on how we do security.  The responsibilities of the SRT include giving the existing application and all new features a thorough security review.   When customers report a potential security issue, the SRT is standing by – ready to investigate and quickly fix any nasty reported vulnerabilities.

In more recent years, PaperCut NG and MF are regularly subjected to customer sponsored penetration tests that pound the software from all angles looking for vulnerabilities.   If you do run a penetration test and find something – please report it to us through customer support and they will pass it on to the SRT.

Unfortunately, no amount of pen testing will stop a careless employee leaving a sensitive document behind on the train seat.   A purely digital solution won’t work in this case.  What we need is a way to strongly influence user behavior.

Perhaps a confidential document policy and user education will do the trick?  That could be part of a solution, but in practice, policies are not sufficient on their own.  But a clear policy coupled with security features in PaperCut NG and MF make for a very strong combination.

Way back in 2010 (release 10.5), we introduced the ability to add a watermark to every printed page.  This watermark may contain the user name and date of printing – or even more powerful – a digital signature.  A digital signature can be used to uniquely trace any printed page to the exact entry in the job log for that printed document, giving the time of printing, the printer used and the person who printed the document.   This sends a powerful message to users that they remain accountable for every page they print.

Perhaps PaperCut was ahead of its time, because for a number of years watermarking has been considered a minor feature – almost forgotten.  But In 2017 its time has come.  To celebrate, we’ve made it more powerful by adding full page watermarking.  This feature, was for us a cool technical challenge to implement and for you, ensures that the watermark cannot be intentionally clipped off the page.    Of course you don’t want the full page watermark on every printed document, so it’s good to know you can automatically turn on and off a watermark using a print script to set the watermark text.

There is plenty more to say in the realm of print security, as there are security questions to answer right from the time a user presses Ctrl-P to toner being laid down on the paper and beyond.  To help people answer these questions, we recently put out a whitepaper covering end-to-end print security best practices.  If print security is your concern, please check it out here – “Securing your Print System”.

About The Author:

Geoff Smith leads the development and product teams at PaperCut Software.  He came to PaperCut four years ago after holding roles as software developer architect and project manager at HP and Agilent Technologies.  Geoff is a member of PaperCut’s Leadership Team and has overseen the rapid growth in our development capability.   Outside PaperCut, Geoff is a keen dinghy sailor and likes to spend his Saturday afternoons at the helm of a small boat.  

 

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