Introduction

Recently, a change that I contributed caused some downtime on the Zulip cloud (zulipchat.com). Here’s a user tweeting at us, about this.

I shared this with some friends (who use Zulip) and they asked me to share more about what happened. I began writing an explanation, and it eventually turned into a blog post. The post tries to explain what caused the down-time, without assuming too much knowledge of the Zulip DB schema, but it would help if you used Zulip a little.

The goal of my change was to change how Zulip backend calculates the furthest_read_time for a user – the time stamp indicating when the last message was read.

Previously, the code used simply kept track of the message ID of the messages being read by a user in a field called the “pointer”. My change was to move away from this pointer approach to using the actual timestamp of when a user last read a message.

What is the pointer?

Put very simply, the pointer is just a message ID1 – ideally, the ID of the “last message” a user has read. Message IDs in Zulip are incremental – a message that has arrived after another one, would have a higher ID than the older message. So, it would’ve been a great way to keep track of the last read message, if all the messages were in “one continuous feed”. But, guess what, Zulip has streams and topics which are precisely what make Zulip such a valuable communication tool!

The pointer can be set to the ID of the message that is currently being read, but only when we are in the “All messages” view. In this view, all messages are ordered chronologically, so any message that is after another message would have arrived after it, and would have an ID greater than the other message. So reading a message in this view means, any message with a lower ID must’ve already been read.

When you are reading messages in a stream/topic (narrowed) view, the pointer is not updated. We can’t be sure that all messages with ID lower than the current message’s ID have already been read. There could be a whole bunch of unread messages in other streams/topics than the current one you are reading. So, the pointer doesn’t get updated until you go to the “All messages” view and scroll over the messages, even if you have already read them in a narrowed view.

Why change this?

Using the pointer to compute the furthest_read_time doesn’t work very well, because it is only updated in the “All messages” view. In other words, furthest_read_time turned out to actually mean something like furthest_read_time_in_all_messages_view.

The furthest_read_time is used in the UI to display the bankruptcy banner – a prompt shown to a user to mark all messages as read, if they have “too many” unreads, and haven’t read new messages in the last 48 hours.

But, this is a problem, especially in Zulip instances with a lot of traffic, where people leave a lot of messages unread until they have the time to catch-up. It is common for people to communicate only in a handful of streams/topics, and leave a lot of messages unread in other streams or topics, that they are hoping to catch-up on, when they have more time at hand. Such users would avoid using the “All messages” view at any cost.

Even in not-so-high-traffic realms, some users just prefer not to use the “All messages” view, and just stick to narrowed views.

So, for these users the furthest_read_time would get updated very rarely, and could potentially remain at a date way back in the past. This meant the users would see the bankruptcy banner despite actively participating in the Realm, even if only in a few topics/streams. This is annoying UX, and what something we wanted to fix.

What did we change this to?

We decided to use the last read message time as the message to consider for the furthest_read_time. The following “innocent looking” query should do that for us, we thought…

UserMessage.objects.filter(user_profile=user_profile, flags=UserMessage.flags.read).last()

Well, it does, but not without bringing down the whole of zulipchat.com after a deploy! 🙈 But, why?!

Some background on how data is stored would be useful to see why.

UserMessage table is huge, my friend

Zulip’s data model has a Message table that stores the content of each message, when it was sent, by whom, to which topic, etc. The UserMessage table is then used to keep track of what the status of this message is, for each user that has received the message. A 32 bit flag field is used to keep track of things like, whether the user has read a message, starred a message, has been mentioned in a message, etc. So, if a messages is sent to a stream with N users, it creates 1 row in the Message table and N rows in the UserMessage table. If M such messages are sent, it would create M*N rows in the UserMessage table. So, pretty soon, the UserMessage table becomes huge! 2

To make common queries on this table efficient, the DB has indexes for them. Some of the indexes on the UserMessage table are documented here, though the documentation was created in the migration context for production deployments. There are indexes for various things, including unread messages.

And here’s our innocent looking query, as a reminder.

UserMessage.objects.filter(user_profile=user_profile, flags=UserMessage.flags.read).last()

This query searches through the read messages for a particular user, and tries to figure out the last message they read. Note that the DB only has indexes for unread messages, not read messages! So, this query isn’t using DB indexes to search for this needle in the haystack, and ends up being pretty damn slow!

Additionally, this query is run for every user when the “home page” is loaded since we want to calculate their furthest_read_time to decide if should show the bankruptcy banner.

Also, Zulip’s architecture is designed to allow using the same app server and DB to host multiple different realms. And zulipchat.com is such a deployment where a few servers are used to serve all the realms. (I don’t know too much about the deployment setup, though).

When a new change is deployed to zulipchat.com and the server is restarted, all the clients of all the users reload. Having an expensive query in that path, would just kill the DB. And this innocent looking query didn’t disappoint!

How did we fix this?

Well, this change was reverted immediately by Tim, and things were kicked back into a usable state.

Later, we decided to take a different approach. We decided to look at a different table (UserActivity) that tracks user activity, mainly for the purpose of analytics. This table keeps track of the last time a user performed an action based on the API calls made.

Among other things, changing any of the flags in the 32-bit flag field is one of the actions that is tracked. Marking a message as read was being tracked too. We use the last time this action was performed to compute the last time a user was “active”, and based on that decide if we should show the bankruptcy banner or not.

Here’s the actual commit that makes this change. But, it turns out that needed a follow-up fix too. 🙈

Thanks to Tim Abbott and Shantanu for reading drafts of this post.


  1. The pointer was used to do a bunch of useful things, but we are currently in the process of removing it. ↩︎

  2. Zulip’s code base uses a concept called soft-deactivation to mitigate this problem on Realms where there are a lot of users who log in very infrequently, or don’t login after an initial period of activity. So, the number of rows are not exactly M*N in all the cases, but in the worst case they are. ↩︎