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How Fog Creek Software Made Kiln's Search 1000x Faster with Elasticsearch

| Posted by Kevin Gessner on Sep 11, 2013. Estimated reading time: 12 minutes |

One of the most satisfying things I do as a developer is optimizing: making parts of my product, Kiln, faster. Having the best features or the nicest interface means nothing if your product is so slow that no one can stand using it. Last year, my team had the opportunity to optimize one of the slowest parts of Kiln, and we made it faster--much faster.

This is the story of how a remarkable tool called Elasticsearch helped make Kiln 1000x faster.

Kiln is a source code management tool, which offers hosting for Mercurial and Git repositories, with code review and a host of other awesome features. We launched Kiln in early 2010, and v1 was admittedly pretty basic--repository management, code reviews, pushing and pulling with permissions--enough of a core product that we knew we were onto something useful. But as we used Kiln to develop Kiln, we noticed some shortcomings.

One of the biggest features we wanted was search. Digging through mountains of source code by hand is nearly impossible, and tools like grep only work if you already have a copy of the code on your computer. So when we were working on version 2.0 the summer after launch, we decided that searching commit messages, filenames, and file contents would be one of the hallmark features of the release.

SQL Server

At the time, we evaluated a few different options for search engines. For searching commit messages, we stuck with a tool we already had in our arsenal: Microsoft SQL Server. Commits were already stored in a table in an easy-to-query format, so we enabled MSSQL's Full Text Search feature, and we were off to the races. We treated searching for filenames similarly: stick them in a table, and let SQL Server do the work.


Searching the code itself was a bigger challenge requiring a different set of tools. Looking at our options for code search engines pointed us toward OpenGrok, a remarkable piece of software that seemed to do just what we wanted. Starting with the code in a directory, OpenGrok uses ctags to parse the code (supporting dozens of languages out of the box), and indexes it with Apache Lucene. OpenGrok not only indexes every class, method, and variable in your code; it can even distinguish definitions from references, so you can search for all the places a method is called, not just where it’s defined.

We launched Kiln 2 with search and a slew of other features, and we were happy with what we'd accomplished: deep insight into your source code, from its history and commit messages to every line your team had committed.

But as Kiln grew, we realized that search wasn't working quite as well as we'd hoped. Honestly, even in the best of circumstances, searches were slower than we wanted them to be. Under peak load, they were nearly unusable. OpenGrok, while an impressive tool, didn't scale well to tens of thousands of repositories and terabytes of code. Indexes sometimes failed to update, and indexing the code in real time required keeping a checked-out copy of each repository, not just the history, doubling our storage requirements. SQL Server's Full Text Search turned out to be slow at our scale, and placed a lot of load on our database servers. Plus, it had a variety of shortcomings that limited what new features we could add to Kiln.

In early 2012, we found ourselves with the opportunity to rethink our search architecture. Kiln's original design created a new database for every Kiln account. SQL Server does not scale well to thousands of databases on a server, so we decided to rearchitect Kiln into a multi-tenant database app, where every account's data was stored in the same database. Since we would be migrating each account's individual database into the new database, we had an opportunity to make some substantial changes in our data storage. That meant we could also revamp our search engine. Leaving OpenGrok and Full Text Search would be a major undertaking, but the benefits would be enormous.


Going back to the drawing board, we asked ourselves how you do search right in 2012. We wanted to make search the best feature of Kiln, a remarkable feature, one that people will talk about. Research pointed us to two different but similar-seeming search engines: Elasticsearch and Apache Solr. Both use Lucene—by far the most powerful open-source search engine—under the hood, but offer a friendlier interface and hide some of Lucene's complexity. Both offer a JSON API, a wealth of different queries, and all the power of Lucene. So which would be right for Kiln?

After a lot of reading and playing around with each tool, Elasticsearch was looking like the front runner: easy-to-use, powerful, and scalable search that was blazingly fast. Getting Elasticsearch running was easy: if you have Java installed, just download the latest release, run it, and you're off to the races. Within just a few minutes, I was able to start developing a schema and storing test data. Though Elasticsearch's documentation describes the queries that are available, being able to run my own sample queries was a great help in learning the best way to use Elasticsearch. The last test was to make sure that Elasticsearch could hold up to the size of Kiln On Demand's full data set. We didn't want to requisition new servers just for this test, so we did the test the Hacker's Way. Elasticsearch runs great on commodity hardware, taking whatever resources you can offer from as many machines as you can find, and creating a single cluster. So, we enlisted the help of nearly every developer in the office to download Elasticsearch and join a cluster on the office network. Over the course of an afternoon, we loaded hundreds of gigabytes of data into and out of Elasticsearch. It didn't break a sweat, returning results in milliseconds even under heavy write load. Solr didn't live up to our expectations -- read performance suffered under heavy write loads, while ES was still screaming fast. Elasticsearch was clearly the solution for us.


Elasticsearch stores "documents", which are a structured data type similar to a JSON object. Every document is a set of keys and values, where the keys are strings and the values are one of numerous data types, such as strings, numbers, dates, and lists. The first data that we moved into Elasticsearch was commit messages, replacing SQL Server’s Full Text Search. Every commit document stores three of those key-value pairs: the commit’s date, the author, and the commit message. Queries are expressed with a variety of operators, looking at one or many of these values, and scoring results by the closeness of the match. The basic query operators search for text in strings, but other query operators, such as built-in support for boolean queries and date ranges, enable you to write complex queries that are optimized to run in milliseconds.

When you add a document to Elasticsearch, you do so by making an HTTP POST with one or more documents as JSON objects. You search with JSON, too: send your query in JSON with a simple HTTP GET. This RESTful architecture makes it easy to test and check on data directly from the command line. In fact, cURL is the tool I use most often for debugging and developing with Elasticsearch!

The client libraries for Python and .NET made it easy to integrate Elasticsearch into our existing codebase. Rather than writing JSON by hand to index new documents or retrieve query results, these wrappers work with Python and C# objects. For example, search results come out as strongly-typed C# objects, alongside the rest of our data access objects.

We initially stumbled a few times trying to figure out the right structure for the commit documents. It's important to remember that Elasticsearch is not a relational database, so the rules that you've learned for MSSQL or another RDBMS don't always apply. The most important concept you must unlearn is denormalization: Elasticsearch doesn’t allow joins or subqueries, so denormalizing your data is a must.

For instance, we store a commit's document once for every repository it appears in. This a terrible mistake if you’re thinking in terms of a relational database, but with Elasticsearch, it’s the best way. Searching for a commit in a given repository is fast because the commit message is stored right next to the metadata that makes up the index, reducing the number of data reads required. The index size doesn't grow as much as you'd think, since Lucene internally compresses the index, so multiple similar documents don't explode its size.

Further, Elasticsearch does not generally allow you to update a single field of an existing document. Instead, you must re-index the document, including fields that haven't changed. This required a change in our thinking, since it's so unlike a database. With SQL Server, updating a single field in a single row of a million-row table is fast, so we were used to storing data

Once we settled on a data format, we were off to the races. We were happy to find that Elasticsearch’s founder and lead developer Shay Banon, along with a helpful community, were active on the Elasticsearch mailing list. Our questions and concerns were answered quickly, a huge help when we were badly stuck. We've been happy to contribute patches back upstream—it's the least we can do for this community and project.

With commit messages, Elasticsearch's analytics engine gave us some remarkable results. Text written in human languages is subjected to a process called *stemming* before it is indexed. This means that a word like "running" is indexed as "run" the most basic form of the word. Other forms, like "runs" and "runner" are indexed the same way. Later, a search for "run", "runner", "running", or any other form will undergo the same process, looking up the index's entries for "run". Thus, you get results for all forms of a search term, without having to index every form. This combination of expressive searching and small indexes means you get results quickly, even when you don't know the exact phrase or keyword you're looking for.

Elasticsearch shines in the datacenter, too. We chose servers with SSDs and lots of RAM, since Elasticsearch works best when it can read its indexes as fast as possible. Since the only prerequisite is Java, we were able to get up and running quickly. If you're concerned about reliability, Elasticsearch will help you sleep better at night, since it supports replication out of the box. With a cluster of machines running Elasticsearch, you can specify that every document be replicated across multiple machines, so losing a single node won't cause any downtime. Data is automatically shifted between nodes as they enter and leave the cluster, so expanding capacity is easy, too. We've seen search speed stay constant as our data size has grown by ten times.

We’re currently running only two nodes for our production cluster and scaling out hasn’t been necessary yet. But we know it will be easy when the time comes: these two boxes were not the original production nodes. When the original two nodes proved underpowered, we simply provisioned the new servers and added them to the cluster. Then, we increased the replica count, and ES automatically copied all the documents to exist on all four servers. Then we simply shut down the old nodes and turned the replica count back down to two. Voilà--upgrading running infrastructure with no downtime.

We released the new Elasticsearch-powered commit search in mid-2012 with our new multi-tenant architecture. As with any successful infrastructure change, one of the goals was that the customer shouldn't even notice that something had changed! But every Kiln user noticed that searches were lightning fast. What kind of speed are we talking about? With our old architecture, searches ran with a strict thirty-second timeout, and a disappointingly high number of queries ran into it. Queries that did complete still took several seconds. Elasticsearch can find better results for the same queries in as little as five milliseconds. That's right--searching with Elasticsearch is one thousand times faster. It's fast enough that we added as-you-type search, so you can get results as fast as you can think.

Migrating from OpenGrok to Elasticsearch

Seeing those results, we quickly started work on replacing OpenGrok with Elasticsearch for code search because we wanted that speed wherever we could get it. Over the next few months, we moved several terabytes of code indexes from OpenGrok to Elasticsearch. Indexing code in Elasticsearch required some careful planning. OpenGrok is designed specifically to be a code search tool, so we lost certain benefits in going to a more general solution, like distinguishing references from definitions in code or ignoring keywords based on a file's language. But when searches are so slow that no one can use them, those features don't mean much.

After some experimentation, we settled on a data structure where each file is processed to extract unique tokens: every keyword, class, method, comment, and so on that's used in the file. The ES document for that file includes the file name and those tokens. Indexing only the unique tokens makes our index much smaller compared to indexing the unprocessed contents (just think about the number of times that "new", "public", or "return" is repeated in the average source file). This index also serves double duty: when searching for file names, we simply search the file names that are stored for each code document and ignore the code tokens.

A smaller index means faster searches, though rendering results is a little trickier. Once Elasticsearch tells us that a given file is a match for the query, we send the results to our storage servers, where the file's complete contents are read and matching lines are highlighted. This extra bit of complexity gives us an average search time of under fifty milliseconds across terabytes of data. That’s speed worth talking about!

These days, our Elasticsearch cluster adds millions of new documents every day, and handles a constant load of searches across commits, files, and code faster than we ever thought it could. We're proud of our search engine, proud enough to put a big search box front and center on every Kiln page. Since adding a fast new search engine, we've found places to use it that we didn't expect. For instance, Kiln can show the diff between any two commits in a repository. Where in the past we would have made you type in the unique commit IDs of both commits, we now simply show a search box, knowing that you can find the correct commit from a repository of tens of thousands in just a few key presses. Elasticsearch has given us Google-fast searches with a powerful query language and all the benefits of an open source project.

About the Author

Kevin Gessner is a developer at Fog Creek Software in New York City, where he works on Kiln, the version control system for teams. When he's not making software, he enjoys baking and riding his bike around Brooklyn.



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Thanks! by D S

Very interesting and informative!

Nice by Mark N

Good article. Good to see .NETters getting outside the box. ;) This article points out the need to treat the RDBMS as an RDMBS. It is not a search engine. It is not an app server. It is not a message queue. If you treat it as such, you will run into the same sorts of issues when you need to scale.

Re: RDMBS? by Ellie Kesselman

...This article points out the need to treat the RDBMS as an RDMBS. It is not a search engine. It is not an app server. It is not a message queue...

I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be annoying. Why did you say, "RDMBS", or was that a typo?

I thought it was a good article too. I am an enthusiastic user of some Fog Creek supported services. OpenGrok sounded nice, before your scaling requirements. It is great to read a specific use case comparison of Elasticsearch versus Solr. Often, comparisons are just a big grid!

Infra Details by Vaidik Kapoor

Great article, Kevin!

Can you please share more details on the infrastructure side? How many machines and what configurations are you guys using?

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