Google Reader is a very handy web application for those who like reading a lot. It lets you organize all your feeds in a single location, is not a very complicated, and has everything from a user’s perspective. For a geek, it’s just a front-end for viewing an RSS/Atom feed (XML data) with many regular user experience workflows thrown in. But is that it to Reader? Let’s explore!

There are many variants that have tried to imitate Google Reader, with most of them being desktop clients. IE, Firefox, Safari, Outlook and host of other daily-use applications bring feed aggregation to your desktop. They all provide most or more features than the product in discussion. Right! But, there is one distinction that makes Google Reader stand out from all others. I love desktop clients, but what to do when you have multiple machines you work on. Personally, I work on at least 3 different machines every single day. Gosh, keeping them in sync is a pain. This reason does not hold good for users who have one machine to hit. I will ask them to take a look at another advantage: Speed. Google Reader is a web app serving millions of users, and billions of feed posts each day, with a speed that is unmatched even in desktop clients.

Gregarius, an open source web based feed aggregator did try an implementation. Unfortunately, it seems to be no longer maintained, the home page is dead, and the last commits are more than two-year old. But even if you liven it up, it won’t scale to a level of Google Reader (as per my understanding of the code, noting that I am too immature in PHP). The reason is simple. Gregarius was meant as a personal hosted tool, and was not built for scalability grounds up to support millions of users.

Scalability and speed; are thus, the biggest competition-thrashing features that Reader can be proud of.

For some reasons, not worthy of being mentioned, I happened to spend some time on trying to design an implementation similar to Google Reader which may scale equally. Below are my very own thoughts on how to build such an application.

Application Use-Cases
To begin with let’s examine the various use-cases the application needs to support,
  1. View the home page for the user
    1. View a list of all feeds with an unread count
    2. View an aggregated list of recent posts and their individual status
  2. View the posts inside a given feed
  3. View individual posts in detail or a partial snippet
  4. Allow search within a group of feeds or the entire list of feeds
  5. Store user’s social metadata - liking, stars etc.
Each of these use-cases needs to be supported in the least possible time for the best user experience, how about under a second or two. Only then, the users may be expected to return to the application, often.

Application Components
At a glance, our application will have the following major components:
  1. Unique Feed List: A list of all unique feeds that all users have subscribed to. As feeds are shared between users, it is better to traverse each feed only once and save system resources for other tasks. The only reason to declare this list as a component is to make it stand out in the entire design.
  2. Feed Crawler: This takes in a given feed URL, fetches the latest content and parses the given feed XML and stores each entry/post in a database as an entry for further processing.
  3. Snippet Creator: The snippet creator reads each of the database entries fetched by the crawler and extracts the text that needs to be shown to the user when they view individual post in the client UI. In case the post needs to be shortened with a ‘more...’ link, this component is responsible for the magic.
  4. Search Index Builder: Similar to snippet creator, the index builder updates the search index for the feed, adding search metadata for the new posts. Note that the search indexes are maintained at a feed level.

Let’s see how these components interact with each other in a real-life scenario.

Consider the use-case where a user adds his/her first feed to the account. First the application would go ahead and check if the feed is already registered in the unique list of feeds. If not, add the feed to our global list. If yes, fetch the number of posts the feed has from the past details. Next we will create a new row in our data store as,

  User ID Feed ID Total Posts in Feed Unread Count
  u1 f1 100 100
  u1 f2 0 0

In the table above, f1 is a feed that was already in the unique list and had 100 posts. Feed f2 was not in the list and is a new addition to our master list. Total unread posts count (for existing feeds) is kept the same as total posts.

The master table for the unique feed list looks like,

  Feed ID Feed URL Last Crawled Clients Crawled Updates Latest Post ID
  f1 url1 t1 2 1 1 p18
  f2 url2 t2 1 0 0  

The CLIENTS column is incremented whenever a user adds the feed to his/her account, and decremented whenever the user un-subscribes from the feed. This way in case all users go ahead and remove the feed, the count will become ZERO. Hence, this serves as a flag to the crawler not to crawl and use system resources on the feed. The reason for not deleting the row is not to overuse the unique Feed IDs and also, in anticipation that a user may subscribe to it in future when we can utilize our previous work.

As soon as the feed is registered in the global list of feeds, the feed crawler picks it up and crawls for new posts. The CRAWLED and UPDATES columns are updated by the feed crawler based on the response it receives from the host server. As the feed is picked, the value of CRAWLED is incremented. In case the crawler finds an update as per the last post ID stored with the feed, it increments the UPDATES column. The crawler also writes the post id of the latest feed post in the table. The LAST_POST_ID column thus serves as guidance to the crawler on how many pages to crawl for a given feed URL before pulling in the entire delta from the last crawl.

The ratio of CRAWLED to UPDATES can then be utilized to assign crawling rates between different rate-crawlers. We can have high-rate crawlers which crawl at a much higher frequency than the slow crawlers. This gives us a better way of utilizing our system’s resources to keep in sync with most popular feeds.

Next, the feed crawler stores the new data for a given feed in another table from where information can be extracted from. Say, for feed f1 the crawler built up a delta load dl1 which it stores in the data store. Similarly, for feed f2 the entire load is considered to be the delta load and stored in the data store.

  Feed ID Delta Load Last Updated
  f1 dl1 ...
  f2 dl2 ...

The crawler here works as a producer using the data table above as its repository. Where there is a producer, there is a consumer. In our application we have not one but two consumers.

The first consumer is the ‘Snippet Creator’. It extracts various posts from the feed delta and generates the snippet based on our needs. For each post in the feed delta, the snippet creator generates loads of rows in the snippet table as,

  Feed ID Post ID Snippet ID
  f1 p1 s11
  f1 p2 s12
  ... ... ...
  f2 p1 s21
  f2 p2 s22

The snippet may be stored in the exact format as it would need to be pushed to the client for rendering, or as an object notation either in XML or JSON. JSON should be preferable as it separates the concerns with the UI layer and can easily be parsed in JavaScript, the browser language.

For every feed, a user is usually interested in the last N posts (say 20); for this is what they get to see on their screen upon signing in. Thus, the snippet creator can be used to generate a consolidated snippet of these last N posts and store it as a single entity for faster retrievals in yet another table.

  Feed ID Last 20 Posts Snippet
  f1 20s1
  f2 20s2

The second consumer is our ‘Search Index Builder’. The index builder extracts text from the various posts in the delta load, and updates the corresponding search index data (how about Lucene :?) for the feed. Our system will maintain one single index per feed, which is updated on each new delta load of the feed. This index can be used to perform searches on behalf of users.

  Feed ID Search Index ID Raw Index Data
  f1 si1 ...
  f2 si2 ...

This way we have all the data for performing business operations on our feed data.

Now, let’s get back to our long forgotten user who made the mistake of adding a new feed to the account.

As the user adds a feed to the account, all above operations except the indexing happen in real-time. Thus, the user request (while adding a new feed) results in the following operations on server,
  1. Add the feed entry for the user from global list
  2. Crawl the feed and bring the data to the feed load database
  3. The snippet creator runs and generates individual snippets and as well as the combined 20 posts snippet.

This 20 posts snippet is returned back to the client (browser) as the response where it is then rendered for the user.

A user now moves ahead to read the posts, starring some and liking some. This meta needs to be stored separately so that it can be utilized the next time the user accesses the account. The data can be stored as,

  User ID Feed ID Post ID Read Liked Starred
  u1 f1 p1 y n n
  u1 f1 p2 y y n
  u1 f1 p3 y n y

The above data model works well and fast for a new user who has just added a single feed to his account and has just read the posts. 99% users are those who will have hundreds of feeds in their feed list and the home screen will be an aggregation of these feeds. Querying each feed at sign-in and building the home screen will surely scare the user to run away, never to return back. Thus, an efficient way is needed for the same.

Consider a user who has 200 feeds added to the account and already has read most of the posts. When such a user signs-in to the account, a home screen needs to be presented with a list of all feeds on the left and a consolidated view of the posts on the right as soon as possible.

To speed up, this process can be broken into two different requests from the client from a bare-bone HTML page.
  1. One to fetch the list of all feeds to be displayed on the left
  2. And, second to fetch the content pane data aka the home screen.

Building the feed list
The list of feeds a user has subscribed to will not change frequently, and thus is a perfect candidate for long-time caching. Thus, the list can be maintained in another table as,

  User ID Feed List Data
  u1 fl1
  u2 fl2

The feed list is the actual response data that needs to be thrown to the client with some missing parameters. The data can be either HTML or XML/JSON in case we want the flexibility on the client to render it differently. Choosing JSON is the best option, as we would need not rebuilt the above table whenever the UI team goes ahead and changes the look and feel of the client. The missing parameters are the post unread count against each feed. The same can be aggregated as part of a datastore query, replaced in the cached response, and thrown to the client.

Building the Home Screen
Home screen is the actual reading pane in the HTML page, As soon as the server receives the user’s request to fetch the home screen, the server shoots a query to fetch the list of all feed IDs a user has subscribed to. Once the list is available, multiple parallel queries are shot to fetch the snippets of last N posts for each feed. Remember we stored them as 20s(n) in one of our tables above. In our example, 200 such queries are shot and an accumulated list of 4000 entities made (In reality, multiple queries to the datastore can be merged into a single query, something similar to IN query in a normal relational database). This list of 4000 posts is sorted out chronologically descending and the top 50 posts separated out.

These 50 posts form our current home screen for the user. Meta for these 50 posts is again requested in parallel from the data store (read status, liking, starred etc.). This data is now merged and a response for the client generated. This response is again JSON data for UI flexibility on client. This is the time, where we should cache this data for the user.

  User ID Home Screen Data
  u1 hs1
  u2 hs2

Thus, the next time the user signs-in, we can go ahead and display the home screen right away; what happens to the updates between the last sign-in time and the current time is something we will tackle a little later (under Refresh problem).

The other 3950 posts in the list we built in our previous step can again be cached to a separate temporary table till the user session (in case the user scrolls down and wants to read more of it). This data can be stored in chunks of pages, and the table as said before is only session limited. As soon as the user session terminates, the data corresponding to the user is cleared up.

  User Session ID Page Number Page Data
  us1 2 ...
  us1 3 ...

The data is stored starting from page 2 because the data for page 1 has already been stored as part of the home screen table.

Tackling the Refresh problem
When a user signs-in, displaying the cached home screen is only good as a temporal solution. Once, the page has loaded up, a user needs to see if there were any updates since their last sign-in.

To achieve the same, make the client send a fresh request for loading the updates of the home screen. This request will complete the entire cycle of feed crawl/snippet extractor builder into one single sequential call. This request thus makes sure that all fresh updates are sent back to the client, where an updated home screen can be overlaid. Before returning the response to the client, the request can shoot another (another) call to rebuild the search index and other house-keeping.

Feed folders
Organization of various feeds into folders aka categories is a nice way of grouping similar feeds. Say, feeds from all Google products may be grouped into a folder called ‘Google’. This allows for easy attention when you have hundreds of unread items.

To arrange feeds into folder, let’s create a new table to store the hierarchy.

  User ID Folder ID Folder Name
  u1 x1 Google
  u1 x2 Humor
  u1 x3 Poetry

And modify our first table to include a folder ID column.

  User ID Feed ID Parent Folder ID Total Posts In Feed Unread Count
  u1 f1   100 100
  u1 f2 x1 0 0

Thus, when building the folder list to be fetched for left pane, we can read the additional hierarchy table and build a tree instead of a list. As the folder IDs are stored in the feed data table, the group unread count can easily be computed when sending the response to the client.

Similarly, when a user clicks on the folder view, we can adopt the same approach as we did for the home screen and build up a cached list of folder main screen and a subset of all other grouped entities (in a user-session table). Thus, folder views and subsequent pagination will serve us fast.

Searching should be pretty easy for a given user. With the user’s feed list in place, and a 1:1 mapping between the feed and it’s search index, searching will involve parallel queries to search within each index. Thus, to search in a list of 200 feeds, 200 search operations are fired in each of the individual indices, and results extracted. The results are collated and sent back to the mother ship. The mother ship can then send back a subset of these search results to the client, and store others in memcache for traversal as the user flips in paginated results.

You might be wondering as to why this whole model will scale. In today’s world, real scaling lies in scaling-out and not scaling-up. With the advent of high-performance, scalable data stores like mongoDB, HyperTable or the GAE datastore, it is easy for application to scale to mammoth amounts of data without worrying about the performance impact, and the complexities of data sharding, replication and consistency.

Why NoSQL? Relational databases do have various advantages, but tend to get complex when sharding data. In the life of an application, there may be scenarios where sharding needs to be changed in-between. At this point, RDBMS systems tend to limit the developer’s hands. Note that am not averse of RDBMS systems. Facebook already has demonstrated how to operate one of the largest MySQL clusters in a performance critical application.

The following table illustrates the current average numbers for GAE for various operations (rough estimates as on Feb 7, 2011 from the GAE status page):

  Operation Time (in milliseconds)
  Latency in fetching a URL from Amazon S3 100
  GET latency in Datastore 20
  PUT latency in Datastore 30
  UPDATE latency in Datastore 40
  DELETE latency in Datastore 25
  QUERY latency in Datastore 80
  GET latency in MemCache 2.5
  PUT latency in MemCache 3.2

The following table illustrates the various times of GET queries fired on the GAE datastore (averaged for 10 iterations). The code for the sample test is available at

  Operation Time (in milliseconds)
  Fetching 200 rows from a datatable consisting of 10KB payload each 175.5 ~ 180
  Storing a 500KB data string in memcache 65.4 ~ 70
  Fetching 200 rows of 100KB payload each 608.5 ~ 610
  Fetching 50 rows of 1KB payload each 88.7 ~ 90
  Time to fetch ONE feed from Internet 81.2 ~ 100

As mentioned in the post, 10 things you didn’t knew about GAE,
  1. The datastore performance is not impacted by the number of entities it stores
  2. The cost of running a query is proportional to the number of results returned by that query.

Considering the above two tables, let’s try and calculate the time for various use-cases of our application. We can safely assume here that above timings will hold good in the real application for the assumptions mentioned in the above mentioned article.

Cost of building the home page from scratch
Query to fetch the list of feeds for a user and the unread count: 180 ms
Query to fetch the last N posts of each feed: 610 ms
Merging and building the list of feeds: 50 ms
Query to fetch the meta for 50 posts: 90 ms
Constructing the home page: 50 ms
Storing list of feeds in cache: 70 ms
Storing home page in cache: 70 ms

Total cost: 1120 ms

Cost of fetching the home page from cache
Query to fetch the list of feeds for a user and the unread count: 180 ms
Query to fetch the home page from cache: 70 ms

Total cost: 250 ms

Cost of adding a feed to the account
Fetch the feed data: 100 ms
Extract the snippets: 100 ms
Rebuild the home screen: 1120 ms

Total Cost: 1320 ms

Cost of searching a term in the list of feeds
Fetch a list of feed ids for the user: 180 ms
Parallel queries to search within these feeds: 1000 ms
Consolidating the search results: 50ms
Storing the extra results for pagination in memcache: 50ms

Total Cost: 1280 ms

On pen and paper, this looks good to me. Not sure, if other optimizations/changes would be necessary when you built it up. There may be a time I will try my hands at this, till then I will keep it this way.

All that we know is due to the work of others, and should be cited for any and every reason.

The largest source of information on how the Google Reader client interacts with its servers, came from Fiddler. Yes, you read that right! Fiddler, is a Web Debugging Proxy tool that let's you view the traffic between your machine and the servers. Watching how and what requests were shot by my browser on opening Google Reader, I gained a lot of insight on how one can speed up a web application's launch and its home view.

Next, the credit goes to my friends who are always ready for a discussion so geek :)

Next are the web resources that helped me understand a lot on scalability and design. In no particular order,

And last, but not the least, a little bit of personal experience with design.

Am open to discussing this design with all of you out there, for that is the only chance where I will learn extra. And, I need the chance!

written by Sandeep Gupta

Friday, February 11, 2011 at 9:31 AM


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