Your Debugger Is Obsolete

Debuggers used to be super useful, but today they are usually a sign that you don’t know what you are doing.

Debuggers are still good at debugging serial code, but these days my code is asynchronous and distributed over many hosts. There is no concept of “stepping through code” in asynchronous systems - stepping implies that you are on a single thread, running on a single machine.

Today we use metrics. With metrics, I can observe failures on hundreds of hosts simultaneously. I can witness a starvation event begin and end over an entire fleet, and have visual graphs to explain what happened. I can look at a period of high latency and correlate it to a new profile of traffic that I had not considered before.

Things I put metrics on:

  • Latency. Obviously request latency, but also usually 6-10 different sub-sections of the request to help troubleshoot slowness.
  • Failures. Not only should you record all failures in order to calculate availability, but also put counters on different classes of failures. Where there is an assert statement, there should be a counter.
  • Dependencies. They are like children; you have great hopes and dreams for them, but in the end they disappoint you. Record their latency and availability for yourself.
  • Features. What do customers actually use? Where do they get stuck most often?
  • Traffic Profile. Record how big the request and response were or how many elements were in “that array”. This is great for understanding where load is coming from and what sorts of mitigations are appropriate.
  • System Health. Record CPU, memory, disk and network usage. I find that, on the JVM, a high number of garbage collections is a more reliable indicator of an unhealthy host than high CPU or memory usage.

Alarms are the first step toward a service that can manage itself. Alarms are just events. They can notify me that something went wrong, or, better yet, fix the problem automatically. The AWS Autoscaling API is killer, spin up a few instances if you notice a traffic spike or an unhealthy host, then decommission them automatically when the event is over.

There are some great upsides to this new world where metrics are my debugger. When things go wrong, I find out first from my servers instead of my customers. Back when debuggers were relevant, I found out about issues through support tickets. This is much more proactive.

Tests also helped make the debugger obsolete. I find that when I need to replicate an issue, I can do it in a high component-level or functional-level test. In the process of figuring out what went wrong I usually write a few unit-level tests. In the meantime, I use metrics and log lines to understand the internal state and figure out where things are going wrong. Unlike an IDE debugger, this debugging session is recorded and re-run forever. If you still need a debugger, there is a chance that the code is simply too complex and needs major refactoring.

You should absolutely write unit tests against metrics. If they don’t work, you’ll be blind in production. They are a part of the application just as much as the request handler. Once you start doing this, you might notice that the debugger is less useful.

If systems aren’t asynchronous enough for you, we’re in the process of launching the Internet of Things where we make it extremely difficult to launch a debugger on the devices where your software runs. Not only do they not have screens, but your fleet has 100K or 1M devices. Whole classes of problems are about to happen that you never heard of. So learn how to debug an application through metrics. It will be the only way to be successful in the future.