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Downtime last Saturday

On Saturday, December 22nd we had a significant outage and we want to take the time to explain what happened. This was one of the worst outages in the history…


On Saturday, December 22nd we had a significant outage and we want to take
the time to explain what happened. This was one of the worst outages in
the history of GitHub, and it’s not at all acceptable to us. I’m very
sorry that it happened and our entire team is working hard to prevent
similar problems in the future.


We had a scheduled maintenance window Saturday morning to perform
software updates on our aggregation switches. This software update was
recommended by our network vendor and was expected to address the
problems that we encountered in an
earlier outage. We
had tested this upgrade on a number of similar devices without
incident, so we had a good deal of confidence. Still, performing an
update like this is always a risky proposition so we scheduled a
maintenance window and had support personnel from our vendor
on the phone during the upgrade in case of unforseen problems.

What went wrong?

In our network, each of our access switches, which our servers are
connected to, are also connected to a pair of aggregation switches.
These aggregation switches are installed in pairs and use a feature
called MLAG to appear as a
single switch to the access switches for the purposes of
link aggregation,
spanning tree,
and other layer 2 protocols that expect to have a single master device.
This allows us to perform maintenance tasks on one aggregation switch
without impacting the partner switch or the connectivity for the access
switches. We have used this feature successfully many times.

Our plan involved upgrading the aggregation switches one at a time, a
process called in-service software upgrade. You upload new software to
one switch, configure the switch to reboot on the new version, and issue
a reload command. The remaining switch detects that its peer is no longer
connected and begins a failover process to take control over the resources
that the MLAG pair jointly managed.

We ran into some unexpected snags after the upgrade that caused 20-30
minutes of instability while we attempted to work around them within
the maintenance window. Disabling the links between half of the
aggregation switches and the access switches allowed us to mitigate
the problems while we continued to work with our network vendor to
understand the cause of the instability. This wasn’t ideal since
it compromised our redundancy and only allowed us to operate at half
of our uplink capacity, but our traffic was low enough at the time
that it didn’t pose any real problems. At 1100 PST we made the decision
to revert the software update and return to a redundant state at 1300 PST if
we did not have a plan for resolving the issues we were experiencing
with the new version.

Beginning at 1215 PST, our network vendor began gathering some final
forensic information from our switches so that they could
attempt to discover the root cause for the issues we’d been seeing.
Most of this information gathering was isolated to collecting
log files and retrieving the current hardware status of various parts
of the switches. As a final step, they wanted to gather the state of
one of the agents running on a switch. This involves terminating the
process and causing it to write its state in a way that can be analyzed
later. Since we were performing this on the switch that had its
connections to the access switches disabled they didn’t expect there
to be any impact. We have performed this type of action, which is
very similar to rebooting one switch in the MLAG pair, many times in
the past without incident.

This is where things began going poorly. When the agent on one of the
switches is terminated, the peer has a 5 second timeout period where it
waits to hear from it again. If it does not hear from the peer, but
still sees active links between them, it assumes that the other switch
is still running but in an inconsistent state. In this situation it
is not able to safely takeover the shared resources so it defaults back
to behaving as a standalone switch for purposes of link aggregation,
spanning-tree, and other layer two protocols.

Normally, this isn’t a problem because the switches also watch for the
links between peers to go down. When this happens they wait 2 seconds
for the link to come back up. If the links do not recover, the
switch assumes that its peer has died entirely and performs a stateful
takeover of the MLAG resources. This type of takeover does not trigger
any layer two changes.

When the agent was terminated on the first switch, the links between
peers did not go down since the agent is unable to instruct the hardware
to reset the links. They do not reset until the agent restarts and is
again able to issue commands to the underlying switching hardware.
With unlucky timing and the extra time that is required for the agent
to record its running state for analysis, the link remained active
long enough for the peer switch to detect a lack of heartbeat messages
while still seeing an active link and failover using the more disruptive

When this happened it caused a great deal of churn within the network as
all of our aggregated links had to be re-established, leader election for
spanning-tree had to take place, and all of the links in the network had
to go through a spanning-tree reconvergence. This effectively caused
all traffic between access switches to be blocked for roughly a minute
and a half.

Fileserver Impact

Our fileserver architecture consists of a number of active/passive
fileserver pairs which use
Heartbeat and
DRBD to manage high-availability. We use DRBD from the
active node in each pair to transfer a copy of any data that changes on
disk to the standby node in the pair. Heartbeat and Pacemaker work
together to help manage this process and to failover in the event of
problems on the active node.

With DRBD, it’s important to make sure that the data volumes are only
actively mounted on one node in the cluster. DRBD helps protect against
having the data mounted on both nodes by making the receiving side of
the connection read-only. In addition to this, we use a
STONITH (Shoot The Other Node
In The Head) process to shut power down to the active node before failing
over to the standby. We want to be certain that we don’t wind up in a
“split-brain” situation where data is written to both nodes
simultaneously since this could result in potentially unrecoverable
data corruption.

When the network froze, many of our fileservers which are intentionally
located in different racks for redundancy, exceeded their heartbeat
timeouts and decided that they needed to take control of the fileserver
resources. They issued STONITH commands to their partner nodes and
attempted to take control of resources, however some of those
commands were not delivered due to the compromised network. When the
network recovered and the cluster messaging between nodes came back, a
number of pairs were in a state where both nodes expected to be active for
the same resource. This resulted in a race where the nodes terminated
one another and we wound up with both nodes stopped for a number of
our fileserver pairs.

Once we discovered this had happened, we took a number of steps

  1. We put into maintenance mode.
  2. We paged the entire operations team to assist with the recovery.
  3. We downgraded both aggregation switches to the previous software
  4. We developed a plan to restore service.
  5. We monitored the network for roughly thirty minutes to ensure that it
    was stable before beginning recovery.


When both nodes are stopped in this way it’s important that the node
that was active before the failure is active again when brought back
online, since it has the most up to date view of what the current state
of the filesystem should be. In most cases it was straightforward for
us to determine which node was the active node when the fileserver pair
went down by reviewing our centralized log data. In some cases, though,
the log information was inconclusive and we had to boot up one node in
the pair without starting the fileserver resources, examine its local
log files, and make a determination about which node should be active.

This recovery was a very time consuming process and we made
the decision to leave the site in maintenance mode until we had
recovered every fileserver pair. That process took over five hours to
complete because of how widespread the problem was; we had to
restart a large percentage of the the entire GitHub file storage
infrastructure, validate that things were working as expected, and
make sure that all of the pairs were properly replicating between
themselves again. This process, proceeded without incident and
we returned the site to service at 20:23 PST.

Where do we go from here?

  1. We worked closely with our network vendor to identify and understand
    the problems that led to the failure of MLAG to failover in the way that
    we expected. While it behaved as designed, our vendor plans to revisit
    the respective timeouts so that more time is given for link failure to
    be detected to guard against this type of event.
  2. We are postponing any software upgrades to the aggregation network
    until we have a functional duplicate of our production environment in
    staging to test against. This work was already underway. In the mean
    time, we will continue to monitor for the MAC address learning problems
    that we discussed in our
    previous report
    and apply a workaround as necessary.
  3. From now on, we will place our fileservers high availability
    software into maintenance mode before we perform any network changes,
    no matter how minor, at the switching level. This allows the servers to
    continue functioning but will not take any automated failover actions.
  4. The fact that the cluster communication between fileserver nodes relies
    on any network infrastructure has been a known problem for some time. We’re
    actively working with our hosting provider to address this.
  5. We are reviewing all of our high availability configurations with fresh
    eyes to make sure that the failover behavior is appropriate.


I couldn’t be more sorry about the downtime and the impact
that downtime had on our customers. We always use problems like this as
an opportunity for us to improve, and this will be no exception. Thank
you for your continued support of GitHub, we are working hard and
making significant investments to make sure we live up to the trust
you’ve placed in us.

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