This post is written by Krzysztof Lis, Senior Software Development Engineer, IMDb.

Our federated GraphQL at IMDb distributes requests across 19 subgraphs (graphlets). To ensure reliability for customers, IMDb monitors availability and performance across the whole stack. This article focuses on this challenge and concludes a 3-part federated GraphQL series:

  • Part 1 presents the migration from a monolithic REST API to a federated GraphQL (GQL) endpoint running on AWS Lambda.
  • Part 2 describes schema management in federated GQL systems.

This presents an approach towards performance tuning. It compares graphlets with the same logic and different runtime (for example, Java and Node.js) and shows best practices for AWS Lambda tuning.

The post describes IMDb’s test strategy that emphasizes the areas of ownership for the Gateway and Graphlet teams. In contrast to the legacy monolithic system described in part 1, the federated GQL gateway does not own any business logic. Consequently, the gateway integration tests focus solely on platform features, leaving the resolver logic entirely up to the graphlets.

Monitoring and alarming

Efficient monitoring of a distributed system requires you to track requests across all components. To correlate service issues with issues in the gateway or other services, you must pass and log the common request ID.

Capture both error and latency metrics for every network call. In Lambda, you cannot send a response to the client until all work for that request is complete. As a result, this can add latency to a request.

The recommended way to capture metrics is Amazon CloudWatch embedded metric format (EMF). This scales with Lambda and helps avoid throttling by the Amazon CloudWatch PutMetrics API. You can also search and analyze your metrics and logs more easily using CloudWatch Logs Insights.

Lambda configured timeouts emit a Lambda invocation error metric, which can make it harder to separate timeouts from errors thrown during invocation. By specifying a timeout in-code, you can emit a custom metric to alarm on to treat timeouts differently from unexpected errors. With EMF, you can flush metrics before timing out in code, unlike the Lambda-configured timeout.

Running out of memory in a Lambda function also appears as a timeout. Use CloudWatch Insights to see if there are Lambda invocations that are exceeding the memory limits.

You can enable AWS X-Ray tracing for Lambda with a small configuration change to enable tracing. You can also trace components like SDK calls or custom sub segments.

Gateway integration tests

The Gateway team wants tests to be independent from the underlying data served by the graphlets. At the same time, they must test platform features provided by the Gateway – such as graphlet caching.

To simulate the real gateway-graphlet integration, IMDb uses a synthetic test graphlet that serves mock data. Given the graphlet’s simplicity, this reduces the risk of unreliable graphlet data. We can run tests asserting only platform features with the assumption of stable and functional, improving confidence that failing tests indicate issues with the platform itself.

This approach helps to reduce false positives in pipeline blockages and improves the continuous delivery rate. The gateway integration tests are run against the exposed endpoint (for example, a content delivery network) or by invoking the gateway Lambda function directly and passing the appropriate payload.

The former approach allows you to detect potential issues with the infrastructure setup. This is useful when you use infrastructure as code (IaC) tools like AWS CDK. The latter further narrows down the target of the tests to the gateway logic, which may be appropriate if you have extensive infrastructure monitoring and testing already in place.

Graphlet integration tests

The Graphlet team focuses only on graphlet-specific features. This usually means the resolver logic for the graph fields they own in the overall graph. All the platform features – including query federation and graphlet response caching – are already tested by the Gateway Team.

The best way to test the specific graphlet is to run the test suite by directly invoking the Lambda function. If there is any issue with the gateway itself, it does cause a false-positive failure for the graphlet team.

Load tests

It’s important to determine the maximum traffic volume your system can handle before releasing to production. Before the initial launch and before any high traffic events (for example, the Oscars or Golden Globes), IMDb conducts thorough load testing of our systems.

To perform meaningful load testing, the workload captures traffic logs to IMDb pages. We later replay the real customer traffic at the desired transaction-per-second (TPS) volume. This ensures that our tests approximate real-life usage. It reduces the risk of skewing test results due to over-caching and disproportionate graphlet usage. Vegeta is an example of a tool you can use to run the load test against your endpoint.

Canary tests

Canary testing can also help ensure high availability of an endpoint. The canary produces the traffic. This is a configurable script that runs on a schedule. You configure the canary script to follow the same routes and perform the same actions as a user, which allows you to continually verify the user experience even without live traffic.

Canaries should emit success and failure metrics that you can alarm on. For example, if a canary runs 100 times per minute and the success rate drops below 90% in three consecutive data points, you may choose to notify a technician about a potential issue.

Compared with integration tests, canary tests run continuously and do not require any code changes to trigger. They can be a useful tool to detect issues that are introduced outside the code change. For example, through manual resource modification in the AWS Management Console or an upstream service outage.

Performance tuning

There is a per-account limit on the number of concurrent Lambda invocations shared across all Lambda functions in a single account. You can help to manage concurrency by separating high-volume Lambda functions into different AWS accounts. If there is a traffic surge to any one of the Lambda functions, this isolates the concurrency used to a single AWS account.

Lambda compute power is controlled by the memory setting. With more memory comes more CPU. Even if a function does not require much memory, you can adjust this parameter to get more CPU power and improve processing time.

When serving real-time traffic, Provisioned Concurrency in Lambda functions can help to avoid cold start latency. (Note that you should use max, not average for your auto scaling metric to keep it more responsive for traffic increases.) For Java functions, code in static blocks is run before the function is invoked. Provisioned Concurrency is different to reserved concurrency, which sets a concurrency limit on the function and throttles invocations above the hard limit.

Use the maximum number of concurrent executions in a load test to determine the account concurrency limit for high-volume Lambda functions. Also, configure a CloudWatch alarm for when you are nearing the concurrency limit for the AWS account.

There are concurrency limits and burst limits for Lambda function scaling. Both are per-account limits. When there is a traffic surge, Lambda creates new instances to handle the traffic. “Burst limit = 3000” means that the first 3000 instances can be obtained at a much faster rate (invocations increase exponentially). The remaining instances are obtained at a linear rate of 500 per minute until reaching the concurrency limit.

An alternative way of thinking this is that the rate at which concurrency can increase is 500 per minute with a burst pool of 3000. The burst limit is fixed, but the concurrency limit can be increased by requesting a quota increase.

You can further reduce cold start latency by removing unused dependencies, selecting lightweight libraries for your project, and favoring compile-time over runtime dependency injection.

Impact of Lambda runtime on performance

Choice of runtime impacts the overall function performance. We migrated a graphlet from Java to Node.js with complete feature parity. The following graph shows the performance comparison between the two:

Performance graph

To illustrate the performance difference, the graph compares the slowest latencies for Node.js and Java – the P80 latency for Node.js was lower than the minimal latency we recorded for Java.


There are multiple factors to consider when tuning a federated GQL system. You must be aware of trade-offs when deciding on factors like the runtime environment of Lambda functions.

An extensive testing strategy can help you scale systems and narrow down issues quickly. Well-defined testing can also keep pipelines clean of false-positive blockages.

Using CloudWatch EMF helps to avoid PutMetrics API throttling and allows you to run CloudWatch Logs Insights queries against metric data.

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