Maximize your concurrent web server connections

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For production web servers, most people assume scaling means needing faster (and more expensive) hardware. Before spending more money on servers, first make sure your web server process is using the maximum available connections supported by your Linux kernel. There are 3 layers you need to check and configure:

  1. Kernel file-max
  2. Process file-max (ulimit)
  3. Systemd/Server config file-max (LimitNOFILE)

Any one of these layers can limit the number of max connections your web server process is allowed.

This becomes really useful when your web server isn’t bottlenecked by RAM or CPU. For ex, when using HAProxy to load balance Nginx web servers. HAProxy isn’t processing the request and uses almost no CPU, but it needs to handle a large amount of concurrent connections. Increasing the file-max is also beneficial for production Nginx, Apache, and even your Redis and Postgres database servers.

Max open file descriptors (Kernel file-max)

Each Linux kernel supports a certain maximum number of open files (or sockets) per process. From now on, we’ll call that file-max. To check the kernel’s current file-max, run:

cat /proc/sys/fs/file-max

For example, the $5/mo DigitalOcean instances have a file-max of 9 Trillion:

$ cat /proc/sys/fs/file-max
9223372036854775807

DigitalOcean small droplet size

You won’t ever be able to use those 9T concurrent connections. That’s because each open connection uses around 1k RAM, and DigitalOcean doesn’t offer any instance with that much RAM.

If your default file-max is too low, increase it by adding this line to your /etc/sysctl.conf file:

fs.file-max = 1000000

Load the new file-max by running sysctl -p as root. Now your kernel’s file max should show 1M concurrent connections available:

$ cat /proc/sys/fs/file-max
1000000

However, check the file-max of your current process and you see it’s much lower than the kernel file-max:

$ ulimit -Sn
1024

If you’re using Node.js that’s a max of 1k concurrent connections, but if your web server runs multiple worker processes then multiply 1k by the number of processes to get your max connections. Either way, that’s not many concurrent connections for a production web server. To actually use those 1M concurrent connections, your web server process needs its ulimit increased.

Ulimit (Process file-max)

Your Linux kernel has a file-max of 1M, but let’s check your web server’s process file-max:

$ ps -aux | grep -m 1 nginx
nginx    12785  0.1  0.1  62508 24372   nginx: worker process
$ cat /proc/12785/limits | grep "open files"
1024

Or in a one-liner:

$ cat /proc/`ps -aux | grep -m 1 nginx | awk -F ' ' '{print $2}'`/limits | grep "open files" | awk -F ' ' '{print $4}'
1024

What’s that? Nginx can only handle 1k concurrent connections when the kernel supports 1M?

That’s because we need to increase the file-max setting for the nginx user. To do that, add these lines to your /etc/security/limits.conf file:

* soft nofile 1000000
* hard nofile 1000000

The * is for all users except the root user, and you can specify a username like nginx soft nofile 1000000. Now your Nginx user has permission to open 1 Million connections, but your Nginx process still won’t use those 1M connections. That’s because you also need to edit your systemd unit file for Nginx.

Systemd file-max (LimitNOFILE)

When running Nginx with systemd, you’ll notice the Nginx processes aren’t showing the 1M file-max limit available. That’s because a process can set it’s own ulimit, and Systemd defaults to a low limit. To fix that, add LimitNOFILE=1000000 to your /etc/systemd/system/nginx.service file under the [Service] block:

[Unit]
Description=A high performance web server and a reverse proxy server
After=network.target

[Service]
Type=forking
PIDFile=/run/nginx.pid
ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nginx -t -q -g 'daemon on; master_process on;'
ExecStart=/usr/sbin/nginx -g 'daemon on; master_process on;'
ExecReload=/usr/sbin/nginx -g 'daemon on; master_process on;' -s reload
ExecStop=-/sbin/start-stop-daemon --quiet --stop --retry QUIT/5 --pidfile /run/nginx.pid
TimeoutStopSec=5
KillMode=mixed
LimitNOFILE=1000000

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

Run systemctl daemon-reload to apply the changes, and now your Nginx processes show 1M when you check their file-max limit:

$ cat /proc/`ps -aux | grep -m 1 nginx | awk -F ' ' '{print $2}'`/limits | grep "open files" | awk -F ' ' '{print $4}'
1000000

Haproxy

Other software, such as haproxy, sometimes set their own file-max ulimit. If you’ve increased the above limits and your haproxy child process still isn’t showing 1M then try adding maxconn 1000000 to your haproxy.cfg file. We also switched from init.d to systemd for managing haproxy, since setting LimitNOFILE is super easy with systemd:

[Unit]
Description=HAProxy Service

[Service]
ExecStart=/usr/sbin/haproxy -f /etc/haproxy/haproxy.cfg
ExecReload=/bin/kill -USR2 $MAINPID
Restart=always
KillSignal=SIGTERM
TimeoutStopSec=5
LimitNOFILE=1000000

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

Postgres

This isn’t just for web servers. Databases like Postgres use sockets too, when your web servers connect to your database. By default, Postgres uses 1k file-max per process. Sometimes that's over your default ulimit, and you’ll start seeing the Too many Open files error in your Postgres logs. Instead of lowering the default Postgres max_files_per_process config, just edit your /etc/security/limits.conf file adding:

postgres soft nofile 1000
postgres hard nofile 1000

Then restart Postgres and check its file-max:

$ cat /proc/`ps -aux | grep -m 1 postgres | awk -F ' ' '{print $2}'`/limits | grep "open files" | awk -F ' ' '{print $4}'
1000

Sysctl

It’s also worth tweaking your kernel’s networking settings with sysctl, such as your max backlogged connections and tcp buffers. Check out Peter Mescalchin’s collection of sysctl notes and the sysctl docs. Use sysctl -a to list all supported configs on your machine, and see their default values. Add any changes to your /etc/sysctl.conf file then run sysctl -p to apply them without needing a reboot.

Conclusion

One final tool worth mentioning is c1000k, to check if your OS supports 1 million connections. Increasing your file-max limit unlocks the full potential of your web server. If you liked this post, also check out our previous post about a disk-backed Redis compatible server called SSDB. It removes the main limitation of Redis: your data set having to fit in available RAM.

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