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Suffering CPU/DB/memory problems in CF? Spiders, monitor pings, and more may be to blame

If you're trying to get to the bottom of high memory or CPU use or database contention on CFML servers, you may be missing a seemingly innocuous but deadly invader (or many of them, really. Many more than you may ever dream.) If you're focusing only on "what are my long running requests?" or wondering "Why does CF have a memory leak?", you may be looking at the wrong problem.

What if the problem isn't really a "leak" at all, nor "poorly performing code", nor "CF being unable to scale", but instead what if it's really all due thousands or millions of page requests, which (worse) are likely creating (unexpectedly ) thousands or millions of sessions and client variables, each day? They may even be something you're causing (but more likely not). It's a pernicious problem that many never even fathom, or may dismiss too readily.

Curious to hear more? Read on.

So what kind of automated traffic may be hitting your site?

There are many more than you may think, and on the surface they may all seem innocent enough.

First are search bots , which may be visiting your site many times a day to check on your content, to index it so that people can use those search engines and find your content. These may be outside search bots (Google, Bing, Yahoo, and more) or perhaps internal ones (like a Google search appliance). Search engines are good, right? They help people find your content. And the search engine spiders need to visit your site to see what you have, and know when it's updated. But the impact (and volume) may be far greater than you realize.

Did you know that they (Google, Bing, Yahoo, and perhaps many others) come to your site (if it's open to the public) likely visiting every page they can find on your site. EVERY page. And they come EVERY day (asking for all of them)? And if you have multiple domains, they do it for EACH domain. Multiply this by more and more such spiders (many you may have never even heard of), and it may account for tens of thousands of page visits per day, or more. (And the problem is not just THAT they come, but what happens that you may not expect, WHEN they come. More in a moment.)

Or such excessive automated traffic may be caused by simple site monitoring tools (that you or your clients may have setup), checking some page(s) on your site perhaps many times per minute (they want to know if your site is "up", after all).

Or maybe you're in a load balanced environment. The load balancer (whether outside the CF box, or inside it) typically sends requests to some page (that someone configures), to "check if CF or the app is up and running". Well, that too happens, perhaps several times per minute.

And each of the above two may be going against more than one domain on your server, right? And maybe checking both http and https and so perhaps causing many requests WITHIN SECONDS (and this is on top of the search engine spiders above). But that's not all.

Maybe you have site security scanning or PCI compliance scanning which run frequently (perhaps even every day), or load testing tools which run occasionally. You may not even be aware that such things are running, as others may kick them off. Those, too, create high rates of frequent requests to pages.

Or you likely have CF scheduled tasks which run daily. I've seen some people with several of them, running very frequently (perhaps monitoring something internally, to act upon it, like files put in a certain directory--better monitored with a a file watcher gateway, but that's another topic, or watching tasks put in a database perhaps.)

Those scheduled tasks are similar to the automated requests I'm getting at above (and the reason they are a concern is not really about their volume, which may pale in comparison to the rest of the things above, but about something else I'll get to in a moment.) But let's keep thinking about what other kinds of automated requests may be happening on your server (this is just step one in my discussion here).

Perhaps you may have code yourself (running in CFML) which uses CFHTTP to request templates--which may be on your own site. No, that's usually not logical or optimal, but I see it all the time.

Or certainly you could have requests coming from other servers in an automated fashion running pages on your CF server, whether using their equivalent to scheduled tasks, or CFHTTP, or web services, or API calls into your server. My point is that they may be happening repeatedly and frequently.

And some of those may be from automated tools used by folks to scrape your site to get your content, to use for whatever purpose (steal it, resell it, do espionage against you, whatever). I'm not trying to be alarmist here. I'm just saying I see it all the time, when I help people troubleshoot "performance problems" in CF.

Or let's pick something more innocent: you may have hundreds or thousands of folks who have signed up with RSS readers to watch your RSS feeds . Those may come to check your site for changed content, each day, or even more often.

OK, so we've established THAT such automated request tools can come in at potentially high rates and perhaps far higher volume that we realized. And ok, perhaps we now may realize/find that they account for a large percent of CF page visits (I've seen it as high as 80%).

That's bad enough (and you may be tempted to block some, or may want to address some, and we'll talk about that.)

But there's really a more insidious problem, with all these automated requests.

The Problem(s)

The problem is that if the pages being visited by these tools are CFML-based, then the bots and RSS readers will not likely track the session/client cookies CF sends, which starts a real waterfall of problems. There are two potential impacts, sessions and clients.

Update: Rather watch than read? Since writing this blog entry in 2006, I have since given a talk on the subject (in 2009), which was recorded. More here.

Creation of many new sessions

Assuming you have SessionManagement="yes" enabled, each such new request without a cookie will cause the CFML server (CF, BD, Railo, or other) to create a new session. Normally, that's not a problem. The browser for a typical user will usually store these cookies for reuse on a future page request.

But since these bots do not typically track cookies, then this causes the CFML server to create a new session for each page request.

And that's not one new session per bot, but one new session per bot per page requested.

And these new sessions will live as long as your sessiontimeout is set--which could be minutes, hours, or days. That could become a substantial resource for CFML server to manage, even if there's "nothing" in the session.

(Props to Mark Kruger whose blog entry, Sessions and Cookies and Bots (oh my), was the first I saw to point this out. As I pointed out in his comments, the problem could be still worse with respect to client variables also, as I'll explain below. And since then, I've realized that RSS Readers could be another, and different problem, since the number of individuals running them may be far greater than the number of search engines.)

So the challenge is to find out how many sessions you have currently. More in a moment.

Creation of many new sessions with large amounts of memory per session

Further, beyond the number of sessions is the question of how large the sessions are. If you DO for some reason put a lot of data into "new sessions" when they're created, then this could become a huge memory burden. And as memory use increases substantially, so could the cost of garbage collection. Eventually the CPU to manage that GC could become problematic, and your system could become unresponsive or even unstable.

Creation of many client records

Finally, there's even a more pernicious (and more persistent) problem due to client variables. Now, even if you'd say "we don't use them", consider this: if you've got ClientManagement="yes" set in your CFAPPLICATION, and you've not disabled in the CF admin the "Disable Global Client Variable Updates" option for your client repository (and they are enabled by default), then the CFML server will create/update fixed client variables (hitcount, lastvisit, etc.) for every page visit. Besides the possible I/O burden (whether in a database or the Registry), given the problem of bots discussed above, this would also mean a new set of these client tracking records would be created for each visiting bot request!

If you're storing these in the Registry, any great increase in the number of entries is clearly bad enough.

But whether you're storing these auto-created variables there or in a database, the problem is quite different from the wildcat creation of sessions. At least those are removed when their sessions timeout or the server is restarted. With client variables, though, these are typically set to expire in days, weeks, or even months! That means they last that long on your server.

So either your registry or client database tables (or both, since each app can choose its own) could become very large and burdensome to be managed. Note as well that CF wakes up every 67 minutes (by default) to go through the client repositories to find any clients that can be expired.

Between that and the initial creation of client records, the volume of updates (or inserts) into the DB can cause significant contention, preventing legitimate CF queries from processing. Do you see how very pernicious this problem becomes?

(What's worse, if you're on Linux/OS X/Unix, note that there is no real registry on your server, but CF stores client variables--if told in the Admin or code to use the "registry"--in a simple file file! It's called cf.registry, typically in /opt/coldfusion/registry/cf.registry. All this discussed here applies all the more for *nix users who find their code using "the registry" for client variables.)

Diagnosis

If you think this may be happening to you (and even if you don't), you should set up monitoring to see how many unique new sessions or clients are being created. You have a few ways to do this.

Sadly, there's no documented mechanism for CF to tell you how many new sessions or clients have been created in a day.

Update: since writing this entry in 2006, there are now documented and undocumented solutions for both CF 8 and earlier.

Some ways to track the count of sessions

First, if you use J2EE sessions, you can get a report of them in the JRun metrics. Just search for any of many articles on using JRun metrics.

But what if you use regular CF sessions? Well, here's good news. Whether running CF 6, 7, or 8, you can in fact get a count of sessions. See my later blog entry about some simple code by Mark Lynch that uses undocumented functions to report the number of sessions (J2EE or plain CF sessions), in total and per application. Very helpful for this challenge.

And if you use CF 8 Enterprise, its Server Monitor (and Admin API) also report the number of sessions, and you don't need to turn on memory tracking for this. Just see the Statistics tab>Active sessions, and click the chart icon on the right, which will show a screen with the total number of sessions.

That will tell you how many sessions you have, which can be very enlightening. I helped a client recently where we found they had 90,000 active sessions. Yikes!

Determining the source of high session/client counts

Of course, the next question, then, is to find out why and how. Is it search engines bots? External or internal? Monitor pings to CF pages? RSS feeds? CFHTTP requests? Load testing tools? Security scanners?

If you can access them, you could analyze your web server logs to find out how many pages are coming in that have no CFID/CFTOKEN values sent in their cookies or query string. (Web server logs can be set to report incoming cookies.) That would be a clue, as it would cause CF to create new ones in response. Of course, it could be legitimate first time users.

Update: You can also view the "user agent" being presented by the browser requests, which can be set to be tracked in web server logs, and is also viewable in CF's CGI scope, as well as in the CF 8 Enterprise Server Monitor and FusionReactor's Request Details page. While bots and other automated request tools can mimic (report) any user agent, some do identify themselves plainly. You may be surprised to find how many visits you get from such requesters. A good log file analysis tool like Log Parser, or any others listed at my CF411 site list of Log Analysis tools.

You could also look at either the registry or client variable database to see how many entries there are (or the cf.registry file if on *nix.) You may be shocked by the number.

Just be careful not to open the Windows Registry location for CF client variables using Regedit or similar tools. If there are a huge number defined there, just trying to view it could bring down your server. A tool like Log Parser, mentioned above, can help, though, as it is in fact able to read and count data in the Registry. You could also export the key from the registry, to see how large it is, but again it could take a long time if it's large, so it may be best to do this during a scheduled outage. More on some of these things below.

Remediation

The simplest thing is to ensure that any code that may be hit by bots, search engines, RSS readers, etc. do not use code that has CFAPPLICATION SessionManagement="yes" or ClientManagement="yes" (or the equivalent "this." properties in application.cfc). That may be trivial, or it may be a hassle, depending on the complexity of your application.

Update: here's a thought that's come up from discussions on a private mailing list. One solution to consider would be to detect if the request has the CFID cookie--which it wouldn't for bots, and if not, set the session timeout to a short value. Be careful, though, because legitmate first-time visitors will also have no CFID token, so if you set any session vars on the page they request or in the application.cfm/.cfc file, don't set it so short that those will be gone when they go to the next page they visit. Perhaps set it to a minute, but realize the implications. I hope to create a blog entry showing the simple code to do this, but until then I hope the idea is simple enough for you to run with it.

Update: As far as the global client variables updates are concerned, you should first check if in fact your client variable repositories (in the CF Admin Client Variables page) have been modified to disable global client variable updates. If not, it's not an obvious thing to disable that. You need to make sure there's no code trying to use client.hitcount or client.lastvisit, which are the variables created by this feature. Assuming there is none, then you could disable this. That doesn't remove the entries created to this point, but it does stop the inserting and updating of entries there, except for pages that really DO use client variables. Just beware that you still need to get rid of those old unneeded entries, or CF will continue to purge them every hour.

Update: As far as purging client variables if perhaps a large number have been created, there are two different solutions, for the Registry and for any datasource. Before doing it, though, note that you would technically want to purge only that data related to requests that were not "really" using client variables. More on that in a moment.

Remediating client variables in a database

First, as for client variables stored in a database, see an explanation and code offered in Adobe technote 18514 (again, no longer available at http://www.adobe.com/go/tn_18514, but available via archive.org.) Bottom line: there are two tables used for client management (in any datasource used to hold client variables). CDATA holds any "real client variables" created on a CFML page. CGLOBAL holds the "global client variables" discussed above, hitcount and lastvisit, as well as the CFID, CFTOKEN, and application name. That's the data used to manage the retention of client variables. While you may be tempted to "blow away" both tables, note that if there are real client variables in the CDATA table, you would not want to delete that if you are really still using client variables. And you'd only want to delete records in CGLOBAL that are NOT related to those CDATA records.

Remediating client variables in the registry

Second, as for the Registry, it may be tempting to go in and delete the key that holds the client variables, but beware of that. For one thing, you still have the dilemma, like above, that you would be deleting all the client variable entries, including any that you really meant to write. But unlike with the database, there's no easy way to look up which entries are NOT associated with "real" client variables, so I can understand the temptation to just delete them all. That's a call you have to make.
(Before you set off to delete them, consider also that you could help your cause by changing CF to not even regard the registry as a client variable option. See below for more on that.)
As for deleting them, note that it could take a very long time, if there are hundreds of thousands or millions of keys. You may want to do it overnight or during system downtime.

Now, while you could use RegEdit to try to view how many there are (and delete them), beware: if you open the location where they live (HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Macromedia\ColdFusion\CurrentVersion\Clients) and you expand the tree for this key, it may bog down or crash your server. You could choose to export the keys, to see how many there are. That too may take a long time.

You can use the command-line Reg tool (built into Windows), as shared elsewhere by the inimitable Dave Watt's. This would export the specific registry keys for the client variables, though this too may take a long time. At least you'll know, in the end, just how many client vars were in the registry. To do that, do this:

REG EXPORT HKLM\SOFTWARE\Macromedia\ColdFusion\CurrentVersion\Clients client_reg_export.txt
(You may want to enter a "time" command before doing that, another built-in command-line tool, so that you can later see how long it took by comparing first when it started, and then you can also enter the command while it's running, which will be queued to be executed when it finishes, so that even if you're away, you can see how long it took. More experienced folks may want to create a bat file to do these 3 things--time/reg export/time.)

If it says that there are no keys there, then you are fortunately not storing client vars in the registry. BTW, that really should be Macromedia, even for releases of CF from Adobe (8 and above). They never changed the registry key that they wrote to.

If you're prepared to just delete them, you have choices. You could right-click and delete it, but that could lock up regedit for a long time. It would be better to delete them from the command line. It may still take a long time, but you at least remove the risk of tying up resources in the RegEdit GUI.

Here's the command-line command to do this:

REG DELETE HKLM\SOFTWARE\Macromedia\ColdFusion\CurrentVersion\Clients /f

Note my use of the an available /f argument you can add at the end to cause it to delete without prompting for each key. Note as well that this tool also offers query, save, and even compare arguments.

(While there is also code available from Adobe to help view/purge client variables in the registry, it's CFML that uses CFREGISTRY, which may not be wise to tie up a CF request thread for a long time. But if you're interested, see the zip file in Adobe technote 17881. The old link, http://www.adobe.com/go/tn_17881, fails, but here it is via archive.org.)

Stopping CF even trying to use client vars in the registry

Finally, if you may just want to stop CF from being able to even TRY to write to this directory, consider either of the ideas offered by Mark Kruger (to remove CF's even knowing of the registry as a client vars option), or that offered by Russ Michaels (to disable CF's ability to write to this part of the registry) and prevent therefore any attempt to use it.)

Other thoughts

If you use load testing tools or security scanning tools, be sure to enable any option to have them honor cookies. Otherwise your testing results may not be accurate, as you're imposing this burden on the server of it creating new sessions and clients for each user request you're simulating, which would not happen in production (except for the bots and RSS readers, etc.).

Hope this info may help others.

Comments
Michael Dinowitz had pointed this out to my office (we had him offer to help us debug some server memory issues). I have taken his ideas and run with with. Here are some entries that blogged that might be of interest:

http://www.bennadel....

... fixed an error that was made in ....

http://www.bennadel....

Anyway, what I basically do is turn off and on session management on a per-page-hit basis (as per Dinowitz's suggestion).

Also, Charlie, are you the carehart that made the first comment on this page: http://livedocs.macr...

Cause if you are, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, you have saved me a lot of stress.
# Posted By Ben Nadel | 10/4/06 5:17 PM
I wrote a blog entry on this a while back with a hack level fix. I've altered it since then to allow a bot to create a session but have it time out after 2 seconds rather than the 10 minutes a person has.

http://www.blogoffus...
# Posted By Michael Dinowitz | 10/4/06 5:36 PM
Michael,

Why have you switched over to a very short session duration? I assume that this is so that your whole site can assume that session management is being used without complicating the logic of the way things work???

-Ben
# Posted By Ben Nadel | 10/4/06 5:48 PM
Thanks, Ben. I'd not yet seen other blog entries besides Mark's, or I would have pointed them out (and may not even have written the entry), so thanks for the links. :-) Glad to see Mike offer his link from last year, too. I guess I'm late to the party. :-) But perhaps another round of notice will reach more people.

Mike makes a great point I did not: the impact of the client variable issue applies more than just if you use registry or db client vars, but cookie-based client vars as well. As he wrote, "It seems that when a client variable is set, a memory structure is also set for CF. Now each bot hit is assumed to be it's own session as it does not accept cookies. This mean each bot hit generates a memory structure of about 1k. Now this is not really a lot, but when you have a few 10's of thousands of hits from bots a day, it adds up. " Mike also offers more remediation techniques.

As for the CFDocs custom tag, yes, that was me, Ben. :-) Glad it helped.
# Posted By Charlie Arehart | 10/4/06 7:57 PM
Ben - Exactly. I want a bot to 'exist' as a normal user, which means a normal session. I just don't want the session to last. I wish Adobe had some solid docs or settings for how/when client var structures time out or can be timed out. For what I do, client vars are superior to session.

Charlie - Your late to my post, I'm late to someone elses, etc. This is a VERY important topic that many just don't think about and bringing it up every now and again is only to the benefit of everyone.
# Posted By Michael Dinowitz | 10/4/06 9:38 PM
Charlie,

I had the same issue on a server that was serving RSS via CF. As you correctly say, RSS readers generally don't honour cookies, so every RSS request was creating a new session. Combine that with a session-scoped user object, some session-scoped cached data, and a spider that was crawling the site and all it's RSS links, and you very quickly end up with a site that mysteriously goes down in the middle of the night. I fixed it by
- adding a bit of code ino OnRequestEnd.cfm to check if the user was not logged in, and if not, manually clear the session scope
- writing the RSS to flat files

I put the full sordid story here : "RSS Ate My Server" - http://instantbadger...
# Posted By Al Davidson | 10/6/06 11:28 AM
The problem of spiders etc is big problem.

Some tips:

1. Implement client side caching using <cfheader> with either etags or Last-Modified.

2. Don't be scared to send a 503 error response to say "server busy try again later"

3. BlueDragon has the <cfthrottle> tag that helps you manage the repeat offenders
# Posted By Alan | 10/13/06 8:30 AM
Good points, Alan. Thanks.
# Posted By Charlie Arehart | 10/13/06 12:13 PM
Just an update: I followed this up with a presentation on the topic (and some related things) in a CFMeetup presentation, the recording of which is available online. More at http://www.carehart....
# Posted By Charlie Arehart | 7/4/09 1:19 PM
In case my experience helps anyone:

I had client variables turned on and in the registry in a CF7 legacy app, but I never used them so I didn't think about it. The above problem manifested in a strange way which made perfect sense in retrospect, but was hard to figure out. The two symptoms I had were:

1) Server restarts took a very long time, over 20 minutes.

2) jrun.exe would peg one of the four CPUs so the machine ran at 25% - but the problem would only occur an hour after a restart, so I kept thinking I had it fixed because problem #1 made me sharry of restarting this production server.

It turned out that I had over half a million garbage registry entries from crawler hits, and every 67 minutes the purge process would begin, but it couldn't actually purge them - either 'cause there were too many or 'cause new ones were created faster than it deleted the old one, or for some other reason - so it just hogged as much CPU time as the OS would give it. Other pages ran, just sluggishly.

I tracked the problem down finally with sysinternals' procmon chasing down the pegged jrun process event and seeing several dozen registry read/write attempts per second.

Turned off client management in the sites, moved the default store (I think to cookies) and spent the next couple hours watching regedit delete all the keys and everything was Hunky Dory...

Wish I'd taken Charley up on his offer to help me troubleshoot this problem waaaay back in that first MURA conference :)

Hope this helps somebody,
8riaN
# Posted By 8riaN Page | 9/6/11 3:15 PM
Thanks for the followup, 8riaN. That is indeed the sort of issue that I was alluding to in the entry, and I'm confident that it plagues many, many sites. I do so wish we could spread the word and help people find and resolve the problems. I've since done a CFmeetup presentation, but again that reaches only perhaps a hundred people. Just too many shows for people to listen to them all. I really wish Adobe would address it at least by making new installs use a default of cookie instead of registry.
# Posted By Charlie Arehart | 9/6/11 10:48 PM
Suddenly we're hit with an issue related to this. When the 1 hour and 7 min purge business kicks off, our Jrun server crashes. It does autorestart which takes only a couple of seconds, grateful for that actually. But even switching from registry to SQL doesn't shake the issue. CFRegistry.dll is the module that's faulting. This isn in ColdFusion 9.01 64bit Windows Server 2008 R2. Any suggestions are welcome!
# Posted By Chuck Wyatt | 11/11/13 1:55 PM
@Chuck, if you had previously been using the registry to hold them, then switching to DB will not immediately solve the problem of the purge. The records are still there in the registry, and CF will continue to try to purge them. Look at the suggestions under "Remediating client variables in the registry" and "Stopping CF even trying to use client vars in the registry".

If you can't solve things on your own with that info, I am available to help under my short-term, remote consulting. More at www.carehart.org/consulting.
# Posted By Charlie Arehart | 11/11/13 10:48 PM
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