This guide provides an introduction to the flexible environment for those who are familiar with the standard environment. It explains the similarities and key differences between the environments and also provides general architectural recommendations for applications that use both environments.
For a mapping of services available in standard environment to their analogues in the flexible environment, see Migrating Services from the Standard Environment to the Flexible Environment.
Similarities and key differences
Both environments provide you with App Engine’s deployment, serving, and scaling infrastructure. The key differences are the way the environment executes your application, how your application accesses external services, how you run your application locally, and how your application scales. You can also refer to choosing an environment for a high-level summary of these differences.
In the standard environment, your application runs on a lightweight instance inside of a sandbox. This sandbox restricts what your application can do. For example, your application can not write to disk or use non-whitelisted binary libraries. The standard environment also limits the amount of CPU and memory options available to your application. Because of these restrictions, most App Engine standard applications tend to be stateless web applications that respond to HTTP requests quickly.
In contrast, the flexible environment runs your application in Docker containers on Google Compute Engine virtual machines (VMs), which have fewer restrictions. For example, you can use any programming language of your choice, write to disk, use any library you'd like, and even run multiple processes. The flexible environment also allows you to choose any Compute Engine machine type for your instances so that your application has access to more memory and CPU.
Accessing external services
In the standard environment, your application typically accesses services such as Cloud Datastore via the built-in google.appengine APIs. However, in the flexible environment, these APIs are no longer available. Instead, use the Google Cloud client libraries. These client libraries work everywhere, which means that your application is more portable. If needed, applications that run in the flexible environment can usually run on Google Kubernetes Engine or Compute Engine without heavy modification.
In the standard environment, you typically run your application locally using
the App Engine SDK. The SDK handles running your application and emulates the
App Engine services. In the flexible environment, the SDK is no longer used to
run your application. Instead, applications written for the flexible environment
should be written like standard web applications that can run anywhere. As
mentioned, the flexible environment just runs your application in a Docker
container. This means that to test the application locally, you just run the
application directly. For example, to run a Python application using Django, you
would just run
python manage.py runserver.
Another key difference is that flexible environment applications running locally use actual Cloud Platform services, such as Cloud Datastore. Use a separate project for testing locally and when available, use emulators.
While both environments use App Engine’s automatic scaling infrastructure, the way in which they scale is different. The standard environment can scale from zero instances up to thousands very quickly. In contrast, the flexible environment must have at least one instance of your application running and can take longer to scale up in response to traffic.
Standard environment uses a custom-designed autoscaling algorithm. Flexible environment uses the Compute Engine Autoscaler. Note that flexible environment does not support all of the autoscaling options that are available to Compute Engine. Developers should test their application behavior under a range of conditions. For example, you should verify how autoscaling responds when a CPU-bound application becomes I/O-bound during periods when calls to remote services have elevated latency.
Standard environment does not use health checks to determine whether or not to send traffic to an instance. Flexible environment permits application developers to write their own health check handlers that will be used by the load balancer to determine whether or not to send traffic to an instance and whether or not it should be autohealed. Developers should be careful when adding logic to health checks. For example, if the health check makes a call to an external service then a temporary failure in that service can cause all instances to go unhealthy, possibly leading to a cascading failure.
Dropping requests when overloaded
Applications can drop requests when overloaded as part of a strategy to avoid cascading failures. This capability is built into the traffic routing layer in the standard environment. We recommend that developers of very high QPS applications in the flexible environment build this capability to drop overload traffic into their applications by limiting the number of concurrent requests.
You can verify that your flexible environment application is not susceptible to this type of failure by creating a version with a limit to the maximum number of instances. Then steadily increase traffic until requests are dropped. You should ensure that your application is not failing health checks during overload.
Flexible environment instances are permitted to have higher CPU and memory limits than is possible with standard environment instances. This allows flexible instances to run applications that are more memory and CPU intensive. However, it may increase the likelihood of concurrency bugs due to the increase in threads within a single instance.
Developers can SSH to an flexible environment instance and obtain a thread dump to troubleshoot this type of problem.
Maximum request timeout
The standard environment imposes a 60 second request deadline for versions that use automatic scaling. Since flexible environment does not impose such a deadline, application programmers should be careful to ensure that all calls to external services specify a timeout in order to avoid requests hanging indefinitely and eventually using up all threads on the web server.
Application developers can implement their own servlet filter to kill requests that take longer than 60 seconds in the flexible environment. It is important to handle clean up correctly when killing a request thread, so that the application is not left in an inconsistent state.
Standard environment provides a traffic migration feature that gradually moves traffic to a new version to minimize latency spikes. See the Traffic Migration docs for ways to ensure you avoid a latency spike when switching traffic to a new version.
Single zone failures
Standard environment applications are single-homed, meaning that all instances of the application live in a single availability zone. In the event of a failure in that zone, the application starts new instances in a different zone in the same region and the load balancer routes traffic to the new instances. You will see a latency spike due to loading requests and also a Memcache flush.
Flexible environment applications use Regional Managed Instance Groups, meaning that instances are distributed among multiple availability zones within a region. In the event of a single zone failure, the load balancer stops routing traffic to that zone. If you have set autoscaling to run your instances as hot as possible, then you will see a brief period of overload before autoscaling creates more instances.
Many factors are involved in a cost comparison between workloads running on standard and flexible environments. These include:
- Price paid per MCycle.
- CPU platform capabilities, which impacts work that can be done per MCycle
- How hot you can run instances on each platform.
- Cost of deployments, which may differ on each platform and can be signficant if you are using Continuous Deployment for your application.
- Runtime overhead.
You will need to run experiments to determine the cost of your workload on each platform. In flexible environment, you can use QPS per core as a proxy for the cost efficiency of your application when running experiments to determine whether a change has an impact on costs. Standard environment does not provide such a mechanism to get real-time metrics on the cost efficiency of your application. You have to make a change and wait for the daily billing cycle to complete.
Standard environment allows secure authentication between applications using the
request header. Flexible environment does not have such a feature. The
recommended approach for secure authentication between applications is to use
Deployments in standard environment are generally faster than deployments in flexible environment. It is faster to scale up an existing version in flexible environment than to deploy a new version, because the network programming for a new version is normally the long pole in a flexible environment deployment. One strategy for doing quick rollbacks in flexible environment is to maintain a known good version scaled down to a single instance. You can then scale up that version and then route all traffic to it using Traffic Splitting.
When to use the flexible environment
The flexible environment is intended to be complementary to the standard environment. If you have an existing application running in the standard environment, it’s not usually necessary to migrate the entire application to the flexible environment. Instead, identify the parts of your application that require more CPU, more RAM, a specialized third-party library or program, or that need to perform actions that aren’t possible in the standard environment. Once you’ve identified these parts of your application, create small App Engine services that use the flexible environment to handle just those parts. Your existing service running in the standard environment can call the other services using HTTP, Cloud Tasks (beta), or Cloud Pub/Sub.
For example, if you have an existing web application running in the standard environment and you want to add a new feature to convert files to PDFs, you can write a separate microservice that runs in the flexible environment that just handles the conversion to PDF. This microservice can be a simple program consisting of just one or two request handlers. This microservice can install and use any available Linux program to aid in the conversion, such as unoconv.
Your main application remains in the standard environment and can call this microservice directly via HTTP, or if you anticipate the conversion will take a long time, the application can use Cloud Tasks (beta) or Cloud Pub/Sub to queue the requests.