Eureka! Why You Shouldn’t Use ZooKeeper for Service Discovery

Many companies use ZooKeeper for service discovery. At Knewton, we believe this is a fundamentally flawed approach. In this article, I will walk through our failures with ZooKeeper, tell you why you shouldn’t be using it for service discovery, and explain why Eureka is a better solution.

Remember What You’re Building On

Let’s back up. It’s important to first discuss what your target environment is before deciding what software to use or how to build your own. In the cloud, resiliency to equipment and network failure has to be a primary concern. When you’re running your software across a large number of replaceable pieces of hardware, it’s inevitable that one of them will fail at some point. At Knewton, we run on AWS, and we’ve seen many different types of failure. You have to design your systems expecting failure. Other companies on AWS agree (there are whole books written on the topic). You have to anticipate box failure, high latency, and network partitions — and build resiliency against them into your system.

Don’t assume your environment is the same as others. Sure, if you’re managing your own datacenters, you quite possibly could be putting in the time and money to minimize hardware failures and network partitions. But cloud environments like AWS make a different trade-off. You are going to have these issues, and you had better prepare for them.

Failures with ZooKeeper

ZooKeeper is a great software project. It is mature, has a large community supporting it, and is used by many teams in production. It’s just the wrong solution to the problem of service discovery.

In CAP terms, ZooKeeper is CP, meaning that it’s consistent in the face of partitions, not available. For many things that ZooKeeper does, this is a necessary trade-off. Since ZooKeeper is first and foremost a coordination service, having an eventually consistent design (being AP) would be a horrible design decision. Its core consensus algorithm, Zab, is therefore all about consistency.

For coordination, that’s great. But for service discovery it’s better to have information that may contain falsehoods than to have no information at all. It is much better to know what servers were available for a given service five minutes ago than to have no idea what things looked like due to a transient network partition. The guarantees that ZooKeeper makes for coordination are the wrong ones for service discovery, and it hurts you to have them.

ZooKeeper simply doesn’t handle network partitions the right way for service discovery. Like other types of failure in the cloud, partitions actually happen. It is best to be as prepared as possible. But — as outlined in a Jepsen post on ZooKeeper and the ZooKeeper website — in ZooKeeper, clients of the nodes that are part of the partition that can’t reach quorum lose communication with ZooKeeper and their service discovery mechanism altogether.

It’s possible to supplement ZooKeeper with client-side caching or other techniques to alleviate certain failure conditions. Companies like Pinterest and Airbnb have done this. On the surface, this appears to fix things. In particular, client-side caching helps ensure that if any or all clients lose contact with the ZooKeeper cluster, they can fall back to their cache. But even here there are situations where the client won’t get all the discovery information that could be available. If quorum is lost altogether, or the cluster partitions and the client happens to be connected to nodes that are not part of quorum but still healthy, the client’s status will be lost even to those other clients communicating with those same healthy ZooKeeper nodes.

More fundamentally, supplementing ZooKeeper, a consistent system, with optimistic caching is attempting to make ZooKeeper more available. ZooKeeper is meant to be consistent. This gives you neither: you have bolted a system that wants to be AP on top of a system that is CP. This is fundamentally the wrong approach. A service discovery system should be designed for availability from the start.

Even ignoring CAP tradeoffs, setting up and maintaining ZooKeeper correctly is hard. Mistakes are so common that projects have been developed just to mitigate them. They exist for the clients and even the ZooKeeper servers themselves. Because ZooKeeper is so hard to use correctly, many of our failures at Knewton were a direct result of our misuse of ZooKeeper. Some things appear simple but are actually easy to get wrong: for example, reestablishing watchers correctly, handling session and exceptions in clients, and managing memory on the ZK boxes. Then there are actual ZooKeeper issues we hit, like ZOOKEEPER-1159 and ZOOKEEPER-1576. We even saw leadership election fail in production. These types of issues happen because of the guarantees ZooKeeper needs to make. It needs to manage things like sessions and connections, but because they aren’t needed for service discovery, they hurt more than they help.

Making the Right Guarantees: Success with Eureka

We switched to Eureka, an open-source service discovery solution developed by Netflix. Eureka is built for availability and resiliency, two primary pillars of development at Netflix. They just can’t stop talking about it — and for good reason. Since the switch, we haven’t had a single service-discovery-related production outage. We acknowledged that in a cloud environment you are guaranteed failure, and it is absolutely critical to have a service discovery system that can survive it.

First, if a single server dies, Eureka doesn’t have to hold any type of election; clients automatically switch to contacting a new Eureka server. Eureka servers in this case will also accept the missing Eureka server back when it reappears, but will only merge any registrations it has. There’s no risk of a revived server blowing out the entire service registry. Eureka’s even designed to handle broader partitions with zero downtime. In the case of a partition, each Eureka server will continue to accept new registrations and publish them to be read by any clients that can reach it. This ensures that new services coming online can still make themselves available to any clients on the same side of the partition.

But Eureka goes beyond these. In normal operation, Eureka has a built-in concept of service heartbeats to prevent stale data: if a service doesn’t phone home often enough, then Eureka will remove the entry from the service registry. (This is similar to what people typically build with ZooKeeper and ephemeral nodes.) This is a great feature, but could be dangerous in the case of partitions: clients might lose services that were actually still up, but partitioned from the Eureka server. Thankfully, Netflix thought of this: if a Eureka server loses connections with too many clients too quickly, it will enter “self-preservation mode” and stop expiring leases. New services can register, but “dead” ones will be kept, just in case a client might still be able to contact them. When the partition mends, Eureka will exit self-preservation mode. Again, holding on to good and bad data is better than losing any of the good data, so this scheme works beautifully in practice.

Lastly, Eureka caches on the client side. So even if every last Eureka server goes down, or there is a partition where a client can’t talk to any of the Eureka servers, then the service registry still won’t be lost. Even in this worst-case scenario, your service will still likely be able to look up and talk to other services. It is important to note that client-side caching is appropriate here. Because all healthy Eureka servers must be unresponsive to resort to it, we know there is no chance of new and better information possibly being reachable.

Eureka makes the right set of guarantees for service discovery. There are no equivalents for leadership election or transaction logs. There is less for you to get wrong and less that Eureka has to do right. Because Eureka is built explicitly for service discovery, it provides a client library that provides functionality such as service heartbeats, service health checks, automatic publishing, and refreshing caches. With ZooKeeper, you would have to implement all of these things yourself. Eureka’s library is built using open-source code that everyone sees and uses. That’s better than a client library that only you and two other people have seen the code for.

The Eureka servers are also infinitely easier to manage. To replace nodes, you just remove one and add another under the same EIP. It has a clear and concise website that provides a visual representation of all your services and their health. I can’t tell you how great it is to glance at a web page and see exactly what services are running or suffering issues. Eureka even provides a REST API, allowing for easy integration with other potential uses and querying mechanisms.


The biggest takeaways here are to remember what hardware you are building on and to only solve the problems you have to solve. Using Eureka provides both of these for us at Knewton. Cloud platforms are unreliable and Eureka is designed to handle their unique challenges. Service discovery needs to be as available and resilient as possible, and Eureka is designed to be just that.

Additional Resources

Netflix Shares Cloud Load Balancing And Failover Tool: Eureka!

Thread on ZooKeeper Vs Eureka

Why Not Use Curator/Zookeeper as a Service Registry?

A Gotcha When Using ZooKeeper Ephemeral Nodes

Introducing Curator – The Netflix ZooKeeper Library

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  • MG

    Could you give an example where you use service discovery? In other words, what’s the context?

    • Remi Carton

      A common pattern at Knewton is to use it for discovering thrift/http services. Instead of a using a hostname, you’d use the eureka “name” of the service, and a monitor running in your client service takes care of resolving the actual host and keeping it up to date.

  • Zookeeper 3.4 has a read-only mode that lets you get AP and be notified in the client that its in such a mode. Of course, if you’re down to AP, there’s the question of what services you’re discovering…. are they still even present? If the discovery service failed down to AP mode, does that mean you can’t hit half your own service network? Who knows, the discovery system isn’t consistent yet. Does all your code using the services properly handle using services that might also be down? Sometimes its better to go down than to try and handle half the services needed being unavailable. All of these are decisions that should not be made lightly.

    • Peter Kelley

      Ben, Thanks for the comment! It is certainly good to be asking these types of questions.

      A big point that I should have had in the original post, is that even if you had a magical CAP-violating service discovery mechanism, your actual services need to understand that they may not be able to reach nodes that they think they ought to, and they need to handle that case gracefully. But yes, the services you are discovering may not actually be present at all. More likely though, only a subset of nodes from that service are down or partitioned away and you can stay up and functioning in a degraded state.

      I would also like to reiterate that when Eureka is partitioned, it stops expiring old entries, but will still register new ones. Since, in the case of a partition, you likely are migrating services to one or the other partitions, you really want things to work this way. With ZooKeeper in read-only mode, it can’t.

      • Yep, my main sadness in this article is that it proclaims with no exceptions that Zookeeper isn’t good for service discovery (it’s the title after all). It then cites specific things (like seeing the state of things 5 mins ago) that Zookeeper’s read-only mode actually can let you do. There are many times where one does actually want a CP discovery system (like for finding a master node, where inconsistency would lead to a split-brain issue).

        Eureka is a nice solution to a specific set of service-discovery issues that are common in AWS, but there’s no need to mislead people about Zookeeper.

      • Janice

        “Since, in the case of a partition, you likely are migrating services to one or the other partitions, you really want things to work this way.”

        Is Eureka running on the same servers as the services? How do services detect a partition?

  • andrefaria

    Great stuff. Thanks!

  • OmniJeff

    “Wrong” is a very provocative word choice. I think it’s a little more complicated than “wrong.”

    First, the writer candidly admits they used zk wrong. It’s valid to complain about some software’s default configuration and so forth, but default configuration will always be a problem for someone. Just because the default configuration of some product (such as Eureka) worked for Knewton off the shelf, doesn’t mean it will work for me. And vice versa. The myth of “sensible defaults” is a harmful one — as someone who’s used software off the shelf in production at a very large company, I can tell you that “sensible defaults” almost never work for us 😉

    The author also ignores many organizations’ need for a service discovery and coordination tool that IS consistent. The most common “step-two” after setting up your service registration is to institute service leader election. It would be extremely unacceptable to many organizations for the service discovery mechanism simply to deliver availability over consistency. Imagine a topology in which all your services share state (such as a redis cache), but only the leader instance of each service is supposed to write to the cache and all the other instances of that service are only allowed to read from it. If your service discovery tier gets divided into n partitions, you could have n leaders all trying to screw around with the cache. This could very easily be catastrophic.

    It seems as though Knewton found themselves in the enviable position of being able to solve some problems simply by selecting a more appropriate off-the-shelf solution for their application. That is a beautiful option if you can get it.

  • Ashish

    What about service registration during partition? We are also using Zookeeper for service discovery. It has been great for our purpose of service registry and discovery. Now we are planning to go to multi-site infrastructure, but here we are having hard time with Zookeeper approach. We planned to go with ZK across sites but have a requirement that during partition (network failure), service registration can still take place. Client are fine with Read only mode, but provider are stuck. Any ideas here!!