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Tencent Games’ Real-Time Event-Driven Analytics System Built with ScyllaDB + Pulsar

A look at how Tencent Games built service architecture based on CQRS and event sourcing patterns with Pulsar and ScyllaDB.

As a part of Tencent Interactive Entertainment Group Global (IEG Global), Proxima Beta is committed to supporting our teams and studios to bring unique, exhilarating games to millions of players around the world. You might be familiar with some of our current games, such as PUBG Mobile, Arena of Valor, and Tower of Fantasy.

Our team at Level Infinite (the brand for global publishing) is responsible for managing a wide range of risks to our business – for example, cheating activities and harmful content. From a technical perspective, this required us to build an efficient real-time analytics system to consistently monitor all kinds of activities in our business domain.

In this blog, we share our experience of building this real-time event-driven analytics system. First, we’ll explore why we built our service architecture based on Command and Query Responsibility Segregation (CQRS) and event sourcing patterns with Apache Pulsar and ScyllaDB. Next, we’ll look at how we use ScyllaDB to solve the problem of dispatching events to numerous gameplay sessions. Finally, we’ll cover how we use ScyllaDB keyspaces and data replication to simplify our global data management.

A Peek at the Use Case: Addressing Risks in Tencent Games

Let’s start with a real-world example of what we’re working with and the challenges we face.

This is a screenshot from Tower of Fantasy, a 3D-action role-playing game. Players can use this dialog to file a report against another player for various reasons. If you were to use a typical CRUD system for it, how would you keep those records for follow-ups? And what are the potential problems?

The first challenge would be determining which team is going to own the database to store this form. There are different reasons to make a report (including an option called “Others”), so a case might be handled by different functional teams. However, there is not a single functional team in our organization that can fully own the form.

That’s why it is a natural choice for us to capture this case as an event, like “report a case.” All the information is captured in this event as is. All functional teams only need to subscribe to this event and do their own filtering. If they think the case falls into their domain, they can just capture it and trigger further actions.

CQRS and Event Sourcing

The service architecture behind this example is based on the CQRS and event sourcing patterns. If these terms are new to you, don’t worry! By the end of this overview, you should have a solid understanding of these concepts. And if you want more detail at that point, take a look at our blog dedicated to this topic.

The first concept to understand here is event sourcing. The core idea behind event sourcing is that every change to a system’s state is captured in an event object and these event objects are stored in the order in which they were applied to the system state. In other words, instead of just storing the current state, we use an append-only store to record the entire series of actions taken on that state. This concept is simple but powerful as the events that represent every action are recorded so that any possible model describing the system can be built from the events.

The next concept is CQRS, which stands for Command Query Responsibility Segregation. CQRS was coined by Greg Young over a decade ago and originated from the Command and Query Separation Principle. The fundamental idea is to create separate data models for reads and writes, rather than using the same model for both purposes. By following the CQRS pattern, every API should either be a command that performs an action, or a query that returns data to the caller – but not both. This naturally divides the system into two parts: the write side and the read side.

This separation offers several benefits. For example, we can scale write and read capacity independently for optimizing cost efficiency. From a teamwork perspective, different teams can create different views of the same data with fewer conflicts.

The high-level workflow of the write side can be summarized as follows: events that occur in numerous gameplay sessions are fed into a limited number of event processors. The implementation is also straightforward, typically involving a message bus such as Pulsar, Kafka, or a simpler queue system that acts as an event store. Events from clients are persisted in the event store by topic and event processors consume events by subscribing to topics. If you’re interested in why we chose Apache Pulsar over other systems, you can find more information in the blog referenced earlier.

Although queue-like systems are usually efficient at handling traffic that flows in one direction (e.g. fan-in), they may not be as effective at handling traffic that flows in the opposite direction (e.g. fan-out). In our scenario, the number of gameplay sessions will be large, and a typical queue system doesn’t fit well since we can’t afford to create a dedicated queue for every game-play session. We need to find a practical way to distribute findings and metrics to individual gameplay sessions through Query APIs. This is why we use ScyllaDB to build another queue-like event store, which is optimized for event fan-out. We will discuss this further in the next section.

Before we move on, here’s a summary of our service architecture.

Starting from the write side, game servers keep sending events to our system through Command endpoints and each event represents a certain kind of activity that occurred in a gameplay session. Event processors produce findings or metrics against the event streams of each gameplay session and act as a bridge between two sides. On the read side, we have game servers or other clients that keep polling metrics and findings through Query endpoints and take further actions if abnormal activities have been observed.

Distributed Queue-Like Event Store for Time Series Events

Now let’s look at how we use ScyllaDB to solve the problem of dispatching events to numerous gameplay sessions. By the way, if you Google “Cassandra” and “queue”, you may come across an article from over a decade ago stating that using Cassandra as a queue is an anti-pattern. While this might have been true at that time, I would argue that it is only partially true today. We made it work with ScyllaDB (which is Cassandra-compatible).

To support the dispatch of events to each gameplay session, we use the session id as the partition key so that each gameplay session has its own partition and events belonging to a particular gameplay session can be located by the session id efficiently.

Each event also has a unique event id, which is a time UUID, as the clustering key. Because records within the same partition are sorted by the clustering key, the event id can be used as the position id in a queue. Finally, ScyllaDB clients can efficiently retrieve newly arrived events by tracking the event id of the most recent event that has been received.

There is one caveat to keep in mind when using this approach: the consistency problem. Retrieving new events by tracking the most recent event id relies on the assumption that no event with a smaller id will be committed in the future. However, this assumption may not always hold true. For example, if two nodes generate two event identifiers at the same time, an event with a smaller id might be inserted later than an event with a larger id.

This problem, which I refer to as a “phantom read,” is similar to the phenomenon in the SQL world where repeating the same query can yield different results due to uncommitted changes made by another transaction. However, the root cause of the problem in our case is different. It occurs when events are committed to ScyllaDB out of the order indicated by the event id.

There are several ways to address this issue. One solution is to maintain a cluster-wide status, which I call a “pseudo now,” based on the smallest value of the moving timestamps among all event processors. Each event processor should also ensure that all future events have an event id greater than its current timestamp.

Another important consideration is enabling TimeWindowCompactionStrategy, which eliminates the negative performance impact caused by tombstones. Accumulation of tombstones was a major issue that prevented the use of Cassandra as a queue before TimeWindowCompactionStrategy became available.

Now let’s shift to discussing other benefits beyond using ScyllaDB as a dispatching queue.

Simplifying Complex Global Data Distribution Challenges

Since we are building a multi-tenancy system to serve customers around the world, it is essential to ensure that customer configurations are consistent across clusters in different regions. Trust is – keeping a distributed system consistent is not a trivial task if you plan to do it all by yourself.

We solved this problem by simply enabling data replication on a keyspace across all data centers. This means any change made in one data center will eventually propagate to others. Thank ScyllaDB, as well as DynamoDB and Cassandra, for the heavy lifting that makes this challenging problem seem trivial.

You might be thinking that using any typical RDBMS could achieve the same result since most databases also support data replication. This is true if there is only one instance of the control panel running in a given region. In a typical primary/replica architecture, only the primary node supports read/write while replica nodes are read-only. However, when you need to run multiple instances of the control panel across different regions– for example, every tenant has a control panel running in its home region, or even every region has a control panel running for local teams – it becomes much more difficult to implement this using a typical primary/replica architecture.

If you have used AWS DynamoDB, you may be familiar with a feature called Global Table, which allows applications to read and write locally and access the data globally. Enabling replication on keyspaces with ScyllaDB provides a similar feature, but without vendor lock-in. You can easily extend global tables across a multi-cloud environment.

Keyspaces as Data Containers

Next, let’s look at how we use keyspaces as data containers to improve the transparency of global data distribution.

Let’s take a look at the diagram below. It shows a solution to a typical data distribution problem imposed by data protection laws. For example, suppose region A allows certain types of data to be processed outside of its borders as long as an original copy is kept in its region. As a product owner, how can you ensure that all your applications comply with this regulation?

One potential solution is to perform end-to-end (E2E) tests to ensure that applications correctly send the correct data to the correct region as expected. This approach requires application developers to take full responsibility for implementing data distribution correctly. However, as the number of applications grows, it becomes impractical for each application to handle this problem individually and E2E tests also become increasingly expensive in terms of both time and money.

Let’s think twice about this problem. By enabling data replication on keyspaces, we can divide the responsibility for correctly distributing data into two tasks: 1) identifying data types and declaring their destinations, and 2) copying or moving data to the expected locations.

By separating these two duties, we can abstract away complex configurations and regulations from applications. This is because the process of transferring data to another region is often the most complicated part to deal with, such as passing through network boundaries, correctly encrypting traffic, and handling interruptions.

After separating these two duties, applications are only required to correctly perform the first step, which is much easier to verify through testing at earlier stages of the development cycle. Additionally, the correctness of configurations for data distribution becomes much easier to verify and audit. You can simply check the settings of keyspaces to see where data is going.

Tips for Others Taking a Similar Path

To conclude, we’ll leave you with important lessons that we learned, and that we recommend you apply if you end up taking a path similar to ours:

  • When using ScyllaDB to handle time series data, such as using it as an event-dispatching queue, remember to use the Time-Window Compaction Strategy.
  • Consider using keyspaces as data containers to separate the responsibility of data distribution. This can make complex data distribution problems much easier to manage.

Watch Tech Talks On-Demand

This article is based on a tech talk presented at ScyllaDB Summit 2023. You watch this talk – as well as talks by engineers from Discord, Epic Games, Strava, ShareChat and more – on-demand.

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