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Distributed systems – what are they and how to use them in an enterprise? Key aspects to consider

Managing processes using IT systems (including ERP or MES) is commonplace in many industries today, especially in those powerfully automated and where intelligent solutions are consciously sought. In this era of the pandemic, it makes sense to pay special attention to those that go beyond a platform-specific approach and enable communication (and sometimes even the capture of specific data) on a global scale. Welcome to the world of distributed systems!


Virtually everything you do nowadays while using a computer and the Internet, whether you’re sending an email, playing a game, or reading this article online, uses the power of distributed systems. However, to fully enjoy your organization and the benefits they offer, one should always follow the “think before you code” principle.



What are distributed systems? Distributed versus parallel computing


Distributed [computing] systems provide a computing environment in which various components are deployed on several computers (including virtual machines) within a single network. These machines (which can be PCs, servers, or containers) distribute tasks among themselves and coordinate their efforts to get the job done more efficiently than would be the case with just one computer, for example.


The said systems, as their name implies, operate using, among other things, distributed computing. They use the aforementioned sharing of resources (for example, computer memory or processor power), often cited in different locations. An example is what we call distributed computing in clusters and grids, which are used, among other things, in electronic banking.


Similarly, there are also parallel systems. These contain multiple processors working together but are physically clustered within a single enclosure (or several if they are nearby, for example, in the same room). Distributed and parallel computing will be very different – in the latter case, several commands will be executed simultaneously.



What features should a distributed system have? 


Distributed systems have evolved. Most of them are designed to work over the Internet and, more specifically, the cloud. Although many different models and architectures are available (homogeneous, heterogeneous, multi-database, or client-server), a distributed system should feature the following:


  • Scalability, meaning the ability to grow as the load increases, which is made possible by adding additional processing units to the network,
  • concurrency, meaning that components will run simultaneously, with tasks executed in no particular order and at different paces,
  • fault tolerance (if one node fails, the others can continue to operate without disrupting overall computation),
  • transparency so that an end user or third-party developer will see the distributed system as a single computing entity, allowing them to interact with a particular logical device without having to bother with the entire architecture,
  • replicability that provides information and messages to be shared and ensures consistency between available resources (such as software or hardware components), thereby increasing availability, reliability, and fault tolerance.


The additional advantage that distinguishes heterogeneous systems is the asynchronous nature of their nodes and components. It means that multiple types of hardware and software can be used, allowing for further expansion.



Why is proper maintenance of distributed systems crucial? What are the biggest problems with distributed systems?


Distributed systems, after all, are much more complex than monolithic computing environments and present several challenges at the level of their design, operation, and maintenance. These include:


  • Increased risk of failure

The more systems are added to a computing environment, the greater the chance of unplanned downtime, especially if the structures have not been carefully designed. In such a case, one faulty node can crash the complete architecture.

  • The synchronization challenges

Distributed systems operate without a central master clock. So, they require careful programming to ensure that processes are correctly synchronized. This will avoid transmission delays that cause errors and data corruption. In a complex system like a multiplayer video game, synchronization can be complex. The situation will be particularly problematic in a public network aggregating data traffic.

  • Scalability is far from perfect.

Doubling the number of nodes in a distributed system will not necessarily result in doubling its performance. Designing an efficient distribution system that maximizes scalability is a complex job. Among other things, it must consider the issues of load balancing and capacity management.

  • Complicated security management

Managing a large number of nodes in a heterogeneous and globally distributed environment poses many security challenges. A weak link in the file system can expose the entire network to attack.

  • The overall complexity

Distributed systems are much more complex than traditional computing environments, not only in terms of their understanding and design but also in their daily operation and supervision.



Implementing distributed systems in an enterprise – what to watch out for?


The above-described challenges with distributed systems give rise to several interrelated risks that one must be aware of before deployment to skillfully avert them. These include:


  • Security issues

Distributed systems are as vulnerable to attack as any other, but their global nature usually results in a much larger attack surface being exposed to potential threats.

  • Risk of network outages

Distributed systems depend on public networks over which they send and receive data. Thus, if even one segment of the Internet becomes unavailable or overloaded, the performance of the entire structure may degrade.

  • Management and control issues

It is impossible to manage distributed systems in the same way as those that are monolithic and based on a single server. This results in problems related to auditing and compliance with global privacy regulations, such as the GDPR. Indeed, globally distributed environments can create barriers to certain certainty levels and make it difficult to see where data is located.

  • Unexpected increase in costs

The scalability of distributed systems allows administrators to add capacity, which can increase costs quickly. With the cloud, prices depend on usage (for example, the number of memory resources or processing power) during a given period. So if demand suddenly spikes, organizations can start facing huge bills.



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