The dangers of dead letter queues

Old man yells about cloud

15 January 2022

Applications within a distributed system often communicate with each other using some kind of message queue or event bus, for example Amazon SQS or Kinesis. The spookily named dead letter queue is a common pattern used with these systems to handle errors but if they’re not carefully configured and well thought through they can cause a lot of trouble.

The theory of dead letter queues

The idea goes that if your application fails to consume a message from the queue then that message is put to one side onto a dead letter queue so that subsequent messages can continue to be consumed. At a later stage the failed message can be moved out of the dead letter queue and back onto the normal queue for re-consumption.

The reality of message failures

In my experience it is rare to come across a temporary problem that only affects some of the messages an application consumes. It is far more common for an application to have a total outage - perhaps due to a downstream API being unavailable - and this can result in every single message piling up onto the dead letter queue. If just one message really is malformed in some way - perhaps due it not being serialised properly - it isn’t going to fix itself without human intervention.

It is also brave to trust that an application which has unexpectedly started failing to process some messages will be behaving correctly with those that it is able to process. Failures are often due to something changing upstream and this can mean that while some messages happen to have a compatible structure there’s no garantee that the semantics of the data are the same. Applications always make assumptions about the data they’ve received and a failure to process a message can be a sign that one of those assumptions has been broken. When this happens the safest response might be to stop everything and investigate rather than plow on regardless.

Time limits and sequencing

Dead letter queues generally don’t have infinite retention and the result of this is a time limit during which you must fix whatever the underlying issue is (perhaps it is an issue with a third party whose timelines you have little control over) before you’ll begin to experience data loss. These retention periods can be configured to be quite long but often default to short periods of time.

Even assuming that the issue is resolved in time and only affected a small number of messages there are still potential problems lurking when the dead letters are put back onto the queue they came from as they will be consumed out of order relative to the messages that didn’t fail. Depending on the domain this might not be a problem but it should definitely be thought about ahead of time.

Conclusion

The purpose of this rant is not to say that dead letter queues are bad or shouldn’t be used, I just think that they shouldn’t be used lightly. Quite often they’re set up as a catch-all error handling solution without much consideration and a poorly configured dead letter queue can be more of a hinderence than a help.

I’ve been fortunate in that most of the applications I’ve written have had low throughput and timeliness requirements and so it has often been possible to adopt a strategy of stopping the world and sounding alarms when coming across unprocessable messages. This approach then allows a human to intervene before anything gets worse - not a very scalable solution but it has saved me a few times!

With a billing application it may be better to, for example, delay billing people by a few days due to an unforeseen issue with an upstream system rather than continuing on and billing lots of people incorrectly before having to ask for the money back.

Regardless of which approach you take towards handling errors in asynchronous applications it is vital to actually try recovering from errors, perhaps by deliberately introducing some problems in a preproduction environment, to ensure that you’ve not overlooked anything that may sabotage attempts to recover from real production issues.


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