How to keep the kafka consumer alive?

While consuming messages from Kafka, quite a few things happen in the background to make sure the consumer is actually performing well. In this article I focus on the timeout mechanisms in place to keep a consumer and its group stable. Especially if the processing of messages can take a while, you might run into issues. Read on.

The kafka consumer has a convenient api. With a bit of setup, you can quickly start consuming messages by calling poll inside a loop:

Properties consumerProps = new Properties();
consumerProps.put(ConsumerConfig.BOOTSTRAP_SERVERS_CONFIG, "kafka-broker:9092");
consumerProps.put(ConsumerConfig.GROUP_ID_CONFIG, "tim");
consumerProps.put(ConsumerConfig.KEY_DESERIALIZER_CLASS_CONFIG, ByteArrayDeserializer.class);
consumerProps.put(ConsumerConfig.VALUE_DESERIALIZER_CLASS_CONFIG, ByteArrayDeserializer.class);

KafkaConsumer<byte[], byte[]> consumer = new KafkaConsumer<>(consumerProps);

while (!shutdown) {
  ConsumerRecords<byte[], byte[]> records = consumer.poll(Duration.ofSeconds(10));
  // do something

The Kafka consumer has two health check mechanisms; one to check if the consumer is not dead (heartbeat) and one to check if the consumer is actually making progress (poll interval).

A background thread is sending heartbeats every 3 seconds ( If the group coordinator (one of the brokers) doesn’t hear a heartbeat for more than 10 seconds (, the consumer is considered dead and kicked out of the group.

On the other hand, the consumer itself validates if the client code is regularly calling the poll method. If the consumer takes more than 5 minutes ( between two poll calls, the consumer will proactively leave the group and the partitions will be assigned to another consumer in the group. Be aware that with the next poll, the consumer actually rejoins the group causing another rebalance round. So if processing time is too high, you risk a lot of rebalances which can stop processing almost completely at worst.

By default, the consumer will process 500 records per poll (max.poll.records). If the processing can take at most 5 minutes, your consumer can take up to 600ms processing time per record. See KafkaConsumer#failure-detection for more details.

Apart from fetching messages, the poll request also checks the group metadata. This metadata contains the partition assignment and rebalance information. As long as the consumer doesn’t poll, it will not be aware of any changes to the consumer group. With other words, is also the maximum amount of time a rebalance can take, since every consumer in the group needs at most that amount of time to check the consumer group metadata.

Usually a group rebalance takes less than 5 minutes, as consumers usually call the poll method often. In case record processing time is high, I’d suggest decreasing max.poll.records first to keep rebalances within a reasonable amount of time. If processing time is still too high, I suggest to decouple polling from processing.

You can decouple polling by executing the actual processing in another thread and keep the main thread alive to execute the poll method. Of course, in this case you want to disable new records coming in which you can do by pausing the consumer. See KafkaConsumer#pause.

If you want to play around with a asynchronous processing thread, I can recommend the Akka Streams Kafka library, it does this out of the box.