CHALLENGES: AfterCollege’s datasets grew too large for their dedicated servers, but not all workloads ran best in cloud.
BUSINESS OUTCOME: AfterCollege can leverage the best of cloud technology without needing to move applications whose resource requirements make them better suited to dedicated servers.
AfterCollege is a job discovery service that enables students and new grads to skip the job search and explore jobs and internships based on their field of study. The site helps half a million people per month and features over 400,000 job and internship listings from over 25,000 employers.
The company has trusted Rackspace since 2006 and began using a Hybrid Cloud in 2010 to support its growth. The combination of Hybrid Cloud and a continuous deployment model has allowed AfterCollege to put off making multiple hires for IT Operations by granting developers greater autonomy. It also allows them to leverage the best of cloud technology without needing to move applications whose resource requirements make them better suited to dedicated servers.
“We started hosting with Rackspace in 2006. Back then, it was just dedicated services, just three servers,” says AfterCollege VP of engineering Steve Girolami. “In 2010 we started using the cloud, integrating it with our existing dedicated configuration, largely for development activities. Before then, we were doing a lot of development on our local workstations, but our data sets got so big that it was really hard to replicate things internally in the office. RackConnect technology allowed us to push all of our staging and review and even some production services into the hybrid cloud.” When the second-generation, hybridenabling RackConnect was released in 2011, AfterCollege moved its front-end web services into the cloud as well. “We haven’t looked back since,” Girolami says. “All our front-end services are there—we have a lot of Solr indexes and Mongo instances all replicated in various cloud servers. It’s very elastic, and when we want to try something new, it’s pretty easy for the developers to do that in a cloud server.”
This ability has allowed the company to hold off on hiring IT staff by empowering developers to take on projects and experiment autonomously. Girolami says, “The nice thing about the hybrid configuration is that all the developers have accounts and are on a relatively long leash to do whatever they feel is necessary in production. It empowers them with the freedom and responsibility they need to work through the product backlog, and it unblocks any of the resourcing problems they might have because there’s no procurement process. If there’s a computing resource they need to do their job, they go get it.”
Because they don’t need permission to spin up a new server, developers are free to try out new technologies in a low-risk way. “The other day, one of the developers brought up using Redis possibly. In the past, you’d have to have servers set up to try out Redis,” he says, “but with hybrid, they can just spin up a Redis server to try it out. If they don’t like the way it’s going, they can just delete the server. It only takes a few hours, and there isn’t the hubbub of procuring a server, monthly costs, any of that.”
The ability to delete servers that aren’t cooperating can also be an alternative to troubleshooting, says Girolami. “During a routine production release,” he recalls, “one of the application servers just wasn’t taking the updates and we had to roll back. In a dedicated environment, the protocol would’ve been to figure out why it wasn’t releasing correctly on this one server because we’d need the one server in production for the amount of traffic we have. In cloud, we just deleted the server and created a new one off the gold image and released again, and then everything released fine. It took about 10 minutes to do.”
While the cloud provides AfterCollege numerous benefits, they also appreciate that their hybrid infrastructure has allowed them to keep appropriate workloads on dedicated servers.
For example, says Girolami, “Our MySQL database layer is masterslave on dedicated servers. Each server is 64-bit, 64 GB of RAM, with 600GB of RAID storage on 15K fast drives and a 200GB SSD drive for caching, swap, locking, et cetera. By running our MySQL databases on a predictable, powerful physical environment, we attain less than 10ms response times at our production database layer for all query types.”
“We also do all our own bulk mailing because all the mail we send to our users is specific for that user,” he says. “It’s millions of messages a month, and we do that on one of our dedicated servers. There are a number of static IP addresses assigned to that server, and if you know anything about bulk mailing, reputation matters a great deal. We can’t move those IP addresses willy-nilly, so those services are locked in on a dedicated machine as well.”
The ability to keep some workloads on dedicated also saves AfterCollege’s staff from having to migrate ungainly legacy applications. “We have one old legacy ColdFusion application that we still need to use,” says Girolami. “The thing is a pain to configure, and I don’t think anybody wants to spend their time moving it to a cloud server, so it’s stuck on one of our original dedicated servers. Nevertheless, it still needs to have access to a lot of the cloud services, like the Solr index and the Mongo tables. The Rackspace Hybrid Cloud makes that possible.”
Throughout its evolution, AfterCollege has relied on Rackspace for expert advice. Girolami cites the recent example of a MySQL migration. “That was a major migration from the old hardware to the new hardware and I think it went beautifully,” he says. “I don’t think it could have gone better. Aside from planning and setting it up from the beginning, the MySQL DBAs at Rackspace pretty much took the lead and exceeded expectations.”
Girolami found the advisory process easy. “They organically brought up all the different migration pathways we could take and the different hardware configurations,” he says. “There were pros and cons to each, so there was no bias, and they certainly didn’t push any one specific solution or one process on me. It felt really empowering to be able to get all of the information so we could make decisions and keep moving forward. From quote to production it was under 45 days. It was pretty seamless.”
The company sees its hybrid configuration as a perfect fit. “Hybrid is beautiful because we’re not under the gun to migrate everything,” he says. “The parts of the application stack that are the most important can go to cloud, but the things that we don’t think add a great deal of business value, but nevertheless we still need to have running, stay on dedicated. Not needing to drop dedicated and go straight to cloud creates a really nice migration path for us.”
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