All Business CTO/CIO Scalability Software Development Startups Web Operations

Scale Quickly Like Birchbox – Startup Scalability 101

One of the great things about the Internet is how it has made it easier to put great ideas into practice. Whether the ideas are about improving people’s lives or a new way to sell and old-fashioned product, there’s nothing like a good little startup tale of creative disruption to deliver us from something old and tired.

We work with a lot of startup firms and we love being part of the atmosphere of optimism and ingenuity, peppered with a bit of youthful zeal – something very indie-rock-and-roll about it. But whether they are just starting out or already picking up pace every startup faces the same challenges to scale a business. Recently, we were reminded of this when we watched Inc’s video interview with Birchbox founders, Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp.

All iHeavy Newsletter

iHeavy Insights 76 – Scale By Design

In a recent trip to Southeast Asia, I visited the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur.  It is a sprawling urban area, more like Los Angeles than New York.  With all the congestion and constant traffic jams the question of city planning struck me.  On a more abstract level this is the same challenge that faces web application and internet website designers.  Architect and bake the quality into the framework, or hack it from start to finish?

Urban Un-Planning

Looking at cities like Los Angeles you can’t help but think that no one imagined there would ever be this many cars.  You think the same thought when you are in Kuala Lumpur.  The traffic reaches absurd levels at times.  A local friend told me that when the delegates travel through the city, they have a cavalcade of cars, and a complement of traffic cops to literally move the traffic out of the way.  It’s that bad!

Of course predicting how traffic will grow is no science.  But still cities can be planned.  Take a mega-city like New York for example.  The grid helps with traffic.  A system of one way streets, a few main arteries, and travelers and taxis a like can make better informed decisions about which way to travel.  What’s more the city core is confined to an island, so new space is built upward rather than outward.  Suddenly the economics of closeness wins out.  Many buildings in midtown you can walk between, or at most take a quick taxi ride.  Suddenly a car becomes a burden.  What’s more the train system, a spider web of subways and regional transit branches North to upstate New York, Northeast to Connecticut, East to Long Island, and West to New Jersey.

If you’ve lived in the New York metropolitan region and bought a home, or work in real estate you know that proximity to a major train station affects the prices of homes.  This is the density of urban development working for us.  It is tough to add this sauce to a city that has already sprawled.   And so it is with architecting websites and applications.

Architecting for the Web

Traffic to a website can be as unpredictable as traffic within the confines of an urban landscape.   And the spending that goes into such infrastructure as delicate.  Spend too much and you risk building for people who will never arrive.  What’s more while the site traffic remains moderate, it is difficult to predict patterns of larger volumes of users.  What areas of the site will the be most interested in?  Have we done sufficient capacity planning around those functions?  Do those particular functions cause bottlenecks around the basic functioning of the site, such as user logins, and tracking?

Baking in the sauce for scalability will never be an exact science of course.  In urban planning you try to learn from the mistakes of cities that did things wrong, and try to replicate some of the things that you see in cities doing it right.  Much the same can be said for websites and scalability.

For instance it may be difficult to do bullet proof stress testing and functional testing to cover every single possible combination.  But there are best practices for architecting an application that will scale.  Basics such as using version control – of course but I have seen clients who don’t.  There are a few options to choose from, but they all provide versioning, and self-document your development process.  Next build redundancy into the mix.  Load balance your application servers of course, and build various levels of caching – reverse proxy caching such as varnish, and a key-value caching system like memcache.  Build redundancy into the database layer, even if you aren’t adding all those servers just yet.  Your application should be multi-database aware.  Either use an abstraction layer, or organize your code around write queries, and read-only queries.  If possible build in checks for stale data.

Also consider various cloud providers to host your application, such as Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud.  These environments allow you to script your infrastructure, and build further redundancy into the mix.  Not only can you take advantage of features like auto-scaling to support dynamic growth in traffic, but you can scale servers in place, moving your server images from medium to large, to x-large servers with minimal outage.  In fact with MySQL multi-master active/passive replication on the database tier, you could quite easily switch to larger instances or from larger to smaller instances dynamically, without *any* downtime to your application.


Just as no urban planner would claim they can predict the growth of a city, a devops engineer won’t claim they can predict how traffic to your website will grow.  What we can do is mitigate that growth, build quality by building scaffolding so it can grow organically, and then monitor, collect metrics and do basic capacity planning.  A small amount of design up front will payoff over and over again.

Book Review: How To Disappear by Frank M Ahearn

With such an intimidating title you might think at first glance that this is a book only for the paranoid or criminally minded.  Now granted Mr Ahearn is a Skip Tracer, and if you were one already you certainly wouldn’t need this book.  Still Skip Tracers have a talent for finding people, just as an investigator or a detective has of catching the bad guys.  And what a person like this can teach us about how they find people is definitely worth knowing.

If you’ve had your concerns about privacy, what companies have your personal information and how they use it, this is a very interesting real-world introduction to the topic.  Of particular interest might be the chapter on identity thieves and another on social media.  All-in-all a quick read and certainly one-of-a-kind advice!

View on Amazon – How To Disappear

All Business Technical Article

How To Build Highly Scalable Web Applications For The Cloud

Scalability in the cloud depends a lot on application design.  Keep these important points in mind when you are designing your web application and you will scale much more naturally and easily in the cloud.

** Original article — Intro to EC2 Cloud Deployments **

1. Think twice before sharding

  • It increases your infrastructure and application complexity
  • it reduces availability – more servers mean more outages
  • have to worry about globally unique primary keys

2. Bake read/write database access into the application

  • allows you to check for stale data, fallback to write master
  • creates higher availability for read-only data
  • gracefully degrade to read-only website functionality if master goes down
  • horizontal scalability melds nicely with cloud infrastructure and IAAS

3. Save application state in the database

  • avoid in-memory locking structures that won’t scale with multiple web application servers
  • consider a database field for managing application locks
  • consider stored procedures for isolating and insulating developers from db particulars
  • a last updated timestamp field can be your friend

4. Consider Dynamic or Auto-scaling

  • great feature of cloud, spinup new servers to handle load on-demand
  • lean towards being proactive rather than reactive and measure growth and trends
  • watch the procurement process closely lest it come back to bite you

5. Setup Monitoring and Metrics

  • see trends over time
  • spot application trouble and bottlenecks
  • determine if your tuning efforts are paying off
  • review a traffic spike after the fact

The cloud is not a silver bullet that can automatically scale any web application.  Software design is still a crucial factor.  Baking in these features with the right flexibility and foresight, and you’ll manage your websites growth patterns with ease.

Have questions or need help with scalability?  Call us:  +1-213-537-4465

All Book Review

Review: Cloud Application Architectures

George Reese’s book doesn’t have the catchiest title, but the book is superb.  One thing to keep in mind, it is not a nuts and bolts or howto type of book.  Although there is a quick intro to EC2 APIs etc, you’re better off looking at the AWS docs, or Jeff Barr’s book on the subject.  Reese’s book is really all about answering difficult questions involving cloud deployments.