Customer Conversations - How Intuit and Edmodo Innovate using Amazon RDS

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From tax preparation to safe social networks, Amazon RDS brings new and innovative applications to the cloud

Empowering innovation is at the heart of everything we do at Amazon Web Services (AWS). I often get to meet, discuss, and learn from innovators how they are using AWS to deliver transformative applications to their users, customers and partners. Often we think about innovation as doing 'new things' or based on revolutionary new technologies such as DynamoDB, but it is more important to ensure that one can also innovate based on existing paradigms. One of the services that is very successful in driving innovation at our customers in this context is Amazon RDS, the Relational Database Service. Amazon RDS removes the headaches of running a relational database service reliably at scale, allowing Amazon RDS customers to focus on innovation for their customers.

Recently I had great conversations with Troy Otillio, Senior Development Manager at Intuit and Jack Murgia, Senior DevOps Engineer at Edmodo. Troy and his team have added a contextual social offering to the popular TurboTax and Intuit applications. Jack and his engineers have created a safe social app for teachers and students. These innovators use Amazon RDS in conjunction with other Amazon Web Services to build, scale and operate their applications. Below is my dialog with them. Read on.

Note: If you want to see how Amazon RDS can enable your creative agenda, sign up for the 60 day free trial.

Troy, Jack, Tell me a little bit about your app. What's unique and innovative about your service?

Troy: Live Community Platform is Intuit's flagship Contextual Social offering – Live Community makes it easy to find answers when and where you need them. This is a unique and innovative platform.

  • Intelligent Social network - Facilitate topical Q&A conversations among employees, customers and our most valued super contributors.
  • Large Seasonal Peaks – Our largest community supports TurboTax where the peak traffic during February or April is often 100's of times greater than a quiet day in June. Live Community Experience is deeply integrated into the tax experience, so we built a highly responsive and reliable web experience.
  • Read-your-mind contextual integration – Our core innovation and underlying secret sauce involves selecting the most relevant content for a given page if not given user – to provide the right answer at the right time to our users.

Jack: Edmodo is the safe social network for education used by a network of over 6 million teachers and students worldwide that allows teachers to create and maintain their classroom communities. Some unique and innovative characteristics of Edmodo are:

  • Edmodo is as easy to use as other social network sites, but secure - the teacher has the same control over access, content and behavior in Edmodo as he/she does in the classroom.
  • Students gain experience they need for the modern workplace, learning how to work responsibly and effectively in a collaborative, project-based manner on a social website.
  • Teachers can use Edmodo to share educational content, manage projects and assignments, handle notifications, and conduct quizzes and events.
  • Teachers can interact with their colleagues in professional learning networks.
  • Schools and districts can claim unique Edmodo web addresses for added communication and customization.

How are your users adopting and responding to your service?

Troy: We moved our service from internal servers to AWS. Our 25+ million strong TurboTax and Intuit user community grows every year and Live Community is an integral component of the overall product experience. Moving to AWS has enabled us with operational agility to deliver more value to those customers without having to worry about scale and infrastructure maintenance. We now have more time to focus on innovation while being confident that when demand increases we can easily add more capacity.

Jack:Since our launch in late 2008, we've grown to over 6 million teachers and students globally primarily through word of mouth of teachers who have shared Edmodo with each other. In addition to using Edmodo to engage students in classroom activities, teachers all over the world build profile pages on Edmodo, which they use to discover and share content, meet and stay in contact with other educators, and best practices and top resources.

Jack, how did this idea come about? How did you choose a SQL approach to solve this problem?

Jack: After years of seeing teachers struggle to share the web with their classroom, Edmodo founders Nic Borg and Jeff O'Hara knew there was a need for a highly scalable, secure social network targeted at K-12. SQL was the right choice because it was an established and proven technology for use in similar environments, and the massive knowledge base that exists around it.

And how about you Troy? Why did you choose a SQL approach to build your social community app?

Troy: The initial architecture was based on MySQL– we've continued with use of SQL but are now leveraging RDS. Of course, with as much textual data as we have we are leveraging Lucene/SOLR (a NoSQL solution) for Search and Semantic processing. More recently we've expanded our platform to include additional forms of user interaction observation in support of our real-time analytics – here we've begun to leverage NoSQL technologies like Redis. Going forward we'll continue to employ a hybrid approach using RDS for the necessary transactional computation and services like DynamoDB for high performance and scalability for structured data.

What did you find unique about RDS? What has been your experience so far?

Troy: We love RDS – it's reduced our operational workload by a noticeable factor but even more exciting is the benefits around fast recovery enabled by the Multi-Availability Zone capability. My team often brags about the one-click creation of read replicas, ability to upsize or downsize the database without downtime and automatic back-up. However, the shining moment occurred just last month – during peak load there was a hardware failure on the Server powering a RDS Master Database – RDS automatically failed over to the alternate zone within minutes and our customers experience was fully functional shortly thereafter. The best part was that the entire process was what I call Òhands freeÓ and took near zero development effort. With self-hosted databases we would have invested considerable engineering effort to implement, test and retest failover – to achieve fast recovery with RDS we simply changed our configuration. And when the actual production event took place the recovery required no manual intervention – the response from our CTO after hearing what happened: "that's cool".

We encountered a few situations that required help from the Amazon team – for example, we didn't know that the I/O capacity of the Server is governed by the size of storage and size of the server. When we first attempted to load our production database it took 28 hours – after a few days of attempts to reduce the load time through well-known optimizations (mostly documented on the RDS website) we were stuck at 8 hours. We consulted directly with Amazon and learned that the storage and the DB Server size affected I/O throughput – after altering our size we dropped our load time to 1 hour which was within expectations relative to native database.

Jack: Based on our experience during this period of phenomenal growth while our team productivity is stretched to the max, we see that:

  • RDS is a huge time-saver
  • RDS provides peace of mind about our data

Anything that saves time and simplifies processes for employees of a young startup has a positive affect that CAN NOT be overstated. The peace of mind part needs no explanation. Nobody on our team regrets moving to RDS MySQL - quite the opposite; we all agree we don't want to think about where we would have been without RDS. We have been able to meet our goal of architecting our application for 0% "maintenance downtime"

Out of the box, RDS' CloudWatch data and graphs speed up the troubleshooting process.

  • Complete certainty in a DB environment is VERY unique- we never worry that:
    • our DB parameters are identical across replicas, and changes propagate at a time of my choosing
    • the recoverability of data
  • Lack of root access to the underlying server OS was unique – but we have found it does not hinder us in anyway. Anything we have needed to accomplish, including a late night upgrade to MySQL 5.5 and implementation of Facebook's Online Schema Change for MySQL has been easily accomplished.

This is great to hear. We are glad we RDS meets your needs. Now, what's next on your innovation agenda?

Jack: We want to deliver an even more performance and rock solid experience for our global user base of teachers, students, administrators and parents. We will be:

  • Building "incident managers" which utilize the cloud watch data and AWS APIs to automatically replace servers and/or re-deploy when problems arise.
  • Building "incident creators" - servers which test our ability to maintain peak performance. 

We believe that by leveraging the services that Amazon provides to the fullest we can continue to scale our exceptional user experience so that Edmodo can be the platform for classrooms around the world on devices of all shapes and sizes.

Troy: At Intuit, we can go further to leverage the benefits of elasticity and further improve our resiliency. We are investing in use of CloudFormation coupled with Chef – the result will enable us to lower costs and further reduce risk.

Prior to AWS we had several tiers that we now think can be delegated to AWS services – this should free up our team to focus on our domain problems. For example, we are intending to replace our EC2/Memcache tier with ElastiCache, our batch processing with Simple Workflow and Web servers with CloudFront.

With our newfound agility we can launch new services quickly and there are a few on our plate in the near term. In some cases we are refactoring our system into smaller, discrete services, while in other cases we are creating wholesale new services Our core problem domain consists of extracting greater value out of textual and behavioral data which means that use of EMR and even the newly released Workflow should enable us to focus more on the domain and less on the system engineering.

Troy, Jack, Thank you both very much for sharing your unique experience. I look forward to hearing your progress.

Jack: Thank you. This has been a great dialog.

Troy: Thank you Werner. We appreciate the opportunity.

As I noted before, it's a great pleasure to talk to these innovators and how AWS helps their journey. If you have never used RDS before, you can sign up for a 60 day free trial What innovation will you bring to market? How will it change the world? We won't know until you try and build something.