Cloud Case Study: Yahoo!’s Avatars on Oscar Night

The Oscars show on Sunday, March 7, was a big night for Yahoo!. As millions of people worldwide turned to Yahoo! for detailed coverage of the event, Yahoo!’s social features allowed visitors to join the discussion around breaking news of the awards by reading and posting comments.

Though not in the limelight like this year’s blockbuster Avatar movie, Yahoo! Avatars worked behind the scenes to make Oscar night entertaining for tens of millions of online viewers – and to do so, it made extensive use of the Yahoo! cloud. Yahoo! Avatars are used by tens of millions of Yahoo! users to represent their online identity when they interact through the social features built into Yahoo! properties.

Yahoo! Avatars migrated to Yahoo!’s unstructured storage cloud, MObStor, last year, in order to leverage the power of the cloud to scale seamlessly and handle peak traffic on Oscar night (over ten times our average property traffic).

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Scaling traffic for user-generated content (e.g., Avatars) is a particularly difficult problem. On many content-driven sites, most of the traffic is driven by a small amount of content. Caching this content intelligently using web front-ends, proxies, and/or edge caches can allow you to scale your website considerably, when designed with that goal in mind. However, with user-generated content, the data sets are frequently large, and the accesses are spread randomly across the entire data set, making most caching strategies ineffective.

Before we implemented the cloud, every property would need to be prepared for such events by provisioning enough capacity to handle peak anticipated load, no matter how infrequent. As you'd imagine, this gets expensive quickly – particularly if storage is the bottleneck, as it can be with large amounts of static user-generated content.

Using the cloud, we can be smarter – we can intelligently use all the spindles at our disposal, caching more popular content higher up in the cloud stack, while only going to the spindles to serve cold reads. We overprovision smartly, sharing the expense of over-provisioning across a broad portfolio of properties. Important data is replicated to multiple datacenters worldwide for performance and availability. Taking storage scalability out of the equation also allows properties to focus on their main objective – building great products.

The cloud also integrates well with complementary cloud services. For example, properties can leverage technologies like edge caching (provided by the Yahoo! Cache System) to provide lower latencies to customers worldwide, without deploying any new hardware or software of their own. Yahoo!’s portfolio of cloud products solves these difficult problems once, so that every product engineering team doesn’t need to re-invent the wheel.

In other words, the cloud helps Yahoo! scale better, smarter, cheaper and faster … And the proof? On Oscar night, Yahoo! Avatars fared significantly better than its celluloid namesake — and didn’t end up in the hurt locker.