DevOps Focus: Matt Trescot, StudyBlue

024.StudyBlueEvery so often, Stackdriver likes to put the focus on a developer or operations engineer who is doing great things in cloud computing. We pick their brains on what they’re doing that makes their lives easier and, with any luck, readers can leverage the best practices they share with us to make their own lives easier.
This week we chat with Matt Trescot, Head of Operations at StudyBlue.

What is StudyBlue?
StudyBlue is one of the fastest growing startups in the education tech industry space. StudyBlue is a collaborative learning ecosystem that empowers more than 5 million people to master any subject. Students can connect with others who are on a similar learning journey through a shared library of more than 200+ million pieces of user-generated content. StudyBlue brings together the wisdom of the crowd, making it easier to master anything from chemistry to Chinese.  Learn more at www.studyblue.com.

Tell us a bit about your professional background.
Previously I was a Solutions Architect at AWS where I worked with a number of startup and enterprise people to help them get the most out of their cloud experience as well as with any pain points from a technical perspective. Prior to that I worked at BlueTarp, a financial startup.
For the last few years before StudyBlue I had been working with various cloud services. One of the downsides about being a solutions architect was that you have to learn all this stuff about the awesome platform that Amazon offers, but you never get to run anything in production on it. One of things I wanted in my next endeavor was to have that opportunity — it’s very exciting to me.

How do you use AWS at StudyBlue?
We run all our production and the majority of our development environments in AWS. We’re big users of EC2, S3 for our object storage, SQS, Elasticsearch, and CloudFormation.

What is the most important lesson that you have learned while running on AWS?
One thing that I’ve learned is that you can end up on a variety of different hardware but they don’t always act the same. Stackdriver has been a great help with this. For example, if we’re firing up 6 web servers, Stackdriver can help us see that 5 are cruising along at 20% CPU, while one is at 50% CPU. It allows us to see and address that anomaly.
Another key lesson is that you have to be able to help yourself. Amazon is great and you can always call support, but they are unique in that they don’t provide a ton of insights into what’s happening in your virtual machine. A lot of times, you might be able to ask questions and get some info from them, but at the end of the day you’re going to have to figure out your own solution rather than relying on Amazon. You may very well run into little quirks with your infrastructure, and you’ll have to be creative in finding a solution.

What tools do you use to manage your environment?

  • Chef (but we are migrating to Ansible)
  • Stackdriver
  • Tomcat
  • CloudFormation
  • PagerDuty
  • Pingdom
  • HipChat

Which three metrics do you monitor most closely to assess the health of your environment?
They’re all important in the end, but I’d say the top ones are:

  • ELB request count: This is one of the metrics that we use to feed how much traffic we’re getting. We correlate that with apache requests – using Stackdriver’s apache plugin – to make sure we scale up appropriately. Our product is geared toward college kids, so as we get close to midterms/finals, we see a spike in traffic and need to make sure we scale up.
  • SQS queues: we tend to scale up on the number of available messages in a queue, and we need to know whether or not we need those messages in a queue.
  • CPU Activity

 

What are some ways in which you learn from others in the devops community?

I like to attend various meetups: AWS meetups, Postgresql & Mongo meetups, Elasticsearch meetups, etc. I also tap into the community via Twitter, and by following companies like Netflix to see what they are doing in terms of devops practices, as well as other big influencers in cloud. It’s nice to follow these people to get inspiration on what they’re doing.

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