Today, finding the perfect partner is more about what technology you use than the places you hang out. Swiss startup Blinq entered the dating market in 2013 with its self-named dating app that uses location-based technology to connect people, in real time, in places like bars and nightclubs. For its next project, Blinq used the data gained from its app to create the howhot.io website. Developed in collaboration with the Computer Vision Lab at ETH Zurich University, the site uses an algorithm that judges the age and attractiveness of people based on their photos, which are uploaded to the site. The website has attracted millions of users since it launched in January 2016.
“We’ve never had more than two staff members dedicated to running our IT,” says Blinq software engineer Marco Glauser, “so it’s important that we can do things quickly and easily.” But life with its traditional hosting provider was proving far from simple for Blinq. In addition to spending a lot of time on IT maintenance, Glauser and his colleagues were also concerned about the infrastructure’s ability to scale. “Things came to a head one weekend. We were at our limit and couldn’t provision any additional capacity. The Blinq app was down for the entire weekend, and there was literally nothing we could do about it,” says Glauser.
The time had come to act. “It was one thing that our guys were spending valuable time on the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure,” says Alex Zimmerman, cofounder and CEO of Blinq, “but quite another when our service was affected by such severe downtime. For our app to be out of operation for so long was unacceptable. People expect consistency of service, and if we can’t provide that we simply don’t have a business.”
Why Amazon Web Services
“In truth we didn’t do any in-depth evaluation of other cloud providers,” says Zimmerman about the company’s move to Amazon Web Services (AWS). “We talked to a lot of other startups and they all told us to try AWS. So we did, and we haven’t looked back.”
Blinq got started through the AWS Activate program, which provides startups with the resources they need to get started on AWS. “AWS Activate was amazing for us,” says Zimmerman. “The AWS team helped accelerate our cloud adoption by onboarding us onto the AWS Activate program. They knew time was of the essence for us.”
Working in the AWS EU (Ireland) Region, Blinq runs its app on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) and the Amazon EC2 Container Service (Amazon ECS), deploying and operating multiple containers through AWS Elastic Beanstalk. User-related metrics are stored in the fully managed Amazon DynamoDB database, and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) provides the main storage. “This is one of the biggest time savers for us,” says Glauser. “Database administration is extremely time-consuming, but we don’t have this management burden with Amazon RDS. The managed nature of the services makes a real difference to us.”
“On our previous infrastructure, we spent five hours a week on monitoring. Essentially, this was time we couldn’t spend on developing our services,” adds Zimmerman. With its AWS infrastructure in place and liberated from monitoring and maintenance, the Blinq team was able to focus on new projects, one of which was the howhot.io website.
Using its AWS resources, Blinq worked with ETH Zurich, which developed the algorithm behind the site. “We had all this data in the Blinq app, and we wanted to make use of it, which is how the idea of howhot.io came about,” says Zimmerman. “We could see great potential in our idea, so we wanted to move quickly. I gave the team two weeks to get howhot.io up and running using AWS. In the end, they did it in one month, which is still very fast.”
Zimmerman’s optimism regarding the firm’s new service proved right. “When we launched howhot.io, it went through the roof,” he says. “In 12 hours we had more than one million unique visitors to the site. And we’ve now had around 15 million unique visitors, and more than 80 million images have been uploaded. Each month, we see around 500,000 new visitors.”
“Because we use AWS Elastic Beanstalk, the launch went perfectly,” Glauser says. “If we found that we needed 10 or more machines, they were there within five minutes. We normally have around two instances running, but during the launch we easily scaled up to nearly 100 Amazon EC2 instances.”
Scalability was imperative for Blinq’s needs, and the scalability and reliability of AWS were in stark contrast to Blinq’s experience with its previous hosting provider. “The people that use these dating apps tend to check them frequently, so when the service is down, even for a minute or two, you get a lot of emails.” Postings on sites such as Reddit, for example, which includes web content ratings and discussions, have a massive impact. “You can be rated top on Reddit, but all your good work can be undone in seconds because of poor availability. We haven’t had any issues with our AWS infrastructure, and we know if something goes wrong, it won’t take us long to fix, so users won’t be affected. This is crucial to the business and our reputation.”
For Blinq, choosing managed services from AWS has been the catalyst for expanding its portfolio. Glauser and his co-engineer were able to focus on development of the howhot.io website rather than spending time managing the environment. “Each service, whether it’s Amazon RDS or Amazon DynamoDB, saves our lean dev team a bit of time—30 minutes here, 10 minutes there,” says Glauser. “By using AWS, we get around 20 percent of our time back each week. If we didn’t use managed services from AWS, we’d have to employ an additional full-time engineer, but in addition to that we wouldn’t have the time to spend on getting new ideas to market.”
Zimmerman points to two key aspects of AWS that have played a big role in Blinq’s success: “First, without the AWS Activate program, we couldn’t have gotten to market so quickly or supported the massive interest in our Blinq app and howhot.io website. And second, the time our team saves by not having to set up processes and monitor the IT infrastructure is all put toward making our customers’ experience better.”
“First, without the AWS Activate program, we couldn’t have gotten to market so quickly or supported the massive interest in our Blinq app and howhot.io website. And second, the time our team saves by not having to set up processes and monitor the IT infrastructure is all put toward making our customers’ experience better.”
Alex Zimmerman, Cofounder and CEO