Based in Copenhagen, MovieStarPlanet develops and runs interactive social networks aimed at tweens—young people between the ages of 8 and 15. It has 10 million monthly active users and more than 250 million registered users, with about 150,000 online at peak times. Most of them are based in Europe, although about 20 percent are in the U.S. and there’s a small presence in Australia and New Zealand. The games emphasize creativity, with players making characters and sharing the content they have created. Peer Jakobsen, CTO at MovieStarPlanet, says, “The MovieStarPlanet mission is to deliver a compelling online and interactive social network and entertainment universe for children all over the world. We do this through a combination of continuous product innovation and improvements, marketing strategies, strong partnerships and user involvement.”
MovieStarPlanet was facing a problem familiar to many AWS customers: scalability. There would be daily usage spikes as users woke up, and then a quiet period during the school day, followed by a massive spike about 4 pm. Similarly, usage would also increase around Christmas as children got new devices. In addition, the number of users in general was steadily increasing. The MovieStarPlanet infrastructure was hosted in a local data center and any addition or changes to hardware had to be approved, purchased, installed, and provisioned. This could sometimes take weeks.
Around Christmas 2013, MovieStarPlanet ran television advertising which was so successful that the company had trouble provisioning infrastructure fast enough to support the influx of new users. It looked at the cloud as a scalable solution that would help it avoid a repeat of this scenario.
Why Amazon Web Services
Because MovieStarPlanet had purchased some software licenses through the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Marketplace, it was familiar with the company and thought AWS offered the most mature cloud infrastructure on the market. Jakobsen says, “We hoped to be able to scale automatically according to traffic, make it easier to upgrade servers, and protect ourselves against hardware failures.”
Today MovieStarPlanet is running all web services in AWS. For example, as part of its architecture, it automatically distributes traffic across multiple Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances within an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) using Elastic Load Balancing. Storage is provided by Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) fronted by Amazon Cloudfront for secure, global distribution of content. This architecture is used to store user-generated content or, for instance, for picture moderation. Jakobsen says, “We have billions of files generated by users, running into terabytes of data. In one sprint, we were able to migrate our user-generated content from a complex setup on file servers to an Amazon S3-based architecture.” MovieStarPlanet also makes heavy use of Amazon DynamoDB, a fully managed NoSQL database service for its fast, flexible scalability.
By using Auto Scaling with its Amazon EC2 web instances, the company has achieved its main aim of being able to scale its environment according to demand around daily and seasonal peaks. Since moving to AWS, MovieStarPlanet has been able to accommodate a 30 percent increase in its user base, and because of new features it has added, each user is much more active than before. At the same time, it has managed to reduce the cost of running its infrastructure by 20 percent.
The automated administration features in AWS also got rid of some headaches. “Before, the guys on pager duty would have maybe five calls a week. Now it’s more like one every two weeks,” says Jakobsen. “My team is very happy. They don’t have to get up in the middle of the night and it’s removed a lot of stress.” By using AWS CloudFormation, MovieStarPlanet can guarantee that a developer who’s setting up an environment has a template, ensuring consistency across builds. “We see many fewer errors in environments and nobody’s tediously having to set up the same thing 10 times,” says Jakobsen.
As an unexpected benefit, it has also created a more agile environment for its developers, one where they can afford to be more adventurous. Jakobsen says, “Because it’s so easy to create environments in AWS, there’s no longer a barrier to us trying things out. It means we can come up with new, innovative ways of solving problems. For example, last week we were looking for a way to display a leaderboard that wouldn’t work with our old database. We saw that other games were getting around it by using a Redis caching server. AWS offers this in Amazon ElastiCache, which took us five minutes to set up. Half a day later, a programmer had solved the problem. We have no experts in running Redis servers but we know that Amazon does. If we were still operating like we were two years ago, we simply couldn’t have acted that quickly, and we wouldn’t have solved our problem at all.”
MovieStarPlanet doesn’t plan to sit back and consider its move to AWS a finished project. “We’d like to get our DevOps people more confident with AWS,” says Jakobsen. “We also think that our relationship with AWS will encourage forward-thinking people to want to come and work for us.”
“Because it’s so easy to create environments in AWS, there’s no longer a barrier to us trying things out. It means we can come up with new, innovative ways of solving problems.”
Peer Jakobsen, CTO