ScholarPack Runs 10% of the UK's Primary Schools and Gets Huge Traffic

Copied URL with current time.
0:00 / 0:00

In this episode of Running in Production, Gareth Thomas goes over running a platform that helps manage 3.5+ million students. There’s over 1,500 databases and it peaks at 65k requests per second. A legacy Zope server and a series of Flask microservices power it all on AWS Fargate.

ScholarPack been running in production since 2010. This episode is loaded up with all sorts of goodies related to running microservices at scale, handling multi-tenancy databases with PostgreSQL, aggressively using feature flags and so much more.

Topics Include

  • 0:57 – The current stack is a legacy Zope system combined with Flask
  • 1:27 – ScholarPack has been running for 12+ years and Zope was very popular then
  • 2:12 – 10% of the schools in the UK are using ScholarPack, it peaks at 65k reqs / second
  • 2:40 – Their traffic patterns are predictable based on a school’s working hours
  • 3:39 – Feature development during school sessions / architecture upgrades during holidays
  • 4:36 – Zope vs Flask and the main reason they wanted to move to Flask
  • 6:20 – Since Flask is so flexible, you need to be on the ball with setting standards
  • 7:06 – 17-18 folks deal with the infrastructure and development of the project
  • 7:31 – Gareth has a fetish for microservices but it really does fit well for their app
  • 8:00 – Microservices let you split out your responsibilities and independently scale
  • 8:47 – At their scale, downtime can have a serious impact on the kids at school
  • 10:16 – A well maintained skeleton app works wonders for working with microservices
  • 11:15 – A developer’s workflow for starting and working with a microservice
  • 12:10 – Mocking responses for unrelated services helps with the development process
  • 14:32 – Dealing with multi-tenancy across 1,500+ databases using SQLAlchemy binds
  • 16:59 – Splitting the data up with a foreign key and 1 database would be too risky
  • 18:02 – A school’s database gets picked from a sub-domain / unique URL
  • 19:15 – What it’s like running database migrations on 1,500+ databases with PostgreSQL
  • 20:03 – Point in time database backups make running so many migrations less scary
  • 20:52 – Point in time backups are why they are on AWS instead of GCP
  • 22:26 – Most services render Jinja on the server with sprinkles of JavaScript
  • 23:08 – Supporting browsers like IE8 limits what you can do on the front-end
  • 24:58 – IE8 is getting a little crusty, but it’s necessary to support it
  • 26:29 – Redis and CloudFront are the 2 only other services being used in their stack
  • 27:39 – Using signed cookies vs Redis for storing session state
  • 28:56 – What about Celery and background workers? Most things are synchronous
  • 29:41 – Celery could still be used in the future since it has benefits
  • 30:13 – Schools do pay to use this service, but not with a credit card
  • 34:32 – Using checks has an advantage of not needing a billing back-end
  • 36:04 – Cost and scaling requirements of their old platform lead them to AWS Fargate
  • 37:34 – GCP was looked into initially but the lack of point in time backups killed that idea
  • 38:07 – The added complexity of going multi-cloud wasn’t worth it and RDS won
  • 38:50 – Managed Kubernetes is not that great on AWS (especially not in 2017)
  • 39:03 – ECS was also not going to work out due to their scaling requirements
  • 39:20 – Fargate allows them to focus on scaling containers, not compute resources
  • 40:21 – The TL;DR on what AWS Fargate allows you to do and not have to worry about
  • 42:25 – Their microservices set up fits well with the Fargate style of scaling
  • 43:11 – You still need to allocate memory and CPU constraints on your containers
  • 44:40 – Everything runs in the AWS UK region across its multiple availability zones
  • 45:10 – AWS initially limits you to 50 Fargate containers but you can easily raise that cap
  • 46:06 – Setting a cap on the number of containers Fargate will ever spawn
  • 46:30 – Pre-warming things to prepare for the massive traffic spike at 9am
  • 47:25 – It’s fun to watch the traffic spikes on various dashboards
  • 48:05 – Number of requests per host is their primary way to measure scaling requirements
  • 48:32 – DataDog plays a big role in monitoring and reporting
  • 49:08 – But CloudWatch is used too and DataDog alerts get sent to Slack
  • 49:28 – Jira is used for error logging and ticket management
  • 49:44 – 100s of errors occur a day in the legacy Zope system, but they are not serious
  • 50:32 – It’s very rare to have a system level error where things are crashing
  • 50:45 – The longest down time in the last 3.5 years has been 35 minutes
  • 51:10 – All of the metrics to help detect errors have a strong purpose
  • 52:16 – Walking through a deployment from development to production
  • 52:29 – The Zope deployment experience has been a dream come true
  • 54:02 – The Flask deployment has more steps but it’s still very automated
  • 55:59 – Dealing with the challenges of doing a rolling restart
  • 57:12 – Complex database changes are done after hours with a bit of down time
  • 57:41 – That’s a great time to do a Friday evening deploy!
  • 57:56 – Most new additions are behind a feature toggle at the Flask level
  • 58:35 – Feature flags can be tricky but a good mindset helps get everyone on board
  • 1:00:08 – A company policy combined with experience dictates best practices
  • 1:00:43 – Switching from Flask-RESTPlus to Connexion
  • 1:01:03 – What is Connexion and how does it compare to other API libraries?
  • 1:03:07 – It only took a few days to get a real API service running with Connexion
  • 1:04:04 – Everything is in git, it’s all deterministic and they use Pipenv with lock files
  • 1:04:57 – The Zope structure is in a RAID file system and has daily backups
  • 1:05:27 – Extensive user auditing is done at the database level (everything is logged)
  • 1:07:06 – The audit tables get a huge amount of writes
  • 1:07:38 – (10) t3.2xlarge (8 CPU cores / 32 GB of memory) instances power the RDS database
  • 1:08:07 – How much does it all cost on AWS? Too much!
  • 1:08:49 – The cloud is nice but you need to really keep tabs on your bills
  • 1:09:54 – Gareth spends 2 days a month reviewing the AWS bills
  • 1:10:16 – RDS will automatically restart stopped instances after 7 days
  • 1:11:18 – Best tips? Look at what you have, what you want to do and how to get there
  • 1:12:36 – A microservice should be broken up by its scope / domain, not lines of code
  • 1:13:24 – There is no “wrong”, there is only the thing that works
  • 1:13:50 – One mistake they did early on was try to be too perfect which delayed shipping
  • 1:15:34 – Gareth is on Twitter @thestub and his personal site is at
📄 References
⚙️ Tech Stack
🛠 Libraries Used

Support the Show

This episode does not have a sponsor and this podcast is a labor of love. If you want to support the show, the best way to do it is to purchase one of my courses or suggest one to a friend.

  • Dive into Docker is a video course that takes you from not knowing what Docker is to being able to confidently use Docker and Docker Compose for your own apps. Long gone are the days of "but it works on my machine!". A bunch of follow along labs are included.
  • Build a SAAS App with Flask is a video course where we build a real world SAAS app that accepts payments, has a custom admin, includes high test coverage and goes over how to implement and apply 50+ common web app features. There's over 20+ hours of video.


Dec 23, 2019

✏️ Edit on GitHub