4 min read

Airbnb is one of the most disruptive organizations of the last decade. Since its inception in 2008, the company has developed a platform that allows people to ‘belong anywhere’ (to quote their own mission statement). In doing so, the very nature of tourism has changed. But what software does Airbnb use? What tools are enabling their level of innovation?

How Airbnb develops a dynamic front end

Let’s start with  the key challenge for Airbnb. Like many similar platforms, one of the central difficulties handling data in a way that’s incredibly dynamic. That means you need to ensure your JavaScript is working hard for you without taking too much strain. That’s where a reactive approach comes in. As an asynchronous paradigm, it’s able to manage how data moves from source to the components that react to it. But the paradigm can only do so much. By using ReactJS, Airbnb have a library that is capable of giving you the necessary dynamism in your UI.

The Airbnb team have written a lot on their love for ReactJS, making it their canonical front end framework in 2015. But they’ve also built a large number of other tools around React to make life easier for their engineers. In this post, for example, the team discuss React Sketch.app which ‘allows you to write React components that render to Sketch documents.’

Elsewhere, Ruby also forms an important part of the development stack. However, as with React, the team are committed to innovating with the tools at their disposal. In this post, they discuss how the built a ‘blazing fast thrift bindings for Ruby with C extensions.’

How Airbnb manages data

If managing data on the front end has been a crucial part of their software consideration, what about the tools that actually manage and store data? The company use MySQL to manage core business data; this hasn’t been without challenges – not least because of scalability. However, the team have found ways of making MySQL work to their advantage. Redis is also worth a mention here – read here how Airbnb use Redis to monitor customer issues at scale.

But Airbnb have always been a big data company at heart – that’s why Hadoop is so important to their data infrastructure. A number of years ago, Airbnb ran Hadoop on Mesos which allows you to deploy a single configuration on different servers; this worked for a while, but owing to a number of challenges, (which you can read about here) the team moved away from Mesos, running a more straightforward Hadoop infrastructure.

Spark is also an important tool for Airbnb. The team actually built something called Airstream, which is a computational framework that sits on top of Spark Streaming and Spark SQL, allowing engineers and the data team to get quick insights. Ultimately, for an organization that depends on predictions and machine learning, something like Spark – alongside other open source machine learning libraries – is crucial in the Airbnb stack.

Cloud – how Airbnb takes advantage of AWS

If you take a close look at how they work, the Airbnb team have a true hacker mentality, where it’s about playing, building, creating new tools to tackle new challenges. This has arguably been enabled by the way they use AWS. It’s perhaps no coincidence that around the time Airbnb was picking up speed and establishing itself that the Amazon cloud offering was reaching maturity. Airbnb adopted a number of AWS services such as S3 and EC2 early on.

But the reason Airbnb have stuck with AWS comes down to cultural fit. “For us, an investment in AWS is really about making sure our engineers are focused on the things that are uniquely core to our business. Everything that we do in engineering is ultimately about creating great matches between people,” Kevin Rice, Director of Engineering has said.

How Airbnb creates a DevOps culture

But there’s more to it than AWS; there’s a real DevOps culture inside Airbnb that further facilitates a mixture of agility and creativity. The tools used for DevOps are an interesting mix – some of which are unsurprising – like GitHub, and Nginx (which powers some of the busiest sites on the planet), but some slightly more surprising features, such as Kibana, which is used by the company to monitor data alongside Elasticsearch.

When it comes to developing and provisioning environments, Airbnb use Vagrant and Chef. It’s easy to see the benefits here – it makes setting up and configuring environments incredibly easy and fast. And if you’re going to live by the principles of DevOps, this is essential – it’s the foundation of everything you do.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.


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