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Netflix is a company that has grown at an incredible pace. In July 2017 it reached 100 million subscribers around the world – for a company that started life as a DVD subscription service, Netflix has proved to be adaptable, constantly one step ahead of changes in the market and changes in user behaviour. It’s an organization that has been able to scale, while maintaining a strong focus on user experience. This flexibility and adaptability has been driven – or enabled by its approach to software. But what software does Netflix use, exactly? How and why has it made decisions about its software stack?

Netflix’s front end development tools

User experience is critical for Netflix. That’s why React is such a valuable framework for the engineering team. The team moved to React in 2014 as a means to completely overhaul their UI – essentially to make it fit for purpose for the future. As they outline in this piece from January 2015, their core considerations were startup speed, runtime performance and modularity. Or to summarize, to manage scale in terms of users, content, and devices.

The piece goes on to explain why React fit the bill. It mentions how important isomorphic JavaScript is to the way they work:

React enabled us to build JavaScript UI code that can be executed in both server (e.g. Node.js) and client contexts. To improve our start up times, we built a hybrid application where the initial markup is rendered server-side and the resulting UI elements are subsequently manipulated as done in a single-page application.

How Netflix manages microservices at scale

A lot has been written about Netflix and microservices (we recommend this blog post as a good overview of how microservices have been used by Netflix over the last decade). A big challenge for a platform that has grown like Netflix has is managing those microservices. To do this, the team built their own tool – called Netflix Conductor. “In a microservices world, a lot of business process automations are driven by orchestrating across services. Conductor enables orchestration across services while providing control and visibility into their interactions.”

To get microservices to interact with one another, the team write Shell/Python scripts – however this ran into issues, largely due to scale. To combat this, the engineers developed a tool called Scriptflask.Scriptflask ‘exposes the functionality of utilities as REST endpoints.’ This was developed using Flask (hence the name Scriptflask) – which offered good interoperability with Python, a language used across a wide range of Netflix applications.

The team also use Node.js with Docker to manage services – it’s well worth watching this video from Node.JS Interactive in December 2016 where Yunong Xiao, Principal Software Engineer at Netflix talks ‘slaying monoliths’.

Netflix and AWS migration

Just as we saw with Airbnb, AWS has proven crucial to Netflix success. In fact for the last few years, it has been undergoing a huge migration project to move the bulk of its architecture into AWS. This migration was finally complete at the start of 2016. “We chose Amazon Web Services (AWS) as our cloud provider because it provided us with the greatest scale and the broadest set of services and features,” writes Yuri Izrailevsky, VP of cloud and platform engineering at Netflix.

Netflix and big data

The move to AWS has, of course, been driven by data related challenges. In fact, the team use Amazon S3 as their data warehouse. The scale of data is stunning – it’s been said that the data warehouse is 60 petabytes.

This post from InfoQ elaborates on the Netflix big data infrastructure.

How Netflix does DevOps

For a company that has proven itself so adaptable at a macro level, it’s unsurprising that the way the engineering teams at Netflix build code is incredibly flexible and agile too. It’s worth quoting this from the team – it says a lot about the culture:

The Netflix culture of freedom and responsibility empowers engineers to craft solutions using whatever tools they feel are best suited to the task. In our experience, for a tool to be widely accepted, it must be compelling, add tremendous value, and reduce the overall cognitive load for the majority of Netflix engineers.

Clearly the toolchain that supports development teams is open ended – it’s constantly subject to revision and change. But we wanted to flag some of the key tools that helps keep the culture running. First, there is gradle – the team write that “Gradle was chosen because it was easy to write testable plugins, while reducing the size of a project’s build file.” It also makes sense in that Java makes up such a large proportion of the Netflix codebase too. To provide additional support, the team also developed something called Nebula – “an opinionated set of plugins for the Gradle build system, to help with the heavy lifting around building applications”.

When it comes to integration, Jenkins is essential for Netflix. “We started with a single massive Jenkins master in our datacenter and have evolved to running 25 Jenkins masters in AWS”.

This is just a snapshot of the tools used by the team to build and deploy code – for a much deeper exploration we recommend this post on Medium.

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


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