Shipping the Second System

In 2015-2016, the Parse.ly team embarked upon the task of re-envisioning its entire backend technology stack. The goal was to build upon the learnings of more than 2 years delivering real-time web content analytics, and use that knowledge to create the foundation for a scalable stream processing system that had built-in support for fault tolerance, data consistency, and query flexibility. Today in 2019, we’ve been running this new system successfully in production for over 2 years. Here’s what we learned about designing, building, shipping, and scaling the mythical “second system”.

The Second System Effect

But why re-design our existing system? This question lingered in our minds a few years back. After all, the first system was successful. And I had the lessons of Frederick Brooks accessible and nearby when I embarked on this project. He wrote in The Mythical Man-Month:

Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

This second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs.

When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular and not generalizable.

The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one. The result, as Ovid says, is a “big pile.”

Were we suffering from engineering hubris to redesign a working system? Perhaps. But we may have been suffering from something else altogether healthy — the paranoia of a high-growth software startup.

I discuss Parse.ly’s log-oriented architecture at Facebook’s HQ for PyData Silicon Valley, with Parse.ly’s VP of Engineering, Keith Bourgoin.

Our product had only just been commercialized. We were a team small enough to be nimble, but large enough to be dangerous. Yes, there were only a handful of engineers. But we were operating at the scale of billions of analytics events per day, on-track to serve hundreds of enterprise customers who required low-latency analytics over terabytes of production data. We knew that scale was not just a “temporary problem”. It was going to be the problem. It was going to be relentless.

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