January 28, 2014
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Rare things become common at scale

Software cannot scale through architecture and automation alone. New, more difficult problems appear that didn’t exist before, also bringing new downstream consequences.

Something interesting happens when you run more than 1,000 servers, as we do at WP Engine1, powering hundreds of thousands of websites.

1 Editor’s Note: In 2023, this article is nine years old, we run more than ten times as many servers, and the lesson of this article continues to be accurate.

Suppose I told you that on average our servers experience one fatal failure every three years. The kernel panics (the Linux equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death), or both the main and redundant power supply fails, or some other rare event that causes outage. Does that sound like poor quality?

Think about the laptops and desktops you’ve owned. Some last longer than others, but it’s probably something like 2-4 years before the OS locks up or a battery can’t hold a charge anymore. Now consider your laptop is idle the vast majority of the time, whereas our servers are getting pounded multiple times per second, 24/7. Even in the wee hours of American timezones when our pan-company traffic dips to its nadir, we’re running malware scanners, off-site backups, and other maintenance.

So, even if our servers are more hardy than your MacBook Pro, they’re taking 100x the beating, so one failure every three years seems pretty reasonable.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

—Haiku from FSF

But remember, we have 1,000 servers. Three years is about 1,000 days. So that means, on average, every single day we have a fatal server error.

Not to mention 10 minor incidents with degraded performance, or a DDoS attack somewhere in the data center affecting our network traffic, or some other thing that sets pagers a-buzzing in our DevOps team and mobilizes our Customer Support team to notify and help customers.

“Well sure,” you say, “that’s normal as you grow. If you had just 10 servers and 100 customers, you’d have much fewer problems and many fewer employees. Today you have more customers, more servers, and more employees. What’s so hard about that?”

The insight is that that scale causes rare events to become common. Things happen with 2000 servers that you never once saw with 50 servers, and things which used to happen once in a blue moon, where a shrug and a manual reboot every six months was in fact an appropriate “process,” now happen every week, or even every day.

Things as rare as, well, you know…

It’s not only problems that morph with scale, but your ability to handle problems.

For example, a dozen minor and major events every day means 20-50 customers affected every day. Now consider what happens as we try to inform 50 customers. For some we won’t have current email addresses, so they don’t get notified. Some of those will notice the problem and create extra customer support load at minimum, but at worst they’ll post on Twitter about how their website was slow or offline today and WP Engine “didn’t even know it.” Then our social media team has to piece all this together, attempt to respond, maybe put together a special phone call with that customer, and so on. Those customers are also more likely to leave a bad review on some review site, compared with the 99.99% of customers who experience no such incident, but also had no reason to decide that “today is the day I leave a good review.”

Or consider the scale-ramifications of on-boarding 1,000 new customers a month. In that case, it’s likely that any given server issue will affect a customer who has only been with us for a month or two. Thus the issue causes a “bad first impression,” which is harder to address than a customer who has been with us for three years and therefore has built up a bank account of patience.

So, rare things being common isn’t just difficult from the operational side, but also when you try to handle those problems with customers or other downstream consequences, causing much more work to solve than when the company was small.

The usual response to this is “automate everything.”

As with most knee-jerk responses, there’s truth in it, but it’s not the whole story.

Sure, without automated monitoring we’d be blind, and without automated problem-solving we’d be overwhelmed. So yes, “automate everything.”

But some things you can’t automate. You can’t “automate” a knowledgable, friendly customer support team. You can’t “automate” responding to a complaint on social media. You can’t “automate” the recruiting, training, rapport, culture, and downright caring of teams of human beings who are awake 24/7/365, with skills ranging from multi-tasking on support chat to communicating clearly and professionally over the phone to logging into servers and identifying and fixing issues as fast as (humanly?) possible.

And you can’t “automate” away the rare things, even the technical ones. By their nature they’re difficult to define, hence difficult to monitor, and difficult to repair without the forensic skills of a human engineer.

Does this mean all our customers have a worse experience? No, just the opposite. Any one customer of ours has fewer problems per year now than a year ago, because we’re constantly improving our processes, automation, hardware, and human service. It’s when you look across the entire company, and the non-linear additional effort it takes to not just improve the average experience, but to manage the worst-case experience, that you appreciate the difficulties.

Does that give high-scale companies like WP Engine an excuse to have problems? No way! In fact, if we’re not constantly improving on all fronts, the scale itself will catch up and overtake us, so we have to adhere to the laws of automation and diligence even more than smaller, slow-growing ones.

But for those of you in the earlier stages of your companies, when you project 5x growth coupled to just 5x the costs (or only 3x the costs because you’ll get cost-savings at scale), you’re guessing low. When you show 5x growth in projections but don’t budget for new hires in areas like security, technical automation, specialized customer service areas, and managers and executives who have trod this path before and come battle-hardened with play-books on how to tackle all this, you’re heading for an ugly surprise.

And with high growth, the surprise appears quickly, and recovery means acting twice as fast again to claw back ahead of the effect.

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