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Australian crowdsourcing platform turns to cloud storage to fuel growth

Airtasker is using Amazon Web Services to ramp up its storage capabilities to meet the needs of an expanding user base

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When Airtasker hit the magic hockey stick growth spurt it had always wanted, the Australian crowdsourcing service provider realised it needed to change its storage strategy.

When it was first launched in 2012, Airtasker easily attracted 45,000 users and had put through A$1m (US$760,000) worth of jobs in four years. Today, the platform boasts some 950,000 users.

“We have been growing really fast over the past 18 months,” said Paul Keen, chief technology officer at Airtasker, which has an annualised revenue run rate of A$85m for the 2017 calendar year. “Eighteen months ago, that would have been close to A$15m.”

Much of Airtasker’s success may be attributed to its emphasis on building trust between job posters and workers who bid for 65,000 jobs each month, from transcribing videos to cleaning bedrooms.

Through the platform, workers will quote for jobs, while job posters award jobs based on the quotes and the workers’ task history, profile and reputation rating. Airtasker takes a 15% cut of the payment for completed jobs.

“What we find now is that people assign and bid for tasks based on reputation – we have 400,000 reviews on our site,” said Keen. "When you have plenty of reviews to go by, you're likely to choose the person who’s not necessarily the cheapest, but the best at a job.”

Keen joined Airtasker a year ago when the company was climbing through its hockey stick growth curve. He had to make sure the company’s technology enabled rather than impeded growth.

Then, Airtasker was using four production servers in a managed environment. “They were about as powerful as a Macbook Pro,” he said. “It was a pretty basic scenario. We had a managed NAS (network attached storage), but we had no idea what it was really doing or when it would run out of storage.”

Keen had already seen the problems that a shared NAS system could bring from his experience at his previous company. “When that NAS went down, the whole site went down and there’s nothing you could do,” he said. “You’ve got to wait several hours for the environment to come back up.”

‘Snappy elasticity’ of the cloud

To avoid similar issues, and the onerous task of managing a NAS system, Airtasker decided to move to Amazon Web Services (AWS), where infrastructure management would be taken care of. “I don’t know why you would want to manage storage nowadays when there are enough providers out there that can do it for you,” said Keen.

Keen liked the fact that cloud service providers such as AWS offer “snappy elasticity” that ensures Airtasker’s storage capacity scales up as the business grows.

“Recently, we had to go from half a gigabyte of database storage to two terabytes,” he said. “It took just two clicks of a button for that to happen – with zero downtime. Half an hour later, my entire storage environment was moved to the new environment.”

The initial move to AWS, however, took more than two months, as Airtasker implemented an “immutable infrastructure” strategy, where IT components are replaced rather than changed when managing services and deploying software.

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Immutable infrastructure is an approach that is only possible with cloud platforms, which have the automation capabilities required to build and deploy components. Airtasker worked with Rackspace on the deployment scripts.

“Instead of upgrading our storage environment, we build a separate environment next to it, do some testing and switch users over. Once we are comfortable with the new environment, we destroy the old one,” said Keen.

By building from scratch, Keen said he is now able to grow the company’s storage capacity in an elastic manner, given that he knows exactly what is going on in the deployment script.

The best part is that this approach is invisible to Airtasker’s developers, who need to work fast and focus on customer needs instead of firefighting. “There’s no value in building storage environments, which should just be there for customers,” said Keen.

Keen concedes there is supplier lock-in with using AWS, but it doesn’t bother him. “This is my third AWS migration and I have come to the conclusion that if you want to get the best out of these public clouds, there’s a whole degree of supplier lock-in,” he said.

Outside of IT, Airtasker’s employees use Google Drive and Dropbox for cloud storage. “We like that there’s a lot of security around those services, and it’s the providers’ responsibility to ensure governance. We also store all the logs, but that’s more for audit purposes,” he added.

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