Head in the Cloud
Siddharth Anand '97 MSE, M.Eng. '02 CS helps build Netflix's video infrastructure in the cloud.
By Michael Gillis
Siddharth Anand of the Netflix Cloud Systems Team
It's 2008 and Netflix is six years into a movie rental model that is transforming the industry, attracting millions of customers and approaching a billion dollars in revenue. For a business generating that kind of revenue, it's a comparatively small company, employing only a few hundred people.
In less than a year, that will change dramatically.
But as 2008 begins, consumers are logging on to Netflix as they have since DVD subscription plans began in 1999, loading up a virtual queue of DVD movies that will be shipped in the order they appear on the Web interface. Once a movie is returned to Netflix by mail, the next movie is shipped. It's a system that has turned the video rental business on its head and lured consumers in droves, and by 2008, it's fairly predictable.
"Under our old model, people primarily visited our site on Sunday and Monday nights to refresh their queues, either adding new movies or altering the queue order," says Siddharth "Sid" Anand '97 MSE, M.Eng. '02 CS of Netflix. "The movies would usually arrive a day later, in time for the following weekend. The weekends were when families would sit together to watch their new DVDs."
As a result, the site's traffic was seldom a burden.
"We only had to handle Internet traffic peaks on Sundays and Mondays," Anand says.
The movie service was already wildly popular and its revenue rising fast.
But as 2008 draws to a close, Netflix is about change the game again.
Breaking the digital divide
Near the end of 2008, Netflix announced a deal with the cable TV network Starz that would make available more than 2,500 movies to watch instantly. Consumers could now select a movie to watch instantly, if available, on a PC or laptop, on demand. The "watch instantly" feature caught fire.
But online streaming also forced Netflix to change the way it managed its servers and data. Anand, who is a member of the Netflix cloud systems team, was tapped to help with that transition.
Several changes would occur between 2008 and 2010 that would not only redefine how Netflix served up its movies but also how consumers accessed them.
In an aggressive blitz to promote and expedite this digital transition, Netflix hired hundreds more engineers and began to strike deals with a host of electronics vendors to allow devices of all shapes and sizes to stream Netflix movies.
"We've tried to be on every consumer electronic device, whether at home or in your pocket," Anand says.
Netflix is now available on game consoles, Blu-ray, and DVD players, mobile devices and dedicated media devices. Many handle high-definition streaming and 5.1-channel stereo surround audio.
With recent announcements about additional online content—thousands of titles are now available to watch instantly—Netflix is still growing. The company now boasts 25.6 million subscribers in the United States and Canada, and it is pushing into the global marketplace with plans to expand to 43 countries in Latin America this year.
That growth isn't without its challenges.
"Now people are constantly watching movies, even late into the night, all over the U.S.," Anand says. "As we go international, we're going to have to deal with the fact that we're on all the time."
Climbing onto the cloud
The popularity of streaming content called for significant changes to the company's server and data infrastructure.
In 2008, Netflix operated its Web site from a single data center, which Anand says was a "single point of failure." If the data center suffered a serious power outage or loss of broadband, customers would not be able to update their queues and streaming content would go black.
Anand says Netflix began its ambitious plan for improvement in 2009 by expanding to more devices, growing internationally, as the company has done in Canada, and moving much of its data and server infrastructure to the cloud. Cloud-based storage uses network servers in multiple locations to store and retrieve data, diminishing the possibility of losing important information or data in a crash.
At that time, the major player in the cloud was Amazon, specifically Amazon Web Services (AWS). Anand's team began what he called the "pathfinding" work to integrate Netflix's needs with the strengths of AWS.
To get there, Anand says Netflix had to migrate away from its relational database management system—Oracle—to NoSQL, a revolution in database technology that often trades diminished guarantees around consistency for increased guarantees in availability. For a high-traffic, always-on Web site like Netflix's, theincreased availability is a necessity.
"By December 2010, we were serving more than 90 percent of our traffic out of AWS' cloud," Anand says.
Anand says that Netflix became something of a "poster child" for AWS, partly because of the complexity, but also because of the scale.
Now, when a customer clicks "play" to begin a movie on Netflix, Netflix servers on AWS authenticate the customer and device, and then send the movie from one of several content distribution networks across the country.
As Netflix continues to see significant growth in this area, the company continues to expand its rapidly growing stable of professionals.
The journey to the cloud begins
Anand says his gravitation toward the cloud began later in his career.
His focus at Cornell had been semiconductors. Following graduation, he went to work for Motorola in Arizona. There he worked in research, helping to develop devices for spacecraft based on silicon carbide.
But he also found himself dabbling in software engineering, which he enjoyed so much he decided to return to Cornell to pursue a Master of Engineering. His M.Eng. project focused on distributed systems that move data over multiple machines, giving him a strong background for his work at Netflix.
Anand soon joined Siebel Systems as part of their platform optimization team. He analyzed code performance of the Siebel server on various enterprise platforms. He then worked at eBay for multiple teams, including the research labs and the back-end search engine team. It was at eBay that he began working on problems of Web scale, managing millions of auctions per day across the world. Before joining Netflix in 2007, he was Etsy's first VP of Engineering.
His short stint at Etsy was in large part due to the fact that many of his former eBay colleagues were heading to Netflix, a young company on the verge of scale issues. He decided to find out what all the excitement was about.
The star of the show: Corporate culture
Anand says when he started at Netflix, there were about 150 engineers with the company. That number has more than doubled and is still growing.
The company's success certainly has a lot to do with its business model, he knows, but Anand says that success is also the direct result of the company's internal culture, which isn't as widely known.
"It has been the best place I have ever worked," he says. "It has this very unique culture that no other company has."
All new employees meet with CEO Reed Hastings within a few weeks of being hired to hear him explain the Netflix culture.
What is the Netflix culture? "The culture is based on two values: freedom and responsibility," Anand says.
What that means, he explained, is that each employee plays a large role in the success of the company. This is because the culture tends to push decision-making down to the employees.
"In many teams like mine, without marketing direction, we must decide what to work on," Anand says. "We have to be leaders. In general, the responsibility of each employee is to move the company in a positive direction. The feeling of playing a critical role permeates the environment."
The company accomplishes that by eschewing titles for most of its employees. Engineers are engineers, for example, and in the eyes of the company all are equal.
In fact, employees aren't really employees, but "contributors."
"When we hire people into an individual contributor position, they need to be equal with the rest of us," Anand says.
The company provides no vacation time and no bonuses. Instead, employees are allowed to take vacation time as often as needed, on their own schedule. Employees can work at home, if need be. The pay scale is intended to be generous enough that bonuses—and the internal politics of coveting them—are unnecessary.
Anand says this culture works remarkably well. Managers, whose time is a bit more structured, review employees based on the principles of this culture, which are summed up as courage, impact, communication, and curiosity.
The culture does thrive on experience. That means the company is quite selective on who is hired, despite the growing workforce.
"We tend to avoid hiring people directly out of college," Anand says. "Potential hires typically have 10 or more years of experience and that experience needs to be top notch. They must show a history of challenging themselves over those 10 plus years."
And the company's goals are no less direct, underlining the company's focus on the future and its commitment to hiring the right people.
"We want to change the world," Anand says. "You don't achieve that by sitting in endless meetings. Reaching consensus is not the most important thing. It's all about taking a stand, making it work, showing it working. If it doesn't work you learn from your mistakes."