This is the final part in a 3 part series around choosing a tech stack for your startup:
In part 1, we explored the choices we made and the evolution of FastBar’s client apps
In part 2, we started the exploration of the server side, including our technology choices and philosophy when it came to building out our MVP
In part 3, this post, we’ll wrap-up our discussion of the server side choices and summarize our key lessons learnt.
As a recap, here’s the areas of the system we’re focused on we’re focused on:
And in part 2, we left off discussing self-hosting vs utilizing the cloud. TL;DR - forget about self hosting and leverage the cloud.
Next step - let’s pick a cloud provider…
AWS vs Azure
In 2014, AWS was the undisputed leader in the cloud, but Azure was quickly catching up in capabilities and feature set.
Through the accelerator we got into, 9 Mile Labs, we had access to some free credits with both AWS and Azure.
I decided to go with Azure, in part because they offered more free credits via their Bizpark Plus program than what AWS was offering us, in part because I was more familiar with their technology than that of AWS, in part because I'm generally a fan of Microsoft technology, and in part because I wanted to take advantage of their Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings. Specifically, Azure App Service Web Apps and Azure SQL - AWS didn't have any direct equivalents for those at the time. I could certainly spin up VMs and install my own versions of IIS and SQL on AWS, but that was more work for me, and I had enough things to do.
PaaS vs IaaS
With PaaS offerings, you're trading some flexibility for convenience.
For example, with Web Apps, you don’t deploy your app to a machine or a specific VM - you deploy it to Azure's Web app service, and it deploys it to one or more VMs on your behalf. You don’t remote desktop into the VM to poke around - you use the web-based tools or APIs that Microsoft provides for you. Azure SQL doesn't support all of the features that regular SQL does, but it supports most of them. You don’t have the ability to configure where your database and log files will be placed, Azure manages that for you. In most cases, this is a good thing, as you've got better things to do.
With Web Apps, you can easily setup auto-scaling, like I described in part 2, and Azure will magically create or destroy more VMs according to the rules you setup, and route traffic between them. With SQL Azure, you can do cool things like create read-only replicas and geo-redundant failover databases within minutes:
If there is a PaaS offering of a particular piece of infrastructure that you require on whatever cloud you're using, try it out. You'll be giving up some flexibility, but you'll get a whole lot in return. For most scenarios, it will be totally worth it.
3rd Party Technologies
The first 3rd party technology service we integrated was Stripe - FastBar is a payment system after all, so we needed a way to vault credit cards and do payment processing. At the time Stripe was the gold standard in terms of developer friendly payment APIs, so we went with it and still use it to this day. We've had our fair share of issues with Stripe, but overall it's worked well for us.
Loggly: A Cautionary Tale
Another piece of 3rd party tech we used early on was Loggly. This is essentially “logging as a service” and instead of you having to figure out how to ingest, process and search large volumes of log data, Loggly provides a cloud-based service for you.
We used this for a couple of years and eventually moved off it because we found the performance was not reliable.
We ran into an indecent one time where Loggly, which typically would respond to our requests in 200-300ms, was taking 90-120 seconds to respond (ouch!). Some of our server-side web and API code called Loggly directly as part of the request execution path (a big no-no, that was our bad) and needless to say, when your request thread is tied up waiting for a network call that is going to take 90-120 seconds, everything went to hell.
During the incident, it was tough for us to figure out what was going on, since our logging was impacted. After the incident, we analyzed and eventually tracked down 90-120 second response times from Loggly as the cause. We made changes to our system so that we would never again call Loggly directly as part of a request's execution path, rather we'd log everything "locally" within the Azure environment and have a background process that would push it up to Loggly. This is really what we should have been doing from the beginning. At the same time, Loggly should have been more robust.
This made us immune to any future slowdowns on the Loggly side, but over time we still found that our background process was often having trouble sending data to Loggly. We had an aot-retry mechanism setup so we’d keep retrying to send to Loggly until we succeeded. Eventually this would work, but we found this retry mechanism was bring triggered way too often for our liking. We also found similar issues on our client apps, where we'd have our client apps send logs directly to Loggly in the background to avoid us having to send to our server, then to Loggly. This was more of an issue, since clients operate in constrained bandwidth environments.
Overall, we experienced lots of flakiness with Loggly regardless of if we were communicating with it from the client or server.
In addition, the cheaper tiers of Loggly are quite limited in the amount of data you can send to them. For a large event, we'd quickly hit the data cap, and the rest of our logs would be dropped. This made the Loggly search features (which were awesome by the way, and one of the key things that attracted us to Loggly) pretty much useless for us, since we'd only have a fraction of our data available unless we moved up to a significantly more expensive tier.
We removed Loggly from the equation in favor of Azure's Log Analytics (now renamed to Azure Monitor). It's inside Azure with the rest of our stuff, has awesome query capabilities (on par with Loggly) and it’s much cheaper for us due to its “cloud-based pricing model” that scales based on the amount you use it, as opposed to handful of main pricing buckets with Loggly.
We use Twilio for sending SMS messages. Twilio has worked great for us from the early days, and we don’t have any plans to change it anytime soon.
On a previous project, I got deep into the complexities of image processing: uploading, cropping, resizing and hosting, distributing to a CDN etc…
TL;DR it's something that seems really simple on the surface, but quickly spirals out of control - it’s a hard problem to solve properly.
I learnt my lesson on a previous project, and on FastBar, I did not pass Go and did not collect $200, rather I went straight to Cloudinary. It's a great product, easy to use, and it removes all of our image processing and hosting hassles.
We decided to go with Mailgun since it had a better pricing model for our purposes compared to Sendgrid. But fundamentally, they’re both pretty similar. They help you take care of the complexities of sending reliable email so you don’t have to deal with it.
Building out the Event Control Center
As our client apps and their underlying APIs started to mature, we started turning our development focus to building out the Event Control Center on the server - the place where event organizers and FastBar staff could fully configure all aspects of the event, manage settings, configure products and menus, view reports etc…
This was essentially a traditional web app. We looked at using tech like React or Angular. As we speced out our screens, we realized that our requirements were pretty straightforward. We didn't have lots of pages that needed a rich UI, we didn’t have a need for a Single Page App (SPA), and overall, our pages were pretty simple. We decided to go with a more "traditional" request/response ASP.NET web app, using HTML 5, JS, CSS, Bootstrap, Jquery etc…
The first features we deployed were around basic reporting, followed by the ability to create events, edit settings for the event, view and manage attendee tabs, manage refunds, create and configure products and menu items.
Nowadays, we've added multi user support, tax support, comprehensive reporting and export, direct and bulk SMS capabilities, configuration of promotions (ie discounts), device management, attendee surveys and much more.
The days of managing via SQL Management Studio are well in the past (thankfully!).
Re-building the public facing website
For a long time, the public facing section of the website was a simple 1-pager explanation of FastBar. It was long overdue for a refresh, so in 2018 I set out to rebuild it, improve the visuals, and most importantly, update the content to better reflect what we had to offer customers.
For this, we considered a variety of options, including: custom building an ASP.NET site, Wordpress, Wix, Squarespace etc...
Building a custom ASP.NET website was kind of a hassle. Our pages were simple, but it would be highly beneficial if non-developers could easily edit content, so we really needed a basic CRM. This meant we needed to go for a self-hosted CRM, like Wordpress, or a hosted CRM, like Wordpress.com, Wix or Squarespace.
I had build and deployed enough basic Wordpress sites to know that I didn't want to spend our time, effort and money on self-hosting it. Self-hosting means having to deal with constant updates to the platform and the plugins (Wordpress is a ripe target for hackers, so keeping everything up to date is critical), managing backups and the like.
We were busy enough building features for FastBar system, I didn’t want to allocate precious dev resources to the public facing website when a hosted solution at $12/mo (or thereabouts) would be sufficient.
For Wordpress in general, I found it tough to find a good quality template that matches the visuals I was looking for. To be clear, there are a ton of templates available, I'd say way too many. I found it really hard to hunt through the sea of mediocrity to find something I really liked.
When evaluating the hosted offerings like Squarespace and Wix, my first concern was that as a technology company I was worried potential engineering hires might judge us for using something like that. I don’t know about you, but I'll often F12 or Ctrl-U a website to see what's going on under the hood :) Also, while quick to spin up, hosted offerings like Squarespace lacked what I consider basic features, like version control, so that was a big red flag.
Eventually I determined that the pros and simplicity of a hosted offering outweighed the cons and we went with Squarespace. Within about a week, we had the site re-designed and live - the vast majority of that time was spent on the marketing and messaging, the implementation part was really easy.
Where we're at today
Today, our backend is comprised of 3 main components: the Core Web App and API, our public facing website and 3rd party services that we depend on.
Our core Web App and API is built in ASP.NET and WebAPI and runs on Azure. We leverage Azure App Services, Azure SQL, Azure Storage service (Blob, Table and Queue), Azure Monitor (Application Insights and Log Analytics), Azure Functions, WebJobs, Redis and a few other bits and pieces.
The public facing website runs on Squarespace.
The 3rd party services we utilize are Stripe, Cloudinary, Twilio and Mailgun.
Looking back at our previous lessons learnt from client side development:
Optimize for Productivity
Choose Something Popular
Choose the Simplest Thing That Works
Favor Cross Platform Tech
The first 3 are highly applicable to the server side development. The 4th is more client specific. You could make the argument that it’s valuable server-side as well, it depends on how many server environments you’re planning on deploying to. In most cases, you’re going to pick a stack and stick with it, so it’s less relevant.
Here are some additional lessons we learnt on the server side.
This one applies to both client and server side development. As a startup, it's important to ruthlessly prioritize your development work and tackle the most important items first. How far can you go without building out an admin UI and instead relying on SQL scripts? What's the most important thing that your customers need right now? What is the #1 feature that will help you move the product and business forward?
Prioritization is hard, especially because it's not just about the needs of the customer. You also have to balance the underlying health of the code base, the design and the architecture of the system. You need to be aware of any technical debt you're creating, and you need to be careful not to paint yourself into a corner that you might not be able to get out of later. You need to think about the future, but not get hung up on it too much that you adopt unnecessary work now that never ends up being needed later. Prioritization requires tough tradeoffs.
Prioritization is more art than science and I think it's something that continues to evolve with experience. Prioritize the most important things you need right now, and do your best to balance that with future needs.
Just go Cloud
Whether you're choosing AWS, Azure, Google or something else, just go for the cloud. It's pretty much a given these days, so hopefully you don't have the urge to go to the dark side and buy and host your own servers.
Save yourself the hassle, the time and the money and utilize the cloud. Take advantage of the thousands upon thousands of developers working at Amazon, Microsoft and Google who are working to make your life easier and use the cloud.
Speaking of using the cloud…
Favor PaaS over IaaS
If there is a PaaS solution available that meets you needs, favor it over IaaS. Sure, you'll lose some control, but you'll gain so much in terms of ease of use and advanced capabilities that would be complicated and time consuming for your to build yourself.
It means less work for you, and more time available to dedicate to more important things, so favor PaaS over IasS.
Favor Pre-Built Solutions
Better still, if there is an entire solution available to you that someone else hosts and manages, favor it.
Again, less work for you, and allows you to focus your time, energy and resources on more important problems that will provide value to your customers, so favor pre-built solutions.
In part 1 we discussed client side technology choices we went through when building FastBar, including our thinking around Android vs iOS, which client technology stack to use, how our various apps evolved, where we’re at today, and key lessons learnt.
In part 2 and part 3, this post, we discussed the server side, including choosing a server side stack, building out an MVP, deciding to self-host or utilize the cloud, AWS vs Azure, various other 3rd party technologies we adopted, where we’re at today and more lessons learnt, primarily related to server side development.
Hopefully you can leverage some of these lessons in building your own startup. Good luck, and go change the world!