Migrating GOV.UK to new infrastructure

On Tuesday night, we moved GOV.UK from one set of servers to another - with any luck, nobody noticed.

Much of what we do at GDS is designed to be noticed in some way, usually because we are trying to change something for the better. However my definition of 'success' for a migration of a reasonably complex website involving 160+ virtual machines from one place to another is that the public could continue to use GOV.UK during the migration and the disruption to content creators within government was minimised - in effect, nobody would notice.

We migrated:

  • 100,000 items of content (webpages)
  • 250GB of attachments (downloads from webpages)
  • 20+ databases (ranging from 6MB to 6GB in size)

The noticeable effects were:

  • for ordinary users: Applying for a Licence was disabled for 2.5 hours (between 6.00pm and 8.30pm)
  • for government users: Content could not be published for 90 minutes (between 6.00pm and 7.30pm) without manual intervention by the migration team (available by phone in emergencies)

That's not to say there weren't some minor issues (which will be covered in more detail below), but the vast majority of GOV.UK was functioning to the general public for the entire duration of the migration.

Planning and Communicating the Move

My first rule of planning is:

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy - Helmuth von Moltke

Given that it would take a disproportional amount of work to create a comprehensive plan that would cover every possible eventuality of a fast moving environment like ours, we decided to:

  • do enough planning to describe what should be done, to provide a checklist when actually doing the migration
  • do enough planning to assess the likely risks, so that we can mitigate as many as possible
  • defer some decision-making to the staff involved during the migration, where it makes sense to do so

Rather than re-describe the plan in detail, we've simply published it, however we've replaced a small number of fine details such as IP addresses and domain names with examples. The broad steps taken on the evening of migration are covered in the sections below, so you don't need to read the entire plan to follow along.

Preparation of Environments

Our migration strategy was to create a replica of our Production and Staging environments and copy the important data across, discarding the old environments at a later stage. Provisioning  on VMware vCloud has improved massively since we launched GOV.UK in October 2012 and that includes some work our colleagues have done to create tooling which we were able to take advantage of to create the virtual machines we needed.

The GOV.UK Infrastructure Team was in heavy demand during the earlier part of the year, so in order to do this work (and take advantage of their experience), we contracted with Cloudreach (an SME specialising in Cloud Infrastructure) via G-Cloud, to help us with creating the initial copy of our production virtual machines. We then built a replica of our staging virtual machines using the documentation and lessons learnt by Cloudreach.

Once we had created the virtual machines, we altered our deployment process so that each time an application was deployed to the live servers, the same code would be deployed to the new servers. We also created automated jobs which could copy data from old to new and ran them nightly. This ensured that the code and data deployed on the new platform was equivalent to the existing systems.

In order to test that the new platform was working correctly, we ran our existing smoke tests continuously against the new environment and worked through any errors until they passed. We also used Gor (as described by my colleague Dan Carley in Putting the Router through its paces) to copy live traffic to the new platform and ensure that no additional errors were seen.

This preparation meant that when we actually performed the migration, we were doing so to a comprehensively tested platform and we were copying data with scripts we were already using regularly, minimising the potential for errors.

Moving the site (and some issues we experienced)

The move was planned for 6.00pm on a Tuesday. The reason being that historically, publishing activity is quite low at that time. This would also allow time for a full migration AND a full rollback by 9.00am the next day and mean that we didn't plan to have any of our limited staff working overnight.

Our migration involved:

  1. Blocking traffic to writeable parts of the site
  2. Syncing the data using our nightly sync scripts
  3. Switching services to the new infrastructure (via DNS)
  4. Testing the sites manually and with automated tests
  5. Opened the site up for publishing

What went wrong

At one point, a couple of minutes after we transferred live traffic, the traffic completely stopped between our Content Delivery Network (CDN) and the new virtual machines. It was due to a slight health check configuration issue, which meant that our CDN had marked our working machines as having failed. Having staff available who knew how that interaction worked, plus having early warning of the traffic flow, really helped us to recover from this within a few minutes.

During the migration, we watched the live traffic to our servers with Logstalgia running on a large display. This was configured at late-notice so we'd have something impressive to watch, as it provides a pretty 3D visualisation of web traffic. However, it proved to be an excellent early warning mechanism as we could see the traffic moving and more importantly we could see immediately when it stopped.

We also discovered about an hour after the migration was completed that we'd missed our Transactions Explorer sub-site and it hadn't been copied to the new machines. Luckily this was responsible for only a very small number of requests at that time of day and we were able to correct the error quickly. We've also added this to our smoke tests to make sure it cannot happen again, but it proves that even very comprehensive testing and planning can miss small details.

However, the fact this application was missed was quickly spotted by a committed developer taking it upon themselves to check applications their team were responsible for, showing that if you have a team of engaged and interested developers, you can trust them to do the right thing without prompting.

Benefits of Migration

After all that work over many months, the natural question on anyone's mind would be "Why would you make yourself do that?"

Better platform

When we first launched GOV.UK, the market for Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) that had been accredited to handle some of our data was quite small. We were actually one of the first customers of Skyscape Cloud Services and hence we were an early adopter of their first IaaS platform.

Since that time Skyscape have created a new, improved platform which benefits from the inevitable performance increases of new technologies and were encouraging customers to move to this, so that they could focus their resources on further improvements to one platform, rather than maintaining a legacy platform for these early adopters.

Improved Infrastructure

As we were already planning a move, it made a lot of sense to make some small improvements to our infrastructure, especially where they would have been disruptive to make while running live services.

We now have:

  • a consistent, supported Operating System (Ubuntu 12.04 LTS) rather than a mixture of 10.04 LTS and 12.04 LTS
  • upgraded databases (MongoDB 2.4.9, MySQL 5.5) - upgrading a live database would have required a similar publishing outage
  • applications split between different database clusters, so that the heaviest usage is spread across multiple machines
  • consistent machine naming and sizing

To prove we can

One of the principles of G-Cloud is to avoid signing up to multi-year contracts, so that we can take advantage of improvements both in technology and price. The typical length of an IaaS contract on G-Cloud is one year, with an option to extend.

However, there's no point having a one year contract if you don't have the ability at the end of it to switch to something else. By proving that we could execute a move of our infrastucture within Skyscape, we've also given ourselves more confidence that should we need to in future, we can move (or recreate from scratch) GOV.UK within Skyscape or to a range of other IaaS providers.

What we would change next time

Aside from the obvious points of "don't let the traffic stop and don't forget to copy transactions-explorer", we'd like to improve this process each time we do it. The natural targets would be to reduce the downtime for Apply for a Licence and Publishing, to reduce the impact on the end-users.

The limiting step on each of these is the time taken to copy the various MongoDB and MySQL databases - when we sync the databases we copy the entire database from one machine to another, whereas for file copies we use rsync to copy over only the changed files each time.

In the future we will be investigating either continuous replication of databases to a secondary location which can then be promoted to being the live environment, or synchronising only the changes in the databases (e.g. by replaying the transaction logs) - this could potentially be faster, but is more complex to execute well.

If work like this appeals to you, take a look at Working for GDS - we're usually in search of talented people to come and join the team.

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  1. Charlotte Daly

    Really good read, easy to follow especially for non-developers. As for the overall Migration, well done, great job.

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  2. JimG

    Nice effort all involved!

    Link to this comment Reply
  3. Wesley

    Amazing read! Very interesting, and perhaps even more important ― very cool! Great job, and I'm pretty sure a lot of celebration and beers were had? :-)

    Link to this comment Reply
  4. Richard

    This is fantastic and thanks for being so open and transparent.
    This is exactly how IT in government should be done. Kudos.

    Link to this comment Reply
  5. Greg

    We have had lots of success with DB replication as a way if syncing two deployments (new is slave of old).

    Switch is easy and quick DNS change, / removal of replication config. Still a short outage, but pretty swift.

    Recommend it.

    Link to this comment Reply
  6. Ricky Burgin

    Nice to see competent heads in our government IT. Also Logstalgia is amazing, thanks for the link.

    Link to this comment Reply
  7. JK

    Excellent blog post, it's great to see you publishing stuff like this and sharing your experiences. Exemplary.

    Link to this comment Reply
  8. Dr. Nick Bell

    Fascinating read. Out of interest, how many GB of files/database were copied? Hence, what is the size of GOV.UK?

    Interested to hear that GOV.UK is on UBUNTU 12.04LTS OS!

    Link to this comment Reply
    • Sam Sharpe

      Hi Nick,

      - 100,000 items of content (webpages)
      - 250GB of attachments (downloads from webpages)
      - 20+ databases (ranging from 6MB to 6GB in size)

      That is all GOV.UK - it's the only thing we moved.

      The 20+ databases are all part of GOV.UK in some form - the largest ones are for "Apply for a Licence" (6GB) and Government Publishing (everything under - 5GB) - the other databases are generally much smaller, but all relate to parts of the GOV.UK platform.

      The 250GB of Files also relate to Government Publishing - a lot of information is published as attachments - the sheer number of these (about 0.25M) means they take up a lot of space.

      Link to this comment Reply
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