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Scaling Things That Don't Scale: Scalability and Reliability at Airbnb

Ben Hughes (Airbnb), Jon Tai (Airbnb)
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Paul Graham says to do things that don’t scale, and this advice has served us very well at Airbnb. By 2012, guests had booked more than 10 million nights in 192 countries. Years of exponential growth were great for our business, but hard on our infrastructure.

In early 2013, scaling issues began to affect our user experience. As peak summer travel season ramped up, external services took longer to respond, background tasks overwhelmed our database, and memory usage grew unchecked. We started having downtime several days a week, and responding to incidents was consuming more and more engineers’ time.

A small group of us started on a journey to improve reliability and scalability. We added instrumentation, got scientific about timeouts, fixed bad queries, and threw a lot of hardware at the problem. By the end of the year, not only did we have more users and bookings than ever before, but we had improved our response time and uptime as well. We didn’t accomplish this by doing a major rewrite, removing functionality, or disrupting other teams; we accomplished this by dedicating a small team to work on application reliability, focusing on fundamentals, and working to better understand our systems.

In this talk we will share what we did to improve reliability and scalability, how we shifted from tactics to strategy, and the lessons we learned along the way.

Ben Hughes


Ben Hughes is a Software Engineer at Airbnb focusing on reliability and scalability. He was previously a cofounder of NabeWise, a neighborhood information startup that was acquired by Airbnb in 2012.

Jon Tai


Jon Tai is a Software Engineer on the Application Reliability team at Airbnb. Beyond scaling software systems, he works to build tooling and evangelize best practices among the engineering team. Prior to Airbnb, Jon was an engineer at IGN Entertainment, where he helped re-architect and scale out IGN’s media platform.