Building a scalable web application from ground zero

By , 2015年2月4日 5:48 上午

This is an entry level tutorial for engineers who wish to build a scalable web application but do not know how to get started. The demo application takes advantage of the various services offered by AWS such as Elastic Computer Cloud (EC2), Elastic Load Balancer (ELB), Relational Database Service (RDS), ElastiCache, Simple Storage Service (S3), Identity and Access Management (IAM), as well as CloudWatch and AutoScaling. By using AWS we are making things easier so that an engineer with a little experience with Linux can easily finish this tutorual in a couple of hours. If you are building a scalable web application on your own infrastructure or on another public cloud, the theory should be the same but the actual implementation might be somewhat different.

Please note that  the code provided here is for demo only and is not intended for production usage.

[Executive Summary]

I want to build a scalable web application that can serve a large amount of users. I really don’t know how many users I will get so the technical specification is as many as possible. As shown in the above design, this is a photo sharing website with the following functions:

(1) User authentication (login / logout).

(2) Logined users can upload photos.

(3) The default page displays the latest N uploaded photos.

In this tutorial, we will accomplish this goal through the following five levels:

(0) A basic version with all the components deployed on one single server. The web application is developed with PHP, using Apache as the web serer, with MySQL as the database to store user upload information.

(1) Based on the basic version we developed in level (0), scale the application to two or more servers.

(2) Use S3 to provide a shared storage for user uploads.

(3) Dynamically scale the size of your server fleet according to the actual traffic to your web application.

(4) Implement a cache layer between the web server and the database server.


In this level, we will build a basic version with all the components deployed on one single server. The web application is developed with PHP, using Apache as the web serer, with MySQL as the database to store user upload information. You do not need to write any code, because I have a set of demo code prepared for you. You just need to launch an EC2 instance, carry out some basic configurations, then deploy the demo code.

Login to your AWS Console and navigate to the EC2 Console. Launch an EC2 instance with a Ubuntu 14.04 AMI. Make sure that you allocate a public IP to your EC2 instance. In your security group settings, open port 80 for HTTP and port 22 for SSH access. After the instance becomes “running” and passes health checks, SSH into your EC2 instance to setup software dependencies and download the demo code from Github to the default web server folder:

$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install apache2 php5 mysql-server php5-mysql php5-curl git
$ cd /var
$ sudo chown -R ubuntu:ubuntu www
$ cd /var/www/html
$ git clone

Then we create a MySQL database and a MySQL user for our demo. Here we use “web_demo” as the database name, and “username” as the MySQL user.

$ mysql -u root -p
mysql> CREATE DATABASE web_demo;
mysql> CREATE USER 'username'@'localhost' IDENTIFIED BY 'password';
mysql> GRANT ALL PRIVILEGES ON web_demo.* TO 'username'@'localhost';
mysql> quit

In the code you clone from Github, we have prepopulated some demo data as examples. We use the following command to import the demo data in web_demo.sql to the web_demo database:

$cd /var/www/html/web-demo
$ mysql -u username -p web_demo < web_demo.sql

The LEVEL 0 demo code is implemented in a two PHP files index.php and config.php. Before we can make it work, there are some minor modifications needed:

(1) Use a text editor to open config.php, then change the username and password for your MySQL installation.

(2) Change the ownership of folder "uploads" to "www-data" so that Apache can upload files to this folder.

$cd /var/www/html/web-demo
$ sudo chown -R www-data:www-data uploads

In your browser, browse to http://<ip-address>/web-demo/index.php. You should see that our application is now working. You can login with your name, then upload some photos for testing. (You might have noticed that this demo application does not ask you for a password. This is because we would like to make things as simple as possible. Handling user password is a very complicate issue, which is beyond the scope of this entry level tutorial.) Then I suggest that you spend 10 minutes reading through the demo code index.php. The demo code has reasonable documentation in the form of comments, so I am not going to explain the code here.


In this level, we will expand the basic version we have in LEVEL 0 and deploy it to multiple servers. Currently we already have a working web server, so we launched another EC2 instance and follow the steps in LEVEL 0 to get a second web server (you can skip mysql-server and the part to set up the database, because we don't need multiple MySQL servers). Also, we know that these two web servers must write upload data to the same database server, so we launch an RDS instance and use the RDS instance as a shared database server. In front of the two web servers, we create an ELB to distribute the workload to two web servers.

(1) Launch a second web server as describe in LEVEL 0.

(2) Launch an RDS instance running MySQL. When launching the RDS instance, create a default database named "web_demo". When the RDS instance becomes available, use the following command to import the demo data in web_demo.sql to the web_demo database on the RDS database:

$ mysql -h [endpoint-of-rds-instance] -u username -p web_demo < web_demo.sql

(3) On both web servers, modify config.php with the new database server hostname, username, password, and database name.

(4) Create an ELB and add the two web servers to the ELB. Since we do have Apache running on both web servers, you might want to use HTTP as the ping protocol with 80 as the ping port and "/" as the ping path for the health check parameter for your ELB.

(5) In your browser, browser to http://elb-endpoint/web-demo/index.php. As you can see, our demo seems to be working on multiple servers. This is so easy!

But there are issues. Sometimes your browser asks you to login, but sometime not. Also, some newly uploaded images seem to be missing, but they are back from time to time and some other images seem to be missing!

You must have noticed that the IP address in the top left position in your browser changes from time to time. We use this trick to let you know which web server is processing your request. Although the two web servers are using the same set of code and the same RDS database, they do not share your session information. When you are being served by server A and login to server A, you can upload an image. But server B is not aware of the fact that you have already login on server B. So when you are being served by server B, it will ask you to login again. Also, when you upload an image to server A, it is only available on server A. If you are being served by server B, although the database has the information about that particular upload (because both web servers write to, and read from, the same database server) but server B can't give you that image because it is on server A.

With ELB, you can configure session stickiness so that the ELB always routes traffic from the same session to the same web server. However, for a large scale applicaion with dynamic workload, web servers are being added to, or removed from, the fleet according to workload requirements. In a worse case, a particular web server might be removed from the fleet due to a fault in the web server itself. In such cases, existing sessions might be routed to other web servers, on which there exists no login information. Therefore, it is desirable that such session information can be shared among all web servers.

We user ElastiCache to resolve the issue about session sharing between multiple web servers. In the ElastiCache console, launch an ElasticCache with Memcache and obtain the endpoint information. On both web servers, install php5-memcached and configure php.ini to use memcached for session sharing.

$ sudo apt-get install php5-memcached

Then edit /etc/php5/apache2/php.ini, make the following modifications:

session.save_handler = memcached
session.save_path = "[endpoint-to-the-elasticache-instance]:11211"

Then you need to restart Apache on both web servers to make the new configuration effective.

$ sudo service apache2 restart

Now go back to your browser to do some testing. As you can see, now your session is being shared across the two web servers. You only need to login once, and your login status remains the same regardless of the back end web server.

To solve the issue of image upload, you need to have a shared storage between your two web servers. One simple solution would be using one of the web servers as NFS server, which exports the /var/www/html/web-demo folder to the subnet. The second web server will act as the NFS client, mounting the remote NFS share as /var/www/html/web-demo. As long as the permissions are properly setup, the two web servers should be able to write to, and read from the same folder.

On one of your web servers, use the following command to install NFS server:

$ sudo apt-get install nfs-kernel-server

Then edit /etc/exports to export the /var/www/html/web-demo folder (assume that is the CIDR range of your subnet):


Then you need to restart the NFS server for the new export to take effect:

$ sudo service nfs-kernel-server restart

On the other of your web servers, use the following command to install NFS client (assume that is the private IP address of your NFS server):

$ sudo apt-get install nfs-common
$ cd /var/www/html
$ sudo rm -Rf web-demo
$ sudo mkdir web-demo
$ sudo chown -R ubuntu:ubuntu web-demo
$ sudo mount web-demo

In your browser, again browse to http://<dns-name-of-elb>/web-demo/index.php. You should see that our application is now working on multiple web servers with a load balancer as the front end, without any code changes.


Using a shared file system is probably OK for web applications with reasonably limited traffic, but will be be problematic when the traffic to your site increases. At that point you can scale out your front end to have as many web servers as you want, but your web application is limited by the capability of the shared file system running on a single server. In this level, we will resovle this issue by moving the shared storage from one web server to S3. This way, the web servers only handle critical business, while the images are being served by S3.

We first terminate the web server running NFS client. Then we edit /etc/exports on the web server running NFS server to disable (comment out) the NFS exports and stop nfs-kernel-server service. We no longer need a share file system in the level.

$ sudo service nfs-kernel-server stop

Next, you will need to edit config.php and make some minor changes. In this configuration file, $s3_bucket is the name of the S3 bucket for share storage, and $s3_baseurl is the URL pointing to the S3 endpoint in the region hosting your S3 bucket. You can find the S3 endpoint from you can also identify this end point in the S3 Console by viewing the properties of an S3 object in the S3 bucket.

$storage_option = "s3";
$s3_bucket  = "my_uploads_bucket";
$s3_baseurl = "";

Next we create an AMI from the running instance. Then we create an EC2 Role in the IAM Console, which (IAM Console -> Role -> Create New Role -> Amazon EC2 -> Amazon S3 Full Access). Then we launch a new web server using the AMI and the IAM Role we just created. After the instance becomes "running" and passes health checks, remove the original web server from the ELB (you can terminate it now) and add this new web server to the ELB. In your browser, again browse to http://<dns-name-of-elb>/web-demo/index.php. Currently the only web server behind the ELB is this newly launched instance, but it still has your login information. Newly uploaded images will go to S3 instead of local disk. As the workload of your application increases, you can launch more EC2 instance using the AMI and IAM Role we created just now, and add these new instance to the ELB. When the workload of your application decreases, you can remove some instance from the ELB and terminate them to save cost.

The reason we use IAM Role in this tutorial is that with IAM Role you do not need to supply your AWS Access Key and Secret Key in your code. Rather, Your code will assume the role assigned to the EC2 instance, and access the AWS resources that your EC2 instance is allowed to access. Today many people and organizations host their source code on or some other public repositories. By using IAM roles you no longer hard code your AWS credentials in your application, thus eliminating the possibility of leaking your AWS credentials to the public.


Now you have a scalable web application with two web servers, and you know that you can scale in and out the fleet when needed. Is it possible to scale your fleet automatically, according to the workload of your application?

In our demo code, we have a setting to simulate workloads. If you look at config.php, you will find this piece of code:

$latency = 0;

And, in index.php, there is a corresponding statement:


That is, when a user request index.php, PHP will sleep for $latency seconds. As we know, as the workload increases, the CPU utilization (as well as other factors) increases, resulting in an increase in latency. By manually manupulating the $latency setting, we can simulate heavy workload to your web application, which is reflected in the average latency. It should be noted that you can change the latency simulation settings on each web server. When you have two web servers and you set $latency = 0 on one server and $latency = 1 on the other server, the average latency will be 0.5 second.

With AWS, you can use AutoScaling to scale your server fleet in a dynamic fashion, according to the wordload of the fleet. In this tutorial, we use average latency as a trigger for scaling actions. You can achieve this following these steps:

(1) In your EC2 Console, create a launch configuration using the AMI and the IAM Role that we created in LEVEL 2.

(2) Create an AutoScaling group using the launch configuration we created in step (2), make sure that the AutoScaling group receives traffic from your ELB. Also, change the health check type from EC2 to ELB. (This way, when the ELB determines that an instance is unhealthy, the AutoScaling group will terminate it.) You don't need to specify any scaling policy at this point.

(3) Click on your ELB and create a new CloudWatch Alarm (ELB -> Monitoring -> Create Alarm) when the average latency is greater than 1000 ms for at least 1 minutes.

(4) Click on your AutoScaling group, and create a new scaling policy (AutoScaling -> Scaling Policies), using the CloudWatch Alarm you just created. The auto scaling action can be "add 1 instance and then wait 300 seconds". This way, if the average latency of your web application exceeds 1 second, AutoScaling will add one more instance to your fleet.

You can do the testing by adjusting the $latency value on your existing web servers. Please note that to acheve 1000 ms latency, the average value of the $latency settings on all your web servers needs to be greater than 1. So, you can keep $latency = 0 on one of your webserver, and change $latency = 3 on the other web server. This way the average latency will be 1500 ms, which will trigger the CloudWatch Alarm, and hency the auto scaling policy.

When you are done with this step, you can play with scaling down by creating another CloudWatch Alarm and a corresponding auto scaling policy. The CloudWatch alarm will be alarmed when the average latency is smaller than 500 ms for at least 1 minute, and the auto scaling action can be "remove 1 instance and then wait 300 seconds".


For many web applications, database can be a serious bottleneck. In our photo sharing demo, usually the number of view image request is much greater than the number of upload requests. It is very possible that for many view requests, the most recent N images are actually the same. However, we are connecting to the database to fetch records for the most recent N images for each and every view requests. It would be reasonable to update the images we show on the index page in an incremental way, for example, every 1 or 2 minutes.

In this level, we will add a cache layer between the web servers and the database. When we fetch records for the most recent N images, we cache it somewhere. When there is a new view request coming in, we no longer connect to the database, but return the cached result to the user. When there is a new image upload, we update the cache. This way the cache version is always accurate.

The demo code has support for database caching through ElastiCache, using the same ElastiCache instance for session sharing. This caching behavior is not enable by default. You can edit config.php on all web servers with details regarding the cache server:

$enable_cache = true;
$cache_server  = "dns-name-of-your-elasticache-instance";

Refresh the demo application in your browser, you will see that the "Fetching N records from the database." message is now gone, indicating that the information you are seeing is obtained from ElastiCache. When you upload a new image, you will see this message again, indicating the cache is being updated.

The following code is responsible of handling this cache logic:

// Get the most recent N images
if ($enable_cache)
	// Attemp to get the cached records for the front page
	$mem = open_memcache_connection($cache_server);
	$images = $mem->get("front_page");
	if (!$images)
		// If there is no such cached record, get it from the database
		$images = retrieve_recent_uploads($db, 10);
		// Then put the record into cache
		$mem->set("front_page", $images, time()+86400);
	// This statement get the last 10 records from the database
	$images = retrieve_recent_uploads($db, 10);

Also pay attention to this code when doing image uploads. We deleted the cache after the user uploads an images. This way, when the next request comes in, we will fetch the latest records from the database, and put them into the cache again.

	if ($enable_cache)
		// Delete the cached record, the user will query the database to 
		// get an updated version
		$mem = open_memcache_connection($cache_server);


In this tutorial, we build a scalable web application using various AWS services including EC2, RDS, S3, ELB, CloudWatch, AutoScaling, IAM, and ElastiCache. It demonstrates how easy it is to build a scalable web application that can scale reasonably well using the various AWS building blocks. It should be noted that the code being used in this tutorial is for demo only, and can not be used in a production system.

The readers are encouraged to explore the following topics:

(1) How do you trouble shoot issues when things does not work in this demo. For example, your application is unable to connect to the RDS instance, or the ElastiCache. What is needed to make things work?

(2) How to identify bottleneck when there is a performance issue? How to enhance the performance of this demo application?

(3) How to make the deployment process easier?

(4) How to make this demo application more secure?

(5) Any other topic that you would like to explore.

11 Responses to “Building a scalable web application from ground zero”

  1. erben说道:

    this is awesome

  2. […] 如上几个例子,都是AWS在其发展早期就已经实现的技术,其核心思想都是“按需获取,按量计费”。更重要的是,通过自动伸缩这样的概念,在满足客户负载需求的前提下没有让客户花冤枉钱。我在前段时间写了一个题为《Building a scalable web application from ground zero》的入门小教程,基本上能够反映一个中型Web应用对计算资源的需求特征。各位做公有云的不妨对照这个教程看看类似的需求如何在自己的平台上实现。AWS可能不是公有云的终极模式,但它至少是一种相对先进的模式,其产品对同行来说是极具启发意义的。一家公有云领域的创业公司,如果不了解不熟悉AWS的产品,未免有闭门造车之嫌了。 […]

  3. mariquit说道:

    Great tutorial. Thanks!

  4. Mohamad说道:

    Thanks for the very helpful tutorial

  5. youtube.com说道:

    I read this post completely regarding the resemblance of newest and preceding technologies, it’s awesome article.

  6. Tom说道:


  7. Rasib说道:

    i read this tutorial that is awesome. now im ready to practice with this tutorial. thanks……

  8. Satya说道:

    Nice one brother. Great tutorial presented in a layman’s term. Very Well done.

  9. Yonghui Zhang说道:

    I met “http error 500” when trying to open the demo website in browser, from apache log, I can see “PHP Fatal error: Class ‘Memcached’ not found in”, this is due to “memcached” package missing, after install it with below command, all works fine.

    sudo apt-get install memcached php5-memcached

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