Making Push Notifications Quick, Easy and Scalable
Like a good number of other successful startups, OneSignal owes its existence to a problem its founders discovered running a totally different business.
Just a few years ago, OneSignal CEO George Deglin and COO Long Vo were building mobile games that attracted lots of new players, but struggled to bring them back. “When we looked at what larger mobile app developers were doing, it was clear that they had invested a lot of time into notifications,” says Deglin. “And as a small business, that was a challenge for us. We had the technical burden of sending notifications as well as simply understanding what was going to work well for bringing people back.”
As it turns out, it was a problem in search of a product. The team looked at a number of vendors, and “either they were focused on other verticals, like e-commerce, or weren’t really all that reliable, or were very expensive,” says Kevin Weatherman, VP of Business Development. Lacking alternatives, the team started trying to build something internally. And that led to an “A ha!” moment.
“We realized there was an opportunity here to build a product that would help small companies use push notifications really well without needing to build an internal team to do all the technical architecture and best practices,” says Deglin. “And even larger companies would benefit from it. To offload a lot of work they were doing internally to a third party would both increase the effectiveness of what they were doing and save them a lot of time and money.”
So after finishing up their last game project, the team began focusing on building a push notification product, using as its foundation the technology they had started developing for their own use at the mobile game studio. Within a few months, in mid-2015, the first version of the product was released. “Initially the product was very focused on gaming; we were actually called GameThrive at that time,” says Weatherman. “It was really solving a problem that we knew really well, which was game publishers building re-engagement from push notifications.”
Going Beyond the Gaming Market
Even so, from the beginning, the team believed there was a need for the product far beyond just the gaming market. “The product took off very quickly,” says Deglin. “We had really strong growth and then it just got faster and faster week over week. There were people in other markets outside gaming who began to find us, and over time it became clear that it was time to broaden our focus and start serving the broader market as well.”
The company re-branded as OneSignal, and today, its vision is to “make it so that all developers, marketers—everyone—can do a really great job of sending notifications,” says Deglin. “In the past, effective notifications were something that you would only see in the biggest, most successful apps out there. And with the availability of OneSignal, now everyone can take advantage of notifications in an effective way to engage their users.”
With 100,000 live apps served, 1.2 billion daily notifications sent, and over 250,000 developers registered, OneSignal is now the most widely used product in the space, according to Siftery. It’s a free product, with revenue coming from selling data gathered in the distribution of the SDK to advertisers. There’s also a paid, SaaS tier for customers who want to opt out of the data-sharing.
The product’s appeal, says Deglin, stems in large part to its ease of integration and use. “We focus on providing very high quality open source SDKs that clients can simply drop into their app,” he says. “A big challenge of sending notifications is there’s a bunch of things you have to do in your app. We help them do that.” Adds Weatherman: “As opposed to a lot of other vendors require a lot more technical integration and configuration, we’re ready to go out of the box.”
Strong Growth = Infrastructure Demands
As its customer base boomed—the company experienced 10x growth in 2016—the team worked on improving its push delivery backend, including writing an internal service called OnePush. Written in the Rust language and introduced at the beginning of 2017, OnePush was built to scale deliveries. And it was built for speed: At launch, the system observed sustained deliveries up to 125,000/second and spikes up to 175,000/second.
With those performance demands, OneSignal needed to make sure its infrastructure could keep up. When the company was just starting out, “we had limited capital, so we took advantage of some free credits we had with some hosting providers, and those were helpful for us to save money at that point,” says Deglin. “But we knew that as we scaled, infrastructure costs could become a pretty big cost center if we weren’t careful. We began to look at which providers would both be really reliable as well as be able to provide us with powerful hardware at an affordable price. And for that reason we never hosted our servers with AWS or Google Cloud. We found that the economics weren’t favorable for our business.”
Our infrastructure is in a great place. We’ve been fortunate to have a really good team in place that’s built what we have so far—and also to have access to great hardware and good support from Packet.
Earlier this year, OneSignal experienced some service issues with another hosting provider, so the team began looking for an alternative. Packet’s offerings seemed like a good fit. “One of the main reasons was that Packet offers PCIe SSDs at an affordable price,” says Deglin. “Our infrastructure is designed in such a way that we leverage really fast storage in order to scale up vertically as much as possible. We find that scaling vertically helps both keep our costs down, helps keep our infrastructure simpler, and is also really favorable to the way our product works.”
Weatherman points to other factors too: “Not only did Packet have great support, have a really strong technical team, and have better pricing than we were seeing out there, but it seemed to be really focused on the partnership long-term.”
The migration to Packet took place in June, and resulted in just two minutes of downtime. At the time, the company was storing about 10 or 15 terabytes across several servers at its old hosting provider’s data center, so there were some challenges. “We needed to make sure that all of our data was synchronized between our old data center and our Packet data center at the time of the switchover,” says Deglin. “We went through a few weeks of just setting everything up with Packet, setting up a replication of the data, did a lot of testing, and then when it came time to do the switch it was quick. The process involved us initially sending a little bit of traffic to Packet, and then making sure everything was working smoothly, and then finally making the entire switch over. It went completely without a hitch.”
The Packet Difference
The benefit to OneSignal was immediate: infrastructure costs were reduced by 25%, storage costs went down by 50%, and capacity has been expanded greatly.
“The main thing is that we moved to more powerful hardware,” says Deglin. “Packet has faster default hardware available, but we also worked with Packet’s team to do custom hardware configurations for our database servers. We went from needing to imminently add database servers on our old provider, to having a lot of excess capacity at Packet. We also found that the performance was higher with these servers. So everything that our clients were doing worked a little bit faster, which is great.”
OneSignal’s customers are also feeling the impact with improved features. One of the product’s key features allows clients to dynamically create segments of their users to receive certain notifications, all within the OneSignal API. “This is a computationally difficult problem," says Deglin. “When we have access to really fast storage, really fast CPUs and a lot of memory, we can provide these features to our clients, and competitors simply can’t because their system and infrastructure aren’t set up to do this efficiently. [After the switch to Packet] we made it easier for people to make complex segments, which of course increases the computational requirements. With Packet we’ve found that we are able to do that quite smoothly.”
With a Series A round of funding recently closed, OneSignal is hiring—and dreaming big. “We’ve been incredibly successful in terms of reach, so even though we started not that long ago, we’re now the most widely used product in the space,” says Deglin. “What we’re excited for is rolling out powerful features to make OneSignal even more effective for large and small enterprises.”
To that end, he adds, “Our infrastructure is in a great place. We’ve been fortunate to have a really good team in place that’s built what we have so far—and also to have access to great hardware and good support from Packet.”