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Greetings from North Pole Operations! All systems go!

December 22, 2017

Chief Information Elf, North Pole

Hi there! I’m Merry, Santa’s CIE (Chief Information Elf), responsible for making sure computers help us deliver joy to the world each Christmas. My elf colleagues are really busy getting ready for the big day (or should I say night?), but this year, my team has things under control, thanks to our fully cloud-native architecture running on Google Cloud Platform (GCP)! What’s that? You didn’t know that the North Pole was running in the cloud? How else did you think that we could scale to meet the demands of bringing all those gifts to all those children around the world?


You see, North Pole Operations have evolved quite a lot since my parents were young elves. The world population increased from around 1.6 billion in the early 20th century to 7.5 billion today. The elf population couldn’t keep up with that growth and the increased production of all these new toys using our old methods, so we needed to improve efficiency.

Of course, our toy list has changed a lot too. It used to be relatively simple — rocking horses, stuffed animals, dolls and toy trucks, mostly. The most complicated things we made when I was a young elf were Teddy Ruxpins (remember those?). Now toy cars and even trading card games come with their own apps and use machine learning.

This is where I come in. We build lots of computer programs to help us. My team is responsible for running hundreds of microservices. I explain microservices to Santa as a computer program that performs a single service. We have a microservice for processing incoming letters from kids, another microservice for calculating kids’ niceness scores, even a microservice for tracking reindeer games rankings.

Here's an example of the Letter Processing Microservice, which takes handwritten letter in all languages (often including spelling and grammatical errors) and turns each one into text.

Each microservice runs on one or more computers (also called virtual machines or VMs). We tried to run it all from some computers we built here at the North Pole but we had trouble getting enough electricity for all these VMs (solar isn’t really an option here in December). So we decided to go with GCP. Santa had some reservations about “the Cloud” since he thought it meant our data would be damaged every time it rained (Santa really hates rain). But we managed to get him a tour of a data center (not even Santa can get in a Google data center without proper clearances), and he realized that cloud computing is really just a bunch of computers that Google manages for us.

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Google lets us use projects, folders and orgs to group different VMs together. Multiple microservices can make up an application and everything together makes up our system. Our most important and most complicated application is our Christmas Planner application. Let’s talk about a few services in this application and how we make sure we have a successful Christmas Eve.


Our Christmas Planner application includes microservices for a variety of tasks: microservices generate lists of kids that are naughty or nice, as well as a final list of which child receives which gift based on preferences and inventory. Microservices plan the route, taking into consideration inclement weather and finally, generate a plan for how to pack the sleigh.

Small elves, big data

Our work starts months in advance, tracking naughty and nice kids by relying on parent reports, teacher reports, police reports and our mobile elves. Keeping track of almost 2 billion kids each year is no easy feat. Things really heat up around the beginning of December, when our army of Elves-on-the-Shelves are mobilized, reporting in nightly.


We send all this data to a system called BigQuery where we can easily analyze the billions of reports to determine who's naughty and who's nice in just seconds.

Deck the halls with SLO dashboards

Our most important service level indicator or SLI is “child delight”. We target “5 nines” or 99.999% delightment level meaning 99,999/100,000 nice children are delighted. This limit is our service level objective or SLO and one of the few things everyone here in the North Pole takes very seriously. Each individual service has SLOs we track as well.

We use Stackdriver for dashboards, which we show in our control center. We set up alerting policies to easily track when a service level indicator is below expected and notify us. Santa was a little grumpy since he wanted red and green to be represented equally and we explained that the red warning meant that there were alerts and incidents on a service, but we put candy canes on all our monitors and he was much happier.


Merry monitoring for all

We have a team of elite SREs (Site Reliability Elves, though they might be called Site Reliability Engineers by all you folks south of the North Pole) to make sure each and every microservice is working correctly, particularly around this most wonderful time of the year. One of the most important things to get right is the monitoring.

For example, we built our own “internet of things” or IoT where each toy production station has sensors and computers so we know the number of toys made, what their quota was and how many of them passed inspection. Last Tuesday, there was an alert that the number of failed toys had shot up. Our SREs sprang into action. They quickly pulled up the dashboards for the inspection stations and saw that the spike in failures was caused almost entirely by our baby doll line. They checked the logs and found that on Monday, a creative elf had come up with the idea of taping on arms and legs rather than sewing them to save time. They rolled back this change immediately. Crisis averted. Without the proper monitoring and logging, it would be very difficult to find and fix the issue, which is why our SREs consider it the base of their gift reliability pyramid.


All I want for Christmas is machine learning

Running things in Google Cloud has another benefit: we can use technology they’ve developed at Google. One of our most important services is our gift matching service, which takes 50 factors as input including the child’s wish list, niceness score, local regulations, existing toys, etc., and comes up with the final list of which gifts should be delivered to this child. Last year, we added machine learning or ML, where we gave the Cloud ML engine the last 10 years of inputs, gifts and child and parent delight levels. It automatically learned a new model to use in gift matching based on this data.

Using this new ML model, we reduced live animal gifts by 90%, ball pits by 50% and saw a 5% increase in child delight and a 250% increase in parent delight.

Tis the season for sharing

Know someone who loves technology that might enjoy this article or someone who reminds you of Santa — someone with many amazing skills but whose eyes get that “reindeer-in-the-headlights look” when you talk about cloud computing? Share this article with him or her and hopefully you’ll soon be chatting about all the cool things you can do with cloud computing over Christmas cookies and eggnog... And be sure to tell them to sign up for a free trial — Google Cloud’s gift to them!

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