​How technology is helping homeless pets find a new home

Australian-based non-profit Pet Rescue turned to AWS to help re-home the thousands of animals surrendered each year.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor on

In Australia, over 137,390 animals once called pets are received annually by the RSPCA [PDF] alone, with rescue homes and animal shelters receiving surrendered animals faster than they can re-home those already in care.

With few options other than euthanasia for those animals unable to be placed, self-taught coder John Bishop decided he needed to do something and launched Pet Rescue in 2003, an online service connecting former pets with new owners.

Working with approximately 98 percent of the rescue groups in Australia from the RSPCA to animal welfare leagues, vets, pounds, and foster carers, non-profit Pet Rescue currently has over 8,600 animals from 952 rescue groups on its website.

"Essentially it's an aggregation service but that's not very sexy," Bishop explained. "We look at ourselves as providing connections between pets in care with the rescue groups and the public that are looking to adopt."

As Pet Rescue operates at a not-for-profit, Bishop has been faced with the mammoth task of keeping up with technology since day one.

While running a separate web-hosting business, Bishop told ZDNet he worked late nights and early mornings to push out the code to get a stable platform to handle Pet Rescue's requirements.

"The whole time I was working on it, I thought to myself, if I can stop one pet from being killed, then it would be all worth it," he explained.

Initially, Pet Rescue was hosted out of Bishop's business, but it soon grew too big and was given its own server, co-located in the United States. Bishop then popped in a second physical server but soon reached a wall, as he had not architected the app to be able to scale horizontally.

"So the only option we had was to scale vertically which gets expensive and all the other issues that you get with managing your own hardware and operating system as well," he said.

"We hit a point where running on two boxes co-located in the US and having a co-located box in Australia was too expensive, so we couldn't do it. Then one day our provider wanted to pick those two servers up and move them to a new datacentre needing a couple of days downtime to do that."

With a number of outages being a fairly common occurrence for the Pet Rescue site, Bishop said there was one particularly large outage that was the final straw. It also happened to be not too long after Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched in Singapore.

"Singapore from a connectivity point of view was close enough to Australia that I thought that was okay," he said. "We gained that process of just snapshotting those machines, dropping them into AWS as Windows boxes, doing the exact same things as they'd always done."

Moving to AWS in Singapore removed the hardware issues, but left Bishop with the scaling ones.

He then decided to rebuild everything from the ground up in 2011 and 2012 -- moving to Ruby on Rails and using MySQL on AWS, and shifting across to Linux, which Bishop said was much better.

"Except the web company that had built the app for us they hadn't used AWS before. So we ended up in a place where we could scale horizontally, which was great, but the management functionality and the tools to do that well just weren't there," he explained.

"So about 18 months ago we picked it up again and moved it to a company out of Sydney called Reinteractive that we've been really happy with. We moved to PostgreSQL database -- everything was pretty much the same, except these guys know AWS."

The website now works a treat, Bishop said, and as looking to adopt a pet is an emotional experience, he noted the end user shouldn't even be aware there is even a website -- everything should be simple.

"Now our front end web servers probably get recycled once or twice a day, every time there's a deployment we kill those boxes off and spawn new ones, so we don't have old machines sitting around for weeks or months at a time," he said.

"We can autoscale, we do autoscale, we shutdown a bunch of boxes overnight when it's quiet, and when we get a spike in traffic we might see a tiny latency in the app, but that's about it.

"It means the website is not an impediment to the adoption process."

As more than half of Pet Rescue's traffic comes in via smartphones, Bishop is currently revamping the mobile app to keep pace with the rest of the market.

Currently, Pet Rescue is serving around 1 million visit sessions per month from about half a million unique visitors, with 8.2 million page views a month.

By the end of the year, Bishop and his tiny team will have helped 400,000 animals find a new home.

Disclosure: Asha Barbaschow travelled to AWS Re:Invent as a guest of AWS.

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