How Chegg's learning platform handled its biggest influx of students ever during COVID-19

Here's how the most popular direct-to-student learning platform used the New Relic platform to support students and drop MTRR 88%.

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Image: iStockphoto/Mark_Breck

In 2005, Chegg was founded as a textbook-rental business to help students access materials that were often too expensive to purchase. Fifteen years later, it's become one of the premier platforms to assist students--mainly in the higher-ed market--with their studies. The monthly subscription service, which now has over 3 million users, connects students to vetted experts (who are paid per question) and offers chat-based tutoring. Chegg's study platform, an end-to-end platform running exclusively on Amazon Web Services is like "Stack Overflow for college students," Steve Evans, VP of Engineering Services at Chegg, told TechRepublic.

When COVID-19 hit, Chegg saw "almost a doubling of the business overnight," Chief Executive Dan Rosensweig recently told The New York Times. The momentum has kept up. Chegg currently operates 500 microservices, and needed to ensure that with the new demand brought on by COVID-19, its 24/7 services--89% of compute workload is "containerized with Docker via Amazon Elastic Container Service (ECS)," according to the release, would run smoothly. 
 
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In order to ensure that students would receive the same on-demand access to study aids online, tutors, textbook rentals, and other services, Chegg turned to the New Relic platform, an application performance monitor (APM), which harnessed data to improve the performance of its app. 
 
Some of the benefits of New Relic, according to Chegg, are "end-to-end visibility that reduces times and gives contextual insights for multiple engineering teams to detect and resolve issues," insights into behavior of the app, which can be used by engineers, and reducing mean time to repair by 88%, down to just 24 minutes. 

"We're a widely distributed organization with a footprint that's changing a lot," Evans said in the press release. "New Relic APM is critical for us because of the dynamic nature of our tech stack. It gives us one place to go to understand the state of our applications. Every engineer here relies on New Relic, day in and day out. About 80% of our alerts are sourced from New Relic. It's the backbone of our monitoring capabilities."

Because of New Relic, Chegg was able to handle "record traffic volumes in April and May," Evans said, "which means record number of questions asked and questions answered." In other words, managing more people on the site than ever before. But the result? "It was a massive nonevent, from an engineering perspective," Evans said. 

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What does that mean? Students were able to run Chegg without service outages or lags in the tutoring workflow, and could still access the materials they needed for study aids.

Chegg had used New Relic previously, but it was "highly underutilized," Evans said. Back then, they used it to gauge things like response time. "We weren't deriving a lot of value out of it."

"I felt like we have a Ferrari that's sitting in rush hour traffic," Evans said.

So in 2018, the company did a lot of research on New Relic, looked at what was driving error rates and slow response times, for instance. "When things go wrong, New Relic tells us what's wrong." The following year, Chegg made a big push towards becoming proactive, and trying to find out what could go wrong before the problem started,  slow page loads, for instance, and making optimizations to improve it, which had the result of increasing scale. 

The traditional college experience has been upended because of COVID-19, and it's unclear what the future of education will look like. What is clear is that online learning platforms will continue to be necessary, whether or not students return to the classroom.

In the spring of 2020, on-campus resources, such as study groups or writing centers, for students disappeared, and those students needed to turn to online platforms to help fill this gap. "That one-on-one experience that Chegg simulates will continue to be important," Evans added.
 

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