Case Study

The Onion reduces downtime, simplifies node building and realizes faster deployments with Linode

Founded in 1988, Onion, Inc. is the parent company of The Onion, A.V. Club, and Clickhole, its three online digital media products. The Onion is the leader in news satire. A.V. Club offers online entertainment. Clickhole is a nexus where users can ignite a link's popularity. These websites reach more than 11 million unique visitors every month.

Chris Sinchok has served as The Onion's senior developer for three years. He has extensive experience in Django and iOS and tinkers in DevOps. Linode interviewed Sinchok for this case study.

The Onion began its online presence last century, using on-site, dedicated servers. However, having encountered system reliability, performance monitoring and application tracking challenges with this hardware, the company shifted to the cloud - and more specifically, Linode.


Unable to allocate enough resources to mitigate application errors, improve uptime, accelerate server provisioning, and improve overall system performance.


Enlist Linode's shell and Stackscripts code to, respectively, "bullet-proof” system and expedite customized node building.


Fewer application errors, minimal downtime, fast node-building, better allocation of personnel and optimum system performance. All systems go!

"Switching to Linode's virtual hosting kept us from being constantly pre-occupied with keeping the Onion's website up and live."


The Onion's virtual IT infrastructure, which includes 51 Linodes, functions on internal networking between those Linodes. The vast majority of the site's 11 million distinct monthly visitors connect through this internal networking, Linode's facilitation of which is critical to optimizing The Onion's performance.

That performance is rooted in a content delivery network, whereby The Onion stores an abundant amount of text, images and other content on origin servers. A dual layer caching system, comprised of individual Varnish servers integrates with the CDN provider, CDNetworks, and serves content for requests from four public-facing servers. These four servers include two application servers and two origin servers that host images.

Any user request for content residing on an origin server gets channeled through the Varnish server, which caches the request and also acts as a failsafe in case the origin experiences downtime. Once the Varnish server pulls the requested content in from the origin servers, the CDN and Varnish servers sustain it for 10 minutes before flushing it and refreshing the content. Consequently, the system will deliver content more quickly to subsequent requests than to initial requests.

With millions of monthly visitors to The Onion websites, Sinchok's staff must be diligent in its system monitoring and maintenance. Traffic loads are balanced by using multiple Linodes, connected via private, internal networking. Systems monitoring is done with software such as Graphite and Nagios that runs on individual SSD-powered Linodes. To ensure redundancy and data resiliency, in the event of a failure of services, The Onion frequently backs up its systems using an exclusive, proprietary, backup process. One backup is stored in a server in their Chicago office, and the other is backed up directly to AWS S3.


Before Linode, The Onion's incipient, in-house servers demanded deployment of too frequent and numerous administration tasks (e.g., server installations). These manual processes caused:

  • application errors,
  • increased downtime,
  • slow server provisioning,
  • inefficient use of capital, and
  • poor system performance.

Because of its manpower shortage, The Onion's development team was unable to thoroughly address these recurring bugs. Staff productivity sagged and site visitations could be arduous.

To resolve the system complications, improve system performance, drive productivity and delight customers, The Onion's team collectively decided to migrate their infrastructure to Linode.


Linode provides simple node deployment through its Linode Shell (LISH) through StackScripts, code that can deploy a ready-to-use system on boot, regardless of Linux distro. Additionally, Linode's DNS manager in conjunction with its private IP network fosters optimum system performance and elasticity.


Linode has been providing The Onion with fast, reliable and simple hosting services that addressed the latter's combined criteria for online hosting: simple node deployment and maintenance combined with optimum system performance and elasticity.

"The simplicity of the cloud route is why we keep using Linode," explained Sinchok, admitting that The Onion would be reluctant to switch to an AWS-type cloud host for its setup because it doesn't deliver simplicity. According to Sinchok, the more complex a service, the more errant assumptions he and his staff can make. Without a full DevOps team, Sinchok's staff would be hard-pressed to keep up with the demands of AWS-type complexity.

One feature that fosters simplicity is the Linode Shell (LISH), a command line interface that connects directly to a server and expedites deployments and more effective maintenance. LISH operates independently of the network, whether or not the network has experienced a connectivity (or routing) issue caused by heavy traffic or being misconfigured. By employing LISH, Sinchok has, when needed, been able to access the server even when the network is inaccessible. "It's definitely a lifesaver," confesses Sinchok, "we use it fairly often."

Complementing LISH while bridging simplicity with optimum system performance is Linode's StackScripts, code that will automatically and immediately execute a desired command at bootstrap of a Linode. Using StackScripts, Sinchok deployed essential elements of The Onion's software infrastructure in mere moments.

The Onion found additional system-performance enhancements with two complementary features: Linode's DNS Manager in concert with its private IP network. The DNS Manager translates names to IPs. The private IP network shuttles traffic locally, without impediment, which helps to maximize transfer speeds. This eliminates The Onion's propagation time when updating DNS records.

"The DNS Manager does everything we need it to do," asserts Sinchok.

The Onion's transition to Linode has resulted in

  • reduced downtime,
  • hastened deployment, and
  • improved overall efficiency in infrastructure management.

Ultimately, The Onion chose Linode by assessing four germane criteria: simplicity, performance optimization, flexibility and reliability. These same benchmarks are intrinsic to Linode's Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and its philosophy of doing business.

Published May 13, 2015