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It’s that time of year - when we look back at the last 12 months and reflect on the trends that defined the year in Google Search. From Powerball numbers to Olympic champions, whether making dessert or becoming a mannequin, this year affected us all in different ways. Through all the highs and lows, people came to Search to learn more and understand.
Blog Added: January 08, 2017 02:45:05 AM
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How British charity Comic Relief processed millions of UK pounds in seven hours on Red Nose Day

When you concentrate two years worth of fundraising into seven hours, every second counts. That’s the reality for Comic Relief, one of the U.K.’s most notable charities. Held every two years, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day encourages the public to make the world a better place in the easiest way imaginable: by having a great time.

For this year’s fundraising event, Comic Relief turned to Google Cloud’s technology partner Pivotal to host its donation-processing systems. The platform also automated management of the underlying cloud infrastructure. Cloud services from Google Cloud Platform (GCP) were used to run Pivotal Cloud Foundry during Red Nose Day. In advance of the 2017 event, the charity was forecasting peaks of several hundred transactions a second for its online donation system. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.

We’re happy to report that Comic Relief raised over £73 million (and counting) for its marquee event! We caught up with David Laing, director of software engineering at Pivotal, to discuss running Pivotal Cloud Foundry on GCP for the 2017 event.

What kind of scale were you expecting for Red Nose Day?

Comic Relief does most of its two-year fundraising cycle in a seven-hour window. The donation system needed to scale with 100% uptime and reliability. It’s your classic elastic, spin-up/spin-down use case for the public cloud.

There are more than 14,000 call center reps that take donations via phone. The reps log donation details in the system. We also expected up to 100,000 concurrent web sessions, where individuals donate online. We expected nearly a million donations in all, with up to 300 donations a second.

What kind of apps did you run on Pivotal Cloud Foundry?

These were cloud-native applications, authored by consultancy Armakuni, in conjunction with Comic Relief. The apps used horizontally scalable, stateless microservices. Capturing donor information and processing their donation immediately is critical. This core availability requirement drove the architecture to have layers upon layers of redundancy. We hosted three independent shards of the full system in different datacenters spread over four countries and two continents, balancing traffic between them using DNS. Each shard then load balanced donations to multiple payment providers. Choosing availability over consistency and an “eventually consistent” architecture like this prepared us to continue to take donations in the event of multiple system failures. An async background process collected all the donation information to a central reporting shard.

What was it like working with GCP’s services?

At Pivotal, we love the performance and rapid provisioning of Compute Engine. The automated usage discounts on Google Cloud are so refreshing. You don’t need engineers to parse through consumption data to minimize your bill.

The load for Comic Relief is highly variable, with major consequences if performance suffers during traffic spikes. Unlike other clouds, GCP load balancers don't require a call to technical support to pre-warm. This saves our cloud admin's time and allows us to survive unexpected load increases. It gives us peace of mind knowing that GCP load balancers are built for scale, and backed up by the largest network of any cloud provider. In our experience, Google Cloud is able to handle traffic spikes that might stress other cloud providers.

We used Stackdriver Logging in our weekly capacity tests. We really liked its tight integration with BigQuery and Google Cloud Storage. Having the telemetry data stored in a massively scalable data analysis system helped us to analyze and pinpoint problematic areas ahead of time.

Identity management is another area where GCP shines. Since we already use G Suite for our corporate identity management, user management to all the GCP services was effortless.

How was the deployment of Pivotal Cloud Foundry on GCP? 

Both Pivotal and Google have invested a lot in making Cloud Foundry and GCP work well together. 

Deployment of Pivotal Cloud Foundry on Google Cloud “just worked.”  From the application’s perspective, Pivotal Cloud Foundry makes GCP look identical to other clouds; making multi-cloud deployment very simple. We followed the recommended deployment architecture and our reference architecture patterns for GCP.

The only real work was in figuring out how many Compute Engine VMs were required to handle the expected traffic.

For mission-critical workloads—like this scenario with Comic Relief—multi-site availability is a common pattern. This often takes the shape of multi-cloud, as it did with Red Nose Day. What’s your guidance for organizations looking to move to this model?

Organizations need to evolve their application architectures following two key architectural patterns.  

The first is to adopt a microservices architecture that breaks an application into components that are stateless and stateful. Stateless components are easy to scale and distribute; so doing as much of the “work” in these components provides flexibility. Stateful components are harder to manage; so it’s good practise to minimise these and ensure your application degrades gracefully should one of these fail or stall.

The second is to follow 12 factor app principles and build each microservice so that it can be run on an infrastructure agnostic platform like Pivotal Cloud Foundry. Pivotal Cloud Foundry abstracts away all the differences between different clouds. This makes it trivial to deploy and run the exact same application artifacts in multiple clouds.

An application architected according to the above two principles allows an organisation to wire the full stack together based on performance needs as well as organisational and governance requirements. Most importantly, you get the flexibility to change quickly as requirements change.

Comic Relief—whose donations app is architected like this—can massively scale up the application to run on multiple clouds with multiple layers of redundancy for the seven hours of the year when donations peak. For the rest of the year, they can run a single copy of the donations application in a scaled-down form to minimize costs.

Since Pivotal Cloud Foundry makes all clouds look the same, Comic Relief gets to choose the best cloud provider(s) every year. Over the past five years the app has been run in a private data center and across three public clouds—all with no changes to the application code.

What was the multi-cloud experience like for the engineering teams supporting the event?

This is where Pivotal Cloud Foundry can really help. The platform makes all infrastructure targets look the same. For Comic Relief—and everyone for that matter—Pivotal Cloud Foundry abstracts away the  differences between running  on-premises  and running on GCP. Once the Pivotal Ops team figured out how to run Pivotal Cloud Foundry on GCP, there was basically no work involved for the app developers. They just had to target a new Pivotal Cloud Foundry endpoint and rerun cf-push to get their application running on GCP.

If something unexpected happened on Red Nose Day, the application operations team can simply remove the affected site from the DNS round-robin list. Traffic would be re-directed to the other installations while we calmly triaged the issue. Regardless, despite a potential disruption, we knew that donations would still be accepted and processed.

Want to learn more about how Pivotal and Google are collaborating? Check out the Cloud Native Roadshow in a city near you. To hear more from Comic Relief, please register for Google Cloud Next London May 3-4.

Five ways Google Trips can help you enjoy your next vacation

Everyone loves vacation, but the work that goes into planning one—well, can be a lot of work.

That’s why last year we launched Google Trips on Android and iOS to help you experience more and plan less on vacation. All your travel info automatically organized in one place and available offline? Check. Activity suggestions based on what’s nearby and popular itineraries you can customize? Check.

The exciting (and often challenging) part of traveling is that things can sometimes change last minute. You need to be able to easily track updates to your travel plans and share them with your travel buddies. That’s where Google Trips comes in. We’ve added three new features to make your summer travel easier to plan and enjoy—even as things change. Learn more, plus some travel tips:

1. Share and keep track of your reservations in one place. No need to dig up every individual hotel, flight and travel reservation and forward them from your inbox. Save yourself the headache and share all the reservations for your trip with just a tap of the arrow button in Google Trips. Anyone you share with will receive an email with all the reservation details, and see them in the app too.

2. Stay on top of last-minute changes. Trips already helps automatically organize your travel reservations from Gmail. For those last-minute or spontaneous changes, we built in a feature that lets you quickly update and add new details for flight, hotel, car, and restaurant reservations, even when you don’t have an email confirmation. Simply press the “+” button in the bottom right corner within the Reservations section. Enter your airline and flight number, or the name of your hotel, car rental or restaurant, and we’ll fill out the rest. There’s space for free-form notes, too, if you’d rather.

3. Catch a train or bus to your next adventure. Part of the fun of traveling to a new country is visiting the top sights in different cities, and often travel by train or bus is the most convenient way to get around (Rome to Florence by train in 1:30? Sign us up!). In fact, more than 3 million rail and bus reservations are booked weekly by travelers around the world. So starting now, all your past and upcoming train and bus reservations will automatically be organized in one place for you in Trips—along with your flight, hotel, car and restaurant reservations.

4. Follow the wisdom of the crowd for some travel inspiration. There are so many places in the world to visit, sometimes you need a little help to figure out where to go next.  Here are eight destinations we saw rise in popularity for travelers over the past year:

5. Download your trip before you go. No matter where you end up, you can find nearby spots to see, check hours and locations for attractions, and review your saved places. On average, nearly a quarter of Trips users are offline for more than seven hours at a time while traveling, and nearly 70 percent use the offline feature and download trips in advance. Even with Wi-Fi available at hotels or local cafes, you can’t always count on a steady connection to get the information you need when you’re out and about, but Google Trips has you covered.

Going on vacation should be fun. While you kick back, we’ll keep working on Google Trips to make traveling easier for you!

Now we're cooking—the Assistant on Google Home is your secret ingredient

Cooking without burning the food can be hard enough. But before you even get there you have to prep your ingredients, all while trying not to get flour and eggs on, well, everything. Unless you’re a graceful TV chef, your favorite recipe book may end up covered in unbaked cookie.

But what if you could listen to a recipe and your favorite music, all at the same time? To help you perfect your kitchen skills, we’re introducing the ability to cook with the Google Assistant on Google Home.

Thanks to Bon Appetit, The New York Times, Food Network and more, you’ll be able to follow step-by-step cooking instructions for more than 5 million recipes. Creating your next banana bread masterpiece or stuffed chicken valentino for a dinner party feast will be easier than ever.

So here’s your recipe … for recipes on Google Home:

Step 1: Pick a recipe! Go to the Google Assistant on your Android phone or to Google Search (iOS or Android) and find a recipe. Once you pick your favorite, select the “Send to Google Home” button. Whether you’re at home or on the go, your recipe will be saved.

Step 2: Once you’re ready to cook, just say “Ok Google, start cooking" or "Ok Google, start recipe."

Step 3: Gather your ingredients, your apron and you’re halfway there.

And, for those times when you’re not sure if you missed a step or just need to repeat the directions, say “Ok Google, repeat” or “Ok Google, what’s step two?”

Step 4: While you stir and taste test, you can also continue to get things done with your Google Assistant on Google Home. All while you’re following the recipe, you can play your favorite music, ask about conversions (teaspoons to tablespoons, tablespoons to cups -- who can remember that stuff?) and set a timer or two.

Step 5: Enjoy your meal!

This feature will roll out over the coming week, so if you don't have it yet, try again in a few days! And if you’re looking for inspiration, you can also say “Ok Google, let's make macaroons” and we’ll give you a recipe to start.

There’s no set-up necessary—just send a recipe to your Google Home or start on the device and you’re ready to start cooking.

Bringing Alexander Hamilton’s history to life

In November 2009, the White House uploaded a video to YouTube of playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda performing a piece called “The Hamilton Mixtape.” In the video, Miranda proclaims to then President Obama that he would use hip-hop and spoken word to tell the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. The room erupts in curious laughter. Hip-hop and 18th century history? How could these seemingly different worlds come together?

Nearly eight years later, Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton: An American Musical has blown us all away. The show is a cultural phenomenon, uniting history buffs, musical theater fans, political wonks and beyond. Through its innovative storytelling and deliberately diverse cast, the show remixes American history into a powerful lesson that resonates with society’s current challenges. supported the Hamilton Education Program with a $800,000 grant that today will bring 5,000 students from Title I schools in New York, Chicago and the Bay Area to see the musical, as the capstone of a six-week curriculum about the Founding Era. Through a combination of learning from primary source documents like original letters and newspapers, and musical performances, students from every background will be able to make American founding era history their own. Students will also perform their original, history-based works on the Hamilton stage across these three cities. Perhaps one of them might be a future Lin-Manuel!

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is also launching new digital content on Google platforms that enables students around the world to engage more deeply with Alexander Hamilton’s story. Six new virtual reality tours will transport students, teachers, and fans to important places in Hamilton’s life, no matter where they live. Using Google Expeditions, students can explore places like Alexander Hamilton’s home in Uptown Manhattan, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and the infamous site of Aaron Burr–Alexander Hamilton duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.

In addition, using Google Arts and Culture, the Gilder Lehrman Institute is bringing online dozens of rare archives and artifacts related to Hamilton’s era including early printings of the U.S. Constitution and a letter to his wife expressing his love. There are ten digital exhibits that will allow students and others around the world to learn about Hamilton’s life and legacy—from his private and political life to a virtual walking tour of Hamilton’s New York, to the creation of Modern America.

Whether in virtual reality or on the theater stage, Alexander Hamilton has a lot to teach us about the history of our country, the American dream—and most importantly–rising up to opportunity.

Remember where you parked with Google Maps

Some say it’s about the journey, not the destination—but we think it’s about a little of both. Now, Google Maps for Android and iOS will not only help you get where you’re going, but it’ll help you remember where you parked once you’ve arrived. Here’s how it works:

For Android users, tap the blue dot and then tap “Save your parking” to add your parking location to the map. You’ll see a label on the map itself identifying where you parked your car. Tap on that label to open up your parking card, where you can add additional details about your parking spot. You can add a note like “level 3, spot 35,” add the amount of time left before the meter expires (and even get a reminder alert 15 minutes before it does), save an image of your parking spot, and send your parking location to friends.

On iOS, the new experience is pretty similar. Tap on the blue dot and then tap on “Set as parking location” to add your parking spot to the map itself. Tap on the parking label on the map to open up your parking card and do things like share it with friends and view pictures of your parking area. This is in addition to the automatic parking detection you might have already noticed in Google Maps for iOS. If you connect to your car using USB audio or bluetooth, your parking spot will be automatically added to the map when you disconnect and exit the vehicle.

With Google Maps, you get guidance far beyond arrival at your destination, with the ability to save your parking location, explore places you’ve saved to lists, easily find friends and family, and more.

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