This spring, even as some 200 million people were using Instagram on their smartphones, a small team of engineers moved the photo sharing service from Amazon’s cloud computing service—where it was built in 2010—into a data center operated by Facebook, which bought Instagram in 2012. “The users are still in the same car they were in at the beginning of the journey,” says Instagram founder Mike Krieger, “but we’ve swapped out every single part without them noticing.”
Facebook calls it the “Instagration,” and it was an unprecedented undertaking for Mark Zuckerberg and company. Facebook has moved other acquired properties like FriendFeed into its data centers, but typically, they were small projects that involved shutting a service down before moving it into the Facebook universe. The Instagram switch was the live migration of an enormous—and enormously popular—operation. “The service couldn’t take any disruption,” says Facebook engineer George Cabrera. Facebook won’t say how many virtual machines were needed to run Instagram on Amazon, but it was in “the thousands.” And the service now stores over 20 billion digitals photos.
For Instagram, the move was a way of more effectively plugging into a wide range of computing tools that have long helped drive Facebook’s vast online empire. And for the engineers overseeing Facebook’s worldwide network of data centers, it’s a template for merging their operation with applications the company may acquire in the years to come. “We were patient zero,” Krieger says. But the “Instagration” also provides a lesson or two for the broader tech community as it builds more and more apps atop cloud computing services like Amazon—apps they might one day migrate to private data centers. The key to the migration was a specialized Amazon service known as the Virtual Private Cloud.