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How We Rebuilt a Mythical Startup at AWS GameDay

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By Sridhar Bhaskarla, Head, AWS Center of Excellence at Cognizant

AWS GameDay is a learning exercise designed to familiarize players with an Amazon Web Services (AWS) environment, and challenge them to come up with unique ways to solve problems based on the AWS resources at their disposal.

GameDay has been a showcase event for AWS Partner Network (APN) Partners and customers in the Americas, but they wanted to provide this immersive experience to folks working in India as well. In this post, we highlight our GameDay event that AWS hosted for Cognizant, an APN Premier Consulting Partner and Managed Service Provider (MSP).

Participants in a GameDay event are split into different teams, and each team is identified by a unique name. Teams must solve five different challenges involving various AWS services, for which they are awarded points. If the teams don’t follow the best practices in scaling and high availability, they lose points. There’s a dashboard to track the progress made by each team, and at the end there the winner is the team with the highest score.

When AWS explained this concept to Cognizant, we were super excited and lined up three sites in India up for the event: Bangalore, Chennai, and Kolkata.

Setting Up the Game

This particular GameDay had tasked us with tracking down the absconding CEO of a fictitious unicorn rental company. We worked in teams to technically revive the Unicorn Rentals, LLC, business that plummeted after a series of questionable leadership decisions.

AWS set the participants up for a roller-coaster ride of near real-life business-driven technical adventures. The fun and learning that GameDay brought to us was like rebuilding a Lego castle after it was broken down to pieces.

Vivek Raju, a Partner Solutions Architect at AWS, took the role of company chairman and began narrating the obstacles that had brought the organization into trouble. Our objective was to save Unicorn Rentals by assembling the shattered pieces of the remaining organization. What more could you ask for than to revive the business in a real-world scenario with a room full of technology geeks?

Mahesh, Cognizant’s AWS Professional Services head, said that it’s “not often technical folks get to see the business picture. This is a unique challenge and I am excited.”

The chairman announced that due to poor documentation standards, not much information was available about Unicorn Rentals except for some rough transcripts, scribbled paper napkins, and staff notebooks. The challenge thrown at us was to stabilize and protect the application, unearth critical data, arrive at hints, analyze records, and get the company back in business. We immediately began huddling to solve the crisis.

Building Strong Teams

Our GameDay participants came from diverse backgrounds such as AWS Professional Services, Managed Services, and the AWS Center of Excellence (CoE), a team focused on building AWS competencies and capabilities within Cognizant.

The chairman quickly organized the participants into seven teams. Each team consisted of architects, developers, project managers, and Database Administrators (DBAs).

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Team names showed there was no dearth of creativity in the room. Everyone burst into laughter when we heard the names like Boss Not Found. “What an apt name for the game!” said Balakrishnan from Cognizant’s Artificial Intelligence and Analytics (AIA) team.

Vengat, Lead Infra Architect at AWS, put a humorous twist to it when he said, “The covert reason is, we don’t want our boss to be around to push us with extra pressure!”

Each team was provided a hash code to login to the game portal. Once logged in, we could see the challenges and an AWS environment pre-provisioned to solve them. We also had access to a leaderboard that listed all the teams and their respective scores on a large screen.

Soon, we realized it was more than a game because our assignments required hands-on experience in multiple areas, and even exposure to advanced services.

Getting the Production Back Up and Running

The race to the technological quest began with the task of reviving the production website and fortifying against cyber-attacks.

“I am super excited to see the technical depth in this game,” said Badri, Lead Architect at AWS, stressing the word super. “Never thought it was going to be this interesting,” agreed Sirlam Venkata from AWS CoE while tinkering with his Amazon Athena query.

“My website is under continuous attack!” screamed Suma from Cognizant Professional Services. In no time, team captain Ravi reached out her and identified the script causing the webserver to crash and provided guidance to fix the problem.

Teams were using all kinds of techniques to endure the stability of the websites they just brought up. They were being incessantly attacked by near-real-time hacking simulations.

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Finding the CEO on the Run

Another task that brought the detectives out of our SMEs was to recognize the missing CEO from millions of images online. This involved machine learning techniques and rigorous training to the system that otherwise would have taken a long time, but the operational folks came up with an optimization plan using Amazon Rekognition and AWS Lambda.

Teams fired up the “search” activity to find the CEO while focusing on other parallel tasks. An exciting catch-me-if-you-can game was under way, and the teams began to set up the Amazon Rekognition collection and quickly fired up a Lambda function using Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) event notifications to invoke the function to analyze the training data set to associate the indexed faces with the external image of Kyle, the missing CEO.

We later automated the processing of images for the presence of Kyle and finally ended up detecting Jeff Bezos’ face since Kyle received a facelift to mask his identity.

“We only set up these for our clients, but it’s quite amazing to see ourselves practically using the machine learning in reality,” admired Senthil, Lead Architect from Cognizant Professional Services.

Speeding Up Time to Market

Another key technical aspect that folks can easily relate with is building DevOps pipelines to rapidly deliver new features to the market with seamless provisioning and testing functions.

Teams got busy developing the DevOps construct using native AWS tools. This included container migrations to Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS). It took hardly any time for them to set up CI/CD pipelines that would test and deploy the code required to run an Amazon ECS task.

When a new commit is made to the repository, the pipeline should get invoked and teams had to build automation to quickly deploy and test the code. This module starts with detecting and fixing the backend API using AWS Systems Manager Parameter Store, and then working through the Application Load Balancer to finally use AWS CodeBuild, AWS CodeDeploy, and AWS CodePipeline.

Using Analytics as a Newfound Force in Business Kinetics

So much of the business intelligence was buried as a debris of files in Amazon S3 that the previous organization was lazy to exploit.

Our SMEs did a marathon to build analytics from the massive data catalog using Amazon Athena and came up with several refreshing ideas to propel the Unicorn Rentals business. The players were given data in flat files stored in an S3 bucket.

“It’s fun to play with Athena,” commented Sudakar, Sr. Architect from AWS Professional Services. We were able to create Athena tables based on a publicly available dataset, and then find answers to five different problems by running SQL queries on the Athena tables.

Playing Games Within the Game to Quickly Catch Up

There was no limit to the fun, and teams that completed their tasks early got opportunities to play mini games and earn bonus points to rank them higher up the leaderboard. This included accessing data from encrypted volumes by deciphering API tokens, taking cues from illegibly scribbled notes on trash papers, making digital sense out of them, and developing SMS-based ordering.

While all the teams had SMEs from groups within an AWS practice, those with a higher number from AWS Professional Services staf, being the versatile whizzes, began as the favorites. They were closely followed by that of AWS CoE, the relentless techno voyagers.

But guess what? Slow and steady finally won the race. The team Short Circuit, comprised of SMEs from Cloud Operations, showed who’s the boss at the end, teaching us the worth of the age-old adage “practice makes one perfect.”

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Conclusion

A key takeaway for our teams at Cognizant was to always follow the documentation and best practices so that in the event of a disaster any team member should be able to run through the recovery. This also becomes a mandatory exercise, along with AWS Well-Architected Review, before moving an application into production.

This exercise provided critical learnings to us on efficiently scaling and deploying applications that meets the demands of a modern world, while conquering the threats from both inside or outside an organization.

AWS GameDay not only highlights the AWS services and features that help customers succeed in their own environment, but also emphasizes the significance of following AWS best practices for building a secure and scalable AWS infrastructure. This promotes teamwork by encouraging participants to work together to solve a common challenge.

About AWS GameDay

AWS GameDay is a learning exercise designed to better familiarize players with the AWS environment and challenge them to come up with ways to solve problems based on the AWS resources they have available to them.

The path that GameDay participants take is open ended and therefore offers an opportunity to learn about AWS best practices, new AWS services, and AWS architecture patterns in a risk-free environment.

Learn more about AWS GameDay >>

The content and opinions in this blog are those of the third party author and AWS is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this post.

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Cognizant is an APN Premier Partner. They transform customers’ business, operating, and technology models for the digital era by helping organizations envision, build, and run more innovative and efficient businesses.

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