Unbabel provides translation as a service through its platform powered by artificial intelligence (AI). By using a mixture of AI and human translation, it can deliver high-quality content five times faster and five times cheaper than its competitors. This is opening up localization opportunities to business of all sizes, allowing them to present content such as frequently asked questions or social media streams in local languages and thus deliver better support and customer service. Unbabel won an Innovation Excellence Award for its translation services at the Translation Automation User Society Conference in 2015.
To stay competitive in the translation services market, Unbabel needs to have strong technology coupled with solid human resources. “We have our own machine translation engine,” says João Graça, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Unbabel, “and a community of more than 40,000 crowdsourced translators, who work in 45 languages and are based around the globe. Combined, they help us produce a fast, cost-effective service.”
But about a year into operations, Unbabel found that its IT infrastructure wasn’t supporting the business adequately. There was frequent downtime, and costs were spiraling, even with a relatively small infrastructure. “We weren’t getting the performance we needed from our cloud platform-as-a-service provider,” says Graça. “Most crucially, the system wasn’t scaling. Plus, it didn’t offer a lot of the services we required for our natural language processing and machine learning technologies. We wanted to work with a cloud provider that could offer us a larger feature set as well as give us greater control over resources.”
When comparing its wish list to cloud providers on the market, Graça says it was a “no-brainer” to go with Amazon Web Services (AWS). “We’d already started using AWS for static assets and data backup, as well as some microservices, so when we decided to move our central web application from our main provider, we didn’t think twice about using AWS. It had the depth of services we were looking for, and, after talking to our AWS account manager, we realized the AWS Activate program could give us the support we needed to move wholesale to the AWS cloud,” he says.
After an initial database migration in March 2015 proved successful, the team moved its remaining services to AWS by mid-2015. It uses Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) with Auto Scaling and Elastic Load Balancing to host its main application machines, which sit within the Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC). It runs production servers in the US East (N. Virginia) region distributed across multiple Availability Zones. It also operates staging and development environments in the EU (Ireland) region. Graça says, “Here, we replicate production environments and test new features. It’s really useful because it gives developers the ability to experiment with different AWS technologies in their region without affecting production environments.”
Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) continues to house Unbabel’s static assets and backup data, as well as to store configuration files. It also uses Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) for PostgreSQL, and Amazon Route 53 to manage its subdomains.
Amazon CloudWatch allows Unbabel to monitor and set alarms related to worker environments, which run the background jobs in the main Unbabel app. Account activity is tracked through Amazon CloudTrail, and AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) gives granular control of access to resources, with additional security through two-factor authentication. Amazon Elasticsearch Service forms the back end for Unbabel’s full-text service to customers.
Graça points to the fact that AWS supports Unbabel’s growth in the highly competitive translation market. Containing costs plays a large part in this. “With our previous cloud provider,” says the CTO, “we were spending more than $12,000 a month, and this was constantly increasing.” As it moved to AWS, Unbabel carefully charted its costs and noticed a dramatic reduction at the point at which it migrated its databases. “We cut our infrastructure bills by more than 50 percent when we moved to AWS,” says Graça. “This represents not only the money we saved by moving our databases, but also the benefits of using Auto Scaling and reducing the amount of manual maintenance that’s required to scale up the system."
“We regularly have to track metrics related to our 40,000-plus translators—things like their hourly rate and speed,” continues Graça. “These processes are performed by worker environments and cause significant spikes in the system.” Before, each worker required its own instance, but in AWS, up to 10 workers can be operating in each instance. “Not only can we run processes more cost-effectively, but we can also make adjustments instantly in AWS. We don’t have to go to the provider and plan to expand capacity, and we don’t have to do anything manually,” says Graça.
But while Unbabel has made substantial infrastructure savings, this hasn’t been at the expense of service development. Graça says, “We’ve launched a number of new services since we migrated to AWS. And because the AWS infrastructure runs so smoothly, it doesn’t even require a full-time person to manage it. In fact, it takes up just a quarter of a person’s time—the rest can be spent on developing our services.”
Latency has also improved. “The visibility that AWS has given us, especially in our deployment and configuration, has helped to halve average web application response times from 250 to 125 milliseconds,” says Graça. In addition, the user experience is better. With the previous architecture there was frequent downtime during deployments to production, but this is no longer a problem with AWS. Graça says, “The website is faster and more reliable now.”
Summarizing Unbabel’s journey with AWS so far, Graça says, “We’re saving money that we can direct to delivering better services, we’re more reliable, and we have a better control of our infrastructure and resources.” Unbabel will continue extending its use of AWS with Amazon ElastiCache and Amazon EC2 Container Service (Amazon ECS), and building on AWS’s high-availability capabilities to further develop its services.
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