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Massive performance wins.

  • Continuous Delivery
Team Leadership
  • Senior Architect
    Rob Bayliss

Last Call Media team members were invited to join the Digital Services team at Mass.gov, to help them operationalize their Drupal 8 platform following the public launch.

Mass.gov is the website of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The primary stakeholders are the constituents who visit the website, and the state organizations who publish content on and visit the website for aspects of their job. It receives upward of 15 million page views a month and changes to the site are released twice weekly by a team of developers. The traffic profile for the site is interesting, yet very predictable. The vast majority of the site traffic occurs between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm during the business week. Site editors are working during the business day (9:00 am - 5:00 pm), and releases happen after the work day is over (after 8:00 pm). On analytics graphs, there are always five traffic spikes corresponding with work days, except when there is a holiday—and then there are four.

LCM assisted in making some pretty dramatic changes on both the front and back end of the site; every action we took was in service of either site stabilization or improving content “freshness.” State employees need to be able to publish content quickly, and constituents need fast access to the information that’s being published, without disruptions while they’re visiting the site. These two needs can be considered opposing forces, since site speed and stability suffers as content freshness (the length of time an editor waits to see the effect of their changes) increases. Our challenge was to find a way to balance those two needs, and we can break down our progress across an eight-month timeline:

September, 2017

The new Mass.gov site launched after roughly a month in pilot mode, and we saw an increase in traffic which corresponded with a small response time bump. The site initially launched with a cache lifetime of over an hour for both the CDN and the Varnish cache. This meant that the site was stable (well insulated from traffic spikes), but that editors had to wait a relatively long time to see the content they were publishing.

November, 2017

We rolled out the Purge module, which we used to clear Varnish whenever content was updated. Editors now knew that it would take less than an hour for their content changes to go out, but at this point, we still weren’t clearing the CDN, which also had an hour lifetime. Site response time spiked up to about two and a quarter seconds as a result of this work; introducing “freshness” was slowing things down on the back end.

December, 2017

We realized that we had a cache-tagging problem. Authors were updating content and not seeing their changes reflected everywhere they expected. This was fixed by “linking up” all the site cache tags so that they were propagating to the pages that they should be. We continued to push in the direction of content freshness, at the expense of backend performance.

To address the growing performance problem, we increased the Drupal cache lifetime to three hours, meaning Varnish would hold onto things for up to three hours, so long as the content didn’t get purged out. As a result of our Purge work, any content updates would be pushed up to Varnish, so if a page was built and then immediately updated, Varnish would show that update right away. However, we saw very little performance improvement as a result of this.

January, 2018

Early in the month, we experienced a backend disruption due to some JavaScript changes that were deployed for a new emergency alert system. In development, we added a cache-busting query parameter to the end of our JSON API URL to get the emergency alerts. However, in the production environment, we were adding one additional, completely uncached request for every person that hit the site. As a result of this relatively minor change, the backend was struggling to keep up (although constituents saw almost no impact because of the layered caching). This illustrated the importance of considering the performance impact of every single PR.

Careful study of the cache data revealed that each time an editor touched a piece of content, the majority of the site’s pages were being cleared from Varnish. This explained the large spike in the response time when the Purge work was rolled out, and why raising the Drupal cache lifetime really didn’t affect our overall response time. We found the culprit to be the node_list cache tag, and so we replaced it with a system that does what we called “relationship clearing.” Relationship clearing means that when any piece of content on the site is updated, we reach out to any “related” content, and clear the “cache tag” for that content as well. This let us replace the overly-broad node_list cache tag with a more targeted and efficient system, while retaining the ability to show fresh content on “related” pages right away. The system was backed by a test suite that ensured that we did not have node_list usages creep back in the future. This earned us a massive performance boost, cutting our page load time in half.  

We found that the metatag module was generating tokens for the metatags on each page twice. The token generation on this site was very heavy, so we patched that issue and submitted the patch back to Drupal.org.

February, 2018

We had another backend disruption due to some heavy editor traffic hitting on admin view; our backend response time spiked up suddenly by about 12 seconds. A pre-existing admin view had been modified to add a highly desired new search feature. While the search feature didn’t actually change the performance of the view, it did make it much more usable for editors, and as a result, editors were using it much more heavily than before. This was a small change, but it took what we already knew was a performance bottleneck, and forced more traffic through it. It demonstrates the value of being proactive about fixing bottlenecks, even if they aren’t causing immediate stability issues. It also taught us a valuable lesson—that traffic profile changes (for example, as a result of a highly desired new feature) can have a large impact on overall performance.

We got a free performance win just by upgrading to PHP 7.1, bringing our backend response time from about 500 milliseconds down to around 300.

We used New Relic for monitoring, but the transaction table it gave us presented information in a relatively obtuse way. We renamed the transactions so that they made more sense to us, and had them broken down by the specific buckets that we wanted them in, which just required a little bit of custom PHP code on the backend. This gave us the ability to get more granular about what was costing us on the performance side, and changed how we started thinking about performance overall.

We added additional metadata to our New Relic transactions so we could begin answering questions like “What percentage of our anonymous page views are coming from the dynamic page cache?” This also gave us granular insight on the performance effects of changes to particular types of content.

We performed a deep analysis of the cache data in order to figure out how we could improve the site’s efficiency. We broke down all the cache bins that we had by the number of reads, the number of writes, and the size. We looked for ways to make the dynamic page cache table, cache entity table, and the render cache bin a little bit more efficient.

We replaced usages of the url.path “cache context” with “route” to make sure that we were generating data based on the Drupal route, not the URL path.

On the feedback form at the bottom of each page on the site, the form takes a node ID parameter, and that’s the only thing that changes when it’s generated from page to page. We were able to use “the lazy builder” to inject that node ID after it was already cached, and we were able to generate this once, cache it everywhere, and just inject the node ID in right as it was used.

We took a long hard look at the difference between the dynamic page cache and the static page cache. Without using the Drupal page caching, our average response time was 477 milliseconds. When we flipped on the dynamic page cache, we ended up with a 161 millisecond response, and with the addition of the static page cache, we had a 48 millisecond response. Closer analysis showed that since Varnish already handled the same use case as the Drupal page cache (caching per exact URL), the dynamic page cache was the most performant option.

We automated a nightly deployment and subsequent crawl of site pages in a “Continuous Delivery” environment. While this was originally intended as a check for fatal errors, it gave us a very consistent snapshot of the site’s performance, since we were hitting the same pages every night. This allowed us to predict the performance impact of upcoming changes, which is critical to catching performance-killers before they go to production.

As a result of all the work done over the previous 5 months, we were able improve our content freshness (cache lifetime) from 60 minutes to 30 minutes.

April, 2018

We enabled HTTP2, an addition to the HTTP protocol that allows you to stream multiple static assets over the same pipeline.

We discovered that the HTML response was coming across the wire with, in some cases, up to a megabyte of data. That entire chunk of data had to be downloaded first before the page could proceed onto the static assets. We traced this back to the embedded SVG icons. Any time an icon appeared, the XML was being embedded in the page. In some cases, we were ending up with the exact same XML SVG content embedded in the page over 100 times. Our solution for this was to replace the embedded icon with an SVG “use” statement pointing to the icon’s SVG element. Each “used” icon was embedded in the page once. This brought pages that were previously over a megabyte down to under 80 kilobytes, and cut page load time for the worst offenders from more than 30 seconds to less than three seconds.

We reformulated the URL of the emergency alerts we’d added previously to specify exactly the fields that we wanted to receive in that response, and we were able to cut it down from 781 kilobytes to 16 kilobytes for the exact same data, with no change for the end users.

We switched from WOFF web fonts to WOFF2 for any browsers that would support it.

We used preloading to make those fonts requested immediately after the HTML response was received, shortening the amount of time it took for the first render of the page pretty significantly.

We added the ImageMagick toolkit contrib module, and enabled the “Optimize Images” option. This reduced the weight of our content images, with some of the hero images being cut by over 100 kilobytes.

We analyzed the “Did you find what you were looking for?” form at the bottom of every page, and realized that the JavaScript embed method we were using was costing our users a lot in terms of bandwidth and load time. Switching this to a static HTML embed with a snippet of JavaScript to submit the form had a dramatic improvement in load time.

The Mass.gov logo was costing the site over 100 kilobytes, because it existed as one large image. We broke it up so that the image of the seal would be able to be reused between the header and the footer, and then utilized the site web font as live text to create the text to the right of the seal.

Additional efforts throughout this time included:

  • Cleaning up the JavaScript. We found an extra copy of Modernizer, one of Handlebars, and a lot of deprecated JS that we were able to get rid of.

  • We removed the Google Maps load script from every page and only added it back on pages that actually had a map.

  • We lazy-loaded Google search so that the auto-complete only loads when you click on the search box and start typing.

Our work across these eight months resulted in huge improvements in both the front and back end performance of the Mass.gov site. We achieved a 50% overall improvement in the back end performance, and a 30% overall improvement in the front end performance. We continue to work alongside the Digital Services team on these and other efforts, striving for the best possible experience for every single user and constituent.

See the BADCamp presentation about this work here.

Branding and print design.

  • Continuous Delivery
Team Leadership

As part of an effort to support local commerce and community, Last Call Media partnered with the Downtown Northampton Association, an organization in LCM’s home city that seeks to improve the business and cultural strength of the downtown area through investments in programming, beautification, and advocacy.

How we did it

We joined the effort, bringing our expertise for a more beautiful downtown. In partnership with the DNA’s Executive Director and a board of local luminaries, Last Call Media helped brand the organization with print materials, signage and digital media, creating a universally recognizable identity for the organization, assisting with fundraising efforts, and sparking demand for co-branding materials from downtown businesses.




Brochure detail

logo alts

A new design for PVPC.

  • Continuous Delivery
Team Leadership
  • Senior Producer
    Colin Panetta
  • Art Director
    Colin Panetta

The Pioneer Valley Planning Committee, the regional planning body for the Pioneer Valley region, which encompasses 43 cities and towns in the Hamden and Hampshire county areas of Massachusetts, asked LCM to redesign their aging Drupal site with a new look and feel and to also be compliant with new government regulations surrounding content and site accessibility.

Working with PVPC 

We took the project from initial discovery and strategy through information architecture, design, and development. We were able to deliver a compelling, modern, and effective design, with PVPC’s target users in mind. Our discovery and strategy informed a new design for improved site navigation and menu structure, re-working the existing navigation system to create a more fluid experience visiting the site.

Catalog integration for Queens Library.

  • Continuous Delivery
Team Leadership
  • Senior Producer
    Kelly Albrecht
  • Senior Architect
    Kelly Albrecht
  • Senior Development
    Kelly Albrecht

Team augmentation for increased capabilities.

Queens Library needed to integrate its developing content management system into its Book and Media Catalog systems to display realtime information and allow interaction between site visitors and its collection.

We were approached for assistance in developing the custom module foundations for these integrations.

We joined the Queens Library IT team and provided coaching as well as custom code.

Our engagement included working with in-house developers and other development teams to build custom modules, displays, and workflows to complete the integrations. Handoff of our work included training and enablement of internal Queens Library developers.

Queens Library launched its new and fully integrated website on Drupal as an interface to display realtime catalog information and facilitate customer interaction.

A Hub for Emergency Preparedness.

  • Agile/Scrum
Team Leadership
  • Senior Producer
    Sean Eddings
  • Senior Development
    Jeff Landfried

San Francisco takes emergency preparedness seriously.

As the fourth largest city in California, the city also serves as a center for business, commerce and culture for the West Coast. To support the City of San Francisco’s commitment to emergency preparedness, the Department of Emergency Management designed and developed a campaign to drive citizens to better understand how to be prepared in the event of an emergency. And in the unfortunate event that disaster does strike, the platform transitions to a communication platform where citizens can find the most up to date information directly from the City.

DEM had invested significant effort into creating a very engaging website to communicate to the public about emergency preparedness. However, the site was developed in a way that did not facilitate quick and easy content changes - a critical need when up-to-the-minute accurate information is needed. The site also fell short on a number of accessibility metrics.

How we did it.

Profile picture for user Jeff

When it’s business as usual, the site serves as a platform to generate awareness for how someone can better prepare themselves and their family in the event of an emergency. Visitors can download checklists, and complete forms, in addition to reading about how to prepare for different kinds of disasters, like an earthquake or tsunami. However, in the event of an emergency, the City can quickly enable a separate emergency home page which presents visitors with vastly different dynamic content updated in real time specific to the emergency, including an embedded interactive Google Crisis Map that displays information aggregated from a variety of external sources managed by the City.

Last Call Media provided a direct replacement of the existing site in Drupal 8, leveraging the out-of-the box D8 accessibility features and the user-friendly D8 in-place content editing interface. We also reduced the maintenance burden by bringing the blog, which had been a separate site, into the main site.

Our accessibility audit revealed that the original color palette used for the site designed relied heavily on colors that did not meet WCAG 2.0 contrast requirements. We were able to identify a compliant color scheme that remained within the existing brand guidelines for the new site. The site also relied heavily on icon fonts which were not taking advantage of Unicode’s private use area, and the HTML elements displaying the icons did not use appropriate ARIA attributes. Rebuilding the icon font and HTML markup to take advantage of those tools helped to greatly improve the screen reader experience for the site.

Another area that needed improvement was general accessibility related to interactive elements. Sections like flyout menus and tabs were difficult to navigate via keyboard, and were missing ARIA attributes that make them easier to understand and use. During the rebuild we switched away from using mostly-homegrown CSS and JS, and leveraged the Foundation CSS/JS framework instead. This change provided a couple of benefits - many of the missing accessibility features are included in the components provided by Foundation out of the box, it helped keep the nuanced details of the styling more consistent across different areas of the site, and it expedited the development process as well.

The City of San Francisco now has a means of communicating its emergency preparedness message with a site that is engaging, nimble, and robust.

Best-in-class content delivery and caching.

  • Continuous Delivery
Team Leadership
  • Senior Architect
    Rob Bayliss

As part of our ongoing engagement with the Commonwealth, we identified an opportunity to improve customer and constituent experience by leveraging the Cloudflare CDN (Content Delivery Network). Following the initial discovery phase, we architected, implemented, and deployed Cloudflare’s Global CDN product to give the site best-in-class content delivery and caching, while maintaining all the functionality of the previous CDN while improving development capabilities.

Creating Undetected Changes.

In the discovery phase, we reviewed the marketplace to find the most appropriate CDN for the State’s use case, balancing security, performance, and cost considerations. Ultimately, Cloudflare was selected as the best fit because of its extensive firewall and DDOS protections, and granular cache control using “Cache Tags,” which have the potential to boost performance for the constituents and reduce the risk of site instability.  

The first, and perhaps most critical concern we addressed in the course of this project was that the CDN needed to be resilient, serving pages even if the site itself was not functioning properly. For example, the development team does code releases periodically that take the backend of the site completely offline, but constituents still need to be able to access content during this time. To meet this requirement, we adjusted the site’s caching headers to include directives to serve cached responses in the event of an error response received from the origin.  As a result, constituents are able to access the majority of Mass.gov, even if a catastrophic event takes the web servers completely offline.

As a government website, Mass.gov is always at risk of attack from malicious actors. To mitigate this risk, Last Call Media undertook extensive configuration and testing of Cloudflare’s various security features, including the Web Application Firewall (WAF), DDOS protections, and custom firewall rules. We had a few hiccups along the way with configuring the security features (at one point, content authors were receiving CAPTCHA verifications when submitting their changes), but were ultimately able to work through these issues to dial in the right balance of security and ease-of-use.

Next, we implemented Cloudflare’s brand new “Workers” feature, which gives granular control over CDN functionality using a javascript “service worker.” The Worker we wrote for this project handles more than 6 million requests a day, and gives the Commonwealth the ability to test and deploy CDN level changes to development, staging, and production environments independently, making it much faster and safer to verify and release changes. The worker implementation benefits the Commonwealth giving them flexibility for the future, while also reducing cost over the previous CDN.

These workers were also integral to the success of this migration beyond what we had initially imagined. During the testing and release phases of the project, they gave us a mechanism for fixing changes that was reviewable and testable. Having a well-defined review and deployment process improved the team’s visibility into what changes were being made, and let us avoid silly mistakes. Overall, we felt the development team’s velocity was greatly improved by using this workflow.

The migration went as smoothly as possible, there were no negative results.

Mass.gov raved:

I hope you are puffed up with pride. We simply couldn’t have done any — much less ALL — of this mountain of work without you. You’ve been a rock. Well, a very hard-working and creative rock. We are so lucky to have your help.

Lisa Mirabile, Project Manager

For the future we envision phase 2 to be granular cache invalidation. This would mean when a piece of content changes, the CDN would only invalidate only that piece of content so it’s fresh in the cache. What that allows us to do is set really long cache lifetimes on the edge content. We would be able to cache pages for even a year and rely on the invalidation to make them fresh when we need to be, reducing the load on the backend servers significantly. In its current state, pages now only get cached for 30 minutes. With a longer available cache time, we’d see immediate results for less load time, it would be less costly for infrastructure, and lessen the chances for a backend disruption.

Migrating from Workbench Moderation to Content Moderation

Team Leadership
  • Senior Development
    Kelly McCabe

When the Commonwealth of Massachusetts first built their Drupal 8 site, they started in Workbench Moderation that allowed their authors to write content and put it into various moderation states such as “draft” or “needs review”. With over 600 content authors on the platform, this is a vital piece to help ensure content on the platforms meets their requirements. At the time of build, Workbench Moderation was in core and Content Moderation had not reached a stable release yet. Drupal 8 introduced Content Moderation in core and as part of our ongoing engagement with Mass.gov, we were asked to help with the heavy lifting associated with the upgrade in an effort to keep their site supported and up-to-date. The Commonwealth found this to be a greater challenge than expected and relied on LCM to facilitate the right migration path.

Profile picture for user KellyM

Our first step in initiating the migration was to investigate what we were dealing with. At the time, mass.gov had around 600,000 revisions with a moderation state that needed to be migrated from Workbench Moderation to Content Moderation. We started off by digging into Content Moderation’s code to fully understand the complexities and layers of the switch. We found the systems to be very different and with no pre-designed migration path, we deduced that we needed to create a handmade migration path from scratch, outside of a standard Drupal 8 migration. Once the initial configuration of this path was set up, the process was just to keep building the migration through trial and error and figuring out the fastest plan of action.

We knew that switching from Workbench Moderation to the new core module, Content Moderation meant the mass.gov site and its authors would benefit. For a government site, security is always a concern and therefore a top priority. When working with a core module, it is actively supported for security and for any updates that core has as opposed to still running on a contributed module. 

After we felt sound on the coding portion of the switch, we wanted to make sure we were in alignment about expected workflows, transitions, non-transitions, and revision states. We started with around 20 transitions in Workbench Moderation that we were able to consolidate to 5 transitions in Content Moderation for a more optimized workflow. 

We also worked on rebuilding some views such as the “all content view” and mass.gov’s specific dashboard called, “MyContent Block”, which contains all the content the logged in author is watching. 

After a successful switch, mass.gov users are leveraging Content Moderation to moderate content. We are implementing a patch to Content Moderation for the view for “filter by moderation state”. This filter was missing some indices that would cause MySQL to incorrectly do a full table scan instead of an indexed scan of content that caused a lot of performance issues. We ended up writing a patch to include the missing indices that would bring down the query load time on the “MyContent Block” view from 15,000 milliseconds to 200 milliseconds. We plan for this patch to be made available for other sites experiencing the same issue with a lot of content like Mass.gov does.

Overall, the goal was to make the switch as seamless as possible and create little to no changes to the content authoring experience. On the module itself, content authors did get some smaller UI changes such as the submission process with dropdowns for moderation states. When it came to deployment, authors trying to make changes during this window would have experienced downtime but we were strategic enough to initiate migration on Memorial Day weekend and experienced no content loss.

When we started the migration path, the expected migration time was 15-20 hours. When we executed deployment, we got the time down to 4 hours through our optimization efforts. The migration was incredibly successful on deployment and we experienced no issues!