How Intuit slashed costs and saved time by moving its TurboTax software to Kubernetes, a popular open source project started at Google

  • A year ago, Intuit started moving its TurboTax software to Kubernetes, an open source cloud computing project started at Google. 
  • Intuit previously ran TurboTax with AWS's Elastic Compute Cloud, but it faced issues scaling the service during peak times. 
  • Since moving to Kubernetes, Intuit has slashed costs and reduced the time it takes to release code, detect issues, and recover from system failures.
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Every spring, millions of people across the United States use software from TurboTax to file their taxes. As a result, TurboTax owner Intuit needs to scale the product for several months each year so that it continues to function properly even in peak times, like April evenings when people file taxes after work.

About a year and a half ago, Intuit decided to start building TurboTax to run on Kubernetes, a popular open source cloud computing project that began at Google. 

Kubernetes helps manage containers, which are used to package up code to allow developers to easily run applications exactly the same way whether the they're hosted in a private data center, the cloud, or even a personal laptop. Containers allow large-scale applications like TurboTax to run across all different platforms, use computing resources more efficiently, and roll out new product updates faster. 

Since fully rolling out Kubernetes for TurboTax, Intuit is saving 20-to-30% compared to what it previously spent to run the software on an Amazon product, estimates vice president of product development Pratik Wadher. But even more importantly, Kubernetes has saved the company time, he said. 

Before, Intuit engineers needed to spend a large amount of time updating TurboTax's code for each new release. Now, those updates happen automatically "like clockwork," Wadher says. Intuit previously released new code for TurboTax every two to three months, but it now releases updates on a weekly basis, rolling them out to customers within minutes.

"We're seeing huge benefits from a developer standpoint, availability standpoint, management and operational standpoint," Wadher told Business Insider.

Why Intuit decided to use Kubernetes

Intuit has been working on moving to the cloud — specifically Amazon Web Services — for the past six years. In August, Intuit closed its last data center, so its products and services now run fully on AWS.

Because of its relationship with AWS, Intuit used Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), AWS's product for managing virtual servers. However, TurboTax faced some scaling challenges with EC2, Wadher says. 

Read more: Everything you need to know about Kubernetes, the Google-created open source software so popular even Microsoft and Amazon had to adopt it

EC2 did not make it easy for Intuit to automatically scale its usage up or down depending on traffic to TurboTax, Wadher said, so Intuit decided to switch to Kubernetes. The firm still uses EC2, although on a lesser basis now, he added. The migration process began in May 2019, in order to ready for tax season in March and April 2020.

Wadher himself was particularly suited to help lead Intuit in building out Kubernetes because he founded a startup called Applatix, which had been building a platform based on Kubernetes to allow companies to quickly move to the cloud, which Intuit acquired in 2018. 

To help with the transition from EC2 to Kubernetes, Intuit also developed its own tools and add-ons, but the process was relatively smooth, according to Wadher.

"We had to do work to make it more transparent and smooth from an operational standpoint, but there were no inherent challenges," he said. 

TurboTax is reaping the benefits from Kubernetes

Since it started using Kubernetes, Intuit has been reaping the benefits. Intuit has cut down the time it takes to detect issues and to recover from system failures, Wadher said, and has increased developer productivity when it comes to releasing code. For example, recovering from system failures used to take 45 minutes, but now it takes less than five minutes. 

"Our goal is to increase the rate of innovation we were seeing," Wadher said.

Besides that, the app is also more secure and it's easier for developers to control the code they are releasing, Wadher says. Developers can even release code patches and updates during high traffic times without impacting customers  – something they could not do efficiently with EC2.

Intuit has decreased networking and compute costs, too. 

"We can control the footprint much better," Wadher said. "We don't need to over-provision. We're able to more tightly control how we increase the footprint, how we scale the systems."

As it uses Kubernetes, Intuit's plans to continue to make improvements. 

"For us, the journey is beginning," Wadher said. "As a company, we have decided to really focus on open source, and we're heavily investing ourselves in open source but also contributing a lot back to the community."

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