By Benjamin Pollack
Khan Academy recently made the decision to migrate our team chat from HipChat to Slack. As a team, we’re incredibly heavy users of ChatOps, and with so many of KA’s employees working remotely at least a few days a week, all the little details of a chat system can have a very disproportionate impact on the productivity and happiness of our employees.
We’d been experiencing an increasing number of issues with HipChat: we had connectivity problems. We had issues with message delivery. Notifications sometimes just broke. Our remote workers especially just didn’t feel that chat was something they could rely on, and that meant it was time to find an alternative.
From everything we learned, we were increasingly convinced that Slack was probably that alternative. The blocker was that we knew that switching chat systems isn’t free; we were so bought into the HipChat ecosystem that there was a real cost. (In fact, we had one failed attempt to migrate off HipChat in early 2014, which we had abandoned when the time investment far exceed what we had been prepared to spend.) We needed to make sure we could do the migration in a controlled fashion that minimized the disruption and lost time for the overall team.
Okay, I hear some of you ask, but what does it mean to be “bought in” to a chat system? Why’s it so hard to leave?
Well, because it’s never that simple. You’ve got to handle all of the cultural issues: you probably have a lot of rooms that serve special functions, so you’ll want to create equivalents on the new platform. And you’ll also need to update all the documentation saying what rooms are for what purpose, since not all rooms can be named identically. And in the process, you’re going to find a bunch of rooms whose purposes are dubious, and start having discussion on whether to keep them.
You’ve also got social issues. You’ve got contractors who need access to only a piece of the system. You have people who were administrators before, and need to be administrators again—which also means they need to learn how to do administration tasks all over again. You have whole parts of your organization that probably rely on some esoteric feature of the old chat system that doesn’t exist.
And if you’re lucky enough to be a software shop, you have a whole extra class of problems: integration points. Khan Academy has all kinds of systems that communicate through the chat platform. We had alerting systems that notified HipChat when systems were down or misbehaving, and we had Culture Cow, our Hubot, which did everything from providing regular reminders of how to be a KA employee, to interacting with our code review system, to allowing creating cases in Asana, and more. In fact, our entire deployment system was powered by HipChat.
We had a basic plan: a small team of just a couple of developers would begin dual-wielding Slack and HipChat. We’d then begin porting our integrations over to Slack until everything that happened in HipChat was also mirrored in Slack. Once we were satisfied, we’d cut everyone over and kill HipChat.
First, we scoured our code base and looked for anything that spoke to HipChat. While it turned out that many code bases talked to it in some way, we were helped by the fact that virtually all alerting at Khan Academy works through an open-source library of ours called alertlib. Thus, right from the bat, we got a lot of mileage simply by teaching alertlib how to speak to Slack, making sure appropriate tokens were installed, redeploying each service, and watching to make sure identical alerts appeared in both systems. If you use alertlib on your own site, grab our updates and you’ll get Slack support basically for free.
Most of the remaining instances were our manual integration points with third-party services, like GitHub and Asana. But one of the nice things about Slack’s ubiquity is that the overwhelming majority of tools that you’d want alerting in chat already directly support Slack. In many, many cases, we were able to delete or remove entire services, replacing them with some light configuration or a simple plugin. Our Sheepdog service, which powered Asana integration, could be replaced by the Asana Slack commands, Jenkins by the Jenkins Slack plugin, and so on. And because Slack has keyword-based autoresponses built-in, it was really easy to have Slack automatically tell people how commands they were used to had changed. (For example, to respond to messages targeting
@all by telling them to use
That pretty much left just the deployment system, Sun Wukong. There were two issues with Sun: first, it held a lot of state internally, meaning that every restart could put it into an odd state, that its idea of the state of the build process didn’t necessarily match Jenkins’, and that you couldn’t run both a copy in HipChat and a copy in Slack at the same time. To add insult to injury, while Sun was nominally built on Hubot, it didn’t actually use any of the Hubot API for communication; while Hubot runs just fine on Slack’s API, Sun Wukong most definitely did not.
After going through lots of variations on how to approach this problem, we ended up settling on one we really liked. First, we modified our build jobs to publish their job-specific state to a JSON file visible on the build server. Second, using that JSON file combined with the Jenkins API, we modified Sun to rely entirely on the build server’s view of the world directly. Suddenly, we could launch versions of Sun on both chat systems and drive deployments from either place, giving us an incredibly high degree of confidence that our most critical tool would work fine. As a bonus, the new Sun is actually a simple Slack outgoing webhook, which means you don’t need to have a continuously running bot—and, in turn, that we could move everything to just run on an App Engine Managed VM instead of a bespoke box on Amazon. We’ve open-sourced the project in case you want to build on it.
At that point, everything worked: if you were on Slack, you’d get all of the notifications, and could perform all the actions, that you could on HipChat. But what about everything else?
First, simply having alerts appear doesn’t mean they’re pretty. Slack has a really rich attachment and display system; whereas HipChat uses raw HTML for formatting. So a lot of our alerts looked really ugly and out-of-place on Slack.
This is where a few of us using Slack and HipChat at the same time became incredibly useful: we could see alerts come in, identify ones that were particularly ugly, and adjust them long before anyone showed up so that everything looked readable and attractive before people began using the system.
We also had to create chat many key chat rooms and adjust permissions before people came over. One unique thing we do at Khan Academy is to keep an alumni room for Elvises who have left the building: we like to stay in touch with everyone who’s had a hand in making Khan Academy great at what it does, even if they’ve gone on to pursue different things, but we need to keep the alumni out of sensitive rooms so we can preserve confidentiality and security. We had to replicate that in Slack.
Second, while Sal is brilliant, he does have limits to his knowledge. Thus, we have lots of contractors who help us cover other subject matter (and sometimes who help us work on specific, niche technology issues). While we obviously want to work closely with these contractors as conveniently as possible, they too should not have unfettered access to the entire Khan Academy chat infrastructure.
With HipChat, we actually had to have multiple, separate accounts to handle these use-cases, but Slack gave us a totally new way to approach the problem: restricted accounts, which can access only a subset of rooms and a subset of users. These mapped perfectly to our contractors and alumni, but meant we had to spend some time unifying the two system’s user lists and accounts.
Finally, we simply had to go through and adjust tons of documentation. That process was very straightforward, but took time. On the bright side, since we had new employees starting the same day we planned to do the switch, we knew we’d have people immediately using our new documentation.
At that point, we were good to go. We declared Monday the official day to jump to Slack. On that day, everyone logged on…
…and everything basically just worked. (In fact, the only issue we actually hit was a bug in Slack’s history importer that we might write about some other time.)
The trick with something like this is the same with any other major technical change: if you can possibly run both systems at the same time, do. It makes debugging a lot easier, makes sure you’re actually handling all the cases of the original tool, and gives you great confidence you can roll back if you do hit an issue.
The End Game
The move to Slack has been absolutely worth it. Deploys are easier to read, remote employees feel more connected, everyone trusts the chat system a lot more, and integrating with other tools is easier than ever before. And people love the system—something we’re hardly the first people to notice.
If you’ve been holding off jumping to Slack, follow our guide. It’s pretty painless and worth the effort.