How to Design URL shortening service?


  1. Grokking the System Design Interview


URL shortening is used to create shorter aliases for long URLs. We call these shortened aliases “short links.” Users are redirected to the original URL when they hit these short links. Short links save a lot of space when displayed, printed, messaged or tweeted. Additionally, users are less likely to mistype shorter URLs.

For example, if we shorten this page through TinyURL:

We would get:

Functional Requirements:

  1. Given a URL, our service should generate a shorter and unique alias of it. This is called a short link.
  2. When users access a short link, our service should redirect them to the original link.
  3. Users should optionally be able to pick a custom short link for their URL.
  4. Links will expire after a standard default timespan. Users should also be able to specify the expiration time.

Non-Functional Requirements:

  1. The system should be highly available. This is required because, if our service is down, all the URL redirections will start failing.
  2. URL redirection should happen in real-time with minimal latency.
  3. Shortened links should not be guessable (not predictable).


Let’s assume 100:1 ratio between read and write.

High level estimates: Assuming 500 million new URLs per month and 100:1 read:write ratio, following is the summary of the high level estimates for our service:

New URLs 200/s
URL redirections 19K/s
Incoming data 100KB/s
Outgoing data 9MB/s
Storage for 5 years 15TB
Memory for cache 170GB



creatURL(api_dev_key, original_url, custom_alias=None, user_name=None, expire_date=None)

deleteURL(api_dev_key, url_key)


atabase Schema:

We would need two tables: one for storing information about the URL mappings, and one for the user’s data who created the short link.


Component design

Encoding actual URL : Base64 (a-z, A-Z, 0-9, “-“, “.”

append an increasing sequence number to each input URL to make it unique,

Generating keys offline

We can have a standalone Key Generation Service (KGS) that generates random six letter strings beforehand and stores them in a database (let’s call it key-DB). Whenever we want to shorten a URL, we will just take one of the already-generated keys and use it. This approach will make things quite simple and fast.

Can concurrency cause problems? As soon as a key is used, it should be marked in the database to ensure it doesn’t get used again. If there are multiple servers reading keys concurrently, we might get a scenario where two or more servers try to read the same key from the database. How can we solve this concurrency problem?

Servers can use KGS to read/mark keys in the database. KGS can use two tables to store keys: one for keys that are not used yet, and one for all the used keys. As soon as KGS gives keys to one of the servers, it can move them to the used keys table. KGS can always keep some keys in memory so that it can quickly provide them whenever a server needs them.

For simplicity, as soon as KGS loads some keys in memory, it can move them to the used keys table. This ensures each server gets unique keys. If KGS dies before assigning all the loaded keys to some server, we will be wasting those keys–which is acceptable, given the huge number of keys we have.

KGS also has to make sure not to give the same key to multiple servers. For that, it must synchronize (or get a lock to) the data structure holding the keys before removing keys from it and giving them to a server

What would be the key-DB size? With base64 encoding, we can generate 68.7B unique six letters keys. If we need one byte to store one alpha-numeric character, we can store all these keys in:

6 (characters per key) * 68.7B (unique keys) = 412 GB.

Isn’t KGS the single point of failure? Yes, it is. To solve this, we can have a standby replica of KGS. Whenever the primary server dies, the standby server can take over to generate and provide keys.

Can each app server cache some keys from key-DB? Yes, this can surely speed things up. Although in this case, if the application server dies before consuming all the keys, we will end up losing those keys. This could be acceptable since we have 68B unique six letter keys.

How would we perform a key lookup? We can look up the key in our database or key-value store to get the full URL. If it’s present, issue an “HTTP 302 Redirect” status back to the browser, passing the stored URL in the “Location” field of the request. If that key is not present in our system, issue an “HTTP 404 Not Found” status, or redirect the user back to the homepage.

Should we impose size limits on custom aliases? Our service supports custom aliases. Users can pick any ‘key’ they like, but providing a custom alias is not mandatory. However, it is reasonable (and often desirable) to impose a size limit on a custom alias to ensure we have a consistent URL database. Let’s assume users can specify a maximum of 16 characters per customer key (as reflected in the above database schema).

 Data Partitioning and Replication

 Range Based Partitioning : unbalanced server loads

Hash-Based Partitioning: use consistent hashing



We can cache URLs that are frequently accessed. We can use some off-the-shelf solution like Memcache, which can store full URLs with their respective hashes. The application servers, before hitting backend storage, can quickly check if the cache has the desired URL.





Q: How will shortened URLs be generated?

  • A poor candidate will propose a solution that uses a single id generator (single point of failure) or a solution that requires coordination among id generator servers on every request. For example, a single database server using an auto-increment primary key.
  • An acceptable candidate will propose a solution using an md5 of the URL, or some form of UUID generator that can be done independently on any node. While this allows distributed generation of non- colliding IDs, it yields large “shortened” URLs
  • A good candidate will design a solution that utilizes a cluster of id generators that reserve chunks of the id space from a central coordinator (e.g. ZooKeeper) and independently allocate IDs from their chunk, refreshing as necessary.

Q: How to store the mappings?

  • A poor candidate will suggest a monolithic database. There are no relational aspects to this store. It is a pure key-value store.
  • A good candidate will propose using any light-weight, distributed store. MongoDB/HBase/Voldemort/etc.
  • A great candidate will ask about the lifespan of the aliases and design a system that purges aliases past their expiration

Q: How to implement the redirect servers?

  • A poor candidate will start designing something from scratch to solve an already solved problem
  • A good candidate will propose using an off-the-shelf HTTP server with a plug-in that parses the shortened URL key, looks the alias up in the DB, updates click stats and returns a 303 back to the original URL. Apache/Jetty/Netty/tomcat/etc. are all fine.

Q: How are click stats stored?

  • A poor candidate will suggest write-back to a data store on every click
  • A good candidate will suggest some form of aggregation tier that accepts clickstream data, aggregates it, and writes back a persistent data store periodically

Q: How will the aggregation tier be partitioned?

  • A great candidate will suggest a low-latency messaging system to buffer the click data and transfer it to the aggregation tier.
  • A candidate may ask how often the stats need to be updated. If daily, storing in HDFS and running map/reduce jobs to compute stats is a reasonable approach If near real-time, the aggregation logic should compute stats

Q: How to prevent visiting restricted sites?

  • A good candidate can answer with maintaining a blacklist of hostnames in a KV store.
  • A great candidate may propose some advanced scaling techniques like bloom filter.

2 thoughts on “How to Design URL shortening service?

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