Monday, August 15, 2011

Wallace and Bird Hosting soar: how they save on hardware while delivering more complex apps

Many of the cloud service providers that we are working with here at CA Technologies are small, but aggressive. These are the guys that know their business really, really well and are the ones who are targeting their niches pretty successfully. The ability to focus and be nimble are some of the key indicators of success in the service provider space.

We’ve been calling folks like these “Cloud Accelerators” – given how instrumental these service providers are being in the adoption of cloud computing -- and we have been profiling some of the more interesting ones.

Bird Hosting strikes me as a great example of one of these “accelerators.” They may not be on your radar screen yet, but Bird Hosting is a cloud service provider that’s nimble and all about the personal touch. They not only deliver cloud hosting and other key services to customers, you can find them answering questions on They post reviews talking through the pros and cons of the newest rev of their cloud platform. They even run a hardware review site. (After all, there are benefits for a service provider to know this stuff.)

They do all this with 10 employees, 3 locations…and they have 3,600 customers.

Bird Hosting’s CEO, Michael Wallace, answered a few questions about their operations, what’s key for a service provider’s cloud platform, and even what’s up with their name. Read on:

Jay Fry, Data Center Dialog: You’re a relatively small service provider. How many data centers do you need to effectively serve a nationwide customer base? What else is important?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting: We started in Seattle. When you have a data center in Seattle and customers in New York, the content isn’t delivered as quickly as you’d like – content delivery speed is important. We saw a need for something more central in the U.S., and so we went to Dallas. We now have 3 data centers (Seattle, Dallas, Washington, D.C.) and can cover the whole United States effectively.

In fact, we have customers across the world. We have customers that range from small shared-hosting accounts to large corporations. For example, we support a travel organization in New York, a food chain also in New York, as well as Costco. We host and produce videos that have 360-degree views of sheds and playgrounds that Costco sells.

DCD: How did you get started in the service provider business?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting: We originally started in 2005. My father was one of the pioneers of the Internet; he started an ISP in 1991. I started out doing web hosting with some big corporate website hosters. I found that they were subpar, both from how they presented themselves to the services they offered. So I decided to do my own. I had the knowledge to do it. And I had just returned from a lengthy tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and was ready to take a bold move and launch my own business.

DCD: A recent article in SearchITChannel by Carl Brooks talked about the fact that the market is starting to realize that enterprises who are building private clouds and service providers that are selling public cloud services have some very different needs. Can you talk a bit about what you think is important to have in a cloud platform for service providers like yourself?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting: Two things that are very important are cost savings and flexibility. With CA AppLogic [what Bird Hosting uses], I’m not limited. It’s a platform that allows me to offer a full range of services. Before I had to have separate machines for each individual task. We had to have a box for Windows, a box for Linux, and when we added customers, we had to add more dedicated boxes. With AppLogic, you don’t have to be limited to a certain OS. You have a cluster of servers and it allows us to run all of our applications on top; it’s neutral. So that helps us save money – we are able to standardize hardware and we can even save power.

DCD: Speaking of saving power, I’ve heard you talk about how much you’ve reduced your environmental impact. Can you quantify what you’ve been able to do?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting:
When we first started our business, we sold a lot of dedicated servers. Each would have a power draw even when idle. CA AppLogic allowed us to take those boxes and cram them into a virtual environment. Customers on dedicated servers were able to run as virtual dedicated servers instead. Customers were paying for a given amount of resources; we would give them the resources and they would run their environment. We cut back from 6 full cabinets to just one cabinet in one data center.

We were able to take 200 boxes and put that into 10 boxes. In our Dallas facility, for each of our cabinets we have two power drops, which costs $960 per cabinet – just for power. We were able to cut back 10 power drops, saving us about $10,000 per month.

DCD: Service providers are all looking for ways to define a niche that they can own, build up new revenue opportunities, and grow their margins. What has your cloud platform decision and approach meant competitively?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting: It allowed us to broaden our market. We could have stayed where we were and offered shared hosting and dedicated servers. But using AppLogic has allowed us to venture into more complex application hosting. It allows us to create more complex environments with ease. Those environments usually would have taken us a long time to set up if we were going to do it in a physical environment—running cables from an end gateway or a firewall to a hardware load balancer to machines. That’s what AppLogic does in software.

We can support more complex applications. We wouldn’t be able to offer as many value-added services without AppLogic. We can do so quickly and efficiently, scaling things up or down as much as they need. And then we can charge per resource.

DCD: Do you see IaaS providers like Amazon as competitors?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting: I don’t consider Amazon a direct competitor – they can’t do what we can do. We have a running joke – customers come in and say “our uptime is 70% with Amazon Web Services.” We can give them close to 100%.

DCD: You also do a lot of stress testing with your hardware. What has that meant for customers? What have you found?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting: CA AppLogic is designed to take a bunch of small systems and merge them into a cloud. With more cores and more memory on each machine, you can get more out of each machine without adding more hardware footprint. We decided to start a little testing to find out what are our limits, what can we do? We tested different types of hard drives and configurations, different controllers, to see what worked best.

Testing the efficiency of servers brought me into a whole new area. I now run a hardware review site on the side. The stress-test work helps us figure out what machines can handle without impacting performance.

[Note: you can contact Michael directly to talk about any of his results if you’re interested in more details.]

DCD: Do your customers know anything about cloud computing? Does it matter to them?

Michael Wallace, Bird Hosting: There has been a lot of confusion and debate with the cloud. When I started out, we heard concerns about sharing data. We see less concern about that now. They do see the power of cloud computing and interact with it if they are using our virtual private data center offering. We dedicate a given group of machines to a customer and they get access to the CA AppLogic portal so they can build applications the way they see fit. They use CA AppLogic to virtually build their infrastructure.

Thanks for the time, Michael.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the name, you’ll be happy to hear that I (of course) didn’t let that go. Here’s what Michael said about the name: “When we started looking for names, I was also looking for a mascot. That’s where Bird Hosting came from.” Did he try other more, er, ferocious names? “HostGator was taken,” said Michael. “And Dog Hosting was too gangster for me.”

The resulting mascot has an uncanny resemblance to Twitter’s feathered friend, if I do say so myself. Or the stars of a certain iPad game I’ve gotten myself hooked on.

But no Angry Birds here. Just a set of happy customers benefiting from Bird Hosting’s personal focus on delivering what experience dictates is required for service providers to soar: performance, reliability, and value.

You can read the Cloud Accelerator profile of Michael and Bird Hosting on the CA Technologies site. The site also features other luminaries who are setting the pace for cloud computing.

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