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Little Fluffy Clouds

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Cloud computing is a hot topic at the moment, in both the IT and consumer worlds. For the uninitiated, the term originates from network diagrams which use a picture of a cloud to represent the internet in a simple way.  As far as what it is, it broadly describes the delivery of computing power and storage as a service – something Linnhe Creative uses to run efficient day-to-day operations and provide resilient, scalable web services.

It’s become popular recently, but the infrastructure has existed and been in use for years in one way or another and now, as a result of an increasingly literate consumer base, online software is coming out of the woodwork sold on the appealing blue-and-white-sky metaphor.

Companies such as Google are getting more confident at geeking out about their products as part of their marketing, highlighting their green credentials and slowly some great internet products and services previously only the reserve of the enterprise are available on a granular, pay-as-you-go basis.

As a small internet business we’re probably in the best position to take advantage of a number of these developments in both the running of our business and  in providing the platform for our range of services. With that in mind, I’ll organise things into two camps to try and cut through a bit of the noise and share what works best for us.

Cloud Products

  • Microsoft Office 365 – Email and collaboration software based on Microsoft’s tried and tested Exchange system.
  • Sendgrid – Flexible and powerful SMTP API to reliably send and track large volumes of email.
  • Zendesk – Cost-effective help and support ticketing system with forums, intelligent FAQ and handy a mobile app.

Cloud Platforms

  • Amazon AWS - delivers a set of services that together form a reliable, scalable, and inexpensive computing platform “in the cloud”.
  • Microsoft Azure – Similar to AWS, but providing services tailored for the Microsoft web platform.
  • Rackspace Cloud – For business critical applications, some of the pay-as-you-go services just don’t cut it. Rackspace, amognst others, provides a “Managed” cloud hosting solution for 100% reliability.

Keep it simple, stupid.

As we’re geeks at heart, there’s always been a tendency to fiddle about with our IT at the Linnhe Creative HQ. A certain amount is essential- keeping up with trends and developments in hardware and software – but there has to be a recognition to stop when it becomes counter productive.

The ever-reliable ML115 still tirelessly serves emails to this day, 5 years later. Only for test purposes now, sadly.

For example, a long time ago we used to run our own email server. This made sense initially, as through MSDN subsciptions the software licences were free for internal use and we had the machines available to run them on. Sounds simple, but as the company grew, it soon became a pain. Obviously email is a business-critical service so we needed to ensure that the server remained on at all times. This required extra hardware: a Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) to protect against power failures and A Backup System – in our case a DAT72 drive. We also faced issues with emails sent out of the server being treated as spam because our server was not a “trusted” sender. So we needed to route outgoing mail via a relay service with BT.
Of course all these preparations fell short if there was every any issues with our internet connection and during storms there was no resilience against a simple PSTN line being taken out by a fallen tree. Emails could easily be lost if they couldn’t get delivered to our offline service.

The experience here has been invaluable because it’s part of our business, so we know about these potential pitfalls and equally know what is suitable for what purpose. But for others, there’s no need to give yourself these headaches – you need something simple and reliable.  Cloud based software has recognised this and returned with a set of services that give businesses and consumers just that.

All our email services are now on Microsoft Office 365. We always needed the collaborative benefits that Exchange-based systems gave and have tried several incarnations of a “Cloud” implementation, starting about 3 years ago when BT launched Exchange mailboxes that worked over the web, rather than needing a local Exchange server. Now though, Office 365 is a comprehensive solution that provides Instant Messaging, document sharing and online meeting tools with per-user licences. It also provides a pay-as-you go licence for Office 2010 which alleviates up front software costs that may have put off some.

We’ve always had headaches with automatically generated emails being treated as spam from some of our web applications. Usually again this would be down to the sending server, despite adhering to best practices in setting up our servers some over-zealous mail services and clients would still treat mails as junk. We’d also have some difficulty in tracking statistics for some of these mails, a crucial metric for business intelligence, without writing our own piece of software.
After researching some outsourced solutions to get round this without success, it was a targeted facebook ad that highlighted Sendgrid – a cloud based pay as you go SMTP service. This was exactly what I needed, they have specific tariffs based on usage and features, gave a delivery guarantee and provided all the statistics we need. A few years ago a web-based service like this just didn’t exist, Sendgrid is another example of how distributed computing is lowering the bar for reliable, feature-rich software development.

Finally, an area that email won’t cut it for is managing support requests. Initially a simple mailbox for support queries worked for us, but as a user base grows it quickly becomes messy and inefficient. There are a few products around that give the ticketing experience but we chose Zendesk. Some big companies use it but I was particularly fond of the Twitter support experience, which uses it well.
We can now reliably keep customers informed, create templated responses, document common problems in our knowledge base as well as keep on top of things on the go with their iPhone app. They are launching a new web interface too which is very slick and really pushes the software experience you get from a web application.

More and more useful and affordable software will appear will appear in the cloud over the coming years, yet I’m sceptical about a full online OS replacement. I think it will be a few years, if at all, when there’s the kind of speed and rich experience from HTML to rival a desktop application. In many ways the native application is experiencing a renaissance with the likes of Android Market and the App Store. As internet connection speeds increase the process of software delivery is getting easier and faster so it’s likely the lines between native and web apps will continue to blur – and all streamed from the Cloud.


My next blog will be about our experiences with cloud platforms like Amazon AWS, and how we’ve cherry pick n’ mixed some of the best available products to provide customers with the best solution for their needs.

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