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Lessons From FarmVille: How Zynga Uses The Cloud

Zynga's hybrid cloud strategy helps it cope with the risk of unpredictable demand for new online games.

Architecture Of The Future?

Web businesses like eBay, Netflix, and Zynga may be rewriting the rules of what constitutes the right mix of company-governed data center space versus use of the public cloud.

Netflix last year moved much of its film conversion and digital film delivery systems into the Amazon cloud. It still retains some data center capacity to run its business systems, but its lead software architect made clear at the March Cloud Connect event that Netflix was planning to cut back private data center capacity in exchange for operations in the public cloud. Netflix has said it was not affected by the April 21 EC2 services outage.

eBay indicated in March that it plans to rely less on its own data centers and more on Amazon's EC2.

More conventional businesses that have used this hybrid public-private cloud approach will likely continue to do so on a much smaller scale than Zynga uses. But looking at various cloud adopters, you can see elements where their strategies might intersect with Zynga's strategy.

There's Outback Steakhouse, with its one-off, public-facing Web app in Microsoft's Azure cloud.

The recruiting company Manpower regularly launches new online services aimed at attracting job candidates, and CIO Denis Edwards is testing making cloud infrastructure the preferred launchpad for new online services, "as long as we knew we could bring it back in house if we need to," he says. Like Leinwand, Edwards doesn't want to rent variable capacity forever for stable workloads the company could run more cheaply on in-house capacity.

InterContinental Hotels Group is revamping its infrastructure on a large scale to achieve a public-private cloud combination, though with less emphasis on variable capacity than Zynga. It's moving its core room reservation transaction system onto an x86 server-based private cloud, inside its own data center, to end its dependence on the mainframe. At the same time, it's moving its room availability and pricing website applications into data centers from Verizon on the East Coast and Savvis on the West Coast, also built on cloud architecture.

Yet Bryson Koehler, InterContinental's senior VP for customer revenue, doesn't expect to move the company's applications from public cloud to in-house cloud the way Zynga's does it; he wants all the company's public-facing information and website applications stationed permanently in the Verizon, Savvis, or some similar cloud center. The hotels group doesn't launch new online services with the frequency or potential disruption that Zynga does. Instead, response speed is vital to it, and it gets faster results by serving customers out of data centers physically close to them -- on both coasts of the U.S., and possibly one in Asia.

FedEx's new data center relies on what CIO Rob Carter describes as general-purpose computing--an x86 infrastructure with common networking and storage protocols and database infrastructure so very different applications can share computing resources. While FedEx isn't linking that infrastructure to Amazon or other public clouds, it could do so if business needs dictated, and any risks were addressed.

Other mainstream businesses might consider putting product catalogs, marketing campaign fulfillment, product launch materials, customer self-help services, and low-risk operations, such as inventory tracking and project management applications, in the public cloud to minimize capital expenses. But any critical systems placed there that the business cannot afford to lose to an outage need not only backup and recovery systems, but also failover plans to an alternative site.

As of today, the data center infrastructure of the future remains an uncertain mix. Can a pioneering online game company offer a new approach to the way public and private clouds will be coordinated? Zynga's ability to launch a thousand servers in its own data centers gives it some capacity to cope with unexpected mishaps in the public cloud. But the complexities of most companies' enterprise applications may forestall such a hybrid operation. Nevertheless, the enduring lesson from Farmville is that if you're anticipating a bumper crop of new customers, give a thought to whether there's a public cloud in your future.

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