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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.

Zynga's Hybrid Cloud Model

Zynga, named after founder Mark Pincus' bulldog, is a classic Silicon Valley venture capital startup success: big name VCs (Kleiner Perkins, Andreessen Horowitz, SoftBank, and others put up $360 million); crazy perks like a company chef; and the looming prospect of a lucrative IPO. More important for IT teams, though, it has a hybrid cloud infrastructure that is fast becoming the model for how Web businesses grow.

CTO Leinwand says the growth of CityVille in December quickly outpaced Zynga's ability to scale up. The popularity of its games, which include Cafe World, FrontierVille, and Mafia Wars, meant Zynga's data center capacity shot up by a factor of 75 between January 2009 and January 2011. "The model for getting our supply chain moving didn't scale" at that rate, Leinwand says, with deliberate understatement.

Zynga now serves about 250 million active users a month, with 90 million of them coming from its CityVille addition.

To implement one part of its two-pronged infrastructure approach, Zynga leases wholesale data center space from suppliers on the East and West U.S. coasts--prebuilt data centers in which Zynga installs its servers and software for the Z Cloud. Zynga doesn't name its providers, but examples of such companies are Vantage in Santa Clara, Calif., Digital Realty Trust of San Francisco, and Phoenix NAP in Phoenix.

For the variable capacity, Zynga makes use of Amazon EC2. Even after a game matures and is brought in house, parts of it may still reside in the public cloud. As usage grows or flags, Zynga can rely on its experience with previous games to plot a curve for where demand is headed. It's not a straight line; online games often show the network effect of growing slowly, then reaching critical mass and taking off. "Once we can plot the slope of the line, we can work with data center suppliers and get ahead of the curve," Leinwand says.

To run this hybrid environment, "we view the public cloud and private cloud as one system," he says. "We architect and manage it as one system."

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