CIOs looking to expand services globally should take a long, hard look at WhatsApp's strategy, growth and acquisition.

Jim Cowie, CTO, Renesys

March 13, 2014

5 Min Read

Let's face it: Delivering reliable service to 250 million people a day over the global Internet is not an engineering challenge most CIOs will have to deal with. But if your business needs to tap the potential of the global consumer market, you'll probably serve customers in many of the same high-growth markets where WhatsApp built their audience: countries like India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, and Russia.

Like WhatsApp, you'll be relying on some unfamiliar service providers in each of those countries to provide international and last-mile connectivity to your customers. And as you'll soon realize, whether you're blamed for their poor and unpredictable Internet performance depends on a few key infrastructure design choices up front.

[Facebook's $19 billion deal to buy WhatsApp may raise eyebrows, but it's a smart move. Read Facebook Acquires WhatsApp: 3 Key Benefits]

Smart CIOs who are planning for global service expansion might take away some of the following lessons from WhatsApp's successful design, growth, and $16 billion exit.

Understand the parameters of your service delivery requirements
The WhatsApp founders were careful to understand what they could get away with by designing a lean service delivery infrastructure. They chose to deliver value within a service model (international SMS) that could easily tolerate hundreds of milliseconds of lightspeed delays. That allowed WhatsApp to take infrastructure risks that would not be tolerable for a more interactive service with harder real-time constraints, like Skype.

Now that WhatsApp has announced the rollout of real-time voice chat in an upcoming release, those initial assumptions may no longer hold. Carrying both ends of a voice call halfway around the world is problematic because of speed of light delays and the difficulty of maintaining clean, reliable, low-loss Internet paths for traffic between, say, India and Washington, DC. That's a good segue to the next lesson.

Your global deployment strategy will change over time
From the beginning, WhatsApp decided to host their service in the United States, a country with cheap power, cheap wholesale Internet, and virtually nonexistent government regulation of content services. They were able to prove their value in the market, and grow, by paying one reliable local transit provider and relying on the Internet to deliver their service around the world.

WhatsApp's backend infrastructure is "classic American cloud" -- concentrated, scalable, locally reliable, but located on the wrong side of the planet for too many users, across a long-haul Internet that's fragile, slow, and unpredictable.

WhatsApp serves content from a relatively small handful of Softlayer IP addresses in northern Virginia. To move beyond the simple messaging model, WhatsApp needed to find a partner that knew how to deploy global infrastructure, to get the bits closer to the users (enter Facebook and Akamai).

The global roadmap is changing; pick your battles carefully
If you follow in WhatsApp's footsteps, you're likely to encounter unfriendly national Internet regulatory environments in places like China, where local datacenter presence (employing staff, paying taxes, observing local laws) has become a requirement to access the local market.

If WhatsApp had chosen to take on TenCent's WeChat in China, they would probably have established a second datacenter presence there, a strategy already used today by services such as Evernote. Where China is today, Brazil may well be tomorrow, and Turkey the day after. Be prepared to work more closely with (or at least hear the concerns of) the governments of some of the largest and most desirable consumer growth markets.

Get to know your audience, and their favorite Internet service providers, in intimate detail
If your goal is to minimize latency and improve reliable access to the customers of China Mobile, or Turkcell, or Brazil's Vivo, there are specific international carriers you'll need to access, specific cities in which to host your content, and even specific facilities you need to lease space in.

Find out what those are and make your technical plans for Internet connectivity appropriately. Need to learn more? Enterprises that want to understand global networking are finding their way to the network operator technical community meetings, such as NANOG, RIPE, and APRICOT. Get to know the global network operators who will be critical to the experience of your far-flung Internet customers.

Ask hard questions about global network strategy during mergers and acquisitions
The ability to serve a global audience creates a whole new sequence of technical conversations that need to happen during initial diligence.

A company that cares about Internet performance and user experience should have detailed measurements of the performance of their Internet paths to customers, and a convincing story about how their Internet provider relationships and choice of facilities support their business goals. A simple strategy like WhatsApp's needn't be a red flag if it's consistent with their customers' geographic footprint and service performance requirements.

Embrace the challenges of global Internet service delivery
There's never been a better time to go global. Cheap, ubiquitous virtualization technology, coupled with new datacenter capacity coming online in nearly every country, make it cheaper and easier to take parts of your offering off-shore.

Take advantage of this trend, either directly or through a content distribution partner, and move at least some of your content out of your home market. The customer experience payoff will come in the form of lower latencies and more stable connectivity, two key competitive advantages in the crowded global marketplace for Internet-delivered services.

If Facebook hadn't come along just in time, WhatsApp, too, would have had to reinvent itself as a true global service delivery company.

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About the Author(s)

Jim Cowie

CTO, Renesys

Jim Cowie, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, is responsible for innovation and technology strategy for Renesys.  His recent work focuses on the structure, dynamics, and economics of the Internet and its utility as a global service delivery platform. Jim has more than 20 years of entrepreneurial and software development experience in high-performance computing, network modeling and simulation, web services, Internet performance analysis, and security. He holds a BS in computer science from Yale University.

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