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Zynga Takes Cloud And Customer Service In New Directions

Zynga, the No. 3 company in the InformationWeek 500, puts IT and customer service side by side.

In San Francisco's thriving South of Market district, one of the neighborhood's most recent additions resides in a huge building with a bulldog emblazoned in the center. It's the online gaming company Zynga. Founder Mark Pincus wrote Zynga's Hold'em Poker game at his kitchen table with his American bulldog, Zinga, sleeping at his feet. Zinga died three years ago of cancer, but the tradition of working with your dog at your side lives on at 650 Townsend St.

Even in the IT department, called Global Foundation Services (GFS), bringing your dog to work is part of the unique atmosphere. CIO Debra Chrapaty has a direct, friendly manner as she shakes hands with a visitor, but she's all business as she heads into a conference room, whose door is blocked by a big, cream-colored German shepherd. The dog starts as she passes and she says authoritatively, "Be quiet, Tang." Tanqueray rests her head on her paws again.

There are no offices in the sixth-floor GFS space. Chrapaty's desk sits in a corner formed by the solid wall of the conference room and the perimeter wall's glass. A huge red beanbag chair sits by the window, another resting spot for Tanqueray, and nearby is a white wooden pen, a small version of those used for livestock. In fact, Chrapaty occasionally brings "all three of the girls"--her dogs--to work.

In And Out Of The Cloud

Zynga is also unique, even among emerging Internet companies, in how it started with leased data center space, ventured into the Amazon public cloud, then reversed field and re-equipped leased data centers with computer systems of its own design.

InformationWeek 500 Top 5: Zynga - Dogs still rule at Zynga
Dogs still rule at Zynga

Zynga now uses those systems, dubbed the zCloud, for 80% of its operations, and continues to use Amazon for spikes and special purposes. Zynga's moves to and from the public cloud over the last two years weren't just about finding the cheapest infrastructure, though it's interested in that as well. It's on a quest to discover and build the best infrastructure for online games hosting millions of users at a time. Its omnipresent games--FarmVille, Mafia Wars, Zynga Poker, CastleVille, Hidden Chronicles--generate so much activity that its systems must be able to execute a million writes per second.

Even though Amazon's EC2 environment ultimately wasn't Zynga's main choice, it taught the company invaluable lessons about how its games could be optimized to run on server clusters, and how its own clusters could be better optimized to run games. Based on its experience in Amazon, Zynga orders specific servers for particular functions--database serving versus Web servers--and organizes its data center space around groups of them. Zynga says each game server in the zCloud is expected to handle three times the number of active game players as it was inside EC2, though the company declined to provide specific numbers.

Zynga's meteoric growth in its five years just wouldn't have been possible in a pre-cloud era, when a startup would've had to fund massive data center capacity on the chance of a blockbuster hit. Zynga's links to Facebook let its games grow virally without massive marketing investment. Investors have questioned of late whether Zynga's model is sustainable, pushing its stock price down in August to one-fifth of its early 2012 highs. But Zynga no doubt showed a new way to build a company.

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