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Zynga Takes On Amazon In IaaS Game

Zynga will sell cloud infrastructure-as-a-service to other game makers who want a hosting platform. With this innovative play, Zynga just became Amazon's competitor.
Why can't everybody do this? Unlike Zynga, most big companies do not run one massive application serving 65 million users daily. Rather, they run a ferocious mix of big and small applications, requiring a general-purpose infrastructure. If such companies ran their software on a Zynga data center, large parts of the zCloud would spin on idle while other arrays struggled to do their work.

Another unique factor about Zynga: Its games use Facebook for engaging other players and notifying them of moves. In fact, Zynga relies so heavily on Facebook that 30% of Zynga's revenues go to Facebook. So Zynga equips data center space located near Facebook's data centers.

Why does Zynga keep its 20% of capacity on Amazon, its new competitor? Zynga has learned through hard experience that game participation can fluctuate wildly, especially when a game is first launched and hasn't built up critical mass. Zynga will not seek to build up 100% of its data center needs because it likes relying on Amazon Web Services as a "shock absorber," commissioning servers whenever game traffic escalates beyond any foreseen volume, said Allan Leinwand, CTO of infrastructure engineering. For that reason, Zynga also has zCloud data centers located close to Amazon data centers.

Furthermore, if Zynga wants reliable high-speed access to Amazon, it uses Direct Connect, a private fiber-optic link between an Equinix data center and Amazon's general-purpose infrastructure. Equinix builds and leases equipment in 38 data centers that are near network hubs and that can supply many points of access through different network providers.

So Zynga isn't simply another plain-vanilla hosting platform in the cloud--it's providing a super-cloud infrastructure for hosting games. It's tying its own zCloud game services into an arrangement that's comparable to a region-wide circuit board, in which other companies' data centers are used like components situated on a shared circuit. Facebook is an ASIC component, providing that application's features; Equinix is a giant switch. To Zynga, Amazon's EC2 is the world's largest CPU.

"Latency within a super-region is in the single-digit milliseconds. They are very tightly coupled pieces of infrastructure," said Leinwand in an interview earlier this year. Despite its size and diverse components, the Zynga Platform has still been optimized to run online games at the fastest possible pace, thereby allowing Zynga to rapidly expand its product line.

Zynga runs CityVille, Mafia Wars, Words With Friends, CastleVille, and Farmville, among other games, on its new platform. In the first quarter, the company added new games, including Hidden Chronicles, ZyngaSlingo, Scramble with Friends, Dream PetHouse, Dream Heights, and Draw Something. In addition, Zynga began providing its platform to six other game makers: Mob Science, Row Sham Bow, Sava Transmedia, Konami Digital Entertainment, Playdemic, and Rebellion.

More startup game developers are likely to flock to the Zynga Platform since the infrastructure and ready-to-use functionality common to social games will be hard for young companies to duplicate. In the future, this type of cloud computing will be commonplace. Today, it is a market-leading piece of work.

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek.

SMBs have saved big buying software on a subscription model. The new, all-digital Cloud Beyond SaaS/a> issue of InformationWeek SMB shows how to determine if infrastructure services can pay off, too. Also in this issue: One startup's experience with infrastructure-as-a-service shows how the numbers stack up for IaaS vs. internal IT. (Free registration required.)