Don’t Let the Cloud Become Your House of Cards
Here’s something you can learn from the streaming maestros at Netflix: Cloud computing has the potential to become a major cost-saver for your organization, but if you aren’t maintaining your servers the right way, you might feel the pain of some major hidden costs.
I’m clearing my schedule. Cancel my plans on Friday. You may not hear from me for a few days after that.
And when you do see me, I’ll have a lot to talk about. Spoiler alert: Unless you’re as obsessed with cutthroat fictional presidents as I am, you probably won’t want to talk to me.
Like many politically minded Americans, I’ll be keeping close watch on Netflix this weekend, joining millions of other people in binge-watching House of Cards, the hit political drama that has done more for Kevin Spacey’s career than a dozen Horrible Bosses movies ever could.
Netflix knows it. Being a cloud-based service—the internet’s largest, in fact—it’ll have thousands of machines ready to handle the load that its servers are about to undertake, something that will cost the company thousands, if not millions, in bandwidth.
But Netflix is run by some smart engineers, and they know that when the Frank Underwoodies go to sleep, they won’t need those bandwidth-chugging machines anymore.
Most IT managers, however, still haven’t gotten the memo, and their organizations are paying for it almost as badly as anyone who stands in Frank’s way. If you’re not careful, it could be as big a disaster as the fourth season of Arrested Development. (Kidding! The Bluth family saga has its charms. You just have to give it a chance, streaming fans.)
How Netflix Works
Netflix’s system is designed around anticipated downtime. The company knows that there are ebbs and flows in usage patterns—and that they sometimes change around holidays, snow days, or the premieres of popular shows on the service. (In other words, adding Friends to the service had ripple effects beyond an increase in Chandler Bing-esque sarcasm.)
“We discovered that a server-side metric related to playback starts (the act of ‘clicking play’) had both a predictable pattern and fluctuated significantly when UI/device/server problems were happening,” the company wrote on its technology blog earlier this month.
This metric, SPS (or starts per second), looks like this in an average week:
So, the secret to keeping the system humming (and profitable) is to take advantage of these ebbs and flows in its server structure. Netflix relies on Amazon’s AWS cloud service; when they’re done with a machine, they just turn it off using automated software. This ensures that the company isn’t wasting money on server resources it doesn’t actually need.
Where Others Struggle
But where Netflix gets this right, others screw it up royally.
A Wall Street Journal report last week noted that many corporations are finding a tough reality with their cloud platforms: They’re set up partly to save costs, but they end up costing more than they need to because they’re not optimized.
“The ease with which departments can tap online resources with little more than a company credit card can lead to problems,” the Journal‘s Clint Boulton writes. “Ordering too much computing power can be as easy as over-ordering at a restaurant or leaving the water running at home.”
There’s a term for this, “cloud sprawl,” but there’s another word for it that any business major can understand: inefficiency.
A 2013 Avanade study found [PDF] that 61 percent of respondents (mostly IT staffers) believed they were using cloud resources inefficiently, and 51 percent of respondents said this was making their lives more difficult.
Buffer Your Stream
But things can be done to improve the balance. Boris Goldberg, the cofounder of the cloud-optimization firm Cloudyn, told the Journal that as many as 60 percent of active cloud sessions run by many organizations can be terminated at any given time. And when you’re paying by the hour, as you might with Windows Azure or Amazon’s AWS, shutting down those sessions adds up to major cost savings.
To put this in real-world terms: Your association probably has infrastructure needs around the clock—say, an event planner needs to access a VPN, or your website may have traffic spikes that require it to scale.
But much like your office manager turns off the HVAC on weekends while your coworkers are sitting at home watching House of Cards, it’s important to scale back your cloud resources when you aren’t using them. If you don’t, you’re throwing away money.
You may not be running a massive streaming video platform, but it’s pretty easy to see that binges are the exception, not the rule.
Well, it’s the exception—except for this weekend. I’ll see you all after I get through the last episode. It’s gonna be a while.
While you’re waiting, take a quick survey on your association’s cloud needs:
"House of Cards" stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. (Netflix)