Structure 09: Web Apps Pick and Choose the Best of the Cloud

When you’re running a web app, what can you offload responsibility for by outsourcing to the cloud and what do you need to do yourself? The balance between the two is changing, as was discussed on a Structure panel that pitted hosting providers (of sorts) and rapidly growing startups against each other, with Javier Soltero of Hyperic (now SpringSource) in the middle doing web application performance monitoring. Joining Soltero were Rackspace Hosting Chief Strategy Officer Lew Moorman; Automattic founder and founding developer of WordPress.com Matt Mullenweg; James Lindenbaum, co-founder and CEO of Heroku; and David Lipscomb, SVP of Engineering for Netsuite. Independent investor Rohit Sharma moderated.

Structure-090625-0919-D71_4505“There’s no such thing as a self-managing app that scales automatically and make you coffee in the morning — that’s just never going to happen,” said Soltero.

Using the analogy of the philosopher kings of Plato’s Republic, Automattic’s Mullenweg declared, “We live in Jeff Bezos’ Amazonian republic. Every engineer is also a DBA. If you don’t understand how the database works, you shouldn’t be programming. You shouldn’t touch a keyboard.”

While panelists were undecided about whether the “cloud” moniker is just a bunch of hype, they agreed that the flexibility of multitenancy, not owning your own servers, short-term contracts and cheap upgrades are helping their businesses. Mullenweg said the worst mistake his company ever made was spending $100,000 when it had only $700,000 to spend on buying its own servers for WordPress.com. But he’s only experimenting with cloud computing from Amazon and the like, and only for storage.

Rackspace, of course, is on the other end of the spectrum. “I don’t think the average company has any business running a server,” said Rackspace Hosting’s Moorman. He pushed cloud computing as a way for companies to move up the stack to focus on only the places they can add value. Moorman described a “mix and match” world where companies use a set of tools to run their infrastructure most effectively. As Soltero said, “Applications are fundamentally custom environments.”

The ability to build on top of Amazon, said Heroku’s Lindenbaum, has allowed his company to — in two years with only $3 million in funding — become a “provisionless hosting platform” used by 31,000 web applications. Then Lindenbaum can harness multitenancy to continuously learn and improve and provide its own customers with better service.

David Lipscomb of Netsuite, who recently moved himself from 10 years of doing CIO and engineering work to focus on teaching his company’s sales team how to interact with its product team, named three principles for building applications in the cloud:

  1. Architect with multitenancy in mind so customers feel their service is customized.
  2. Don’t over-engineer because you can’t know where things are going and what’s going to come along that could dramatically improve your product or save costs.
  3. Be close partners with everyone you’re dependent on.

Photo by James Duncan Davidson.

Automattic is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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