How MemCachier went from a favor for a friend to cloud ubiquity

Expanding spiral

A funny thing happened with Amit Levy’s side project in 2011 to build a hosted memcached service — it became a company. Now that company, MemCachier, is striving for omnipresence in the cloud, and extending its reach from the Heroku platform as a service onto a number of PaaS offerings and even Amazon EC2, where it will directly compete with Amazon Web Services’ own ElastiCache service. It’s impressive growth for a young company that was never really meant to be.

According to co-founder Alex Loddengaard, Levy began building MemCachier as a side project in mid-2011, and he hosted a private beta version in the Heroku add-on market so a friend could easily access the service. The team at Heroku saw the service, liked it and encouraged Levy to pursue it for real. Levy, who’s still in the middle of getting a Ph.D. from Stanford, called Loddengaard (who taught Levy while a teaching assistant at the University of Washington) and fellow Stanford Ph.D. candidate David Terei for help, and MemCachier launched in April 2012.

Alex Loddengaard

Landing Loddengaard wasn’t too tough. He had quit his job at software-development firm Atlassian, after beginning his career at Google and then following his boss Christophe Bisciglia to Hadoop pioneer Cloudera, where Loddengaard was a pre-funding employee. (MemCachier, by the way, now shares office space with Bisciglia’s new company, WibiData, in the former Atlassian headquarters.) He was living off his savings, had “built a bunch of stupid web apps that you never heard of” and was trying to figure out what to do next, he told me. And then Levy called.

Memcached, and MemCachier, are everywhere

Memcached is a popular open-source key-value system that speeds up web applications by caching certain data in the memory of distributed systems rather than on disk in the database itself. Facebook is widely cited as the largest user for the hundreds of terabytes it’s now storing in memcached, but, Loddengaard said, “Every company that needs to scale uses memcached.”

Aside from the core open source version, developers might choose the Couchbase’s eponymous NoSQL database (into which the popular memcached implementation Membase Server has been integrated) or its hosted Membase service called Memcache, which is available on Heroku. Another hosted option is AWS’s ElastiCache, a membased-compliant service available to developers building web applications on the Amazon EC2 cloud.

Since starting off on Heroku, MemCachier has already expanded to the AppHarbor and Cloud Control platforms, but Wednesday’s expansion represents  the company’s first real introduction to the public, Loddengaard said. Now, MemCachier is also available on AppFog, CloudBees and DotCloud — three popular PaaS offerings — as well as Amazon EC2.

Growing isn’t always easy

Moving to Amazon’s cloud, in particular, also meant a change in pricing to reflect a different class of user (e.g., AWS mega-user Netflix) than most PaaS offerings attract. Whereas MemCachier’s options on Heroku range from 100MB to 10GB in size, Amazon users can get up to a 100GB instance. Loddengaard said most Amazon EC2 users use more than a gigabyte of RAM for memcached, and ElastiCache actually starts out at 1.3GB.

MemCachier’s architecture, simplified.

Loddengaard acknowledges that trying to woo developers away from ElastiCache service on Amazon’s own platform won’t necessarily be easy, but he thinks the difference in approach between the two services favors MemCachier for a particular class of developers — those who don’t want to manage their infrastructure too closely. Whereas ElastiCache still requires users to manage their instances, as is the norm with Amazon’s lower-level infrastructure-as-a-service platform, MemCachier is about “no operations whatsoever,” he said. “Developers shouldn’t spend any time operating servers over developing software.”

That mindset has proven effective so far. Thanks to word of mouth alone, the bootstrapped MemCachier has been growing steadily in terms of revenue and users, now claiming more than 1,500 developers, but its broader footprint and some proactive marketing should mean sharp upticks in both areas. However, a jump in users — especially the larger ones that might come from Amazon EC2 — will probably require MemCachier to grow beyond its current three-person team. Of course, there are worse problems to have.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user optimarc.

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