You Need 3,500 Servers by When?!

By By Dennis Barker, GRIDtoday

July 7, 2008

The boss wants something up on the Web site to promote the company’s new Product X, and he wants something different, something grabby, something animated, with some video and music … something now. (For full effect, imagine this in the voice of Larry Tate, of “Bewitched.”)

Creating a snazzy presentation suitable for business is not something that usually happens on demand. Typically, this would require a production crew of some sort. If you’re lucky, your multitalented in-house Web developer or media wiz could handle it — when (and if) there’s nothing else to do.

Animoto Productions is now offering a service that makes it ridiculously easy to produce short clips of images and music for commercial use. The innovative little startup made news last year when it introduced a similar service for consumers, aimed at individuals interested in promoting themselves. Animoto for Business uses the same core technology but has a few key differences, such as access to licensed music tracks.

The simplicity of Animoto’s service is part of its value and attraction. Here’s how it works: You go to the Animoto site, upload the images you want to include in your clip (photos of the new product line or whatever), choose the type of music, and click. Animoto’s engine chugs away for a few minutes — running on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) — mixing images and music into a tightly assembled montage. Finished videos can be embedded on your site or downloaded and distributed on disc, used in presentations, e-mailed to clients, and so on.

The brains behind Animoto used to work in the entertainment biz and video production, and they’ve brought that knowledge to the company’s intellectual property — something they call “cinematic artificial intelligence”: Algorithms essentially perform the tasks of a film editor or director, synchronizing images and music, cutting between shots, adding transitions. The software has an ear for music, as it were, and can time the visuals to the beat.

“The idea is that the technology takes into account the rhythm, the genre of music, the song structure, and applies that to the way the images are presented,” says Brad Jefferson, Animoto co-founder and CEO. “The pace of the video matches the energy of the music you’ve chosen. We’re able to apply a distinct motion design to every video.”

Animoto for Business costs $99 per user for 3 months or $249 for a year, which covers unlimited copies of videos and access to licensed music tracks. (OK, you can’t have “Spirit in the Sky” for your video anthem, but the tunes Animoto has come up with aren’t bad, and they’ll avoid hassles with the copyright police.) The subscription cost is nominal compared to the price of hiring a non-CPU-based video producer, which easily could run thousands of dollars for a similar type of clip, and then look out if you want to make changes. A decent Flash programmer could create something Animoto-like, but there is no way he or she could do it in minutes, and certainly not for the price. A big part of the service’s value is that it’s self-serve.

“This is an easy way for any size business to produce their own professional-quality video,” says Jason Hsiao, Animoto president. “It’s totally hassle-free, and takes just a few minutes. Our customers are seeing a lot of creative uses. They can put these videos on their Web site or in e-mail blasts to promote a product, use it in presentations, at a trade show, or they can put it on their iPhone and take it on the road. They can use it to open a presentation at a conference, or stick it on a flat-screen monitor in a bar or restaurant.”

Animoto already has a group of businesses from a wide smattering of industries using the service. Smartsheet created an Animoto video to promote the new version of its Web application. Herman Chan, a realtor in California, shows properties for sale, interior shots backed up by a perky beat. He says Animoto gives him a way to make his listings “stand out in a sea of houses.” Getty Images, owner of the world’s largest picture database, is using Animoto to highlight additions to its collection. A restaurant, winery, and IndyStar.com (online version of the Indianapolis Star newspaper) also are users. The best way to see what Animoto’s system can do is to check out the samples at business.animoto.com.

The Animoto engine does not yet handle video streams, so you won’t produce videos that look like a movie trailer or an ESPN highlight reel. But that will change. “We’ve only scratched the surface,” Hsiao says. “We’re figuring out how to incorporate full-motion video, and other media types or specialized formats. We’re not yet TV broadcast-quality, but we’re close. There’s so much more we can do with our core engine.”

A Perfect Case for the Cloud

Animoto uses Amazon Web Services to render its creations. The company’s on-demand model makes sense on so many levels that Animoto is a sort of poster company for cloud computing. When they were first developing their system, the Animoto team didn’t know what to expect in terms of audience reaction. “We bought five big machines with twin motherboards and eight processors a piece to handle the video rendering,” says Stevie Clifton, Animoto’s chief technology officer, “but owning that much hardware starts you down the slippery slope of having to maintain your own stuff, and that was not what we wanted to do. We also had no idea how many servers we were going to need to handle demand in case the service took off.”

As it happened, “we started hearing about Amazon Web Services and cloud computing,” Clifton says. “It sounded good from a business point of view to not have the computer overhead, and it would be so good not to have to deal with the maintenance and headaches. But it was also such cool technology. We just didn’t know how we were going to take advantage of it.”

Animoto ended up working with RightScale, a company that provides tools, expertise and automated technology to help companies run scalable applications on Amazon’s cloud. “Even though we were a small company, we knew we might have to scale up like a very large company,” Clifton says.

He was right about that. After promoting its create-your-own-video service to Facebook users, Animoto surged. During the course of four days, as thousands and thousands of people used the application, renderings per minute climbed from about eight to 450. At its peak, Animoto had 3,500 instances running on EC2. “It was totally crazy,” Clifton says.  “We were getting about 20,000 new users an hour. Because I had no clue how our systems were going to handle it, I had an IM window open with RightScale the whole time to help us monitor things. When you have 3,500 instances running, it gets kind of hard to track things.”

“If we hadn’t gone with the utility approach and gotten on the Amazon system, and had the help from RightScale, it would have taken us so much longer to get up and running,” Clifton says. “I would have spent so much time making sure we could scale, that everything would be okay on the hosting side … and that’s time I wouldn’t have been able to spend on the video engine — the thing that makes Animoto worth money to anyone.”

Condensing the value proposition of cloud computing into a bite-size serving, Clifton’s mindset says it all: “I have no problem paying other people to do something well so I don’t have to worry about it.”

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