A Man, an iPhone, and the Cloud

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

July 28, 2008

In some ways, it is the story of the American dream: husband and wife from a small Iowa town embark on a project as a hobby; project slowly builds a following; and, before you know it, the project becomes the most popular entity in its niche, turning a side project into a profitable business.

However, when this project is a Web site, business can be unpredictable. Being the top dog in your space simply means you have the most hits, visitors, or whatever metric on which you choose to base success, it does not mean you know how many hits are coming your way at any given time or what will lead to major visitation spikes.

Just ask Douglas and Brooke Porter, whose Apple iPhone School is among the Web’s most popular destinations for folks looking to get the most from their super-trendy cell phones. Just a guy who had tried to start a few gadget-oriented sites utilizing Google’s AdSense program, Douglas Porter says he never expected iPhone School to take off. In fact, he wasn’t interested in doing much with his new iPhone other than using it as packaged. But some people he knew online were changing some features — “you can call it hacking,” says Porter — so he threw together yet another site, this one mixing blog content with news, videos, demonstrations and the like.

Using AdSense once again, the Porters saw their site evolve quickly into a revenue-generating machine. Apple iPhone School grew from something generating a few cents per day to something generating a few dollars per day (enough to pay an iPhone bill), culminating in its current state. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s an income,” says Porter. Due to its tremendous growth, the Porters are starting to look at putting other advertising on the site. “If you use any statistic Web site, like Alexa … we beat every other [iPhone-only site] that there is in stats,” says Douglas Porter, “which is incredible because I’m here in Ankeny, Iowa.”

Success tends to have its downfalls, though. In the Porters’ case, that meant having to deal with a woefully inadequate hosting provider that simply could not handle the amount of traffic Apple iPhone School was generating. As the site grew, so did its database tables, and their provider was ill equipped to deal with them, says Porter. It was taking far too long to search for a page, especially considering the provider’s limits on how long you could use the processor at maximum capacity. The Porters were breaking lots of rules. After exploring a few other solutions, including Amazon and Rackspace, they settled on Mosso and its Hosting Cloud. (The Porters were pointed toward Mosso by Rackspace, Mosso’s parent company.)

They went online with Mosso in January, and it was not a moment too soon. Presently averaging about 25,000 unique users and 100,000 page views a day, Apple iPhone School got hammered as summer kicked off. In June, when the 3G iPhone was announced at the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference, traffic peaked at about double its then average of 20,000 users per day. When the 3G iPhone hit shelves earlier this month, site traffic peaked at four times the average. Asked whether his old server could have handled those types of spikes, Porter joked (although probably accurately), “I don’t even think they could handle our daily hits right now.” With Mosso, he added, the Porters didn’t even notice the first big jump until they checked the end-of-day stats.

Mosso certainly wasn’t taken by surprise. The company has a lot of Apple users, says co-founder Jonathan Bryce, so Mosso was pretty much ready for those events. However, he noted, the company doesn’t rely solely on employee interest in an area to prepare for added scale. “All of our largest customers, we know what business they’re in and what their specialty is, and we generally maintain a relationship with them,” explains Bryce. “We say, ‘Hey, if you know that there’s a big event coming up, gives us a heads-up so we can make sure we’re ready.’” The Mosso platform also allows for on-the-fly scalability via close monitoring, he says, but for large enough events, it is a good idea to plan ahead. (Mosso currently is prepping to handle a major awards show that will drive traffic for one of its customers.)

Aside from giving Apple iPhone School the scale it needs, Mosso also helps the entire site run smoother by helping the Porters optimize everything from WordPress tools to their database. And for users who fall within Mosso’s sweet spot, this level of service is not unique. Not only does Mosso handle “thousands” of WordPress sites, but also Bryce paints the company’s ideal customers as “people who are using the standard Web platforms — the LAMP stack, or the .NET stack or Ruby or Perl — and who don’t have a lot of really customized, complex, specific requirements.” Cloud computing platforms like Mosso’s, he added, give these users the network, administration and security capabilities to maintain high-volume Web sites that need to scale. Of course, Bryce notes, “You wouldn’t run Facebook on Mosso.”

According to Porter, Mosso’s customer service might actually outshine Mosso’s performance. With their old hosting provider, Porter says he doesn’t know where their servers are located, but knows their tech support definitely is located in India. As Apple iPhone School gained popularity, the language barrier and the operating hours became a huge problem, especially when big problems needed to be addressed immediately. Porter cites customer service as his favorite things about the relationship with Mosso, pointing out that even if he had to pay (Mosso is a sponsor of the site), “there is no way I’d be moving away from Mosso.” Whereas $100 a month with the old provider would have gotten him a dedicated server and the same questionable support, the same price with Mosso gets him 24-hour support, a handy chat feature on the innovative control panel and personalized attention. The tech support guys know who Porter is, and he even has had personal phone calls with founders Bryce and Todd Morey.  Finally, Porter says that most issues that have arisen since moving to Mosso have been on his end (e.g., shoddy plugins or faulty tinkering), but Mosso has gone out of its way to help resolve these issues, too.

For his other sites, which aren’t nearly as popular as Apple iPhone School, Porter still uses his old hosting provider. When on-demand support and scalability aren’t paramount, $5 per month will beat $100 any day of the week.

With respect to the cloud computing technology that underpins the Mosso platform, Porter says he is only generally familiar with it, but definitely is sold on it. In its early days, transparency of the cloud is key, and letting users without master’s degrees in computer science work without having to worry about the inner workings of the platform is a surefire way to attract customers. The only issue Porter has had thus far has been having to make changes to IP addresses in the code in order to keep an application from calling the Mosso VM, but, of course, Mosso always helps him make those changes.  “That’s the only problem I’ve ever had with the cloud part of it,” he says. “Otherwise, I’ve never had any issue with it being slow; it has not affected any type of configuration or anything. It all still works the same from my endpoint.”

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