Has Cloud Computing Found its ‘Killer App?’

By Derrick Harris

December 9, 2008

Most people talk about putting their applications in the cloud, but SOASTA has a different take. The company’s CloudTest offering brings the power of cloud computing to your application.

Here’s the history: Founders Ken Gardner and Tom Lounibos are Silicon Valley veterans, each having spent around 30 years in the Bay Area, the last 15 if which have been as partners. The duo took some companies public in the ‘90s, and have spent the last eight or nine years building dynamic Web applications. It was during this era they noticed a problem with traditional testing tools.

Not only are traditional tools designed for client-server applications, they also are prohibitively expensive, says Lounibos, who serves as SOASTA’s president and CEO.  Solutions by Mercury, Rational and Silk (since acquired by HP, IBM and Borland, respectively) were the industry standards, but you only could use them “if you had the money” — and that meant for licenses, hardware and people. Most SMBs couldn’t afford this, says Lounibos, and even some of his old companies had to cap site licenses, load testing at most 4,000 users at a cost of around $2 million.

People we’re starting to ask why testing software hadn’t changed to accommodate the increasing move from client-server apps to Web-based apps. Development cycles went from six months to daily, says Lounibos, so he and Gardner built a Web application for testing Web applications. He says SOASTA’s Ajax user interface is fundamental to the solution, and allows for distributed orientations and the ability to match development speed with test speed. “If you move to a one-day development cycle,” he says, “you need to be able to test in that one day, as well.”

Saving Time and Money in the Cloud

The result of this journey is CloudTest, a solution featuring both an appliance-based and a cloud-based approach. The dual-model approach is a great move, says Gartner’s Thomas Murphy, because not everybody is ready to move to the cloud. Having a cloud-only approach can get a company eliminated from certain deals right off the bat, he says, and even Lounibos that many companies large and small will prefer a hybrid approach. SOASTA offers both virtual and physical appliances that he says are ideal for everyday functional testing, and even some light load testing.

But if Web-scale load testing is what you need, the cloud is where it’s at. “The idea of cloud computing began to hit us, well, before it was ‘cloud computing,’ frankly,” said Lounibos. “And now, over the past year and a half, it’s emerged in a very positive way.” In SOASTA’s world, the cloud conforms itself to an application of performance testing, as it symbolizes lots of hardware, and lots of virtual users, distributed in multiple locations. Lounibos says CloudTest is “cloud-agnostic,” able to utilize VMs from Amazon, Skytap or Savvis, or wherever else might be convenient. “[A]ll we really need is physical locations,” he notes, adding that in one scenario, SOASTA is utilizing EC2, GoGrid and Mosso to simulate load from various geographic locations.

What sets CloudTest apart from other cloud testing tools is that users’ applications don’t move to the cloud, but stay right where they are in the user’s environment. With SOASTA’s model, the cloud generates users and sends them to the application. On top of that, Lounibos says, CloudTest monitors application servers, load balancers, firewalls, memory, CPU, etc., and, instead of log files to sort through, SOASTA provides real-time graphs so users can see exactly where and when a problem occurs. A 200,000-user test can generate 50GB of data, he explained, and “The key to the customer is, ‘Can I go live here?’ and ‘What are my concerns?’ and ‘Where are my issues at?’ And the key to getting that critical metric to them is how do you sort through 50GB of information to find the 1MB that’s actually relevant to that issue, to that question. That’s the core, and that’s the secret sauce for us.”  Basically, Lounibos added, SOASTA has built a real-time OLAP application for testing.

And if the flexibility doesn’t get customers on board, the cost likely will. Gartner’s Murphy believes cloud computing opens up testing to a wider variety of companies, and to “earlier-stage companies than typically would have been able to afford good, solid testing tools.” People can test 50,000 users with HP, he says, but the cost is huge by comparison — probably about $250,000 for a load that size. SOASTA costs considerably less, and small companies don’t need to worry about set-up, maintenance or software patching.  He adds that while other offerings might actually have advantages in straight-up load testing, SOASTA’s real-time metrics and functional testing capabilities, along with its abilities to get load from across the world and with different operating systems, make a big difference.

“You’re in this world now where the load on your service can grow exponentially, essentially, in a very short period of time if it’s successful,” Murphy says. “Your need to be able to be more thorough about how you test for load is important.”

Enterprises could stand to benefit from the cloud, too, especially in light of the current economy. Lounibos calls testing labs the “new age money pit,” costing, on average, $3 million annually. As a result, he says, even companies that won’t put applications in the cloud for years are looking at — and using — cloud testing to reduce both costs and constraints.

Murphy agrees. He says the cloud computing model could play well over the next couple of years of tight budgets. “The fact that [enterprises] can go to SOASTA and utilize a different business model,” he says, “gives them a disruptive position in the market, where they are changing the economic model of doing testing.”

CloudTest Lab, the cloud model, starts at $1,000 per hour for 15,000 users, and users only pay for actual testing time (meaning they don’t pay for prep time).  It might sound expensive, Lounibos acknowledges, but it’s “pretty inexpensive when you consider that most people’s largest tests are only 2,000 users, and you’d need about 50 servers to even do that.” The appliance-based SaaS approach sits inside the firewall, and annual subscriptions start at $1,000 per month.

Customers Line Up

When you have so much experience launching companies, you learn when you’ve got something good, Lounibos says, and “we’re hot.” One of its biggest customers is Hallmark, an ideal candidate for cloud computing because of the big e-card surges it experiences when holidays roll around. Lounibos says that before leveraging CloudTest, the largest test Hallmark had run was 2,000 users, because that is all they had the budget for. They wanted to test 200,000 users. While Lounibos estimates this would require 400-500 servers with a traditional solution, SOASTA was able to do it using only 225 servers in the cloud, which it provisioned in about 10 minutes.

Another major customer is Proctor & Gamble’s Pampers division, which launched a Web site only to see it crash within an hour. They contacted SOASTA, started testing within hours, and were able to find and fix a major database problem — cutting HTML load speed from more than 70 seconds down to 2 seconds. Activision uses SOASTA to ensure promotional campaigns for its new video games (including “Guitar Hero” and “Call of Duty”) run optimally, and Marvel Comics does similar things for movie promotion.

A particularly unique use case is Genentech, which wanted to move 15,000 employees to Google Calendar, but wanted to make sure Google was up to the task. Using SOASTA’s virtual appliances, the company was able to generate 15,000 users and send that load Google’s way.

Smaller customers range from iPhone application providers like Pelago (creator of Whrrl), to free music download sites like Qtrax and Grooveshark. Sony-backed Qtrax, says Lounibos, has less than 20 employees but was able to conduct a 500,000-user test so it could be ready for the “Facebook effect.”  Grooveshark, described by co-founder, vice president of products and CTO Josh Greenberg as “YouTube for music,” found out thanks to a 50,000-user test that its infrastructure was not ready for a tidal wave of users.

Greenberg and his team had been using a “hodgepodge” of open source tools — a different one for each of its testing needs — and never achieved any harmony among them. He says they liked what SOASTA had to offer, but told the company, “If we’re gonna being paying for something, it has to have a direct, cost-effective benefit to us. We can’t look at this as a money sink one way or another.” During an initial demo over the phone, CloudTest found several front-end files that were offline (a fact unbeknownst to the folks at Grooveshark), and that helped cement the decision to sign up with SOASTA. Since then (roughly six months ago), says Greenberg, Grooveshark utilizes both the cloud- and appliance-based models, and has “caught a lot of bugs.”

As for that revealing 50,000-user test, Greenberg says it exposed “a definite weakness in the way we were doing things.” “Had we not done that, we were like a week or two weeks away from a catastrophic launch, so it definitely saved us,” he admits. “I think that single event paid for SOASTA just by itself.” Grooveshark recently changed its streaming protocol and will be running another large cloud test in a few weeks.

Clear Sailing Ahead?

Gartner’s Murphy describes SOASTA as “an innovative small company that is trying to make their way in a turbulent time.” However, he says, they might just have the tools and the unique approach needed to compete with industry giants like HP, to whom he attributes a 60 percent market share. “I think as we move toward SOA and Web 2.0 and this newer generation of applications we’re hitting now, it’s another architectural shift … Web to Web 2.0, and that requires a technology shift in the testing tools that we use.”

Additionally, he says, continuing to build partnerships with complementary providers like Skytap is a good strategy. It might take cloud testing two to three years to catch on, Murphy believes, “but given the current economic conditions, it’s a good direction at this point in time.”

SOASTA’s Lounibos is a tad more optimistic, calling his form of cloud-based testing “the killer application, in some regards, for cloud computing.” It’s a service-based economy, he rationalizes, and everybody is looking for low-cost mechanisms to push services out. CloudTest lets them makes better decisions as to whether they’re ready to handle what awaits.

“Whether or not you’re Facebook or you’re MySpace, you need to make sure your site stays up, or you become a headline on the New York Times,” he warns. “And when you become a headline on the New York Times because your site crashed, the analysts look at that and say, “Well, that’s their sales channel. If they crash, MySpace users might go to Facebook,’ and all of a sudden their stock drops.”

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