UK-based ad personalisation firm Struq – whose clients include Nike, Easyjet, Play.com, Topshop, Debenhams, Virgin Mobile and Hertz – has chosen to use cloud infrastructure from IaaS provider SoftLayer to carry out real-time analytics, rather than alternatives from the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Rackspace.
Founded in 2008, Struq enables e-commerce businesses to increase their sales through highly targeted and personalised ad campaigns across display, video and social media channels. Struq's proprietary technology can track an individual’s behaviour on a website and, based on this information, can then serve ads that the individual is more likely to respond to.
This relies on being able to conduct complex 'Big Data' analytics at high speed, according to Struq CTO Aaron McKee. The company has about two terabytes of raw event data coming in every day, and 98 percent of requests need to be processed within 100 milliseconds.
“Our probability engines analyse up to 10,000 features for every online transaction – for example: the time of day, whether the individual was using an iPad and what the weather was like – to find the optimal advert for every person,” he said.
Struq started working with SoftLayer in 2009, while participating in the Microsoft BizSpark start-up programme. SoftLayer provided Struq with data centre capability in its Washington D.C. facility for the following 18 months.
One of Struq’s principal requirements is flexible scalability, because although it can predict the volume of traffic for a given customer campaign, it may acquire a new customer or launch a new campaign instantaneously. It therefore needs the ability to provision new infrastructure as quickly as possible.
“In the early days, as a scrappy start-up, a lot of it was around the price and simplicity. SoftLayer was a very compelling economic proposition, but also allowed us to provision physical servers,” said McKee.
“Being able to scale out the hybrid cloud using the bare servers – essentially treating them as cloud instances – has been a real lifesaver for us. We have been able to get physical servers deployed in a matter of hours to almost any spec we could specify.”
Although Struq primarily uses physical servers, it also takes advantage of the virtualised Cloud environment SoftLayer offers, using SoftLayer’s Flex Image technology to migrate data between devices. Flex images allow users to capture, replicate and store an image of a cloud or dedicated server before deploying it on either type of computing environment.
“Traditional cloud systems just don’t have this type of flexibility and performance. The feature has cut down new server deployment by several hours per server which has made recent expansion bursts at Struq much easier,” said McKee.
All of the servers in SoftLayer's data centres - both dedicated and virtual - are supplied by SuperMicro.
Another important consideration for online advertisers is latency. For example, Google claims that if it shaves 500ms off page load times it gets a 25 percent increase in traffic.
SoftLayer reduces latency by segmenting the traffic, so every server has two connections to the public internet as well as a private network connection. This means that all the web-to-database communications have a dedicated pipe, preventing the network from becoming clogged with web traffic.
There are also fast connections within the data centre – all of the servers have 2x20Gb connections. Softlayer works with NTT, Level 3 and Teliansonera to build in redundancy, and uses very high-end routers and switches from Cisco, Infinera and Juniper to manage the load.
“SoftLayer has a really good network infrastructure,” said McKee. “We were analysing this relative to Amazon, and started to think of the accounting nightmare that it would have been to shove data between servers, between the regions. They charge on a per-request and a per-byte basis, and it would have been quite expensive for us.”
Jonathan Wisler, General Manager EMEA at SoftLayer added: “With Amazon you can only get virtual servers which, by nature, are not as fast or reliable. We have dedicated servers with the same flexibility, meaning you can deploy them quickly, just pay by the hour, pay by the month, and then automate it – so we have an automated platform and an API.”
Struq served its UK clients from SoftLayer's Washington D.C. data centre until 2011, at which point customer demand necessitated a European presence. McKee explained that real-time auctions to buy ads in Europe required extremely low latency, which was difficult to achieve from the US.
At that time SoftLayer did not have a presence in Europe, so Struq engaged Rackspace to provide a co-location facility. However, Rackspace took ten days to provision new physical servers, severely limiting Struq’s ability to meet customer demand.
At that time, SoftLayer was on the verge of opening a facility in Amsterdam and Struq was soon able to migrate its European IT infrastructure to this new location. With SoftLayer, Struq was able to get bare metal devices up and running in about two hours.
“We've been ecstatically happy. This is a great combination of all the performance benefits you get out of physical servers with better performance than you get out of Amazon, and certainly less accounting,” said McKee.
“It's just simpler, it has allowed us to focus on the things that are actually relevant to our business and not worry about the infrastructure.”
He added that, in general, Struq tries to keep its technology infrastructure costs to a single digit percentage of its revenue, and it has been able to do this with SoftLayer.
“It's one of the bigger expenses we have as a business, but it's sort of where we expect it to be. It's an affordable solution for the performance that we get out of it,” he said.
McKee added that any organisation that is having to deal with issues of latency and Big Data should get an idea of what the network infrastructure needs to be on the back end to support that, and think seriously about how it is going to scale.
“It's really easy to get a prototype business up and running on something like AWS or Heroku, but it's sometimes really hard to deal with it once you've grown to a certain size,” he said.
“You see companies like Netflix bemoaning the fact they're on Amazon now because they have so many performance problems, and they've sort of been locked in to that environment and it's really hard to get off. So try to always plan a few steps ahead of where you are as a business to give yourself some flexibility.”