Airhead’s journey to the cloud

One of the first decisions we had to make as a company was where and how the Airhead service would be hosted. Our vision was for Airhead to be delivered as Software as a Service (SaaS). In other words, schools could subscribe to Airhead and make it available to all of their users via a web browser without having to install any specific software or buy new hardware. But we needed some servers somewhere to run Airhead.

The user interface makes Airhead look deceptively simple but the technical architecture delivering the service is actually pretty sophisticated. Philosophically, our team is “cloud first.” We intrinsically understand the benefits and opportunities that come with cloud-delivered services and this was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate these benefits to ourselves and our future customers.

Up until just a few years ago, the requirements for building and operating a web delivered service, with round-the-clock availability and scalability, to millions of users could only be met through data centre hosting. This basically means you have to specify the numbers and types of servers you might need for the next 3 to 4 years and pay up front to have them hosted in a secure hosting facility. The up-front costs can be substantial and getting the sizing and specs wrong can be very costly. In the end, our customers pay these costs through their service charges and this approach was at odds with our philosophy of being agile and delivering cost effective services for our customers.

In the past few years, a brand new sector of IT has appeared almost out of nowhere, introducing a new set of acronyms like PaaS (Platform as a Service) and IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service). Rather than build your own data centre in a hosting facility, instead, provision what you need, when you need it using a cloud provider. This method of scaling is known as “capacity on demand.”

The economics are astonishingly good compared to self-hosting for two key reasons: First, as a service provider, Airhead only pays for what it uses. This means we were able to start small and ramp up, adding more servers as and when we needed literally by pressing a few buttons on a control panel. So no paying for idle or unused capacity.

The biggest financial saving though comes from the economies of scale. Some of the largest tech companies on the planet including Microsoft, Google and Amazon have built a global network of “mega data centres” on a scale that can be difficult to comprehend. A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit the Microsoft Dublin data centre that delivers services such as Windows Azure and Office 365 to Northern Europe.

Microsoft’s Dublin based “mega data centre”

The tour took half a day just to walk around the facility. In terms of size, think about five Tesco Extra supermarkets end to end! 

It’s these facilities where PaaS, IaaS, cloud computing and capacity on demand have become a reality. And it’s at this scale where IT becomes a true commodity and utility, just like electricity.

You wouldn’t run your own electricity generator for your home would you? So why would you self host your own servers? Those were some of the questions we were asking ourselves.

After carefully evaluating our hosting options, the decision to go cloud hosting was an easy one. Choosing which cloud took a little more time though. The Google offering looked compelling but we felt uneasy not knowing physically where their data centres are, and specifically where our customer data would be replicated to. This is Google’s policy, and we respect their stance. We compared Amazon EC2 and Microsoft Windows Azure cloud offerings. They were pretty much neck and neck in terms of pricing and features. In the end we chose Windows Azure to host Airhead and since then have never looked back.

Microsoft are continuing to invest very heavily in Windows Azure and the education sector is extremely important to their overall business. So far we have had good support from Microsoft. But when we made the decision, we also wanted to retain the ability to review our choice in the future should a better option become available. And for that reason, we designed and built the Airhead service to be cloud agnostic. In other words, with a small amount of work, we have the ability to run the service in anyone’s cloud.

Want to know more? Please don’t hesitate to get in contact with me at jason@airhead-education.com

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