AWS celebrates 10 years of cloud success

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about_gregWow! Where did that decade go? Amazon Web Services is already turning 10 and Sonian has been on board from the beginning.

In March 2006, the first cloud building block was announced: Simple Storage Service. At that time, 15 cents per gigabyte per month for an SLA of 11 nines and flexible access controls was truly disruptive. Just a couple years earlier, Sun had tried to offer a hosted storage service but the dollar per gigabyte per month wasn’t disruptive enough.

AWS is the fastest growing enterprise service, according to FactSetAWS.

I recall the early evangelical years when AWS folks like Andy Jassy, Tracy Laxdal, Rudy Valdez and Jeff Barr were touring the country hosting small user groups. In particular, I remember the Cambridge, MA meetup where early adopters gathered to compare notes and hash out our early cloud plans. We had no idea how big and fast cloud adoption would occur.

Sonian is an example of what we now call a born-in-the-cloud startup. We’re technically nine years old, but the original team started to work on the project that would become Sonian in the late summer of 2006. In March 2007, just a few months after S3 became available, Sonian was formed. In March 2008, Sonian launched the official first “shipping” version of our archive after months of beta testing and co-development. So March is a significant month in both Sonian and AWS history.

AWS leaders were astute in their understanding of how to attract leading-edge thinkers who realized there could be a better way to build a SaaS app. The simple compelling message was: Let Amazon, with all our smart people, handle all the undifferentiated heavy lifting for hosting a SaaS app. This means managing physical infrastructure (computers, storage, etc.), data centers and networking. And do it all in an inexpensive (but not “cheap”) pay-as-you-go model. Very appealing. But this message only initially resonated with technologists who had just gone through the painful process of building out purpose-built data centers to host the SaaS app. Due to the fact that so much of a team’s focus had to be on the core plumbing (the stuff below the water line), it was hard to make that work and also focus on the customer-facing features that were the key to success.

With AWS, Sonian and our fellow early cloud adopters had a whole different way to begin a startup journey. A smaller, more capital-efficient team could accomplish something big. That was disruptive in the world of startups. We didn’t need to raise millions in venture capital just to build a hosting infrastructure.

Smooth flying, with some turbulence
Today, Sonian is a profitable SaaS company with more than 25,000 customers.

We were confident the cloud was going to be significant. But we didn’t realize how big or how fast the embrace would occur. As the cloud grew, we benefited because, as the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Fundraising challenges
In the early days, venture capitalists were skeptical of this new technology called the cloud. It was hard to raise money with our cloud approach. (We did a large angel round instead, serving as our Series A funding). Today, a venture capitalist expects a SaaS or mobile startup to use the cloud.

Operating-in-the-cloud challenges
The cloud challenges we faced in the five years between 2006 and 2010 give us our gravitas today. The cloud was a whole new hosting platform paradigm that didn’t resemble the traditional model of hosting on your dedicated hardware. We literally had a clean sheet of design architecture to create. There was no existing playbook; all the cloud early adopters were on the same learning curve.

In the cloud, we had to learn to expect failure at every transaction and design architectures for this environment. That was the tradeoff we made. Low cost, pay-as -you-go versus ephemeral infrastructure. As it turns out, this was the right tradeoff. By designing for failure with our stateless architecture, we also set up ourselves for taking advantage of auction CPU pricing, allowing Sonian to surf the price curve. Our early dreams about what the cloud could become were coming true! (Today, a bulk of our pipeline process is on auction pricing: we realize up to a 90% savings compared to list prices.)

Sonian pioneered several aspects of cloud operations that are now known givens. But from 2006 to 2008, there was no dev ops, full-text search, cost and asset management or health monitoring.

We also learned the hard way that variable network bandwidth latency in the cloud cripples clustered file systems and causes split brain conditions in ElasticSearch. Those days are behind us, thankfully.

Sonian also created Sensu, internal tooling to monitor and alert, analyze the cost of virtual infrastructure and ensure security and compliance. This became our cloud fabric layer, which supports our single reference architecture spanning multiple public clouds.

Business development challenges and the opportunity in the cloud
In the same way the cloud needed new technologies to ensure success, customer development was also different. Sonian is focused on B2B, which means we offer a service for other businesses. Enterprise IT decision-makers are a hard bunch to convince of radical new technologies. My co-founders and I figured we could try something different than the classic “Enterprise IT Startup Play.” We saw an opportunity to provide an OEM white label service designed for channels.

Prior to the channel approach, if a startup wanted to sell to the enterprise, it had to invest in an enterprise sales force and bolster that effort with inbound marketing. Expensive to get up and running. But what if there was another way? There was…

Sonian, while architecting our technology for the nascent cloud, also “architected” business development for the channel. This means a lean and efficient channel business development team could identify partners and leverage the channel’s customer growth to grow Sonian. This approach also let us bypass the built-in antibodies in corporate IT that would resist cloud SaaS because it was so new and powered by “book seller” Amazon. Enterprise IT departments are rightfully cautious. So we attached Sonian to hosted collaboration (email, calendars, docs) and have been very successful.

By building on cloud and focusing on channels, we’ve leveraged both platforms to our benefit. A customer buying hosted email has already decided outsourcing is OK, so there was no new friction selling archiving and search. Plus, hosted email companies didn’t already have a built-in retention system. It also turns out the Amazon cloud is the perfect environment to host an information archive and analytics platform.

It’s fun to reflect on AWS turning 10. It’s not often we reflect on the past, since tech typically is always looking forward. I can’t imagine how interesting the next decade is going to be!


— Greg Arnette is the founder and CTO of Sonian. Follow Greg on Twitter for more information about email, collaboration, big data management, cloud computing, start-ups and more.


About Sonian
Sonian preserves, protects and presents the world’s information.

More than 25,000 customers in 43 countries trust Sonian’s secure proprietary platform to retain, retrieve and surface critical data and protect intellectual property.

Founded in 2007, Sonian is the only pure public cloud information archiving company, providing services that are easy, flexible, actionable and reliable for OEM partners and their end customers. Sonian allows companies to preserve, analyze and access their electronic communications for legal, regulatory and continuity purposes while gaining organizational insights.

Sonian is building the future and solving big data problems for companies, all while managing more than 20 billion objects in the cloud.

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