For startups, speed is king
||The faster you work and the more efficient you become, the more money you make. In the world of web services, business success depends on how fast you spot and dominate a niche in the market. From a commercial standpoint, Windows Azure
is designed to ensure the highest-possible levels of efficiency and scalability.
|Kim Yongjae, i&Combine CTO
OSS on Windows Azure,
an ace in the hole for those with designs on global markets
“The faster you work and the more efficient you become, the more money you make. In the world of web services, business success depends on how fast you spot and dominate a niche in the market. From a commercial standpoint, Windows Azure is designed to ensure
the highest-possible levels of efficiency and scalability”.
i&Combine is best known for its learning service named Bapul (www.bapul.net) which fuses education with a social platform. As part of its growth, it changed the service platform to Windows Azure earlier this year. i&Combine, a business venture which achieved
success with its idea of a social network service for math study, was, like many other IT service startups, founded by a small number of planners and developers who initially concentrated on service development. Its next step was to enter the market with a
commercial service running on a public cloud, as this required no initial investment.
It was March 2012 when i&Combine launched Bapul 1.0 commercially. The originality of this service, one that allows anyone to post questions about math problems and receive help via a social networking service, found wide appeal with both users and investors.
However, i&Combine did not rest easy having combined learning with a web and mobile service. Instead, it integrated a service called TabStudy. TabStudy is software which enables users to write and erase math problems using a stylus pen on a tablet, just as
if scribbling down notes on a piece of paper. The reason that i&Combine integrated TabStudy was to make it easier and simper for users (known in the company lingo as ‘Bapulers’) to post answers, as it’s ultimately users who are donating their talent to helping
others solve their math problems. Simultaneously, the company sought to make the entire experience much simpler for the increasing numbers of tablet users among its customer base. Integration with TabStudy allowed it do this as TabStudy enables users to write
and post math problems/answers with a stylus pen.
With such creativity allied to the long-standing efforts of i&Combine as a whole to improve the service, it is perhaps little surprise that Bapul has enjoyed such tremendous popularity. The next step for i&Combine was preparing the upgrade of the Bapul service
to 2.0. To i&Combine, Bapul 2.0 was more than a simple upgrade. It was seen as a strategic step-forward in the expansion of its business across global markets such as Japan, Taiwan and America, taking it beyond Korea.
Before planning the Bapul service upgrade with the goal of making its debut in global markets, i&Combine looked back at how the service had been provided throughout its first year. With pictures and/or videos of math problems and problem-solving steps added
to each post, getting storage management right was critical. However, i&Combine found that it had failed to achieve the efficient use of its storage resources. For Bapul 1.0, i&Combine had installed all kinds of software, including OS, database and applications,
in virtual machines and stored data using virtual storage volumes, running multiple virtual machine-based servers on the public cloud.
However, this architecture quickly became far from efficient the more users posted math problems and answers in different formats, such as using text, pictures and video. In other words, storing data in virtual storage volumes mounted on each virtual machine
failed to achieve efficiency in terms of service scalability and data management. Another problem was experienced with in-service delays. Users primarily access Bapul via the smartphone app, hence the rate of delivery for push notifications is seemingly non-stop.
Bapul 1.0 implemented and ran a separate push-notification server on virtual machines, which often caused a slowdown in the delivery of the overall service.
Reflecting on its first year experience, i&Combine decided that it would be difficult to take an immediate and flexible response if it stuck with the public cloud and the old service technology stack, particularly so if the service expanded or the number
of users saw a rapid increase. “Bapul 1.0 was provided via the domestic cloud service. As it was provided by a domestic telecommunication service provider, its speed was quite fast, but we were not sure whether we would have the same speed overseas”, said
i&Combine CTO(Chief Technical Office), Kim Yongjae. “In our first year of using the domestic cloud service, we didn’t see a great deal of difference between the public cloud and traditional server housing, except when it came to providing detailed statistics
on service management. Due to the nature of the Bapul service, we needed more than a simple IaaS to achieve the efficient use of storage resources and implement the service technology stack in such a way as to provide the same, high-quality service to users
around the world”.
Having decided to adopt a new public cloud platform, i&Combine weighed up the pros and cons of Microsoft Windows Azure and Amazon AWS. Specifically, it examined which one would be best suited from two different standpoints. The first was speed. That is,
the service had to ensure a certain level of speed anywhere, whether people access the service in Korea or overseas. The second was to have a clear isolation between platform and data.
“We tested the performance of the two solutions when handling outbound traffic within Korea. What we found was that Windows Azure was 2-3 times faster than AWS”, said CTO Kim Yongjae. “With Windows Azure, we were able to have different platforms for different
service domains, as we used to. Plus, it was much simpler to isolate data from the platform. In actual fact, Bapul runs on Linux, Spring Framework, My SQL and Mongo DB, while the integrated TabStudy is based on Windows Server, SQL Server and ASP.NET”.
i&Combine decided on Windows Azure and, in March 2013, began migration. Prior to this migration, i&Combine redesigned the service technology stack with a focus on the isolation of service components. What i&Combine aimed at here was to isolate as many system
components as possible in order to ensure the flexibility and scalability of the service together with efficient use of resources. i&Combine’s first step was to look into each service provided by Windows Azure and isolate the OS, database and storage, which
had previously been installed alongside each other on virtual machines.
For Bapul, Linux and Spring Frame were mounted together on a single virtual machine; for TabStudy, Windows Server and ASP.NET-based applications ran on another virtual machine. Then, multiple databases were connected to Windows Azure SQL database, installing
each on a different virtual machine. Doing it like this means i&Combine no longer needs to set a database each time it expands the provision of Bapul-related applications, helping it achieve a more efficient global service. To reap the full benefits of rapid
expansion, i&Combine migrated all MySQL data to Windows Azure SQL database. Storage was likewise linked to Windows Azure Storage BLOB (Binary Large Object) rather than virtual storage volumes mounted on virtual machines. All virtual machines are now able to
look into a single volume and access many different applications through REST API.
Furthermore, the push-notification service, which used to be implemented on virtual machines, was isolated as an individual module. The key enabler was i&Combine’s adoption of Windows Azure Mobile Service. As it reached a conclusion to split the service
technology stack down as much as possible and adopt Windows Azure services for those that can be integrated together as common components (with the exception of applications), i&Combine was well placed to start on the development of Bapul 2.0 and migration
to the Windows Azure platform. For the migration to happen without any service interruption, i&Combine migrated all user-data and released Bapul 2.0 on beta. Later in August 2013, i&Combine was finally able to release the commercial version of Bapul 2.0 with
the help of Windows Azure.
No problem coping with rapid increases in user numbers
Shortly after Bapul 2.0 was launched, the number of downloads increased dramatically such that Bapul was soon ranked 4th in terms of free education apps on Android. Though the number of users saw a steep increase, there was not a single complaint about in-service
delays or slow speeds when loading images and/or videos. i&Combine credits Windows Azure for its success.
“As we isolated applications, database and storage instead of installing them all in a single virtual machine, it became much easier to expand the service. We are no longer hampered by the need to set systems one by one, or worry about possible performance
bottlenecks. Windows Azure Mobile Service has also improved the performance – something we had not expected. In the past, we saw a huge influx of users each time we sent a push notification to users for a patch update or an application-related notice, which
caused a data I/O overload on the mobile push-notification server and other virtual servers as well. Now, as Windows Azure mobile Service does not interrupt Bapul at all, we no longer need to worry about delays caused by push notifications when providing the
service”, said CTO Kim Yongjae.
Consistent ‘speed’, the key to a successful startup
i&Combine is now well-versed in the ways a cloud service can enhance the competitive edge of a startup when it’s based on Windows Azure. Yet, the essential role of the cloud remains the same. The difference is, now i&Combine is able to enjoy economies of
scale and efficiency across the cloud service with Bapul 2.0 on Windows Azure.
“Though Windows Azure costs about 10% more than the domestic cloud service in terms of monthly expenses, it has substantially improved efficiency. As one example, service management and expansion are now some 30% more efficient, which is directly attributable
to Windows Azure. For startup businesses like ourselves, time really is money. The faster you work and the more efficient you become, the more money you make”, said CTO Kim Yongjae. “In the world of web services, business success depends on how fast you spot
and dominate a niche in the market. From a commercial standpoint, Windows Azure is designed to ensure the highest-possible levels of efficiency and scalability”.
Assistance in provisioning the service worldwide
i&Combine is set to enter the American market in late 2013, following its success in Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean markets. Its plan is to provide Bapul across Asia with Windows Azure managed at its data center in Singapore. For America, it is going with
a local Windows Azure service. In order to ensure the desired service quality and speed in North America, servers need to be managed at local data centers.
“We are now striving to reach a milestone of 100,000 users by the end of 2013 and, at the same time, expand our share in the domestic market and overseas markets as well. With Windows Azure, we don’t need to worry about any rapid increase in user numbers.
Even in countries like America where we need to provide the service via local data centers, we can handle everything with only a few mouse clicks. Thus, Windows Azure is of great help in expanding our business overseas”, said CTO Kim Yongjae.
The future of user information management
Now that it has seen the difference Windows Azure can bring to a business seeking to expand abroad, i&Combine is considering further integration. The solution that i&Combine is most interested in as of 2013 is Windows Azure Active Directory. At the time
of writing, the security solution provided by Spring Framework is used for the management of user IDs and passwords in Bapul 2.0. However, i&Combine is looking into Windows Azure Active Directory as an alternative to ensure better scalability and more flexibility
when implementing integrated authentication or multi-step authentication to cope with the unique security regulations of each country.
Microsoft Windows Azure
For more information, see the Microsoft website.