Internet SMEs look to database strategy to drive business growth

Two Web startups in the UK are putting their database strategies at the heart of their plans for growth. Other SMEs that aren’t as database-literate may be able to learn from them.

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Jack Smith has been called one of the 20 UK entrepreneurs to watch in 2011 by the Institute of Directors’ magazine, Director. He founded Mediaroots while still at university in 2008 and built it into a successful video software tutorials business. Smith is now establishing his next Internet company, called Vungle, and, like Mediaroots, its success will depend on its having the right database strategy and technology behind it.

James Pipe, who is Vungle’s head of product and is responsible for the firm’s database strategy, explains its service as one that enables its customers to create concise, high-definition video tutorials for any website — or Web, desktop, Android or iPhone application.

Pipe said the firm’s broad database strategy is to “record and measure everything. We keep track of every project, video, stakeholder and stage of processing within the database. That way, we know overall project progress, but also exactly who is the creator or editor of every part, and who is currently processing the video.”

He said that the extensive monitoring means Vungle can discover production process bottlenecks more easily and apply quality assurance procedures where necessary.

The business opted for a bespoke database solution, creating it from “a list of non-solution-specific criteria,” Pipe said. As a result, he added, the database technology “is continuously adapted to suit our business as it develops.”

The database is designed to handle the production of thousands of videos per week, with a focus on ease of use so it can be picked up by any suitably trained individual at each stage. It uses a flexible storage architecture, enabling database capacity to be scaled up quickly and massively in response to increased demand, Pipe said. He added that because high levels of concurrent access were expected, “the ability to work from any network or VPN-connected device has been designed in.”

Database strategy includes cloud to take out administration

However, in the future, Vungle aims to move the system to a cloud database, which offers a more effective way of scaling up the service rapidly, according to Pipe. “We are looking to host the system online,” he said. “Updates to the database made by those directly involved in the production process would remove much of the administrative burden currently required to keep the database up to date.”

Pipe said the main issues the firm currently faces include “adapting to changing requirements, documentation of the continually evolving structure [and] ensuring that the database provides a net administrative advantage during the production process, rather than a burden.” Data entry is proving to be the most costly exercise at present.

Another organisation that has placed extensible database technology at the heart of its business is WinkBall, a rapidly growing video social networking website.

“We are very sensitive to things like data security and latency, so whatever route we finally take we'd have to be sure that our concerns are addressed.”

Alex Potsides, technical development manager, WinkBall

Since its launch in August 2009, WinkBall has had over 30 million hits, with more than a million regular visitors to its website. More than 600,000 people, including celebrities, politicians and sports personalities, have given interviews to WinkBall since its launch.

“Databases are at the core of the WinkBall product, powering the website which represents everything that we do,” said Alex Potsides, technical development manager at WinkBall.

WinkBall operates several core production database systems and has several layers of test beds to ensure smooth updates when data moves from one stage to another — for example, from individual developers’ workstations to staging servers. It employs full data replication and caching, which mirrors production as closely as possible.

“Resource use is closely monitored to ensure we catch problems early, and tuning is effected at every level to maximise throughput and availability,” Potsides added.

WinkBall’s database strategy puts priority on scalability

At the heart of WinkBall’s database strategy is the ability to grow dynamically as the business expands, he said. “Our infrastructure is highly scalable, scaling out as well as up so that as demand increases, capacity is added to service that demand in a way that is cost-effective and as simple as possible to maintain.”

In terms of being able to negotiate the business cycle, Potsides said that the firm’s systems have to scale with demand, which is affected by market conditions. “This, in turn, influences our purchasing decisions, and the strategy has to be flexible enough to accommodate that,” he said.

The company is considering nonrelational data stores or cloud-based database services because of the elasticity they offer. “Because we are a Web-focused company, it's a lot simpler for us to migrate to new technologies as there's no installed base in the same way you'd have with a traditional application,” Potsides said.

These technologies could help to eliminate some of WinkBall’s current database issues that centre on performance. Potsides said the firm has directed the majority of its tuning efforts on optimising complex queries, reducing database latency and ensuring that sufficient hardware and network resources are available. “Our relational mapping layer dictates the actual interactions to a large degree, but how we interact with it can lead to significant gains in performance,” he said.

Apart from performance issues, some of the most costly parts of WinkBall’s database operations currently involve physical factors, with hardware, data storage and co-location being key examples. “The time it takes to diagnose problems is another expense,” Potsides said, “although the benefits we gain far outweigh the cost, as poor performance is completely unacceptable.”

Cloud computing, with its potential for reducing the cost of deploying large-scale applications, may provide the answer.

“Eventually, we'd like to involve more cloud-based services in our offering, whether that's using existing products or introducing our own internally developed tools,” he said. “However, we are very sensitive to things like data security and latency, so whatever route we finally take, we'd have to be sure that our concerns are addressed.”

Many SMEs lacking in database technology skills

Robert Rutherford, managing director at consultancy Quostar, said that, in reality, these two Internet companies are unusual for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in their level of database literacy.

“Most SMEs simply don’t have any strategy for their database systems,” he said. “You'll typically find that the internal IT team, or person, within SMEs just won’t have the required skills to effectively manage a database. Therefore databases often become unstable, insecure and huge, and they perform badly.”

Rutherford added that, when it comes down to it, most SMEs don’t actually need a full-time database administrator. All they require is a few hours a month spent on management and tuning, which an external service provider can do relatively cheaply.

However, said Rutherford, SMEs that want to operate their own database infrastructure should develop the four traditional database strategy areas of availability, performance, recoverability and security.

“These core areas are often never thought of until issues occur and are quickly followed by a knee-jerk reaction which will make a situation worse or incur unnecessary costs,” he said. “Business management should understand these four areas and must determine what is acceptable. This then makes the IT team’s job much easier when putting forward solutions with associated costs.”

“Most SMEs simply don’t have any strategy for their database systems.” 

Robert Rutherford, managing director, Quostar

Cloud-based database services can be a way for SMEs to gain access to enterprise-class technology “without the associated costs and management pains,” Rutherford noted. And while security is often raised as a potential issue on cloud computing, he said that credible cloud services providers “have security systems and internal processes that are superior to the majority of SME environments.”

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