Exposed: the server farms behind Farmville

Editors at InformationWeek Magazine outdid themselves with the cover story in the May 16, 2011 issue. For starters, the thought bubble on the cartoon character gracing the cover said this:

I can add millons of customers in a week

I can add 1,000 servers in a day

Could other businesses use my hybrid cloud strategy?

Are their needs too different?

Has anyone seen my goat?

“Lessons from Farmville” (written by Charles Babcock) explains how Zynga, one of Facebook’s biggest success stories, manages demand for popular online games like FarmVille and CityVille.

Babcock gets to the point pretty quickly, setting it up with CityVille’s meteoric rise to 20 million users.

Zynga … launches games using Amazon’s EC2 infrastructure as a service, so it pays only for the capacity it uses and is ready for spikes. But that’s not the end of the story. Once a game hits a more predictable level, Zynga brings it in house, onto what it calls Z Cloud, servers it runs using a private cloud architecture similar to what Amazon runs.

…CityVille could have flopped. And if it had, Zynga would have preferred it to happen on rented-by-the-hour servers in the cloud, which can be decommissioned quickly.

Babcock provided a readable (well, to me anyway) sidebar explaining Amazon’s cloud computing service outage of April 21, an outage that Zynga, in this account, sailed through unscathed.

He summed up key lessons towards the end of this feature:

… mainstream businesses might consider putting product catalogs, marketing campaign fulfillment, product launch materials, customer self-help services, and low-risk operations, such as inventory tracking and project management applications, in the public cloud to minimize capital expenses. But any critical systems placed there that the business cannot afford to lose to an outage need not only backup and recovery systems, but also failover plans to an alternative site.

The article also discusses specific examples of hybrid data centre and cloud mixtures, providing data centre managers with plenty of food for thought.

Check out the full article (without the cool cover illustration, alas) here.

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