Sandstone has switched to a pure cloud services delivery model, enabling a 10-fold increase in end users supported through its online team building sessions by ditching its hosting provider.
In order to reduce costs and quickly scale its operations to meet increased interest in the online business it began three years ago, Sandstone sought an alternative to the virtual dedicated server (VDS) supplied by its previous hosting provider.
The change in business requirements convinced Sandstone to adopt a full cloud model to deliver web-based team building sessions to organisations with large remote or disparate workforces, in addition to the software it provides for on-premises projects.
Alan Hunt, Sandstone's managing director, said that the number of end users the company could support had been limited in the past due to the inflexibility of its previous hosting agreement, both in terms of capacity and cost.
"As we added to the portfolio of activities and we started to get ever-larger groups interested in our activities, that is where it became a bit more of a challenge," he said.
Hunt added that the traditional hosting service was scalable, but that the provider's terms lacked the flexibility required to meet the demands of new clients.
"It was quite expensive for us because the minimum time we could have a larger VDS available for us was a month," he said. "We might only need it for a day."
These limitations meant that delivering services to even relatively small numbers of end users could be problematic, with 120 online users the most to be supported by its hosting provider at one time.
"We couldn't configure beyond a certain amount of processing or a certain amount of memory," Hunt said. "It was quite an issue for us, and that was just for 120 people. It started to become quite restrictive."
In order to increase the number of end users that could be supported at short notice, Sandstone chose to employ cloud hosting services from UK based cloud company ElasticHosts. Hunt said that the flexibility and scalability of a cloud service enabled the relatively small workforce of Sandstone to fulfill a contract for 1,200 customers across North and South America, using the cloud provider's Texas data centre to reduce latency.
"From a technological point of view, our challenge was that our largest event previously was for 120 people, so this was literally 10 times the size," Hunt explained.
Sandstone tested out its software applications in advance of the event to get a clear idea of the amount of memory and CPU capacity needed to run the session. This also involved ensuring that the cloud host's technology would work with its own applications. The test allowed various benchmarks to be run in preparation for the substantial spike in usage that had not been previously experienced previously by the company.
One of the challenges in preparing for the larger project was the ability to predict the demands of the three technologies used for Sandstone's software applications, Hunt said. He explained that the "front end" of of the team building software uses Ajax, with PHP and Java running behind.
"Java is quite memory intensive so that was a requirement where we probably had an idea of what we needed, because it is relatively easy to do the theory on Java. The Ajax and PHP side is less easy, because all the different parameters that exist inside the web server and PHP settings and so on can have a massive, sudden cliff. It can be working perfectly well, but add a straw and everything falls over. So we needed to test that thoroughly," he said.
Sandstone eventually decided on 8GB of memory, to support the increase server demands, as well as the equivalent of a 20,000 MHz CPU. Hunt said that this could have rendered the project financially prohibitive under the terms of its previous hosting agreement, which stipulated a month-long rental of server capacity, charging for peak demand throughout the period.
In addition consultancy fees were charged, and Sandstone was unable to decide on capacity itself, relying on its provider to determine CPU and memory demands. Hunt estimated that this would have upped costs by as much as 10 times the amount paid for a cloud service.
"We wouldn't have been able to do this with a VDS offering," Hunt said. "The only way to do that with our previous supplier would have been to have a dedicated machine which would have increased the cost considerably. It would have been a nightmare."
Hunt added that by choosing a cloud service over a hosting system, it will be possible to easily increase the number of end users in a team building session with little testing. This means that systems could be provisioned for anywhere up to 10,000 users with only a few hours notice at most, he said, allowing the company to scale its business accordingly.
"The flexibility is important to us," Hunt said. "What we are doing is leading edge and as we bring out more activities we will need different things for those, and we won't need to change our technology based supplier."