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October 3, 2011

Q&A: How OnApp shook up CDN market, plans storage assault

Jason Stamper talks to Ditlev Bredahl, founder and CEO of OnApp, a UK-based start-up working in the cloud hosting space.

By Jason Stamper

Q. Could you give us a quick overview of OnApp?

A. OnApp’s raison d’etre is to help old school hosting companies develop cloud capabilities, so they can move up to the new generation of hosting companies like SoftLayer, Rackspace, Amazon. If you are a hosting company and you have been around for many years your systems might still be single tenancy. That would mean your clients would still reside on a single system with no failover or redundancy. Whereas the likes of Amazon, Rackspace, SoftLayer – they are working in multi-tenancy systems where there is failover, load balancing, scalability built into their systems.

So most hosting companies are still serving their clients on very legacy systems, because building something like an Amazon system or a SoftLayer system is extremely hard, it takes a long time. OnApp is trying to help those businesses get started much, much faster by having a turn-key platform, and basically be up and running with Amazon-like service within as little as 12 or 24 hours.

Q. I believe you also have content delivery network (CDN) services, in part through the acquisition of Aflexi. What do they bring to the table?

A. I was CEO of UK2Group and we actually built OnApp for internal use, then I sold UK2 to Lloyds. And what I saw when I built this technology for UK2 Group was that you tend to leave a lot of resources idle inside of the cloud. So basically if you have 100 servers in your cloud infrastructure, about 20 or so actually need to be left without anything on them, which is terrible for the environment and all sorts of things [electricity usage, management overheads] but the reason you need it is so that you have something to fail over to.

So what we did was ask how we can put those 20% to good use? We came up with the CDN, and the reason we came up with that is that we think that market is broken. It’s $2.6bn of revenue, there’s ten players in it, and one of those players, Akamai, owns half the market. It’s the only place in the hosting industry that hasn’t been disrupted yet. Many companies that should use a CDN don’t use a CDN because they can’t afford it. But other companies like General Motors that already have data centres worldwide still buy a CDN from Akamai when they don’t need it.

OnApp’s customers have data centre capacity all around the world. If you took those data centres and tied them together into a worldwide virtual network using their idle servers, you have the world’s largest CDN, and that’s what we’ve built. There’s a market place so one host can put idle resources on the market and another host can go in and buy it. We think in a year there will be 500 CDNs.

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Q. Can you give us a sneak preview of what might be next for OnApp?

A. We will launch the beta version of a new kind of SAN [storage area network] in November this year, and we will start shipping the technology in January next year.

Q. You’re going to go into storage, where there is considerable competition? What gives you the confidence you can out-maneuver the storage heavyweights?

A. Arrays are very expensive, especially when you probably need two of them, so many hosters use open source software and build SANs that work most of the time. I hired Julian Chesterfield as OnApp’s storage and virtualisation architect five or six months ago [Chesterfield was an early member of XenSource, the Cambridge University spinout company that developed Xen]. Julian is helping us build a really strong SAN product that works across all hypervisors, all of the time.

Let’s say you have 100 servers and 5 or 6 drives in each, we take all those drives and create a virtual SAN across all those devices. And if something fails it doesn’t matter because everything is n + 3 so you have three copies of all the data, sitting on these cheap white label, white box servers. It makes it much more redundant and much more scalable, and way, way cheaper. And you can use the infrastructure that you already use to build your clouds or whatever you are using those servers for.

Q. Can you tell us what the new storage product will be called, or even a code-name?

[Laughs]. Well the code-name includes the word ‘venture’ but I’m not going to say more than that.

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