Cloud Computing Done the Netflix Way

What can Netflix teach enterprises about data center operations and always-on reliability? Netflix is a consumer-facing Web shop with only a few applications--a completely different infrastructure challenge, right? Wrong. CIO.com's Bernard Golden explains the lessons to be learned from Netflix's data center transformation.

By Bernard Golden
Thu, April 05, 2012

CIO — I serve as the co-chairman of the SVForum Cloud and Virtualization SIG, based in Silicon Valley. Thanks to our location, we are able to call upon an array of innovative and interesting speakers and attract a sophisticated, knowledgeable audience.

Last week's SIG meeting was one of the most interesting we've had in our more than three-year history. Its title was "Cloud Computing the Netflix Way," and we had two Netflix guest speakers: Adrian Cockcroft, director of architecture for cloud systems (his presentation is here), and Jason Chan, Netflix's security architect (his presentation is here).

If you're not familiar with its technology infrastructure, Netflix has, over the past few years, migrated almost entirely from an on-premises data-center environment to a cloud-based setup located in the Amazon Web Services infrastructure.

As a follow-up to my recent CIO.com article titled "Cloud Computing Calls for Rebuilding Enterprise IT," these two presentations are almost a perfect complement. Learning about what Netflix has done is an excellent primer about what, in my opinion, most enterprises will go through in the future.

One thing to be addressed right at the start: Is Netflix a good model for enterprise IT? When Netflix is brought up as a model, I hear many people respond along the lines of, "Well, it only has a couple of applications. We have thousands." Or, "It's an online company and not really an enterprise," the implication being that what Netflix did is not applicable to "our" situation and environment, so it's interesting but not really germane.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

First, Netflix started its journey with a traditional enterprise environment and a traditional data-center infrastructure. It found that the infrastructure was too fragile for its needs (i.e., things stopped working all the time), and the traditional operations model didn't respond fast enough to the needs of the business. Netflix changed its approach because it recognized that the future of its business required a different way of doing things.

Second, companies are starting to look more and more like Netflix in terms of offering online services as a core part of their business. Think of GM and its OnStar service. If you've taken a Virgin America flight and seen the future of in-cabin entertainment, do you think it's not collecting and analyzing that data to tune its offerings to individual customers? What Netflix is doing, company after company is doing as well. So, for at least a portion of their applications, most companies are starting to resemble Netflix. And one thing is for sure -- managing the new type of applications with the practices and processes associated with existing applications is a recipe for disaster.

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