April 22, 2013, 11:07 AM

The cloud isn’t scary

An IRCE speaker explains the benefits of moving web hosting to a web-based provider.

Amy Dusto

Associate Editor

Lead Photo

John Baranowski

E-retailers can cut technology costs and improve efficiency by renting server space from “cloud” hosting providers—companies like Amazon.com Inc. and Verizon that provide computing power and data storage that other firms access via the web—rather than investing in and maintaining their own machines, says John Baranowski, co-founder and chief information officer of web-only personalized gift book seller LoveBook LLC.

But Baranowski recognizes that many e-retailers aren’t sure what services they can get from cloud providers, or whether they’re reliable and safe. He aims to set the record straight when he speaks at a session entitled, “Should you trust the cloud?” at the 2013 Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago this June. In the process, he’ll describe how LoveBook has taken advantage of the cloud to solve its performance and infrastructure problems.

“Everybody knows something about ‘the cloud’ but it’s usually a misconception,” Baranowski says. Cloud hosting doesn’t just refer to storage, but also to running computing processes, including software applications and database queries. He’ll explain that cloud providers can supply these services efficiently because client computing tasks are not run on dedicated machines. Rather these operators of large banks of servers employ what are called “virtual machines,” assigning each client the resources it needs at any time.  

That way, the provider can allot more server space to a retailer that needs it, for example to accommodate a sudden increase in site visitors resulting from a sales promotion. It can ensure the site stays up and loads quickly for all customers by temporarily reallocating server space—and hence computing power—from a less-busy merchant to the one that needs it.

Baranowski can speak from experience. When he and his partners first founded LoveBook in 2009, some national TV programs, including the “Today Show,” wanted to feature the site, he says. At the time, it was still hosted on one server that LoveBook owned and managed itself—the company was focused on building its book-creation application at the time, not on improving site performance, he says. Within 10 minutes of the “Today Show’s” first airing in 2010 in New York, the site was so overloaded with visitors his own team couldn’t log in. “We took it on the chin,” he says. After that, they looked for a better way to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe and landed on cloud hosting, he says.

The retailer signed up with vendor Rackspace Hosting Inc. Since moving all its computer operations to Rackspace, LoveBook has had no problems managing spikes in traffic, which tend to occur seasonally around holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Baranowski says.  When the retailer is expecting more traffic, his team can log into Rackspace and adjust the computing space it will get right away. That not only keeps the site performing well, but it means LoveBook isn’t wasting money on extra machinery and maintenance for the rest of the year when its needs aren’t as high, he says.

As to retailers’ security concerns, Baranowski says cloud hosting doesn’t present any greater security risks than operating a dedicated server. The important thing is that a retailer thoroughly vets the service provider, as it should before engaging a vendor for any service. “You’ve got to trust something at some point in time,” he says. “We feel very strongly about our service provider and that they do a great job for us.”

The editors of Internet Retailer asked Baranowski to speak because of his extensive background in information technology and engineering, along with his retail experience from co-founding LoveBook and another custom photo book seller, Picbound.

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