We are a web service in the strict sense. We deliver a service through the web to subscribers and to publishers. We turn print pages into web pages and organize, search and serve them; and that is all we do. We are a set of pure web services but the funny thing is that we have never hosted our own web services. We never even thought about buying or owning our own servers, let alone running them. Sure we have some physical machines in the office, but nothing critical runs on them. We don’t own any hardware that matters. Why buy when you can rent?

From the moment we founded the company and for some years we were happy customers of Vanillamachines (one of the biggest Linux box collocation services) and they gave us a very reliable performance, though nobody from Exact Editions ever set eyes on the ‘machines’ that we were renting from them. I was never too sure whether the actual boxes were in Texas or the UK but it was vaguely comforting to know that there were some air-conditioned boxes of blades somewhere that were in some sense ours (three or four of them I believe). But a few weeks ago we moved over to the Amazon computing cloud (EC2 — Amazon Elastic Computing Cloud), and I do not think that anybody outside of Exact Editions will have noticed, and the strange consequence is that our computing is now entirely virtualised. We are using the Amazon computing cloud and there are no physical boxes that anybody could point to and say ‘that is where the Exact Editions service resides’. For sure we have a number of ‘virtual boxes’ in the Amazon cloud, that seems to be the way that Amazon are able to monetize and charge for their commoditised service, but there is no determinate corresponding set of physical chips running our code. For me, the most convincing moment in this transition occurred when our Technical Director noted that, immediately following the transfer, our main database seemed to be running a bit more slowly than he would have liked. He decided to double the size of the virtual server for a day to see if that made any difference. It did. Search and rendering was a lot faster, and as a result he decided to make the upsizing permanent. For an additional $300 a month, (some such relatively modest fee), we had doubled the scale of our database machine and could upsize or downsize them whenever we chose. If we decide that we need so many mega-teraflops for a couple of days, Amazon’s computing cloud will allow us to comfortably and temporarily use them. Its this just-in-time flexibility that is so impressive about the Amazon service.

Mind you, perhaps I would have been a bit more nervous about the switch to Amazon’s cloud if I had known that they were still in beta. Only today has the beta label been removed from Amazon web services. I guess they did this because they noticed our successful transfer? [feeble joke]

I still occasionally meet publishers who ask if they can host their own Exact Editions service. In future I will have the perfect and honest answer to this request: we don’t even host our own service……That is the real beauty of cloud computing. You don’t need to host your own. Let the cloud take the strain.