Friday, June 1, 2012

On the cloud, of the cloud, and all stateless: delivers cat-cams, community, but not complexity

A capture from Mission Cats' live stream from left, co-founder Yacin Bahi,  web designer Chris Whitefield,
co-founder Tom Sheffler
Here is a picture of a cute cat. If it weren’t for our insatiable appetite for cute cat photos, the internet might not be what it is today. delivered this picture as part of their online service.  Individuals and businesses upload feeds from webcams, where the video is available online; camera owners choose who can see them, from one or two family members up to public views accessible to anyone.  In itself, that isn’t remarkable, it just sounds like a good business idea.  Sensr is a freemium service; basic access is free, with paid options to add higher quality video, notification services, and more archiving.

What is remarkable is the way does that, what it represents for technology in business, and what it tells us about the ways online social communication is evolving.  In this first of two parts, we’ll look at the technology of a “stateless company,” in which cloud services allow Sensr the agility to change at will, scale on demand, and operate from anywhere.

“We’re consumers and users and believers in the cloud,” said co-founder Tom Sheffler when we sat down to talk in Burlingame, CA, at’s office.  Although the location is in the heart of all the silicon valley tech glamor, it’s a modest set of three or four rooms on the second floor of a bank building.  It could be your accountant’s office.  

Therein lies the way is practically an icon of the new possibilities of the services oriented enterprise. is a cloud company; you buy and consume their entire offering from the cloud.  But it is also a company built on the cloud, with no data center, no onsite technology at all beyond a bank of three or four laptops and monitors.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation, in which Sheffler explains what that means: “The genesis of this company--our 3 co-founders, we all have PhDs in Computer Science, we all come from supercomputer backgrounds, we love building big systems, and we have personal needs and saw a general need.  ‘Boy, there’s these cameras on the market, I would love to be able to watch my environment, I’d love to be able to check in on things, and it’s just too difficult.’  

We really wanted to simplify a big problem and we didn’t see a product out there to do it. And what’s been really fascinating for me, as part of a startup, is building a cloud service on top of other cloud services.  It used to be that to build something like this you’d have your own data center, and power, and air conditioning.  So we’ve built it using Linode as our service provider, Amazon S3 is our storage, we use Google voice for our phones, we’ve used Expensify to track our internal expenses.”

DH: You introduce an idea I haven’t even really covered yet, essentially a stateless company.

TS: That’s an interesting way to put it.

DH:  An enterprise that really hardly has any capitalization at all.  

TS: That’s an interesting idea....

DH: Is that an accurate way to describe

TS: Yeah.  I think so. I think so.  You know, most of our...we have a couple of people here, we all move around a lot, we’re kind of a modern version of a garage startup in that we’re a cloud startup. We have a small office, we have a couple of people here,  we have a few distributed around the country.”

When I speculated, “this is just rental space, you could be anywhere,” Sheffler agreed, and I went on to ask if the bandwidth to the office was an important part of their needs.

TS:  The bandwidth is with our service providers. We don’t need a lot.

DH: Do you need any disaster recovery?

TS: That’s handled in the cloud.  That isn’t handled here, we’re relying on the security and redundancy of Amazon S3 to handle that for us, and we rely on the redundancy of Linode and their data centers to provide that for us.  Our job is to develop the platform in such a way as to make use of the redundancy and protection in the right way.

DH:  When I talk to people in traditional enterprises, and they think about moving any piece of their enterprise to the cloud, to something that they don’t physically touch and own, disaster recovery and data security are among the first things you see expressed as “reasons not to.”  Or fears that they’ll expose themselves if they do that.

TS:  Well, for many of our applications, I think, we are going after a consumer market and somewhat of a do-it-yourselfer, and for many of the applications, people would want to see what’s going on in their house, but they also want to be prepared for the intruder or the emergency and in that case, it’s best to move data offsite as soon as possible, get it up in the cloud where it’s safe.  And I contrast this to more traditional security systems where you have a hard disk in your house and maybe the robber steals that, or if there’s a catastrophe, your home computer equipment gets destroyed.  In these circumstances you’ll want this out of your house, and it’s gotten into our system and we’ve analyzed and cataloged and put it in the cloud, it’s safe.

DH: None of your users ever has to consciously think about backing up anything.

TS: No.  It’s always backed up.

DH: The second piece of that, that came to mind immediately when you began to talk about that is, enterprises traditionally, whether they think about it or not, have some kind of ecosystem within their application hierarchy of data and security and authentication and so forth.  Is part of what you do at that integrative layer among these various cloud services that you consume and then deliver to your customers?

TS: Oh, absolutely.  We’re providing the user authentication layer for the consumer to come into our system. We are protecting his data and interfacing with--we’re authenticating to Amazon S3 and authenticating to Linode and we’re setting up our own virtual routes to protect the user’s data from their home up into the cloud and then to insure that only the proper users have access to the data they’re supposed to.

DH:  So you are an ecosystem on behalf of your users so they don’t have to authenticate.

TS:  That’s right.  For a single user to build a system like this, they’d have to interface with a number of services, they’d have a much more complex authentication problem, they’d have all the ones that we did, they’d have to recreate.  And we’ve simplified it to a few mechanisms of login and camera setup.”

In the articles on the Service Oriented Enterprise--one based on service tiers that can be managed to enable simplicity and agility--I talked at some length about complexity management.  You can either choose a simpler process than you’re using now, or you can manage complexity at each service tier in such a way that you abstract complexity away from those who consume the service.  It appears simple to the user because you’ve designed it that way.  I asked Sheffler if is abstracting complexity away from customers.

TS: That’s right, and we give people a simple user interface, and we also have programming interfaces, APIs, that abstract all this complexity that we’ve harnessed into a service. A camera service.  The API is where a user or another company can say ‘on behalf of me, on behalf of this other company, I’d like to allocate a user at Sensr and provision a camera upload.’  And behind the scenes, we’re managing a lot of the compute resources, the storage resources,  the routing resources, to allow that abstraction, that very simple video abstraction for an individual or another company.

DH:  You mentioned that a lot of your customers are individuals, and relatively low tech, although an awful lot of people are more sophisticated than we think...

TS: They’re getting pretty sophisticated.

DH:  What about big enterprises? If someone wanted you to manage a thousand cameras in their enterprise, how’s your ecosystem set up to scale?

TS: Well, it’s set up to scale up that way.  We do have--I wouldn’t say they’re fully ready to go--developer APIs, so a company that wanted to personalize the Sensr experience, to provide it through their own channels, we offer a platform for developing video services on, and I think you’ll probably see us announcing more of that in the next year.

We’re a consumer product, but we’re also a video platform for other products to be built on.

DH:  If your enterprise is itself stateless, it stands to reason you would also deliver your own service in a stateless way: a web application rather than an “app,” a locally installed client-server application on a computer or mobile device.  Is that the case with

TS: Our goal is to render users’ information on standard devices, using widely-available technology, so right now that’s HTML5, javascript, and a little bit of Flash.

DH: So you’re not having to do a locally-installed app, say on an Android or iOS device?

TS: Not right now, and right now, does not require an app.  That’s been great for us, because we’re leveraging these technologies that have huge development efforts behind them.

DH: Did HTML5 give you the ability to do things that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?

TS:  Through the use of javascript, HTML5 and Flash, we’ve been able to give an experience that is almost like that of an app on a mobile device.  And our experience will get even better.

DH: I follow the big research companies because I used to be a client, I used to manage that research, that’s what I did for those other companies, and Forrester right now is engaged in a fairly big corporate-wide push that we’re entering an era they call the “app internet.”  They’re seeing the success of the Apple app store, for instance.  I think they’re right as far as they go, that people have more power to choose and deploy things.  But when you have to download and constantly update an actual application on any device, you lose the benefit you get with something like HTML, where if you make it better, you do it once on your server and you get that update automatically by consuming the service.

TS:  Yeah, I love that model, I personally suffer from app update fatigue, and our user experience is continually improving because we’re using HTML5 and javascript and a little bit of Flash, and I think we’ve been able to push out a lot of changes without asking our users to reinstall anything--and they’ve had a great mobile experience too.

DH: Would you rather have a million individual homes with one or two cameras, or ten Target Corporations, or Wal-Mart, or both?

TS: Yeah...I think both. They’re slightly different.  I think what’s interesting is that to me, personally, is that the individual consumer market is underserved right now.  I don’t think that there are services quite like what we’re offering at the consumer level.  I think we’re defining a market that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been served, and that’s really exciting to me.”

By showing us in startup form what a stateless company can look like, demonstrates the way technology has changed the rules of business engagement.

  • Complex business processes can be managed as services in such a way as to appear simple to those who consume the service. If those service consumers don’t have to know or care about the complexity, it has been abstracted away from them.  This is perhaps the single most important benefit of the service oriented enterprise.
  • Sensr itself is a service consumer; Linode, Amazon, and others have themselves abstracted complexity away from Sensr, so that it consumes those services itself: DKDC (Don’t Know, Don’t Care) cascades through the service chain.  
  • Sensr used existing features of the services it consumes and did not need those services to be customized.  They developed a highly-specialized service using highly standardized components: exactly the model that can be scaled up to multi-billion dollar enterprises.
  • Sensr is an enterprise built with ideas more than one built with money.  The amazingly low capital inertia of the cloud makes this possible.  Your current and future competitors, those who succeed against your own business, will know this and use it.  Or maybe, your own company will act on the new rules instead.  Which will it be?

This article is about’s cloud and service architecture, the technologies that make a stateless enterprise possible.  But what they do is also fascinating as an expression of the social uses of technology.  In part two, Tom Sheffler and I talk about the ways people are using personal video networks, from viewing cats to maintaining family connections.  

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