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CARFAX taps startup for application delivery controllers

As CARFAX's growth outpaced its ability to manage its changing needs, the enterprise took a chance on a startup that focuses on application delivery controllers -- and hasn't looked back.

Some enterprises with millions of users logging onto their websites might hesitate to load balance Web servers with a startup vendor, but CARFAX decided to take a chance. As the company's growth outpaced its ability to manage its changing needs, it went out on a limb with a small startup that focuses on application delivery controllers – and it hasn't looked back.

We're making sure we don't learn how to drive on the interstate and instead on the back roads.
Gary M. Lee

"The old saying used to be, 'You never get fired for buying IBM,' and today the saying is, 'You never get fired for buying Cisco,'" said Gary M. Lee, CTO of CARFAX, an online database of vehicle history reports for consumers and auto dealers. "But because of our traffic and our hyper-dynamic environment, we also can't be as safe as we'd like to be sometimes."

Last year, 65 million visitors logged onto CARFAX's main site -- 80 million if you count reports accessed via about 200 partner sites, Lee said. Meanwhile, the company's two data centers undergo server installations and refreshes about a dozen times each day.

"Our traffic is doubling year over year. It's exploding through the roof," he said. "If we're not connected to the Internet, we're not making money."

Load balancing the traffic generated by millions of Web visitors across the two data centers is critical. When CARFAX's legacy Cisco Systems load balancers were due for an update, Lee realized that his company's load balancing requirements had evolved since the Cisco boxes had been installed seven years earlier.

"With the old equipment, everything was command line, so if we needed to move customers from one line to the other [while a server was offline], we had to go in there ourselves," Lee said. "But that's prone to error…. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot."

After Lee had done the usual research to find the right solution for load balancing Web servers -- reading, talking to analysts, asking peers -- two finalists remained. He had narrowed the field to F5 Networks, an established market leader, and Crescendo Networks, an Israeli startup that focuses exclusively on application delivery controllers. After testing out both solutions in his data centers, Lee chose Crescendo's AppBeat DC boxes. He began implementing them six months ago.

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"F5's been around -- they're a very great company, and the concern was Crescendo is new and they're small," Lee said. "But through the process of trying before we buy and doing that heavy-duty bakeoff, we got very comfortable with them…. We decided it was worth the risk."

Despite his confidence in the Crescendo solution, Lee chose to do a gradual implementation of the application delivery controllers in order to minimize risk -- either from the product itself or from a learning curve with his staff.

"We're making sure we don't learn how to drive on the interstate and instead on the back roads," he said. The refresh is two-thirds complete.

Application delivery controllers fulfill enterprise's need for speed

Kristina O'Connell, vice president of marketing at Crescendo, which recently opened its U.S. headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., said the vendor's application delivery controllers sit between the client and the Web server, accelerating websites by compressing, caching, HTTP multiplexing and load balancing Web servers.

"To keep adding servers just doesn't make sense," O'Connell said. "We made this product with the understanding that Web traffic will continue to increase.... It's a hardware-based platform, so each feature does not share any resources."

Using the application delivery controllers has meant CARFAX's engineers no longer need to babysit the command line interface for load balancing Web servers while a database is being upgraded, Lee said.

The four Crescendo application delivery controllers in place have met every expectation on reliability and performance, he added, easing management for the IT team to do daily upgrades while not dropping users.

"We're trying to balance traffic that can be coming from anywhere in North America and even the world," Lee said. "You need to optimize that [website speed] because people will give up and leave, and on a consumer product like ours … they do have a very real alternative of saying, 'I won't do it.'"

Know how to choose a startup for application delivery controllers or any WAN infrastructure

Jim Frey, research director at Enterprise Management Associates, said choosing a startup vendor "definitely" comes with risk, but he noted that this doesn't mean enterprises should write them off.

"The biggest risk ultimately is one day you get the little notice that says, 'This company has decided to cease operations. Farewell, good luck,'" Frey said. "People should not be worried about asking the hard, pointed questions [in advance]."

When choosing a startup, Frey said, enterprises should also ask about:

  • Installed base:
  • A large installed base in your geographic market usually indicates that the company and its technology are "pretty stable," he said.

  • References: Customer references are desirable but not always available, Frey said. Research what the media or analyst community is saying about the company. "That means if that company is making some investments … they're trying to establish a footprint, and that's an indicator of their commitment to the marketplace," he said.

  • Financials:
  • You don't need an MBA to know whether a company is profitable or not. Just ask. Although they may try to put a spin on questions about stability, they can't lie about their profitability, Frey said. "They might say, 'Sorry we don't disclose that.' That should be a red flag," he said. And not all bottom lines are created equal. "Software-based organizations can operate on a pretty thin margin, but the hardware-based solutions, especially if it's a lot of proprietary hardware, require a bigger capital base."

  • Pedigree:
  • Look at the vendor's executive bios. If they've worked in well-established companies, it's a good sign, Frey said, adding that organizations that have channel partner programs or technology alliances also earn brownie points.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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