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Using an old trick to protect data in the cloud
When Data Gardens founder Dr. Geoff Hayward explains his software, he often compares it to the classic shell trick.
“What I’m doing is a form of a shell trick,” Dr. Hayward says. “In the old shell trick you have two peas and you trick somebody into thinking the pea is under one shell, but you’re really exposing another pea under a different shell,” he explains. “What I’m doing is exposing a replica server instance in Japan, but it tricks the user into thinking they are talking to the original server in Edmonton.”
Dr. Hayward says most corporate computer users aren’t actually using a physical computer. Rather, computers are virtual and abstracted from the metal and silicon on which they reside. The operating system and processes most people associate with a “server” can be moved from one physical computer to another in the same data centre without any interruption in service.
When he started Data Gardens in Edmonton in 2007, the main objective of Dr. Hayward and his team was to make it possible to move virtual computers not just within the data centre, but around the world and to do it dynamically in response to changing business requirements. The task had many challenges, but Dr. Hayward’s idea of a shell trick was key to reaching his vision.
Defining the problem
“[Working with cloud computing] I came to understand that many customers had needs to exploit infrastructure in different parts of the world for their computing needs outside of [their central data centre],” Dr. Hayward says. “But there were certain technical challenges that made this near impossible, and I had ideas to resolve those problems so I started Data Gardens.”
There are two challenges to modern computing: bandwidth and the speed of light. Because public networks are shared, fast communication is costly. The amount of data that can be sent from point A to point B is determined by available bandwidth, and the more bandwidth a company needs, the higher the cost.
Data is also transferred at the speed of light, so if a data centre is a long distance away, the user will see a delay between each action and the result. Because many computer processes involve continuous exchanges between clients and servers, even a small delay due to the finite speed of light can quickly multiply to the point where a service becomes unusable.
“What if we were constantly replicating the virtual machine, so we’re constantly sending the changes from a virtual machine in Alberta to Japan?” Dr. Hayward asks. While the machine in Japan may lag behind, at the moment when the user gets moved to Japan Dr. Hayward’s technology sends only the last few changes and active processes. This lets the user keep working without any interruption, and the missing content gets moved after the active processes.
Protecting their investment
As the team at Data Gardens quickly found out, the software was a hit. With great technology comes a lot of attention, and Dr. Hayward says his team wasn’t fully prepared for the onslaught of requests they received.
“We would say yes to every request for an application of our software,” Dr. Hayward says. “That created a business problem for us, because it was difficult to focus when everybody was saying ‘I need it for this’ or ‘I need it for that’.”
In order to protect their investment, Data Gardens chose to focus on disaster recovery. When a server notices an issue, the last few interactions are sent to a remote replica server which picks up the workload before any downtime occurs. The user experiences no interruption and the original server can be taken down for maintenance.
“We decided to focus on the one thing our customers said they needed more than anything else in the world, and that was disaster recovery,” Dr. Hayward says. “But unfortunately that created another challenge for us. For it to work properly, you need to have machines in both Edmonton and Japan, and most mid-sized companies didn’t have that capability.”
Dr. Hayward and his team chose to leverage the cloud, and designed their software to work with several types of cloud technology. This led to Data Gardens building a service rather than a product for the customer.
“We switched our business focus in 2012, and that really took off like a bolt of lightning,” Dr. Hayward says. “We weren’t even able to finish the product before major cloud companies wanted it. In two years we were acquired, and it was very sudden and very rapid.”
Data Gardens was acquired by Century Link in 2014, and continues to operate today as an independent company in Edmonton, Alberta.