RedBalloon’s move to the cloud

Years ago at the very beginning of time (well it feels that long ago) when we began to think about what RedBalloon could look like, I took my hard-earned $25k and visited a web developer. Alas, $25,000 later I had a very average website: no content management system, the site was ‘framed’, and even worse, the site was not even hosted.

For many entrepreneurs, technology is their Achilles’ heel. And I was no different. I had a business idea (lots of bright ideas) and from the beginning the site began to evolve. There was no architecture or grand plan. We just added features willy-nilly. Marketers directly asking the developers… if they could have this… or that… and the list was endless.

What started as a ‘project’ was fast becoming a massive convoluted mash of spaghetti. I had the vision to be a large business. But sitting under the bonnet the system was held together with sticky tape. About five years ago I knew that we had to invest in an enterprise solution that was rigorous, robust and scalable. The hosting, architecture, testing (and even the coding in the boutique language Cold Fusion) were not going to get us where we needed to go.

For me personally, IT was a blind spot. I trusted, believed and hoped. Every ‘expert’ was telling me something different.

The critical path to the success we now have came from getting independent advice – not from consultants or vendors (because by nature they are not independent). It came from putting together a Technology Advisory Panel (fancy name for asking my friends running technology companies to lunch).

It was slow – and systematic. But I can hand on heart say now that the investment we have made is more than paying off.

RedBalloon was one of the first Australian businesses to implement the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing platform, in another step on the online retailer’s innovation journey. RedBalloon initiated the move to cloud computing as part of a major digital overhaul undertaken at the beginning of 2011, and the two month implementation was completed in mid-July that year.

The transition required only 15 minutes of downtime from its previous on-premise environment at 6am on a Sunday morning. The last time the business switched server providers the high traffic website was down for almost 16 hours while a hard-drive was flown between Melbourne and Sydney to transfer the enormous amount of data. And I got lots of grey hairs.

As a fast-growing company, repeating this sort of downtime was out of the question. We realised 12 months ago that technology had become a growth inhibitor. The company was relying on 17 servers housed at a local data centre and needed many more to continue its growth.

Today, the RedBalloon platform features over 150 servers in the cloud, which cost the same as the previous 17. Almost the entire RedBalloon business now runs from the cloud – including website, fulfilment, ERP and CRM.

The intuitive model foresees more than 100 of the RedBalloon servers automatically shut down overnight when not in operation; delivering flexibility, scale and a significant cost saving to the business every day. Beyond the website, the Cloud DR program also means the physical business keeps operating if the Sydney office network is hit, as the phones run off the internet. Practically, this frees employees to work remotely, an important feature of RedBalloon’s commitment to being a top employer.

We have gone from the ‘back foot’ to the ‘front foot’: A painful journey but essential to our future growth trajectory.

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On cloud nine…the RedBalloon team get ready for cloud computing

Naomi Simson has received many accolades and awards for the business she founded, RedBalloon.com.au, including the 2011 Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year – Industry.

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