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Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Zynga Takes On Amazon In IaaS Game

Zynga will sell cloud infrastructure-as-a-service to other game makers who want a hosting platform. With this innovative play, Zynga just became Amazon's competitor.

Zynga, owner of eight of the ten most popular social networking games on Facebook, is expanding its business to offer a game hosting platform, providing the technology on which other game makers can launch and run online games.

Zynga is not the first company to build out cloud computing infrastructure-as-a-service, but it's the first to produce an infrastructure that's uniquely geared to the burgeoning online game industry. This move reminds me of how went from selling books to serving as an all-around online retail store, then to selling and shipping other retailers' products, and finally to supplying raw computing infrastructure-as-a-service. You could also compare Zynga's plan to the New York Stock Exchange's efforts to sell cloud computing services to financial traders: Both Zynga and NYSE are trying to sell computing services finely tuned to an industry need.

With the move, Zynga has swiftly moved from being highly dependent on Amazon to becoming its competitor in the cloud infrastructure services market. Just 12 months ago, Zynga relied on Amazon for 80% of its computing capacity, running only 20% on its own data center. Since then, it has flipped that percentage to rely on Amazon for just 20%. Investors, who have been complaining about Zynga's successive quarterly losses, should be heartened by that trend, which bodes well for Zynga's long-term prospects.

[ Learn more about how cloud data centers can work together with direct telecommunications links. Read Data Center Chains In Cloud Promise Easier Moves. ]

Another advantage is that Zynga understands how a modern social networking game business should operate. Zynga's games share many common functions--such as "notify other players of this move"--so that much of the underlying logic and services can serve more than one game. In equipping its data centers, Zynga built and organized arrays of servers to perform different functions--for example, huge memory servers for caching content on Web servers; high I/O servers to process database calls; and CPU-intensive servers to execute complex game logic. Other arrays serve as high-speed firewalls, load balancers, or switching mechanisms. (Zynga lets wholesalers build and operate data center facilities, then equips its space the way it wants.)

For more on Zynga's innovative approach to big data and the cloud, check out this interview with CTO Allan Leinwand:

Zynga's move away from Amazon into its own zCloud infrastructure has been hailed as proof that enterprises can build private clouds and profit from their use without relying on the public cloud. But Zynga differs from most conventional enterprise IT data centers in some critical ways. First, Zynga has designed its data center arrays as a single computer serving one application: the collective, underlying logic and services that run its games. If you know your application as well as Zynga does, you can arrange server arrays like components on a circuit board, bringing to life Google's view of "the data center as the computer." In this way, Zynga says it has reduced the number of servers to one-third of what it had been using in Amazon.

Why can't everybody do this? Unlike Zynga, most big companies do not run one massive application serving 65 million users daily. Rather, they run a ferocious mix of big and small applications, requiring a general-purpose infrastructure. If such companies ran their software on a Zynga data center, large parts of the zCloud would spin on idle while other arrays struggled to do their work.

Another unique factor about Zynga: Its games use Facebook for engaging other players and notifying them of moves. In fact, Zynga relies so heavily on Facebook that 30% of Zynga's revenues go to Facebook. So Zynga equips data center space located near Facebook's data centers.

Why does Zynga keep its 20% of capacity on Amazon, its new competitor? Zynga has learned through hard experience that game participation can fluctuate wildly, especially when a game is first launched and hasn't built up critical mass. Zynga will not seek to build up 100% of its data center needs because it likes relying on Amazon Web Services as a "shock absorber," commissioning servers whenever game traffic escalates beyond any foreseen volume, said Allan Leinwand, CTO of infrastructure engineering. For that reason, Zynga also has zCloud data centers located close to Amazon data centers.

Furthermore, if Zynga wants reliable high-speed access to Amazon, it uses Direct Connect, a private fiber-optic link between an Equinix data center and Amazon's general-purpose infrastructure. Equinix builds and leases equipment in 38 data centers that are near network hubs and that can supply many points of access through different network providers.

So Zynga isn't simply another plain-vanilla hosting platform in the cloud--it's providing a super-cloud infrastructure for hosting games. It's tying its own zCloud game services into an arrangement that's comparable to a region-wide circuit board, in which other companies' data centers are used like components situated on a shared circuit. Facebook is an ASIC component, providing that application's features; Equinix is a giant switch. To Zynga, Amazon's EC2 is the world's largest CPU.

"Latency within a super-region is in the single-digit milliseconds. They are very tightly coupled pieces of infrastructure," said Leinwand in an interview earlier this year. Despite its size and diverse components, the Zynga Platform has still been optimized to run online games at the fastest possible pace, thereby allowing Zynga to rapidly expand its product line.

Zynga runs CityVille, Mafia Wars, Words With Friends, CastleVille, and Farmville, among other games, on its new platform. In the first quarter, the company added new games, including Hidden Chronicles, ZyngaSlingo, Scramble with Friends, Dream PetHouse, Dream Heights, and Draw Something. In addition, Zynga began providing its platform to six other game makers: Mob Science, Row Sham Bow, Sava Transmedia, Konami Digital Entertainment, Playdemic, and Rebellion.

More startup game developers are likely to flock to the Zynga Platform since the infrastructure and ready-to-use functionality common to social games will be hard for young companies to duplicate. In the future, this type of cloud computing will be commonplace. Today, it is a market-leading piece of work.

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek.

SMBs have saved big buying software on a subscription model. The new, all-digital Cloud Beyond SaaS/a> issue of InformationWeek SMB shows how to determine if infrastructure services can pay off, too. Also in this issue: One startup's experience with infrastructure-as-a-service shows how the numbers stack up for IaaS vs. internal IT. (Free registration required.)

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