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Infopia keeps Linux, cuts costs with outsourcing

A marketing services firm cuts costs with Linux application development.

Since day one back in 1999, the IT folks at Infopia Inc. have used and built their IT infrastructure around Linux and freeware. Linux fit the bill as a lean, keen operating environment for this provider of online marketing services and solutions for consumer goods retailers and manufacturers. As Salt Lake City-based Infopia rapidly grew, however, its do-it-yourself approach began to increasingly detract from its core business processes.

In this interview, Infopia CTO and co-founder Eric Maas describes how his company re-evaluated its IT approach and came up with an alternative that reduced IT costs by 30%. Infopia's primary offering is Marketplace Manager, an online subscription product marketing service for creating and managing product listings for merchants on high traffic online marketplaces like eBay, Amazon, uBid and Yahoo.

What's Infopia's history with Linux?

Maas: We've been using Linux since the beginning of the company in December, 1999. At first, we were using it on e-infrastructure, where we were serving up our application server, hosting a database, etc. The infrastructure for technologies where we serve our customers has always been hosted on Linux.

Could you describe your initial configuration?

Maas: We started in 1999 on shared space on another company's server. We were just using that to start our technology. We quickly outgrew that and moved to a company that hosted our applications on dedicated servers. We probably had about five dedicated servers. That setup was very inefficient.

We began leasing our own equipment: 20 servers with a Web application tier of four servers, two database servers, two e-mail servers, etc. We had a cluster of automated back-end processing servers that didn't serve up Web pages but were communicating with partners on behalf of their clients. We ran on that for a couple of years.

Why did you decide to make a change?

Maas: Our core competency is developing applications. We want to focus on application development. We don't have enough in-house expertise and resources to deal with upgrading, locating, patching, dealing with security on infrastructure.

So, we had our own in-house infrastructure, and we had to learn more and more about maintaining that infrastructure on an as needed basis when problems came up. That took a lot of time.

What alternatives did you explore?

Maas: We realized that we couldn't hire more IT staff: sys admins, DBAs, etc. Outsourcing quickly became very attractive to us. We spent a long time looking at providers of outsourcing, from co-location to a fully-managed solution.

After many evaluations, we found that we liked that Oracle (Collaboration Suite Outsourcing on Linux) not only maintained the software being outsourced but they built the software architecture. Oracle's outsourcing wrapped up many things that we needed into one service. We couldn't find that with other providers. We'd get 24X7 global support experts in every area of our infrastructure. There would be no incremental charges when we need to get things figured out or use more DBA or network resources. So, we didn't have to have an in-house full-time DBA or sys admin.

Did you have experience with Oracle in the past?

Maas: We'd been using Oracle, so discovering Oracle Outsourcing was a relief in one way. With some other outsourcers, we might have had to change databases, and that would have been a lot of work.

How did the switchover happen? How did you prepare internally?

Maas: We signed the contract almost a year ago in November and spent the next month or so planning the move. We did a lot of documentation on our systems, a lot of work with Oracle planning the infrastructure. We had to determine how many servers were needed, what we were going to do, etc.

Oracle immediately got a test environment set up so that we could begin testing out different areas or applications. So, we just started moving things over, testing them out, and we went live with Oracle Outsourcing and Oracle Collaboration Suite on March 1. It was a pretty quick transition. Once we went live, all the services we offered on our old infrastructure were now offered on the new infrastructure.

What was the impact on your customers?

Maas: There were some switchover pains that did give our clients some headaches. Our application is pretty complex. We integrate with many different points, many different partners, shipping providers, marketplaces, referral sites, accounting software platforms, things like that. Oracle worked with us to get through the complex issues that [caused those initial pains] fairly quickly.

As a provider of solutions that enable retailers -- from Fanzz to individual eBay vendors -- to market, sell and ship products, we rely heavily on e-mail to make our campaigns, as well as those of our clients, successful. Because e-mail is such an integral part of our business, we cannot afford to have our systems go down. Now, our application runs on a secure, robust, faster, more reliable platform. We've had a 50 percent decrease in downtime. Everything runs faster.

There are fewer problems now that cause pains for customers because Oracle is proactively patching, upgrading, maintaining our infrastructure. Before the move, we were always just reacting to problems after they happened because we didn't have enough time or resources to just focus on being proactive.

How has the switch to outsourcing played out financially?

Maas: We're paying 30% less now as well as receiving vastly more for what we're paying for.

What productivity changes have you seen?

Maas: We've seen significant increases -- 50%, at least -- in development team productivity. We have a small IT staff, and their primary focus should be on developing applications. However, before we moved to outsourcing, the IT staff was spending a lot of time dealing with problems on the infrastructure: the server goes down and needs to be rebooted or needs to be upgraded; there's something wrong with memory card; and things like that. After the move, we are focusing a lot more on our core competency.

Are there any down side to outsourcing?

Maas: The down side is that we could do anything we wanted before. That could be a good thing and a bad thing because we might do something that's not secure or reliable. But sometimes when we need to get certain things in place we have to get clearance, and that makes it take a little longer. It means that changes to infrastructure take longer. On the up side, experts make the changes for us and think about all the aspects and ramifications of the changes. It just takes longer, and that's not much of a down side.

What's next on the IT front for Infopia?

Maas:When we first went live, we turned on core Oracle applications -- RAQ and Application Server, Collaboration Suite and things like that. We're still turning on features as we go along. We didn't want to try and to everything at once. Over the next year, we'll be turning on more pieces. In the Collaboration Suite, we're testing our files and calendaring right now. Web conferencing is coming this fall. We're also looking at wireless e-mail access.

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