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Was Trump University the Catalyst for Cloud Computing?

How great marketing created a technology nightmare

In 2005, I was working at Hewlett Packard in the storage group. We were three years past the Compaq-HP merger in Houston. My product line consisted of an entry-level SAN storage product and some accompanying data protection software. One of the many product management duties was customer interface. I always enjoyed trade shows, telephone calls and face-to-face customer briefings.

Customer briefings at HP were mostly great. The briefing center is a beautiful facility on the HP campus. Because customers (up to a dozen in a group) would travel to our Houston site, the briefing teams would coordinate a day long or two days of presentations and/or lab tours. Each briefing was tailored to the customer's desire. Typical presentations were focused on ProLiants, Laptops and Handhelds, Factory tours, HP Software, and Storage. Some briefings were very positive because customers were genuinely interested in our strategies, technology directions, and sometimes even features. Some briefings were a bit mixed. Every few briefings, I would have to do a ‘timefiller' presentation (this would be a customer group that was ProLiant-centric or destop/laptop focused and no HP storage focus. A ‘timefiller' was a storage presentation used to fill up an hour of time on the schedule. The expectation was low all the way around). When the briefing coordinator asked for a ‘high level storage strategy' pitch, it became the code word for ‘timefiller.' Those types of briefings were still good because I could highlight several storage and ProLiant differentiators that might spur some interactive dialogue. Just maybe the customer would associate storage with ‘HP.' Maybe get HP on the vendor short list when a storage buying opportunity came up.

Well on this particular day in 2005, I got the briefing request email. It was a day before the arrival of the customer. The request was for a ‘high-level' storage briefing right after lunch. I wasn't terribly excited to re-arrange my schedule for a ‘high level storage pitch' but I did so because it was still better than the other tasks on my schedule and I enjoyed talking to customers.

I don't even remember the customer's name but they traveled with a man who was their channel partner. This partner purchased through HP distribution and then sold the HP gear to the customer. After this uneventful storage briefing, this channel partner meets me at the coffee area without his customers and told me that he had another customer with an issue.

"I have a problem with a customer - NBC Universal to be exact. Are you familiar with the TV Show, The Apprentice?" I said, "I was".

(For folks that don't know or remember - Celebrity Apprentice is the current format but years ago ‘normal' people were the talent competing on Trump's show). He went on to explain that his company had a contract with NBC to host their web servers. I was waiting for the ‘storage question' but he asked me about hosting. His specific problem was this -

"We have many dozens of servers supporting the web site for The Apprentice. We know that during the show we get (approximately) 100,000 hits per second about an hour before the show airs and about 6 hours after the show (if you factor in viewings in different US time zones). As you know, we really can't control Mr. Trump because well, he's Mr. Trump. He is going to say and do what he wants to promote the show. Now he has an idea to take The Apprentice to a new level by announcing Trump University on the show. The idea is that people could enroll in Trump University and learn from Donald Trump and his staff".

(To this point, I was thinking this was great. I don't see the problem. Sounds like world class marketing.)

Because Trump University would essentially let everyone play Apprentice in real-life and potentially unlock the promise of big-time success, the web site would be overrun with hits when Trump announced the University. This partner estimated multiple millions of hits per second - his dozens of servers might need to be hundreds or a thousand. The workload could be 10X to 100X the current workload (emphasis on could be) The contract with NBC was awarded based upon the fact that NBC wouldn't go down and if they did, there was a hefty penalty to pay. The other issue is that Trump was supposed to announce Trump University during sweeps week but he was as unpredictable as the hits to the web site. He might do it any week so there was risk on timing and when they needed to be ready for the increased web traffic.

(A few years prior, this exact downtime scenario surfaced as a result of a Victoria's Secret Super Bowl halftime lingerie fashion show hosted on Victoria's Secret web site. At halftime, the site was overrun with traffic and that marketing project totally backfired. Viewers were treated to choppy video with long delays essentially making the site unwatchable. Technically, the site did not go down but it did have bottlenecks - according to IBM Global Services)

That partner looked at me and I had no answer. It was the first time I couldn't even suggest an alternative. The only way to be sure was to over-invest in servers, just in case, and then keep them or relinquish them afterwards. That was his current solution. Admittedly, I wasn't much help.

Now fast forward a few years and this thing ‘cloud' starts getting tossed around. Microsoft says it's one thing, IBM says it's another, Amazon says it's something else. But one thing was clear - the implementation and elasticity of a cloud was the solution to this partner's problem. Trump could announce his University, web hits would skyrocket, and the cloud would increase the infrastructure to match the workload. The infrastructure would not topple. He would never get penalized because the cloud would apply the appropriate resources. Any unpredictable workload could be accommodated with the cloud. After six hours (assuming the Trump University furor died down), the cloud could release those resources and pair down the infrastructure as needed. Because the cost of the cloud infrastructure is typically hourly CPU use, the costs would be commensurate with the usage. His old problem of allocating hundreds or a thousand servers would have been a logistical nightmare and as a capital expense (or even a rental expense) would have eliminated most if not all of his profit on the contract.

As a simple calculation, a cloud solution might cost (6 hours duration x $1 per CPU hour x 500 servers) something close to $3,000 total for the night versus a capital investment of ($2,000 per server X 500 servers) $1,000,000 (excluding logistics, labor, power, networking, etc). The cloud solution could also continue to scale if the workload projection of 500 servers was way off - either too low or even too high. The physical servers could not.

The design of the cloud was to tackle this exact problem - unpredictable workloads and short term, resource intensive workloads. This highlights the tremendous flexibility of the cloud - to match dynamic usage and costs. In theory, Mr. Trump could announce his candidacy for US President on his web site and as long as that web site was hosted in a cloud environment with automated resources being applied to match the workload, it would not crash even if a billion people were interested and came to his web site.

In the end, the partner who challenged me with their hosting problem at NBC was a company called Rackspace, a small hosting company that grew into a cloud computing giant that now solves these exact IT challenges. Years later, my ‘timefiller' presentation and this question by a partner had me in the crosshairs of a technology revolution. I believe that Donald Trump and his Trump University problem was one of the catalysts for cloud computing.

More Stories By Rich Bruklis

A 20 year veteran of the storage industry, Rich has been a business leader in product marketing. He has seen the industry change from backup on 5.25" floppies to 10,000 cartridge tape libraries with every tape "standard" in between. Rich has supported 5.25" 30MB hard drives and launched disk arrays with hundreds of drives. Most recently, Rich has focused on business continuity and disaster recovery.

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