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SmugMug smiles for Amazon S3

Photo site SmugMug has been quite the Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) evangelist, offering some interesting perspectives that go beyond the basics.

When photo site SmugMug initially contacted me, it was in the context of some of the pieces that I had written about competitor Flickr and some of the issues associated with protecting photographers' works online.

In a nutshell, relative to Flickr, SmugMug has opted for less of a open-community orientation than for ways to store and display photos with a rather granular set of access controls. (See some discussion by CEO and "Chief Geek" Don MacAskill.)

These are important topics that I'll be discussing further in due course, but today, I'm going to focus on SmugMug's physical infrastructure.

During my conversation last week with President Chris MacAskill, he made some points about using's Simple Storage Service (S3) that may not be widely appreciated. (S3 is Amazon's "storage as a service" offering that users pay for based on the amount of storage space used and data transferred.

Like Amazon's EC2 compute service, it falls roughly into the "Hardware-as-a-Service" concept.)

SmugMug was one of the earliest S3 users. As Chris tells the story, SmugMug was buying a "mindblowing" number of Xserves from Apple. The Silicon Valley-based company was running out of power and space--the usual story.

However, Chris raised another point that bears mention. The company was having to buy all this gear up-front, in advance of the revenues (i.e. user subscriptions) that it would hopefully generate. This was difficult from a cash flow perspective--especially for a company that wasn't venture capital-backed. But the reality is actually worse.

Not only were the expenses up-front, but they were capital expenses. From an accounting perspective, this means that the depreciation on the systems hit the P&L in a given year. The result? You may look profitable, but cash flow is tight and you could end end up effectively "prepaying" taxes.

Then Amazon called out of the blue, after a conference, and told the site about S3. At Amazon's initial target of 50 cents per gigabyte, it was intriguing. When Amazon ended up pricing its offer at 15 cents, Chris says the company's "jaws dropped."

Initially, SmugMug used Amazon S3 for backup while keeping all of its primary storage in-house. At the beginning, it wasn't thrilled with uptime, but it said that it wasn't disappointed, either. More troubling was that Amazon wasn't so transparent about the time and length of outages, which seems to remain a big issue.

However, over time, SmugMug started seeing better uptime from Amazon than it could deliver in-house. It now has more than 400 terabytes of photo and video storage on S3, and it can add as much as 1TB on busy days.

Now that the company has switched much of its primary storage to S3 as well, there's another economic point worth making. Were SmugMug to host all this storage in-house, it'd actually have to buy more like 1.2 petabytes because it'd need enough to support any growth spurts and enough for backup, as well as primary storage.

With Amazon S3, the company effectively gets backup for "free." (Of course, that assumes that you trust Amazon not to lose data, but as far as I know, there has been no data loss associated with any Amazon outages.)

SmugMug is also a heavy user of Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), even though the service is still in beta test mode. One of the most appealing features of EC2, according to Chris, is that it can handle load spikes without paying for the capacity all the time. For example, loads go way up after a three-day holiday weekend, when people upload all their pictures on Tuesday.

All that said, the company does maintain some of its own servers. It does this, in part, to provide a sort of cache for "hot" photos. (Chris estimates that 10 percent of the photos on the site get 90 percent of the traffic.) Related is the fact that SmugMug runs its MySQL database servers in-house (so it'll be physically close to the hot photos.)

Amazon's recently announced SimpleDB could potentially offer an alternative, but it's missing some features that SmugMug's software, as currently written, requires. (See some technical discussion here.)

I suspect that we'll see these hybrid architectures--even at aggressive Cloud Computing adopters--a lot. You sometimes need that little bit of customization or specialization that you can't get from a service that has to be relatively standardized. That said, SmugMug is an aggressive adopter, and it gives us some good insights into what can be gained by making the infrastructure largely someone else's problem.