Instaclustr – from the spare room to the world with Azure as a partner

This is a story about understanding and realising possibilities. It’s about recognising that your problem might also be others’ problem and that your solution just might be their solution.

It’s a story that starts with two men working together in a Canberra suburban room and ends with . . . well, who knows just where it will end but already there is a staff of almost 30 with offices in Canberra and San Francisco and a Centre of Excellence being developed in concert with the University of Canberra.

This story is about Instaclustr, the start-up that’s using the power of Microsoft Azure and the Azure Marketplace to go from big to even bigger.

For Ben Bromhead and Adam Zegelin, the founders of Instaclustr, the initial problem was a need for access to highly scalable database to help with a project they were working on. After some research, it appeared that the relatively new open source Apache Cassandra database technology was the solution but, as Ben recalls, a couple of years ago there was a scarcity of information and help available to assist new users.

“At the time we certainly weren’t Cassandra experts, so we kind of looked around to see if there was anyone who could help us run it or run it for us as a service, but unfortunately there was nothing really out there,” Ben, now the company’s CTO, says.

“So we had to spend a bit of time building some tools and some services and some processes internal to what we were doing to help us run and manage Cassandra. 

Then one day we thought, ‘Hey, other people might be interested in what we’ve built’

“Then one day we thought, ‘Hey, other people might be interested in what we’ve built and over a week we put together a simple web interface, threw on some credit card billing and kind of pushed it out the door with a small blog post and a message to the Cassandra mailing list.”

Demand grew rapidly and investors joined the company to help finance expansion.

Peter Nichol, Instaclustr’s CEO explains the company’s strategy as one of growth, with an integral part of that growth coming from the move to Azure.

“We provide not just one capability, which is Cassandra as a managed service in the cloud, we also provide pure support for Cassandra and we also provide consulting and expertise around Cassandra for any company that really needs the Cassandra expertise, in any form,” Peter says.

“We think that by doing that, we can rapidly grow a kind of critical mass of Cassandra expertise and that will be very difficult for anybody else to replicate.”

The growth was fuelled by a relentless concentration on listening to the customer, with members of the software engineering team being regularly rostered onto the support desk so they could find out first hand from customers about problems being encountered.

“And that kind of approach flows all the way through to myself as CTO,” Ben says. “I participate in the support rotation as well, and so really it’s about the whole team keeping their ear to the ground. It’s just listening to your customer and making sure everyone is across what not only the little guy but what the big guys are telling us.”

Ben believes that customer focus also helps with long term planning. “We’re actually, just through purely organic means in how we’re paying attention and listening to what they need, we’re starting to build this real – I won’t say ‘data as a service’ but really it’s almost kind of that reactive micro services driven architecture. It’s really come from listening to what our customers want, where they’re heading, what technologies help them out, and then just making sure our company is aligned with that. And you know, we’re really seeing our ability to kind of stay on top of the latest trends just through data process.”

Among other plans, they have recently announced support for Apache Spark and are looking at complimentary open source technologies that work well with Cassandra such as Apache Kafka and Apache Zeppelin.

Growth is predicated on the development of partnerships with major cloud providers like Azure

Growth is predicated on the development of partnerships with major cloud providers like Azure because, Ben says, “once you get to the point where you are working with the Azure team you become entrenched in the eco-system and you are able to work with existing Microsoft customers.

Demand was initially led by smaller-sized companies but over the past several months, Peter says, “we’ve kind of been going up the curve in terms of dealing with much larger sized customers. We have about 100 large paying customers now and of them, about half are using our product in full blown production; meaning that they’re actually running their applications on our back-end data base service. And out of those 50 or so customers, there’s probably five to 10 that are in the ‘more than a billion dollar revenue’ range.”

Azure is playing a big part in that, particularly as customers are increasingly demanding Microsoft’s cloud platform.

“We are starting to see a fairly high demand for Azure these days,” Peter says. “We come across a lot of customers who are in very deep business relationships with Microsoft, and in the initial discussions with them they pretty much say that the only option they’re willing to consider is the Azure platform.”

Ben believes that working with Microsoft has come with other benefits. “I think one of the other things that we’re really finding is very attractive about the Microsoft and the Azure platform is just the strength in Microsoft’s partner program and the integration and the way that they can help their existing companies navigate some of these new technologies.

“That’s really been the experience I’ve found working iteratively not only with Microsoft technical support people that have been helping us to build and support their platform, but also just on the business side as well and working within the Microsoft partner eco-system. I think that is definitely one of the biggest strengths that Microsoft bring from a business process to this whole thing.

I think one of the other things that we’re really finding is very attractive about the Microsoft and the Azure platform is just the strength in the company’s partner program

“And, you know, that’s a really exciting thing to be part of. And I’m pretty pumped about it, to be honest.”

Engineers from Instaclustr are currently working with Microsoft to prepare for launch in the coming weeks on the new Microsoft Azure Marketplace, which is designed to match information providers with end users and developers. It’s a core aspect of the Azure platform, providing information that users may immediately access with Microsoft applications.

The service is being utilised by application developers, business analysts and anyone requiring data, with it providing users with the ability to use premium data which is freely available on a trial basis.

“The Marketplace is another key component of the way that Microsoft helps people deal with partners, and another key indicator of the partner success story,” Ben said. “So we’re pretty excited about getting on it.”

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