The SingleHop Evolution

singlehop(Ping! Zine Web Tech Magazine) – The corporate headquarters of SingleHop rests on one of the busier streets in Chicago. It is a sixth floor affair made from large timber and brick and is nestled near the Brown Line. The rooftop has been praised by guests and employees alike for its impressive views of the city’s skyline, which made it one of the hot spots to visit on the Techweek: Chicago Grand Tour earlier this year. It is from here that co-founders Zak Boca and Dan Ushman guide the journey of one of today’s most successful hosted IT infrastructure providers, and one of Chicago’s fastest growing IT service providers.

The corporate headquarters of SingleHop rests on one of the busier streets in Chicago. It is a sixth floor affair made from large timber and brick and is nestled near the Brown Line. The rooftop has been praised by guests and employees alike for its impressive views of the city’s skyline, which made it one of the hot spots to visit on the Techweek: Chicago Grand Tour earlier this year. It is from here that co-founders Zak Boca and Dan Ushman guide the journey of one of today’s most successful hosted IT infrastructure providers, and one of Chicago’s fastest growing IT service providers.

The Journey Begins
SingleHop began its life in 2006, embracing two ideas: automation and transparency.
Automation brings both accuracy and efficiency. Accuracy is developed by reducing human error on repetitive tasks. Automation also increases accuracy by giving customers the option of saving best practice tasks and repeating them. So not only can you reduce error on mundane tasks, but you can ensure that the mundane tasks themselves are of the highest quality. By using a series of rules, your network can quickly react to changing workloads and operational conditions. So quickly that your customers may not even know there were problems on the network in the first place.

SingleHop first implemented automation internally, streamlining their operations and making it possible for one engineer to control thousands of servers. They then took those same controls and passed them on to their customers.

“We spent the first two years in business building our operating platform, so that we could run as tight a ship as possible. From reducing the amount of time staff needs to spend on tasks to reducing, and in many cases, entirely eliminating human error from processes, it was the right way for us to build our business,” noted Zak Boca, co-founder and CEO of SingleHop. “We later extended that automation to our customers so that they could also benefit from it. Once that was done, and we noticed a lot of hosting providers using it to offer their services, we decided to formalize our reseller program and extend the benefits of our automation to our reseller’s customers and end-users.”

When it comes to online transactions, trust is the primary vehicle and motivator of the industry. Without it, products and services are not purchased, conversations do not take place, and the very heart of the Internet is still. Unfortunately, trust is difficult to demonstrate and compare. Because of the service oriented nature of the hosting industry, word-of-mouth has been the main arbiter of trust.

In order to create an environment of trust, SingleHop decided that they had to be obsessively transparent in interactions with employees and clients. This included thoroughly monitoring every aspect of their internal network and showing their findings, in real time, to their customers. This provided the backdrop for their Customer Bill of Rights SLA. The SLA is an itemized list that covers all products and services and is monitored in real time for each customer. To complete the package, automation is used to ensure customers receive credits whenever SingleHop does not meet their end of the bargain.

“Service is the end-all, be-all of this industry. If you can’t blow your customers away from a service point-of-view, then you won’t keep them happy for long. For us, providing quality service starts with setting the right expectations for our clients, and it ends with holding ourselves accountable to the promises we make. That’s what our Bill of Rights SLA is all about,” commented Dan Ushman, co-founder and CMO of SingleHop. “The Bill of Rights is actually very simple. We tell customers upfront what to expect. For example, server deployments in under 4 hours, and then we tell them what happens if we miss. In this case, it’s a 10% service credit to their account. This is all done automatically and in real-time by our platform. What makes the Bill of Rights truly special is its Report Card functionality. At any moment in time, clients can see how we are performing relative to our promises. If there is a miss, a credit is just a click away.”

Automation and transparency formed a profitable mix for SingleHop, while creating a loyal customer base. However, the web hosting industry does not stand still. New advances in technology force businesses to remain agile, keeping a sharp look out for future trends.

Dan advices, “If you are starting a business, be ready to make and learn from lots of mistakes. Don’t get mad, just learn your lesson and move on. Oh, and hire good people. Take your time hiring. You want to hire the smartest, brightest, most motivated people you can find. Once you build a good team, your company will take on a life of its own and you will watch it develop and grow.”

Evolution of an Infrastructure Platform
The infrastructure provider market has made rapid changes over the years. In the beginning, infrastructure providers generally only offered two types of services: colocation and dedicated servers. Later on managed servers were added to the list. This all changed with the sudden rise of cloud computing.
Cloud computing influenced a change of operational strategy for infrastructure providers. Along with being able to offer colocation and servers, providers could now offer a flexible means to address short comings in the original model. Cloud offers an active means to ensure high availability and control over system resources.

Ten years ago, if your network was hit by a sudden surge of traffic, you had to be able to build extra servers, install the necessary software, and plug them into the network as rapidly as possible. Alternatively, you would purchase excess server and network hardware and run underutilized equipment, costing you thousands each month, in the hopes that if a surge does happen you will be ready for it.

Although SingleHop had spent three years straight on the Inc 500 list (the 500 fastest growing companies in the US), Zak and Dan saw an opportunity in using the cloud platform to offer their customers more choice and a wider range of flexibility. As an operations model, cloud computing incorporates many of the same tenets SingleHop already actively embraces such as automation, rapid deployment, and customer control.

SingleHop selected VMware as their cloud technology partner of choice and began to integrate public, private, and hybrid clouds into their infrastructure solutions. As SingleHop’s service evolved, so too did their overall approach.

According to Dan, SingleHop’s platform rests on three distinct principles.

  • The first principle involves offering more choice and flexibility. This includes custom hardware, software, a wide selection of managed services, and products designed like building blocks–so customers can architect them into a multitude of solutions in the most efficient way possible.
  • The second principle includes offering better economics. Though not competing on price directly, better economics includes such items as flexible contracts, cost saving features (such as using hybrid solutions to maximize performance, while increasing consolidations), and generally lowering total cost of ownership.
  • The third principle revolves around offering a premium level of service. When it comes to service, mileage varies, so SingleHop decided that to offer the best service they would have to provide both the highest standards in the infrastructure, while providing clear, open channels of communication to the client to ensure needs are met.
  • And thus the SingleHop Advantage was born. Even with a great deal of resources pouring into expanding infrastructure, purchasing a new data center, and incorporating cloud services into the automation and provisioning platform, SingleHop was included in Inc’s list, for the fourth straight year.

Evolution is an Ongoing Process
In the beginning, hardware was the only platform of choice. Dedicated servers and their colocation cousins could power through constant workloads, but were susceptible to spikes, which would lead to resource bottlenecks. At the time the only means of solving these problems involved large underutilized systems or trying to rapidly deploy, putting out fires as they come.

When cloud came on the scene, a solution presented itself; spikes and surges are handled dynamically. Bursting resources provides immense resiliency to the network, and, unlike dedicated platforms, can handle bursts without having to pay for underutilized systems. Instead, a pay per use system ensures that costs remain manageable.

And yet the cloud causes its own problems; sustained, consistent workloads in the cloud costs a great deal more than dedicated hardware. Activities such as database and numbers processing are not geared for cloud environments and not only increase costs, but simply do not utilize many of the key attributes cloud provides.

Hybrid clouds, however, combine the best features of multiple infrastructures. Hybrid clouds are full ecosystems, merging bare metal servers for workloads that require sustained processing power, custom hardware, or maximum cycles for running demanding jobs with cloud environments for workloads that require rapid deployment or elasticity.

“The future of the cloud isn’t cloud at all. It’s hybrid. See, most of the time, for most people, public cloud alone is not enough. Most companies get the most efficiency out of a combination of virtual and physical resources. Cloud is going to be a big part of the ecosystem, but by no means is it the one-size-fits-all solution for everyone,” said Dan.

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