Charlie Wood is founder and CEO of Spanning, a company that provides business-class tools to manage and protect information in cloud applications. The company’s first product, Spanning Backup, simply and automatically backs up Google Apps files, including email, documents, calendars, and contacts. Prior to founding Spanning, Wood was a co-founder at Spanning Sync, a cloud-based service that syncs data between Google Apps and Mac OS X applications. Previously, Charlie was as a Group Product Manager at Vignette and the VP of Enterprise Solutions at NewsGator Technologies.
Spanning Backup helps thousands of clients back up critical email, documents, calendars, and contacts stored on Google Apps. The cloud-based service is always on, easy-to-use, and protects Google Apps data from accidental deletions, botched syncs, malicious destruction, and file corruption.
NTT Com: Tell us how Spanning Backup works.
Wood: Spanning Backup is a cloud-based application that backs up companies’ Google Apps data from the Google cloud into our cloud. We use a pure cloud application, it runs whether your computer is connected or not, whether your infrastructure is on or not, whether your building has power or not. It runs on a scheduled basis every day. It checks all the accounts that you have to see if anything has changed. If it has, it backs it up and stores a history of all that data.
What that does for our customers is that, if they accidentally delete something, if they have a synchronization with a mobile device go bad, if something just disappears and they have no idea why, they can easily restore to yesterday’s or last month’s or last year’s backup.
NTT Com: Do Google Apps users realize that their files are not being backed up by the service?
Wood: Very often we talk to customers, even sophisticated customers, about this problem, that Google offers no customer-facing tools to restore lost data. And they don’t realize it. They think, “This is the cloud, and one of the benefits of the cloud is that I don’t have to worry about it.” As it turns out, that’s a myth.
One of the things you don’t have to worry about when you move your applications to Google Apps is a failing hard drive. That is Google’s problem. But in the case of data protection, often you are trying to protect data from accidental or malicious deletion by people in your own organization. And you do have to continue to worry about that. People often don’t think about this. They don’t realize it until we talk to them, or unfortunately, very often, until they have an issue themselves where they need to get something back and they can’t. They will go to Google and ask, and that is not a service that Google offers.
NTT Com: Can you an example of how clients have lost data in Google Apps before they started using your product?
Wood: I can give you a couple. One client, the Northwest Arkansas Head Start Office, a public services office, had all of their brochures—the paperwork clients fill out, the posters that go on the wall in their office, all of their documents—in Google Docs. Somebody left the organization. That person was the owner of all of those documents. They did the right thing; they transferred ownership of all those documents to somebody else. Then they deleted the account of the person leaving. Much to their dismay, as soon as they did that, they saw all of their documents disappear—thousands of documents in hundreds of folders. Luckily, they had been participating in a beta test of our system before it was commercially available. So they were able to log in, go to yesterday’s back ups, click on their root folder and say, “Restore everything.” They were able to get everything back at 4:45 of a Friday afternoon before anybody had to go home. They were able to avert what would have been an enormous disaster for them. It turned into a non-issue.
Another client is an interesting example and points to some important ideas. This company was managing the acquisition of another company. They were coordinating a lot of their activities through a shared Google spreadsheet. It was simply a list of milestones and activities, along with who was responsible for them, which was shared among a large group of people on both sides of the acquisition. They logged into Docs in the middle of the acquisition and the spreadsheet was gone. They don’t know where it went, whether someone accidentally deleted it. They don’t know what happened. There is no audit trail. Unfortunately, they weren’t backing up their Google Docs at the time. It postponed the acquisition by weeks. Now that company is a customer of ours and they know they are never going to run into that situation again.
Very often, if something is missing, you have no idea what happened. You simply don’t know. And at that point, it really doesn’t matter—it is just gone. If you haven’t been backing up, you have to recreate from scratch, which can be a really onerous and expensive task.
NTT Com: I think everyone can relate to the idea of having to recreate a document, even if it was a personal one.
Wood: Our company discovered early on that everybody knows you should back up your computer and your documents. You should also exercise and take vitamins. But as it turns out, only about 10 percent of people actually do back up their stuff. The rest of us just go through life knowing that we should, we just haven’t got around to it. We don’t believe that we’re going to change that behavior and we’re not a consumer-oriented company anyway. But in a business setting, that is somebody’s job. Someone within the organization is responsible for making sure that data is protected. It’s not a matter of knowing that you should; it is a matter of your job being on the line.
NTT Com: How does a client begin using Spanning Backup? Is it implemented at an enterprise or individual level?
Wood: You can actually do it either way. The typical customer comes in and turns on backup for all of the users in their Google Apps domain. You can do that with a single click; the users don’t even know that it’s running. You set it and forget about it; everything is automatically backed up. We also have an option to add new employees to the backup as they are added to the company.
But one interesting pattern that we’ve seen is that you don’t have to be the IT administrator to use Spanning Backup. You can just be someone who works at a company that uses Google Apps, then come to Spanning Backup and sign in with your individual account. A person in one group might choose to buy a $30 license on their credit card. Then everyone in the group begins to do it, to have each of the individual accounts backed up. After doing that for a while, they will go to their CIO or director of IT to say, “We’ve been doing this on our own initiative, but we believe that we should be doing it company-wide.” You see a similar adoption pattern to the one Salesforce.com made famous 10 years ago, with people not having to go through a budget process to get approval for it because it’s just $30 on an expense report. As soon as they see value out of it, you see viral adoption within organizations, which I think is unique to the cloud. Because of the cloud architecture, we can service an individual user on up to the biggest organization.
NTT Com: Once a company is using the product, what kind of proactive maintenance is needed to keep current versions of data backed up?
Wood: There is no proactive maintenance needed on the part of our customers. But we do see administrators and users doing a few things. For example, our company, Spanning, manages our entire business in Google Apps. Even printed contracts are scanned to PDF and uploaded to Google Docs; then we shred the originals. So, of course, we back all that stuff up. What we often do when we upload an important document or make an important change is go into the system to do an on-demand backup in addition to the daily backup. This guarantees that these documents are backed up. Both users and admins can do this.
The other thing we see administrators doing is going into the admin console to see the history of their users’ backups, along with the health of their Google services. Since we’re talking to Google on their behalf every day, we can very carefully monitor and track the health of those services. We provided a dashboard where you can see when everything is green; you’ve had no problems with anyone in the organization for the last 30 days. Or we can highlight where there were problems or outright failures with red or yellow on the dashboard. Admins can get an immediate snapshot of how well Google Apps is working for their domain. This turns out to be something that they find incredibly useful.
NTT Com: Spanning Backup runs on Amazon Web Services, which has experienced some recent high-profile outages. What risk does this pose for those who use Spanning Backup?
Wood: We see cloud service like Amazon Web Services being used in two ways by vendors like us. Less sophisticated vendors use it as a shortcut to save money and make operations simpler by throwing things into the cloud. If we were to do that, our customers would need to worry about Amazon outages, which is not the case.
We see the cloud in a different way. It is a less reliable platform than we are used to with on-premise hardware, the last generation of computing. But it’s much more scalable, so we can double or triple our resources with the flip of a switch. There is a lot more work required on the part of vendors like us to deal with a forum that may have outages of its own. Amazon has been in the news quite a bit for outages of an entire availability zone or a region. You see some companies just fall over when that happens. There was a pretty serious outage this summer. When that happened, our performance was degraded, but our backup continued to work. Clients could still log into the system. We did not drop a single bit of data. The reason for this is all of the work under the water line to make sure that we have a resilient application on top of the cloud architecture.
I think this is something you will see more of going forward. The cloud is not a panacea. People who may have originally thought that are going to be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, it has some really phenomenal advantages.
NTT Com: Until recently, Spanning did not backup Gmail messages. Can you tell us why you added the mail back up service?
Wood: When we launched about a year ago, we started by backing up calendars, contacts and documents. We looked at backing up mail, but Google offers Postini services, which do archive and e-discovery. To us, it looked like Google was already doing this and offering it would overlap with functionality already offered by Postini.
But what we heard from our customers consistently was that Postini was not for backup and restore, it was for archive and e-discovery. You go into Postini and the button says, “New Investigation.” It is specifically for lawyers. It is not a backup and restore kind of scenario. We heard from customers that they need both. They may be doing e-discovery, but they also need backup. Email backup was by far the most requested feature that we heard from our customers.
We started working on that in earnest last year. Backing up email itself is not very tricky. But the sheer volume of data that we were talking about required some pretty heavy architecture on the back-end. So we waited until we felt like we had gotten that right because backup is something you cannot mess up—it can’t work 80 percent of the time.
We got it right and we launched just about a week ago. The response has been really overwhelming. We have backed up about 30 million email messages in the last week. We’ve seen five times the inbound interest in the product. It is clearly something people need and want. Google is now signing up 5,000 new businesses a week for Google Apps, virtually of which are using Google Apps email for their internal email system. There are now about 4 million businesses already on Google Apps. This means there is a very large and quickly growing market need for this. If you are not backing up this data, once you delete it, it really is gone. Google is not kidding. When you see the message telling you that those messages will be permanently deleted, they really have been unless you are using a third-party back-up system.