Innovation is a lot like love, everyone knows when it happens, but nobody really knows what it is - Dean 'Mr Segway' Kamen
A LOT HAS BEEN WRITTEN about Netflix's stumble last summer that got its US customers mad at the company and let all the air out of its share price. But underneath, says Netflix's cloud architect, Adrian Cockcroft, was a motive the company couldn't fully express to its American customers: it was about us. That is, the company was preparing for international expansion to first Latin America, then the UK and Ireland.
"Part of what was going on there was that we were trying to optimise for the customers we didn't have yet, and we went too fast," Cockcroft says. "We learned the lesson."
The company had to back off from subscription changes that split its DVD rentals from its streaming service. But its underlying strategy hasn't changed: Netflix still firmly believes streaming is its business future and that its legacy DVD rentals will gradually die off. Outside the US and Canada, the services it's launching are streaming only.
The plan required changes to Netflix's underpinnings, which are all based on Amazon Web Services, where Netflix has some 10,000 machines – the company is, he thinks, one of Amazon's top 10 cloud customers.
"We are driving Amazon's technology to the limit," he says.
One of the technical challenges in developing the UK service was geolocation, to ensure that the content offered to subscribers was licensed for the territory they logged in from. The Canadian service Netflix began with could be built as an extension of the US service. Its Latin American offering, which was the first the company calls truly international, couldn't; besides geolocation it also needed a Spanish language interface and subtitles.
All of that, says Cockcroft, is running out of one Amazon region, the eastern US. Europe required a slightly different approach. The new service being offered in the UK is based in Ireland.
"We figured out how to split it so we could run out of more than one region," says Cockcroft. "So we could launch in AWS Ireland, which runs the UK and Ireland. Some services we run as islands, making separate copies, and others are global."
Cockcroft began his career by joining Cambridge Consultants after finishing a degree in physics from London's City University. The company was one of the first customers of Sun's UK subsidiary. Unable to wait to see what Sun would produce next, Cockcroft decided instead to join Sun as one of its earliest UK employees, where he became a distinguished engineer based on his work in the performance group.
He moved on to become one of the founders of Ebay's research labs around the time that company bought Skype.
"We built prototypes of things with that, and did mobile application development for things that would not look out of place on an Iphone now," he says, "but in 2006."
His group worked on building a peer-to-peer network that ran over Skype, work that generated patents, though Ebay was never able to integrate Skype fully. He joined Netflix about five years ago.
Now, he says, "I'm in cloud architecture, looking at startups and things that might be useful in one to two years. I'm always looking out for the next generation of technology, so it ties in well with Netflix and getting ahead in the market." µ