SimpleCDN had a simple premise: people will buy into a cheap, reliable content distribution network (CDN). Turns out it was too cheap, and maybe too cavalier with its choice of customers. As a result, the service was booted off its hosting provider, leaving thousands of users without access to massive amounts of digital content. It’s a microcosm of all the things that can go wrong in the cloud model.
SimpleCDN went dark for the majority of its customers on Saturday, Dec. 11, followed by an angry, terse explanation from Frank Wilson, senior engineer for SimpleCDN. He said that his company had been summarily booted from its hosting infrastructure at Texas-based SoftLayer, which does dedicated and cloud hosting in three locations in the U.S. SimpleCDN had bought SoftLayer from a reseller called 100TB.com, a subsidiary of the UK2 group. Customers are being pushed to a competitor.
100TB.com offered unlimited, unmetered, network access and did not charge extra for it, as do most hosting providers, claiming you could use up to 100 TB of transit every month and still only pay roughly average VPS hosting costs, ($600 per month of a decent quad-core server).
“I think they were doing about 30 GBps sustained at the end,” mused Jason Read, professional cloud watcher at CloudHarmony. Read recapped that SimpleCDN was doing business with a second-tier hoster at a level most people would consider a full-on DDOS, all day, every day. Read also added that SimpleCDN was able to offer their bargain prices based on 100TB.com’s marketing. “[SimpleCDN] was kind of milking that 100 TB unlimited bandwidth offer and I think SoftLayer told UK2 they had to amend their terms,” said Read.
That may have happened, of course. SimpleCDN’s Wilson states that he thinks that SoftLayer was getting massively undersold on its own CDN business, which is much more expensive than SimpleCDN, or that they were getting slammed by his booming business.
“…our best guess currently is that these organizations could not provide the services that we contracted and paid for, so instead they decided that terminating services would be the best solution for them,” he said.
Of course, CDN services are an incidental part of SoftLayer’s hosting business, probably a tiny percentage of its revenue; something they offer because they can or because customers are asking for it. Many hosters do the same and consider it a value add rather than a critical part of the business. Same with UK2 — they were reselling Akamai as a CDN offering. In the CDN market, there’s Limelight and Akamai, and then there’s everyone else. SoftLayer also lives in Dallas, one of the world’s hubs for Internet connectivity. If they were running out of bandwidth, they could simply buy more and sell it to the UK2 Group. If anyone was getting killed in this deal it was UK2, the middleman.
What led to UK2 terminating SimpleCDN was the nature of the traffic it served. SimpleCDN hosted a lot of live video streams, and anyone who’s taken even a cursory look into it knows that there is a booming business in streaming pirated content to U.S. audiences; some Web communities have users that will post entire seasons of a TV show or movies to an online service for anyone to watch for free, unauthorized marathons that entertainment companies take a very dim view of.
CDNs know this, of course, and “monitor” their networks by pulling streams when they get a DMCA takedown notice, which doesn’t mean a thing to the 99 other pirate streams going at the same time. SimpleCDN even had an automated DMCA action form. Somebody out there got sick of playing whack-a-mole with SimpleCDN and went straight to the provider of record, SoftLayer.
SoftLayer would not comment officially for this story except to say that SimpleCDN was not their customer but rather UK2’s and they had no commercial relationship with SimpleCDN. However, they are still the ones hosting all this content and it can be assumed they got a DMCA notice, which they are going to take VERY seriously, because unlike UK2 or SimpleCDN, they have actual physical infrastructure and assets. They would have gone to UK2 and said, “We are holding you responsible for this.” Wilson’s letter says that UK2 accused him of content violations and changed their Terms of Service (ToS) on the fly to put him in violation.
Why did 100TB/UK2 change the rules of the game, instead of duly passing along SoftLayer’s DMCA, as they should have done? SimpleCDN was murder on their bottom line. Their “free bandwidth” offer was a fiction when put to the test. SimpleCDN took them at face value, ran hundreds of servers and hosted thousands of terabytes of data with them, but it was gone in a flash, because it was based on a false economic premise and shady marketing.
So the lesson for cloud is two-fold: one is “too good to be true” usually is. If SimpleCDN had started directly with SoftLayer, it would have had to pay those bandwidth costs and its prices wouldn’t have been so attractive. Likewise, the DMCA issues would have had one less hop.
Second, for the business user, it’s a new wrinkle in vetting a service. Popular online services haven’t been known to pop like a soap bubble and vanish overnight, taking massive amounts of data with them; that’s the province of shady warehouse distribution operations and basement stock brokerages. Now they do, fueled by the explosion of middlemen and easy access that drives cloud computing. It’s not enough to examine whether a provider is sound; you have to make sure you understand who they rely on too.
UPDATE: Both UK2 Group and SimpleCDN were contacted by phone and email for this article but neither responded by press time.