Successful tech startups offer IT tips for CIOs

Groupon, SlideShare, Box.net and Zendesk employ novel IT technologies and practices to propel their growth and innovation

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management, Box.net, groupon

Box.net, a provider of hosted content management, collaboration and file sharing applications, had until recently only one person devoted exclusively to IT matters -- supporting 150 employees -- thanks to its liberal and savvy use of cloud-based applications and infrastructure services.

"I'm working on things I would have never worked on before if we didn't have this cloud infrastructure. I'd be doing repetitive maintenance tasks," said Jeff Sutton, Box.net's IT lead, and until recently the company's only IT staffer. The company just hired a second IT professional.

For example, Sutton is in charge of the company's internal application development environment, and of a VMware project. "There are a lot more things I have bandwidth to do. It gives me more time to focus on new technologies," he said.

Aaron Levie, Box.net's CEO and co-founder, said the company looks for cloud-based applications for everything, especially for standard IT needs. "We want to free up resources to solve the higher-order issues around technology," Levie said.

This has also allowed Box.net to grow its staff very rapidly, sometimes doubling it from one year to the next, without having to hold back for fear of having its IT infrastructure buckle or collapse. "One of the breaking points when an organization grows like this is that their IT infrastructure begins to have challenges. We try to remove as many of those kinds of limits as possible from how quickly we can grow," Levie said.

Like Box.net, Zendesk also uses a broad array of cloud applications and IT services, and that has allowed the 70-employee company to not even have one person devoted exclusively to IT.

"The reason why we can do that is because of the technology choices we've made, because of the cloud," Urlocker said. "We run most of our business off of hosted, cloud-based software."

In addition to using its own cloud-based application, Zendesk also uses business software from Box.net, Google, Salesforce.com, Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and Yammer, in addition to Skype for most of its voice communications.

Asked about concerns many CIOs and IT managers still feel about cloud applications and services, Urlocker said cloud vendors have significantly improved their security, reliability and performance. "Things have really matured in the last few years. It's not the Wild West anymore," he said.

CIOs may find that the reliability and security they get from their commercial cloud vendors often exceeds what they get from their own IT departments, he said.

Urlocker recommends starting small and slow. "Organizations should start and take a few steps in this direction and try a few projects," he said.

"If you have an IT organization that isn't running any cloud-based software, that's really behind the curve," he added.

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