Hostworks gives CSIRO analytics tools a second life

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Hostworks gives CSIRO analytics tools a second life
Will Berryman, managing director, Hostworks.

Local hoster to take on Salesforce.com, Amazon.

Media hosting company Hostworks has signed a deal to sell a new range of social analytics services backed by algorithms developed at the CSIRO.

The deal will see Hostworks resell access to the Vizie, Emergency Situation Awareness (ESA) and Latte tools developed at CSIRO over the past three years.

The ESA tool uses Twitter to provide situational awareness in emergencies, pioneered by CSIRO in collaboration with the Attorney General’s Department and Geosciences Australia, and put to the test during a spate of bushfires in Sydney last October.

Vizie is a social media aggregator built by CSIRO and used by the Department of Human Services to monitor communications about provision of welfare services, while Latte is used to track user behaviour on a web site to help enhance customer experience.

Marketed as ‘Hostworks Insights’ services, the Broadcast Australia owned company plans to rebuild the front-end of the tools, resell access to the software and provide support services to commercial customers, with a strong bent on using it for media companies and agencies that wish to manage large, short-term campaigns.

The CSIRO will continue to develop the backend of the software and provide support to existing government customers.

To date, government agencies have paid $40,000 per year for access to the software, which until recent years compared favourably with commercial social listening tools such as Salesforce.com's Radian6, which for large enterprise accounts exceeded $100,000 per year.

Increasingly, however, social listening tools are being packaged into broader marketing and CRM packages, reducing the total cost for most organisations. Hostworks is subsequently toying with the idea of charging per query or campaign in order to appeal to those customers who don’t feel they need a license to use the software all the time.

Hostworks has also complemented the CSIRO-developed tools with its own data warehousing and analytics solutions, built using the open source RStudio development environment and  making use of algorithms contributed to the open source Python language by the mathematics (NumPy) and scientific (SciPy) communities. Large processing jobs are distributed into clusters using HTCondor.

Read on to learn about Hostworks’ efforts to reinvent itself as a digital media service provider...

The investment in social analytics is one of several Hostworks has made since former SBS exec Will Berryman was hired as managing director to broaden the focus of the company from its legacy as a hoster of IT infrastructure into a "company that makes things."

"We don't want to have infrastructure be the primary conversation with a customer," Berryman said.

Hostworks has hired its first data scientist, built an online platform for the hosting and streaming of one-time media campaigns, signed an offshore software development deal with Indian firm Cybage and signed a joint sales partnership with a mobile application development firm in the United Kingdom.

Berryman said that only 10 of Hostworks' 120 internal staff actively produce software, and he doesn't plan to hire any more in the short term.

"We don't want to extend ourselves in a way that dilutes what we do well," he said.

The company will continue to refresh IT infrastructure at its Kidman Park data centre and colocation racks at Equinix - starting with the rollout of new networking kit from Juniper and IBM and a gradual refresh of servers and storage.

Berryman was comfortable with this investment, even in the face of huge competition for IT infrastructure services. The company would not attempt to deter efforts within Hostworks' 50+ large media customers that wished, like its key tenants ninemsn and carsales, to complement managed hosting from Hostworks with the use of public cloud services, he said.

"If a customer wants to buy an off the shelf commodity from an online marketplace, and not have an engagement with us, there are better places for that business to go," he said. “Our customers are large and when they can they will do it themselves, and when they need a consultative approach they work with us.”

He offered the example of a recent streaming of a Coldplay performance for Southern Cross Austereo, which was distributed on Hostworks' content delivery network in Australia but used the Amazon-backed CloudFront CDN internationally.

Similarly, Hostworks provided much of the CMS hosting for SBS Television's impressive World Cup 2014 coverage, while the video was delivered over Akamai's CDN.

"You don't need to eat the whole sheep to know what lamb tastes like," he said.

Even when up against CMS software hosted in global public clouds, Berryman feels there will be jobs in media that can’t be automated and require high touch. Some customers, he said, would prefer to pay a fixed fee for a high pressure job, backed by a rock solid SLA, rather than risk hosting with a commodity cloud.

“In every business I’ve been in - broadcast, internet - we underestimate the importance of people when we have conversations about technology," he said. "We think we can create a magic red button that we push, and the problem is solved. Every great problem to overcome, every great experience ever delivered, required people to design and plan it.”

While acknowledging it was "a difficult time" for all Australian hosters, Berryman is confident he has the skills on hand to reinvent Hostworks without losing sight of its core services.

"In our business there is a bit of house cleaning and reinvention that needs to be done,” he said. “There are things over the years we haven’t done well that we have to do better.

"If we can manage the reinvention - if we can not only support what we do but create a culture of making things, it will be an enormous credit to us.”

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