The internet has fundamentally changed the way modern businesses operate. According to management consultancy McKinsey, the internet has made it possible for a small firm to be a global company from day one. In a survey of more than 4,800 firms around the world, it found that those that use web technologies grew more than twice as quickly as those with little internet presence.

However, as these businesses expand and add new customers, growth quickly exceeds their data centres’ capacity. This leaves companies with two choices: scale ‘vertically’ and move to a larger data centre; or break up your infrastructure into small pieces and strategically place them around the world in various data centres – which is called ‘horizontal scaling’.

Catching Up With Demand

Traditionally, most companies would opt for the vertical scaling option, deploying their infrastructure into a single data centre. When their growth exceeded the space, they went looking for a larger data centre and would pick everything up and move to a new facility.

This procedure has obvious limits when it comes to physical restraints like power and cooling (eventually your business will reach a size where it is hard to find a building big enough). Even more importantly it is an antiquated attitude to the way the world works. The Consumerisation of IT has empowered the end user. Their expectations of services are high and businesses must deliver or risk losing out to a competitor, especially since competition, like users, is global.

In a global economy, customers are literally at every corner of the earth. For a business to thrive, they must deliver their content or services to their customers as fast and reliably as possible. Since speed is essential, having your entire infrastructure flow through a single data centre is absurd for two obvious reasons: reliability and speed.

Literally putting all your eggs in a single basket is an unnecessary risk in a world full of natural disasters and cyber attacks. If a data centre went down, customers would likely be cut off. Additionally, having a single data centre means that by the time the services arrive at the end user, latency is high. This can have a huge impact.

An Amazon report found that 100 milliseconds of latency can result in 1 percent of potential sales lost, and a Google report found that 500 milliseconds of latency dropped traffic by 20 percent. In reality, the best way to scale and earn the trust of users is to think horizontal.

Balancing The Load

In essence, horizontal scaling involves breaking up a company’s infrastructure into small pieces and strategically placing them around the world in various data centres. This strategy is relatively new, but it will be an essential part of the Internet economy.

To ensure a stable flow of traffic across these locations, a load balancer is employed to collect information on and assess the health of all web servers in the infrastructure. The load balancer also keeps track of the percentage of total traffic each web server should receive and which servers serve which geographic regions.

From all of this information, it knows exactly which web servers are available for traffic and how often they should receive traffic to then build load balancing pools for the various geographic regions. If a data centre does get knocked offline, the business has much greater resilience as the other servers will bear the load, ensuring the customer experience is not interrupted.

A Matter Of Priority

Of course, there are still challenges with horizontal scaling. Just what level of consistency and data replication is needed for an individual business is an important factor in what approach to take.

The principle is the same as with a bank account, for example. Some information, such as the amount of money in the account, will always need to be accurate and up to date – wherever and whenever a user accesses the account. However, it is considered acceptable for a user’s address change to take a little while to be replicated between data centres.

It is not always possible for a distributed computer system to simultaneously provide consistency and availability. Businesses have to decide on their particular needs and then select the correct tools (for data storage and processing) and architecture (for how application data is accessed and moved through the system) for optimised horizontal scaling.

Even though these decisions can be hard, the rewards certainly outweigh the difficulty. While the idea of opening data centres around the world may seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be. Outsourcing key infrastructure to specialists has never been easier and safer, leaving businesses with more time to focus on their core competency.

The internet has spawned thousands of businesses that could not exist without it, and countless conventional businesses are harnessing its power to grow. The future of scaling is happening now and it’s going to be big – the quicker companies get their infrastructure in line with the opportunities, the better they will be able to harness the benefits.