When you’re the son of Santa Barbara’s favorite wisecracking emcee, Larry Crandell, there could be the tendency to stand quietly in his long shadow.
But Michael Crandell, co-founder and CEO of RightScale, had no intention of letting dad soak up all the limelight. Three years ago, he launched a local startup company, which already has made some big noise in the world of technology.
Now, Michael Crandell is the one casting a major shadow — with the help of a few clouds.
Since May 2007, RightScale has been an industry leader in what is known as “cloud computing” management. In its most basic form, cloud computing has been described as the process of taking the services and tasks traditionally performed by computers and bringing them to the Web.
For example, a few years ago, if a person uploaded vacation photos onto a computer, those photos could then be accessed solely on that computer. But with the advent of cloud computing technology, there are now countless cloud services, such as Flickr and Snapfish, that allow users to store their information on a “cloud” and access it from anywhere, anytime — as long as an Internet connection is available.
Crandell likens the emergence of cloud computing to the evolution of electricity provision.
“In early times, companies owned their own electricity generators — that’s how they powered their factories,” he said. “Obviously, that evolved over time to where now we have an electricity grid, where we have utilities that provide electricity, and your average person isn’t running a generator in their home. As part of that electricity grid, we are now able to only pay for what we use.
“That’s really what this elastic compute cloud (EC2) technology is like: If you run a server, you start paying. If you turn it off, you stop paying. So it’s really a major shift in the whole business model, and it provides huge cost savings.”
One of the key roles that RightScale plays in the booming field of cloud computing is providing automation to companies that need to meet an elastic, constantly fluctuating consumer demand.
Last year, Animoto.com, a Web application that automatically generates professionally produced videos from user-selected images and music, launched a Facebook application offering a free on-demand video-creation tool. In a three-day period, the company saw requests leap to 750,000 from 25,000. Behind the scenes, the number of servers processing videos grew to 5,000 from 100, and then back down again as demand leveled off. With RightScale managing the entire period through EC2 and cloud automation, the event went off without a hitch.
“Without EC2 and RightScale, it would have been impossible to meet our processing requirements,” said Stevie Clifton, Animoto’s chief technology officer.
In just three years, RightScale has emerged as one of the elite cloud-computing management companies in the country. It recently announced that the top three social gaming companies — Zynga, CrowdStar and Playfish — all rely on the RightScale cloud management platform to manage and grow their hugely popular Internet-based games on the Amazon EC2 infrastructure.
As a result, eight of the 12 most popular games on the Web today — with more than 77 million daily active users — run on RightScale, including FarmVille, Cafe World, Mafia Wars, FishVille, Happy Aquarium, Pet Society, PetVille and Restaurant City.
But Crandell hardly hoards the credit for the success of the startup. Rather, he insists that the bulk of the “real work” is done by the two other co-founders — Thorsten von Eicken, chief technology officer, and Rafael Saavedra, vice president of engineering.
“They actually do all the hard work, and I get to do the easy stuff — like sitting around talking to people,” Crandell joked.
Von Eicken previously was founder and chief architect at Expertcity (acquired by Citrix Online), where he directed the architecture of the company’s online services, including the popular GoToMeeting service. He was also a computer science professor at Cornell University, and he received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.
Saavedra was formerly the director of software development at Expertcity, and before that he worked at Tensor Biosciences as the vice president of technology. He was a faculty member in the Computer Sciences Department at USC and received his master’s of science and Ph.D. in computer sciences from UC Berkeley.
“Thorsten and Rafael already had a sterling reputation in the tech community — really stellar,” Crandell said. “So they brought to RightScale an incredible calling card right off the bat.”
Crandell’s own business and technology acumen also is quite impressive. Before RightScale, he served as CEO at several Internet Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) companies and as executive vice president at eFax.com. He received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and completed graduate studies at Harvard University.
Still, in the early days, RightScale was by no means a sure winner. No fundraising had been done before the company’s inception, and for a period of time, the three co-founders worked for free. They sold initial consulting engagements to help boot-strap the company, and they used that money to pay for the first employees. By the time they began to focus on raising money, the company was no longer just an idea, but a running business with initial revenues already coming in.
In its first year, RightScale was awarded “Best in Show” at VentureNet, Southern California’s premiere capital conference for technology companies, and it has been “cloudy” skies for the company since.
To date, through investors and venture funding, RightScale has raised more than $22 million and has grown to 81 employees from three.
Crandell credits his father, “Mr. Santa Barbara,” for giving him his initial push into the business of software startups. Together, they founded their first company in 1984.
“He (Larry) tells this joke, and with him it’s always a little bit spiced up,” Crandell said. “He says, ‘I went to my son and asked why I was the only one in the company who doesn’t get any e-mail,’ and he told me, ‘Well, you need a computer for that, Dad!’ But to his credit, he really has become very savvy since those early days. He’s active on e-mail, he’s always checking stuff out on the Web — he’s probably the most computer literate 86-year-old guy I know.”
Crandell believes the next step for RightScale is an emerging phase in the EC2 evolution called “private clouds,” which is the notion of individuals creating a cloud-like architecture out of their own data centers.
“That will be great for RightScale, because it just increases the market of people who are running clouds,” Crandell said, “and one unique application that we have is hybrid cloud support. So now from one single Web-browser running RightScale, you can see your servers in Amazon, you can see them in your own data center, you can see them in all these different places, and manage them from a single pane of glass.”
For Crandell, one thing’s for sure at this point: No matter what the future brings for RightScale, he’s going to keep his feet on the ground and his head in the clouds.
— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.