Cloud

AppFog gives developers an easier way to deploy cloud apps (interview)

For a small Portland, Ore.-based startup, AppFog has managed to build a huge fan base.

AppFog offers a platform-as-a-service for developers building web applications. What that means in simple terms is that if you’ve got a program you want to write, AppFog will take care of setting up a virtual server, installing all the services you need, and getting everything ready so that all you have to do is drop in your code and get it running.

AppFog uses cloud-based services, primarily Amazon Web Services, under the hood, but provides a more straightforward, managed environment than cloud services offer. Its pricing is radically simpler, too.

And AppFog’s tens of thousands of customers are clearly passionate about the company. VentureBeat held an (admittedly unscientific) reader poll in the weeks leading up to Under the Radar, an event produced by DealMaker Media in Silicon Valley. There were 32 startups presenting at Under the Radar, and we asked readers to vote on their favorite.

We collected thousands of votes, and AppFog was neck-and-neck with cloud-based enterprise storage startup Zadara until the final hours. But in the end, AppFog won the contest.

The startup’s prize: A profile on VentureBeat. I interviewed AppFog founder and chief executive Lucas Carlson at the event, and after some delays, I’m posting it here. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, here is your reader’s choice winner:

VentureBeat: What is it that you guys do?

Lucas Carlson: We make developers lives easier. That’s our mission and our focus, it’s what we’re good at. We do that by creating a platform as a service that connects developers with infrastructure and services in seconds.

VB: What kinds of services?

Carlson: MySQL, Mongo, Reddis, memCache, anything new and cool that you’ve heard about. Instead of figuring out how to compile it and get it up and running and managing it if it crashes, we do all that for you, and we hook it all together and make it seamless.

VB: Isn’t that the premise of existing cloud-based services, like Amazon, where they get everything together and spin up a server for you and run whatever you want on it?

Carlson: Yes, and there’s a big difference between what Amazon’s doing and what we’re doing. Amazon thinks of it like resources and services, and you have to figure out how to tie it all together and keep track of everything. And once you do that, you’re bound to it — you can’t move off the platform and you have no choice.

Instead of thinking of it as resources, we’re thinking of it holistically, like applications. So we can understand from an application downwards, the entire stack, the entire status of the program, and how it’s running, and what services it needs. That gives us a unique ability to do things like snapshot an entire app with its services, keep backups of it, and transfer it to other cloud providers in order to do disaster recovery and other services.

VB: So my apps will still be running on Amazon, or Rackspace, or HP Cloud, but you’re just giving me the ability to manage that and make it easier to create what I need and deploy the apps that I want?

Carlson: And not only that, we’ve incorporated Cloud Foundry, which is an open-source library that you can actually contribute to, so you have a say, for the first time, in the application life cycle that it runs in.

VB: Who’s using this?

Carlson: Tens of thousands of developers. Developers are our customers, they’re our bread and butter. We built something for developers, by developers. We’re not looking to switch that focus — we just want to make sure that we help. Developers live everywhere. We have developers that live in enterprises, in small businesses, in startups, even individual developers.

VB: Is there a particular platform or language that your customer base uses?

Carlson: Our company has specialized in PHP, and that was the first language that we supported. So we have a strong following in the PHP community.

VB: Still used for many, many websites.

Carlson: About a third of all websites run PHP. But since then we have actually, through Cloud Foundry, expanded to support Java, Ruby, Node, .NET, and others.

VB: So what does it cost?

Carlson: It starts out completely free, and from there it scales up with their needs. You can go as cheap as $29 a month. Unlike other cloud providers, scaling up is a linear process, instead of jumping to become very expensive as you go.

VB: As a proportion of what I’m spending on Amazon Web Services, or Rackspace, what would I pay?

Carlson: It’s very difficult to say, because the way that those services charge is by the hour of server time. That makes sense if you’re analyzing DNA, but most mobile and web applications live for a very long time. So charging hourly, it’s very hard to calculate. Our system is charged monthly, pro rata, so if you need to add capacity, you just add it for the part of the month that you need it.

VB: How big are you as a company and how are you funded?

Carlson: We’ve raised $10 million in funding from Ignition and Madrona and First Round Capital in two rounds. We’re about 28 people and still growing very quickly. We’re based in Portland, Oregon.

VB: There are a bunch of people here from Portland.

Carlson: Portland is heating up. It’s actually a great place for building a company. It’s a lot cheaper and the talent is really high quality.

AppFog took the most votes in our Under the Radar "reader's choice" poll (chart)VB: So you guys won the reader’s choice award in our poll. I was sort of surprised to see all these people piling into the comments saying, “Vote for these guys.” How did you do it?

Carlson: Our mission is to make developers’ lives easier, and if developers are saying these things, I guess we’re doing a pretty good job with that.

VB: So you’re saying this is purely grass roots? You didn’t send out a tweet saying “Vote for us”?

Carlson: No, we did send out tweets. But the love we did not ask for, that was purely their own doing.

Photo by Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat