Lightweight Models and the Cost Effective Scalability of Instagram

The last pattern O’Reilly discussed in What is Web 2.0 is the importance of lightweight models and cost effective scalability. When we’re referring to lightweight models we mean those systems that allow for loose coupling with other systems (easy to program integration) and when we’re talking about cost effective scalability we’re talking about the delivery of services, not packaged software. When I think of this pattern I instantly (no pun intended) think of Instagram.



Instagram is a service used to capture photographs on your smartphone, apply filters on them to mimic the old Polaroid cameras of times gone by, and then share them through a myriad of other web 2.0 applications. Instagram has a lightweight model which integrates well with other services (think Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Foursquare with the touch of a button). It’s also able to scale (to 5 million users so far) very easily – the service is delivered as an application which consumers download using their own smartphone disk space, their own bandwidth or carrier plan and the files themselves for the install are hosted by apple – win, win, win.

It is this scalable delivery method which allows Instagram to get things to market faster. If they have a new feature, they test and update their version in the App Store and it is instantly rolled out (once the consumer initiates the download). For most web 2.0 applications this means they don’t require start-up funding but Instagram started off as Burbn with start-up capital of $500,000 USD. This is against the trend as most Web 2.0 applications are less risky and don’t require traditional costs upfront (internet delivery is cheap).

Instagram Reaches #1

Instagram Reaches #1

When you are creating a Web 2.0 application you want to be scaling the business model and the technology at the same time. Your users are important (especially the quality of the user) and you will want to outsource as much as possible (storage, web hosting, coding, customer service). With 25 million users since March this year, Instagram has definitely had to scale their technology to meet this business model with a heavy reliance on Amazon’s EC2.  Again keeping with the cost effective scalability Instagram have adopted the Small is the new big mantra over the get big fast mantra of days gone by. They almost adopt the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) combination except they use PostgreSQL (to shard their data) and PHP isn’t required as they services are written to apps for the iPhone, Android and Google Play.  This combination has allowed the Instagram to scale very well.

The way Instagram has become successful is by harnessing a need of smartphone users to share photographs quickly and easily. Syndication was crucial to success and they allowed free accounts (you didn’t even need to create a new account – you could sign in with your Facebook account). Instagram don’t appear to offer any type of premium model and don’t use advertising which begs the question what their business model is (being bought out by Facebook for $1b USD might be it). The network effect is relevant here (how does Instagram get users to bring more users in). First thing is the lightweight model that integrates with all the popular social media sites i listed before. Next is the word of mouth, ‘Hey, have you seen this new, cool, free, photo manipulation app?’

This is the redefinition of what we thought was enterprise class. We used to think this meant an application was inflexible and robust and very fixed in what it could do. Consumers are more and more looking to want to use flexible and not so safe services. IT departments can learn from this experience and they should really be embracing this change. Enterprise class now means lightweight models, cost effective scalability and high quality users. Do you think Instagram is Enterprise Class?


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