NSA fallout prompted change in Singapore startup's cloud strategy

Unified Inbox was just about to launch its cloud-based communications tool when Edward Snowden rocked the industry, forcing the Singapore startup to rethink how it delivers its services via the cloud.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Unified Inbox was just about ready to launch its cloud-based communications tool last year, when Edward Snowden rocked the industry with his revelations about widespread cyberspying activities.

User concerns about data privacy ensued, prompting the Singapore startup to rethink and rebuild the way it deployed its services over the cloud, according to Unified Inbox CEO and Founder Toby Ruckert. 

The startup is currently developing three products including Unified Pro, which is a SaaS-based (software-as-a-service) messaging app that aims to allow business teams to communicate and delegate messages to their teammates. For instance, a sales inquiry sent over e-mail, marketing-related tweet, or Facebook comment can be discussed internally and assigned to different people or business units before a public reply is posted.

Its flagship mobile app, called Unified Inbox, will allow users to integrate and manage all their communication tools including Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and SMS via one central inbox.

All its products operate on a cloud-based infrastructure, noted Ruckert, which led to some complications following the Snowden-NSA (US National Security Agency) scandal.

"Our initial business strategy was to have everything powered by the same backend and same cloud service, comprising the infrastructure layers, data hosting and storage, application layer, and so on," he explained. "At least it was like that until the events from last year unfolded."

Before the NSA fallout, most companies peddling online tools adopted a monetization model based on offering free, advertising-based services, where consumers were encouraged to volunteer personal information in exchange for more free software and services. In fact, most online service providers would opt for this free — sometimes extended to a freemium — business model so they can build large user base and gain access to user data that potentially can be tapped for advertising revenue later.

Ruckert's plan was to offer the company's products on a freemium model, but while this business model and pricing plan remains unchanged, users' perspective of what data they're giving and in exchange for what services has changed.

The startup had no plans to sell any user data to advertisers, but it was planning to store all messages centrally in one database, powered by one backend, and delivered through one service.

From a system and infrastructure standpoint, as well as the ability to scale, this would have been better and easier to deploy, he said

However, when Snowden came out with his NSA revelations, even Unified Inbox's most loyal beta users began questioning how much data the company was holding, how it would affect their privacy, how much security had been implemented, and how much users would have to pay so the data it held would not be misused.

Despite the pain of dealing with multiple communication channels across different user logins and interfaces, very few were prepared to allow one company to manage all their communication tools.

Ruckert said: "We were ready to launch Unified Pro then, but with these developments post-NSA, we had to make a massive change to our backend infrastructure to convince customers to trust us with their data."

The startup spent the past year rebuilding its entire backend and some frontend components, and this work is still ongoing, he said, noting that it had to switch back to a closed beta. "It gave us an opportunity to seriously think about our product and technical infrastructure from the customers' perspective," he added.

The company is now deploying "certain techniques" to separate the application and service layer from the infrastructure and data storage. This is done to anonymize user data so it would be difficult to trace back a piece of data to a specific user.

Ruckert did not want to reveal more details because he said some of the retweaked backend components were pending patent approval.

Private cloud options a must

Customers also can now choose to deliver the service and data via a private cloud, he said, noting that the startup had inked partnership deals with telcos and internet service providers to provide this option.

The company also recently hired a security specialist to set up the necessary processes and protocols to ensure data safety and user rights within the cloud, he added.

Market players like Salesforce.com have demonstrated a cloud or SaaS model can work, Buckert said. But in a post-NSA era, if online app developers are serious about the enterprise space, they have to offer private cloud options, he said.

"With the emergence of tools such as Google Glass, my personal opinion is that one day, we might well reach a point where it's hard to tell what and where the human ends and the machine begins, and vice versa.

"Maybe then, the question of privacy and security and what the 'cloud' really means will be re-evaluated all over again," he said.

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