At age 19, Marty Gauvin had developed products that were already major export successes. Thirteen years on and the accolades continue to roll in. Today Gauvin is the group managing director of Hostworks, an Internet data centre that serves up some of the most popular Internet sites in Australia.
Developing the Hostworks business has taken Gauvin the better part of a decade. After winning a bag of awards in the late 1980s for product development, Gauvin became involved with a cooperative multimedia centre named Ngapartji.
Ngapartji was a government initiative aimed at developing a multimedia industry in Australia. While Gauvin was working with the group, Ngapartji became aware that software giant Microsoft was planning a major multimedia venture that would later be known as MSN.
"When Microsoft took MSN on, they wanted to serve it out of facilities in six key countries," says Gauvin. "They set up an Internet data centre in Seattle for the Americas, one in London for the UK, France and Germany, one in Japan, and then considered having one in Australia."
It became Gauvin's role to lure the software vendor to Australia, and more specifically, Adelaide. "What we said to Microsoft in the early days was we think we can do this in an Australian context better than you can'," he says.
Microsoft saw value in Gauvin's pitch and in his team's capabilities, but was sceptical of working with such a small outfit. Two of the other three data centres the vendor was building overseas were tendered off to Digital and another to NTT. In Australia, the pitch came down to Digital and EDS. EDS won that business in 1997, with Gauvin's team acting as a sub-contractor to the large services firm.
But within a short period of time it became obvious to Gauvin, and eventually Microsoft, that EDS could not do the job. In a period that Gauvin describes as "very ugly", Microsoft dumped EDS.
Microsoft had not lost faith in Gauvin, however, who convinced the vendor to continue working with him when it signed up a joint venture with ecorp, to be called ninemsn.
Gauvin took Microsoft through buildings in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. After visiting each potential facility, he asked the Microsoft team what reasons they could think of not to use the facility they had just visited. Sometimes it was a security reason, other times an issue of design. It was only when they couldn't think of any reason why not that they would have found the ideal location, he said.
None of the buildings in Sydney or Melbourne satisfied such criteria. But after walking out of a building in Adelaide, Gauvin again proposed the question. The only reason any of the team could come up with was that it was shaped in a triangle, which was "bad for one of the team's aura". A few laughs later and Adelaide was chosen as the location. "The choice to build an IDC in Adelaide actually came down to the ideal premises already being built," Gauvin says.
The building the team chose to become Hostworks' data centre was born through some ambitious plans not even Gauvin could lay claim to. In the late 1980s, the State Bank of South Australia was setting itself up to be a world-class international bank, before it got over-ambitious and went belly-up. During that time, it had built a data centre in Kidman Park, Adelaide that was and still is one of the best facilities in the world.
"They really went over the top," Gauvin says. "Most data centres have diesel-powered generators. We have 40 days worth of fluid stored on-site at any one time. Most data centres have bulletproof glass on the ground floors. We have bulletproof glass from the top-floor windows down, and at each level you descend they keep getting stronger."
Ninemsn is now the most popular Internet destination in Australia. But even today, the capacity in the data centre is far from full. "We only use 10 per cent of the capacity," says Gauvin. "And even if we grew to 10 times our size, we would still have room for more, because the servers halve in size every 18 months."
Hostworks has become a formidable player in the hosting space, at times competing with major telecommunications companies for business. Its specialty is customers that have multiple servers, demand exceedingly high availability rates and outsource the management of everything in the box, even applications and middleware.
This means Gauvin has had to hire some of the more skilled technical staff in the country to stay in business. As well as knowledge of hardware and networking skills, his staff need to be able to manage the availability of applications. Gauvin employs 40 people, 30 of whom are technical staff. "Most of my engineers are trained by Redmond," he says. "We also use the three other data centres (in London, Seattle and Tokyo) to establish best practices for the Microsoft platform."
While Ninemsn is Hostworks' largest customer and raison d'être in many respects, the company has since added Austereo, Ticketek, Microsoft's bCentral and SA Water to its list of clients and is continuing to grow with a new sales office in Sydney.
"The vision we started with was to make South Australia the centre of the Internet in Australia," he says. "Right now our data centre handles 12-15 per cent of all page views in Australia. Whether that makes it the centre I don't know, but it is pretty substantial."