Securing Your Photos With the World's Smallest Servers

Courtesy Cynny via Youtube

One of the big tech stories of recent years has been the relative ease with which a software startup could get off the ground. A couple of people with an idea and a credit card could rent some time on Amazon.com’s cloud, fire up their service, and see if the tech-hungry masses follow. Well, check that model at the door for a moment. Here’s something completely different.

Instead of renting infrastructure by the hour, a software startup called Cynny has built its data center hardware from scratch. The company has designed what it claims are the smallest servers ever built. They’re about the size of credit cards and run on the same low-power ARM chips typically found in smartphones and other gadgets. Cynny is packing hundreds upon hundreds of these tiny computers into server racks to power a type of file-sharing service that’s being unveiled for the first time on Wednesday. By creating and controlling its own hardware, Cynny says it can reduce the cost of running its service while improving the security of customers’ files.

The Cynny service combines file-sharing, tagging, and social media in a pretty novel way. You sign up for the service and then open a central screen at which you can upload files, take screen grabs, or download videos. From there, you can create custom tags for the content. You might, for example, create a tag for an event like “Bill and Ann’s Wedding” or “Summer Camping 2014.” Any photos, videos, text, or media that get that tag will go into a folder bearing its name. You can then connect with friends through such services as Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn to share the tag, and your friends can add content to the folder. It’s a little like creating Twitter-style hashtags for events, making it easier for groups of people to see and share media tied to those moments.

In a further twist, the creator of the tag can shut it down at any time. Someone might put camping photos with the kids up for a few weeks so friends and family can check them out, then turn off the folder to make the photos private. “I don’t want to leave a digital footprint of my kids for the first 15 years of their lives,” says Renato Iwersen, chief business officer at Cynny. “We let people ‘unlive’ their links. It’s part of a more sophisticated approach with social networks and being more cautious about your digital footprint.” The Cynny service runs on the Web and through apps for iPhone and Android.

The typical way to operate this type of service would be to buy or rent a bunch of servers based on Intel’s Xeon chip. Xeon has been the data center workhorse for the last decade, with Intel owning well above 90 percent of the market. But while the Intel chips can churn through data and operations quickly, they can cost thousands of dollars apiece and consume a lot of energy. To cut costs, people in the data center industry have been floating the idea of creating lower-power servers based on ARM chips that could handle fundamental tasks such as feeding photos to a Web page or a phone.

Cynny appears to be the first startup to build an ARM-based server from scratch. Each of its tiny computers has a chip from Marvell, flash storage, and 1 gigabyte of memory. You can place about 40 of these servers in the same amount of space that would hold one standard server.

A handful of companies have been working to tune ARM chips to handle server-style work. Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro Circuits, and Cavium are at various stages of bringing products to market. Cynny’s server design, manufactured in Taiwan, uses an Armada smartphone chip from Marvell.

The rise of ARM-based servers represents a huge threat to Intel, which counts Xeon chips as its most profitable products. Consumer Web giants such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon, which all buy tens of thousands of servers per year, have been experimenting with ARM designs for some time. Intel has responded by making its own low-power chips, although the rival ARM products remain much cheaper.

Cynny’s chief executive, Stefano Bargagni, is an engineer from Italy who helped come up with the server product and the file-sharing service. The company has a few dozen employees in Italy, the U.S., and Romania, and it has raised about $3.5 million from seed investors.

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