This is the story of how we decided to work with Google to build Signed Exchanges support at Cloudflare. But, more generally, it’s also a story of how Cloudflare thinks about building disruptive new products and how we’ve built an organization designed around continuous innovation and long-term thinking.
A Threat to the Open Web?
The story starts with me pretty freaked out. In May 2015, Facebook had announced a new format for the web called Instant Articles. The format allowed publishers to package up their pages and serve them directly from Facebook’s infrastructure. This was a threat to Google, so the company responded in October with Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). The idea was generally the same as Facebook’s but using Google’s infrastructure.
As a general Internet user, if these initiatives were successful they were pretty scary. The end game was that the entirety of the web would effectively be slurped into Facebook and Google’s infrastructure.
But as the cofounder and CEO of Cloudflare, this presented an even more immediate risk. If everyone moved their infrastructure to Facebook and Google, there wasn’t much left for us to do. Our mission is to help build a better Internet, but we’ve always assumed there would be an Internet. If Facebook and Google were successful, there was real risk there would just be Facebook and Google.
That said, the rationale behind these initiatives was compelling. While they ended with giving Facebook and Google much more control, they started by trying to solve a real problem. The web was designed with the assumption that the devices connecting to it would be on a fixed, wired connection. As more of the web moved to being accessed over wireless, battery-powered, relatively low-power devices, many of the assumptions of the web were holding back its performance.
This is particularly true in the developing world. While a failed connection can happen anywhere, the further you get from where content is hosted, the more likely it is to happen. Facebook and Google both reasoned that if they could package up the web and serve complete copies of pages from their infrastructure, which spanned the developing world, they could significantly increase the usability of the web in areas where there was still an opportunity for Internet usage to grow. Again, this is a laudable goal. But, if successful, the results would have been dreadful for the Internet as we know it.
Seeds of Disruption
So that’s why I was freaked out. In our management meetings at Cloudflare I’d walk through how this was a risk to the Internet and our business, and we needed to come up with a strategy to address it. Everyone on our team listened and agreed but ultimately and reasonably said: that’s in the future, and we have immediate priorities of things our customers need, so we’ll need to wait until next quarter to prioritize it.
That’s all correct, and probably the right decision if you are forced to make one, but it’s also how companies end up getting disrupted. So, in 2016, we decided to fund a small team led by Dane Knecht, Cloudflare’s founding product manager, to set up a sort of skunkworks team in Austin, TX. The idea was to give the team space away from headquarters, so it could work on strategic projects with a long payoff time horizon.
Today, Dane’s team is known as the Emerging Technologies & Incubation (ETI) team. It was where products like Cloudflare for Teams, 126.96.36.199, and Workers were first dreamed up and prototyped. And it remains critical to how Cloudflare continues to be so innovative. Austin, since 2016, has also grown from a small skunkworks outpost to what will, before the end of this year, be our largest office. That office now houses members from every Cloudflare team, not just ETI. But, in some ways, it all started with trying to figure out how we should respond to Instant Articles and AMP.
We met with both Facebook and Google. Facebook’s view of the world was entirely centered around their app, and didn’t leave much room for partners. Google, on the other hand, was born out of the open web and still ultimately wanted to foster it. While there has been a lot of criticism of AMP, much of which we discussed with them directly, it’s important to acknowledge that it started from a noble goal: to make the web faster and easier to use for those with limited Internet resources.
We built a number of products to extend the AMP ecosystem and make it more open. Viewed on their own, those products have not been successes. But they catalyzed a number of other innovations. For instance, building a third party AMP cache on Cloudflare required a more programmable network. That directly resulted in us prototyping a number of different serverless computing strategies and finally settling on Workers. In fact, many of the AMP products we built were the first products built using Workers.
Part of the magic of our ETI team is that they are constantly trying new things. They’re set up differently, in order to take lots of “shots on goal.” Some won’t work, in which case we want them to fail fast. And, even for those that don’t, we are always learning, collaborating, and innovating. That’s how you create a culture of innovation that produces products at the rate we do at Cloudflare.
Signed Exchanges: Helping Build a Better Internet
Importantly also, working with the AMP team at Google helped us better collaborate on ideas around Internet performance. Cloudflare’s mission is to “help build a better Internet.” It’s not to “build a better Internet.” The word “help” is essential and something I’ll always correct if I hear someone leave it out. The Internet is inherently a collection of networks, and also a collection of work from a number of people and organizations. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum but is catalyzed by collaboration and open standards. Working with other great companies who are aligned with democratizing performance optimization technology and speeding up the Internet is how we believe we can make significant and meaningful leaps in terms of performance.
And that’s what Signed Exchanges have the opportunity to be. They take the best parts of AMP — in terms of allowing pages to be preloaded to render almost instantly — but give back control over the content to the individual publishers. They don’t require you to exclusively use Google’s infrastructure and are extensible well beyond just traffic originating from search results. And they make the web incredibly fast and more accessible even in those areas where Internet access is slow or expensive.
We’re proud of the part we played in bringing this new technology to the Internet. We’re excited to see how people use it to build faster services available more broadly. And the ETI team is back at work looking over the innovation horizon and continuously asking the question: what’s next?