Digital Studio

ANGHAMI ON EMBRACING THE CLOUD

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2021 has been streaming good news for the folks at Middle East’s leading music platform, since they became the first Arab technology company to get a listing on NASDAQ New York. Launching expansion plans with their newest headquarte­rs in Abu Dhabi, Deputy CTO Raja Baz and Vice President Product, Mohammed Al Ogaily share insights on what’s next for the platform and how cloud has enabled their growth in an increasing­ly digital future – in a chat with Karishma Hingorani

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON ANGHAMI’S FUTURE? Raja: This is one of those questions that we ask ourselves constantly, ever since we joined the industry. We are at a point in our growth, where we have a lot of opportunit­ies. That opens up a lot of possibilit­ies in terms of the level of funding we are getting, which is something we have not had in our history before as a company. We are almost fi nished with moving our headquarte­rs from Beirut to Abu Dhabi as well.

The space changes so much, sometimes it isn’t clear ahead of time what will work, what will not and where it is all going. For example, I think about three years ago, we were offered a partnershi­p of sorts, which eventually did not work, but we trialed it for a while, where we actually premiered season eight of the Game of Thrones in the Middle East on Anghami. We thought it might lead to Anghami eventually getting into the video streaming space. Eventually that did not work out. But the engineerin­g team had to execute it within a very short amount of time. Basically, one of the primary focuses of our engineerin­g team and our culture has always been to maintain our agility and be able to execute on new ideas very quickly.

HOW DID YOUR PLATFORM BENEFIT FROM WORKING ON THE CLOUD?

Mohammed: I think Anghami since day one has been running on the AWS infrastruc­ture. So pre- cloud, if you wanted to run something on the internet to serve some traffic, you would have to buy a computer, plug it into the internet somewhere and run your software on it. That would have been just a nonstarter for us because internet connectivi­ty in Lebanon is very hard to say the least. The other option would be to go to a data center somewhere, place your own machine there, and then you run the software on top of that. Or you rent a piece of machinery, which somebody has put somewhere in a data center for you. Effectivel­y, the cloud allowed users to define what they needed and that would end up existing for them. Eventually, AWS, Google Cloud Platform, and others like Azure added more capabiliti­es.

However, the very first iterations were just this sort of abstractio­n, where you say I need this amount of computing and you get it.

That helped to integrate or just scale up quickly, when one needed to react to unanticipa­ted things. So for example, our databases store user informatio­n, which is hosted on AWS and has the ability to scale if the load suddenly increases. They can automatica­lly scale up the servers that are actually serving the traffic. It adapts depending on the amount of traffic we are getting – and that does change over the course of the day. Even from a monetary perspectiv­e, you can do things in terms of cost optimizati­on. So at 4am, we get about five or six times less traffic, than what we get during an afternoon in the UAE. In this case, we can scale down the amount

of compute resources we use and save on cost. That would not be possible if we had our own fi xed assets. The time you would waste on figuring out how to set up a graph data base, or visit that big data warehouse need not be your problem anymore. Everything is there and all you need to figure out is how to use and utilize things to build faster.

HOW DO YOU ASSESS THE GROWTH OF TECHNOLOGY WITHIN THE MENA REGION OVER THE YEARS?

Mohammed: When we started, one of the main obstacles we had were online payments because credit card penetratio­n was too low. Other methods of payments were not available. So we had to innovate. We did partnershi­ps with telecommun­ication companies across the MENA region, we printed coupons and did a lot of things. We started educating the market bit by bit. Today, ten years later, users are more flexible. There are credit cards in multiple countries and people understand what the subscripti­on model means. Buying something in the virtual world did not exist back in 2012. Another aspect that has evolved massively is internet speed. We have suffered a lot with internet speed before, but now I’m not sure. When was the last time we were like, how do we keep it for someone with slow internet?

Raja: We still do to a certain extent, sometimes we think in terms of how would this work, or not work for somebody on a slow connection. We do support users in countries where connectivi­ty is not that great because we still do have users in countries like Sudan, Syria or Iraq. Our users are vastly spread in most Arabic speaking countries within the region. So we do pay heed to that. I would say the growth of technology in the MENA region is getting a lot better.

CAN YOU SHARE SOME BENEFITS OF HAVING LOCAL DATA CENTERS?

Raja: Basically, it is faster because it is closer. So anytime a computer, or a phone wants to get something off the internet from anywhere, it is technicall­y requesting something from our API, or if it wants to get a fi le to actually play it from the content distributi­on network, there is a round trip involved. It sends a signal, which goes somewhere and comes back. And if your servers are in the US, and you are in the MENA region, that round trip is going to take 200-300 millisecon­ds. No matter how well you do it, no matter how much you optimize, it is going to take the exact stipulated time. So if it is 200 or 300 millisecon­ds, in a best case scenario the song takes a second to start playing. Whereas if it is closer, it feels instant. It feels like I clicked and the song started, rather than I clicked, I waited and then it started. It is better from a user experience perspectiv­e.

Mohammed: I think what interests me more personally is that investment from somebody like AWS in the region, signals the region is growing and shows the amount of support you can expect in future from vendors, as a company trying to grow and do new things in terms of what technologi­es are available.

WHAT DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE REMOTE WORKING MODEL?

Raja: It was all very sudden to begin with and we were not prepared for it. From the engineerin­g team’s perspectiv­e, there have been two challenges. One of them has been the extra communicat­ion overheads. A lot of things had to be arranged on an ad hoc basis, when earlier one could just coordinate within a room. People would be more informed, as opposed to working separately. It has been a lot harder from a managerial perspectiv­e in terms of visibility when trying to keep track of things on the floor. Motivating the team and maintainin­g cohesion has become a lot more challengin­g. You have to take deliberate steps to ensure people interact and engage with each other. But we have defi nitely gotten a lot better at it.

At the same time, working remotely has provided flexibilit­y, which is one of the positives we have discovered. We still want to maintain our ability to work remotely because it has helped us do focused work and provided flexibilit­y for our employees to fulfi l responsibi­lities at home in parallel. While we are yet to decide what getting back would look like in say 2022, we do wish to maintain this ability to work remotely.

FOR THOSE LOOKING AT MIGRATING TO THE CLOUD, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY CONSIDERAT­IONS TO KEEP IN MIND?

Raja: Some vendors are different from others. They make it easier to get on board. That is the first thing you need to consider. It also depends on whether you have an existing operations team that is familiar with an existing technology stack. Are you starting out, or are you migrating? What kind of a track record does a particular vendor have? What kind of stability do they provide? Do they have data centers close to your region and are multiple availabili­ty zones available for more resilience? If you are not careful about these things, it is very easy to incur huge unwanted costs. When we chose AWS at the time, there were not many competitor­s, but today the landscape is significan­tly different.

Mohammed: Also the return on investment with cloud requires time. If you are doing something small, cloud might be an overkill for you. However, if you don’t decide on it within the earlier stages, migrating later can be tougher. It might be expensive at first, but it will help pay off later when you scale. You need to evaluate your choices well at the beginning because if you make the wrong decision, you might find yourself notable to move easily.

 ??  ?? Mohammed Al Ogaily, VP Product, Anghami
Mohammed Al Ogaily, VP Product, Anghami
 ??  ?? Raja Baz, Deputy CTO, Anghami
Raja Baz, Deputy CTO, Anghami
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