02/21/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

The Technology of Doing Good

For Valentine's Day, we decided to do something crazy. We embarked on creating the World's Largest Valentine. Of course, we didn't think this up months in advance. Nope, we decided to do this on January 21, 2013. And we pulled it off. This is that story.

We had no idea how popular the idea might be. We determined that we'd have flashmobs in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, holding up a Valentine card 20 feet wide and 24 feet long. Eighty people holding up a minor work of art. Ok, maybe not fine art, but definitely serviceable commercial art. We'd invite the press, our 350,000 members, and anybody breathing. The rehearsals ended up filling three hotel ballrooms. Without a doubt, we created the largest ever Valentine. Here's a video showing it off.

We asked ourselves the question "What happens if this really works and we get 1,000,000 people to come to our site?" Not that we expected 1,000,000 visitors, but anything is possible. It's an exciting and scary prospect. On a typical day, about 25,000 iGive members and visitors use iGive to help their favorite causes and charities. How we prepared for the potential of 40X growth in a single day is a testament to the amazing state of computing today.

Had we attempted to do this five years ago, it would have taken months of preparation, the purchase of over $2,000,000 in computer and networking hardware, weeks and weeks of people installing and configuring those computers, and then more time testing the whole thing. And of course, something would have broken. Even worse than a half hour of lights out at the Super Bowl.

And that would have been the kiss of death for iGive. With death as a possibility, we never would have attempted this. First, we don't have $2,000,000 to spend on computer hardware. Second, if 1,000,000 people didn't show, that money would have been wasted. Lastly, we don't have (and don't want) the staff to manage that size of an operation.

One of the latest buzzwords in the tech community is "cloud computing." And it made the World's Largest Valentine possible. Cloud computing allows iGive to "rent" as much computing power as it might need on an hourly basis, with very little or no upfront cost. We estimate that to handle 1,000,000 people all at once, we'll need over 250 servers, deployed, configured, and operating on Valentine's Day. With backups for the backups, just in case. And all of the fancy Internet plumbing stuff, the cables, firewalls, and connectivity that 250 servers require.

On February 14th, due to the ability to grow (and shrink) pretty much at will, we were ready to go. We had to invest engineering time, but not outrageous amounts.

It was important that our reliability was assured, and that the speed of operation was acceptable. Even with cloud computing, it is no small task having 250 servers all of sudden be an organic part of iGive. We chose to build our cloud computing platform utilizing Amazon's offerings. Their technology is as mature as it gets (not all that mature yet) and they're a customer of iGive's, so we're keeping it close to home.

Our cost? Including testing, we spent about $1,000. We didn't get 1,000,000 people, but our 350,000 members, lots of their friends and causes were all well served. And we had lots of fun. We successfully created the World's Largest Valentine!