Cortex is pioneering a new way of hosting enterprise websites
It devours data at such a rate that it has become affectionately known by those who work on it as ‘The Ripper’. It tears up gigabytes of information, shreds images and lines of code and deposits it back into a new environment, faster, leaner, meaner.
Technically, it’s termed an ‘ingest tool’ but The Ripper sobriquet is much more fun: a bit like the global legion of clients Edinburgh-based firm Cortex works for, which includes the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, by Saban.
When I catch up with Peter Proud, the firm’s founder and MD, he’s in good spirits. After 18 months of rigorous development, design, build and testing work, he now has a platform which he can sell to corporations with a complex, global bank of digital assets. It’s a cloud-based enterprise delivery system which allows them centralised control of their many marketing websites with ‘near-instant localisation’. The ingest tool is just part of that process, more of which later.
His office is also something else. Located at Waverley Gate, on Princes Street, the sprawling, open-plan floor features cosy seating pods, a gigantic boardroom and a signed jersey on the wall from Seattle Seahawks American football star Russell Wilson (the firm was brought in to stop the Superbowl’s website from repeatedly falling over last year).
It’s also in the same building as Microsoft, a company Proud knows very well, having worked for the world’s third-largest company for 14 years. They are now in fact a client, with Cortex responsible for delivering the enterprise architecture for Microsoft’s global education website, with discussions underway to begin hosting more of the Seattle-based company’s web services. It’s not something I had expected, to say the least, that a small start-up with 14 staff (albeit with some considerable weight behind them; WPP Group, the world’s largest advertising company is the largest shareholder), would be able to control some of the digital footprint of a $340bn company.
“This is part of the reason we came into this building, because it’s close to Microsoft – we’ve all got Microsoft badges so we can get in, and we can go and control their DNS. We can control all of Microsoft.com’s infrastructure. It’s probably a bit too much power, actually.”
But it’s clear Cortex are a trusted entity: Proud digs out an old group photograph featuring him and Bill Gates. We are unfortunately not allowed to publish it (Microsoft is very protective of its founder, and the world’s richest man). But the image, taken on February 20, 2006, neatly illustrates the genesis of how technology and marketing functions within large companies – in this case the client was Unilever – began to converge.
“From one conversation my career took a total change,” says Proud. “I put this meeting together after the CIO of Unilever came to me and said, ‘Look, we’ve never been able to speak to marketing’.
“And if you look at the way technology and marketing are converging you should be getting closer to the CMO. So I asked Bill to do a two-hour session on the connected consumer in 2006, which was quite early on in this world, and we did something like $50 or $60m in revenue on the back of this meeting, which was unplanned, it just randomly came about.”
Proud said he was then able to go off and do some “really cool things” for Microsoft, like starting the One Microsoft Programme, building the company’s enterprise market (it already had 1.5bn consumers), starting a platform called Bundle (later sold to Capital One) and creating a ‘stack’ for marketing, which laid the foundations for where he is now.
“I ran a session whereby we got 86 product teams in one room, which had never been done before. We ended up with a stack for marketing. We came up with an idea for an infrastructure layer, a services layer, a data layer, a content creation layer and then a distribution channel for marketing.”
After working at a senior level for Accenture, Proud then decided to go it alone. With Cortex, he has sunk £3m of investment into the company – some of it his own, plus investment from WPP – bringing in Microsoft consultants (who else?), and has based his business on the Microsoft Azure platform. He is in the process of trying to get a patent for the “rock solid” platform, which can build websites in around three minutes.
“We’ve turned the whole way the industry works on its head. Everybody starts by building the CMS (content management system) and tries to build on top of it – but they’re not very scalable, they’re not very secure, and kind of clumsy, so we’ve just taken that element out and used Azure websites, with a built-in connector where you can use the CMS as the editor. The CMS used to do the editing and deliv- ery but we’ve broken it apart so the delivery is done from a very scalable cloud infrastructure and you just hook the editing capability into it.”
For the Microsoft Education site, which spans 120 pages, Cortex developers used the ingest tool they had created to suck in all the existing content on November 22nd last year, and ‘re-platformed’ it four weeks later. So how good is Azure, as an enterprise delivery system?
“It’s awesome,” says Proud. “Microsoft have got it so right. They are going to do so well. What we’ve done is really unique as well – we’ve given global, local capability, so all of the stuff that is controlled from the centre is bolted down and controlled centrally from Seattle (headers, footers, main/ core products etc) and then the local subs have got access to control things locally.”
The technology also allows a much faster page loading rate; the websites not only look slicker, they respond much more quickly, too. As a result the ‘bounce rate’ – visitors who come onto the site but leave soon after – dropped by 55%, and page views went up 46% in a month. Proud is keen to demonstrate the quickness (his mantra is ‘crawl, walk, run’) and shows me some demo sites – another client is Dyson – on a giant screen in the boardroom. They don’t disappoint.
The Dyson site is particularly impressive. Featuring some staggering CGI – Proud is working with a creative director in London – the 360 Eye Robot website even allows you to shake the dust off the vacuum, using a tablet. “It’s beautiful isn’t it?” says Proud. “And it’s just a vacuum cleaner.”
PArt of the process for creating websites for global companies is the rather obvious need to translate them into different languages: the Dyson site alone is in 39 countries and 28 languages. Working so closely with WPP Group allows Cortex to call on the support of its translation team. However, things
don’t always go to plan. On one translation for the Microsoft Education site there was a line on how the company wanted students to be ‘passionate’ about what they learn; in the Chinese version it came back as wanting students to be ‘sexual’. Needless to say the error was quickly corrected before it went live.
As for the direction Proud wants to take his company, he is clearly ambitious and sees no reason why Cortex can’t be a £250-300m company. However, he taken a step back from the demands of constant transatlantic travel, and is obviously happier based at home in Scotland (Fife to be precise).
He has an enthusiasm for teaching, and has taken on two apprentices, including a “really smart” kid straight from school; some will work towards the Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer course and within two years will become highly-paid individuals. He is also keen to recruit “good dotnet people”, as it’s easier to train up engineers to become proficient in content management systems than the other way around. The apprentices are actually cutting their teeth at helping the Glasgow-based Homeless World Cup (Cortex’s only Scottish client: 98% of the business is elsewhere in the world) with its website, lending its services for free.
Now it has proved its technology can work – and The Ripper happily chews its way through a raft of new clients, including Group M (the world’s largest media investment company), Proud is obviously happy that his stack idea has come to fruition.
He wants to go on “delivering global, scalable, rich user experiences” to as many clients as he can. And he’d particularly like to get plugged into the Scottish market.
“If there were more companies here on our doorstep we could help that would be quite nice. We could quite easily help the whisky industry, the tourist industry, maybe even VisitScotland, any organisation that needs to project itself out to the world.”