Serving billions of images every day

Multiply the number of sites by the number of people browsing

The early days of the internet were all text. It’s all there right in the protocol – Http (hypertext transfer protocol). Take a look at the Wayback machine – This is what Yahoo looked like in 1996. Fast forward to two decades later and it’s hard to find a single website that does not have glossy images served in seconds – except possibly for Hacker News and tech forums. So, what changed? The tech to serve and manage images has improved while we watched. 

Even around early 2000, digital cameras from Kodak had a resolution of 2 megapixels! If that seems quaint by today’s standards, it was still a huge step up from the routine of loading cameras, shooting 36 images per roll and waiting for a day or more to see the results. It made images valuable because scarcity was built into the model. Most of us can go back to the 1950s and look at the black and white grainy pictures that were the staple of that time. In the 80 and 90s, colour pictures began to get popular and though costs were higher, families documented children growing up and family occasions as well. Precious pictures would end up in multiple family albums and brought out every time memories needed to be dusted and relived.

Ecommerce and smartphones changed the equation

Building the infrastructure required to manage images

Flipkart was India’s poster boy for eCommerce and it launched in September 2007 – just three months after the first iPhone was launched. Facebook had launched in 2004. Alibaba’s first Singles day, the blockbuster shopping festival launched in 2009. Together, they would bring about a sea change in the way photographs were uploaded, stored and served. Speed became the essence. And as broadband speeds improved, customers’ expectations soared as well.

Can you think of eCommerce taking off without photographs of products? And they had to be downloaded in a matter of seconds, or impatient customers would click away and be lost forever. New methods of ‘loading’ images, taking into account the browser, network speed and mobile phone specs had to be developed. And the growth of eCommerce from billions of dollars to trillions by 2019 showed that companies had proved equal to the task, moving people to spend online just as easily as they would in shops offline. By making image management and serving them a sophisticated new business model. It is the revolution that happened in front of our eyes and when we look at websites from just one decade ago, the changes are evidentImages have taken over in practically every case. 

What does it take to serve billions of images a day?

Across browsers, mobile screens, desktops…
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

One of the fundamental issues is that they have to be adapted to a huge array of screens and devices. What’s fine on a desktop is not fine for a mobile screen. So, several versions of the same photograph have to be created, stored and served on demand. Companies like Facebook and Instagram have developed their own solutions in-house but small eCommerce companies who have millions of images on their portfolio have to compete with the Amazons and the Flipkarts of the world. 

Let’s take a company like Nykaa which reported revenue of over $150 million (Rs.1000 crores plus) in 2019. Nykaa’s website sells beauty products from multiple brands. Every single product has 4-5 photographs and descriptions that have to be available to prospective customers. Even if 2-3% of the people who arrive at the site buy the products, you can do the math for the number of times a product photograph is requested and served every single day when users browse through the catalog. Like in the real world, a lot of the visitors are window shopping and pass through several stages before they buy. But Nykaa can’t spend on image storage and management the way it does on photography, which opens up the market for companies like Imagekit

Imagekit – a brand in the making

The real backroom boys

The ‘Freemium’ model allows companies to get customers on board by offering the basic product for free and charging them when their requirements increase and they get more dependent on the service. If you store your first 10,000 images for free and have the Imagekit system serve it, It’s unlikely that you’ll move to a competitor when your site grows to 100,000 images.

What does the management of images actually involve? To begin with, the sizes. Images with a resolution of 20 and 30 megapixels would load very slowly, even on a ‘fast’ phone connection. So, the software has to optimize the size of the images, crop it right and ‘serve’ the clicked image within a few seconds – as this blog post explains in detail. Then, the format in which the photographs have been saved is a factor as well. And like the difference you see in the viewfinder when you zoom into a frame, the pictures on the website have to seamlessly be displayed when customers want to see a bag, a shoe or a dress up-close. Remember what happens when you click on a thumbnail on an eCommerce site and you get several photographs of the product to examine in detail – all of that is image management.

Branding by blogging

Getting traction by speaking to the core audience

The biggest customers for image management are eCommerce and catalog sites which have millions of images uploaded and need it to be optimized for site or app visitors. For Facebook and Instagram, storage is a bigger problem because the vast majority of images have limited serving requirements and disappear into the ‘feed’ in a few hours time. Only those that go viral have a longer shelf life. To understand this better, take a look at the WhatsApp images that accumulate on your phone. In a matter of months, a few GB fills without your being aware of the number of ‘forwards’, good morning messages and all family photos. 

ImageKit has opted to build its brand with a series of posts that let you know about the complexities involved in managing images at scale.  There are several interesting tidbits – for example, 95% of images are in 3 formats, jpeg, png and GIF. Then, auto image resizing and cropping have their own vocabulary and pools of specialists. If you don’t think this is a big deal, let me make a comparison to the physical world. Imagine a billboard with a huge picture that had to be resized to appear on your smartphone 5 inches across. And happen in fractions of a second – without losing anything important on the messaging. That fact that this happens in the background millions of times a day and has become so mundane is fascinating.

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Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started in 2004. I have over 35 years of experience building brands in businesses as diverse as payroll services, software, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising