clock menu more-arrow no yes

Former Apple engineers escaped to create their own cloud startup

Research into cloud-ready networking gear leads to a new company.

Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A group of Apple networking engineers who had worked on a secret internal project to break the company’s reliance on cloud services from outside vendors has left to start a new networking startup called SnapRoute.

Apple is not involved with the creation of the new company. But sources familiar with the startup’s origins say its founders worked on part of a project that Apple had dubbed Project McQueen.

The project, which Recode first described in March and VentureBeat later elaborated upon, took its name from actor Steve McQueen’s 1963 film “The Great Escape.”

Its goal was to end to a rarely-acknowledged fact about Apple’s iCloud service: It relies heavily on outside vendors, including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft’s Azure and Google Cloud. (Apple first disclosed its reliance on AWS and Azure in a 2014 paper.) The McQueen team’s assignment was to develop and design new equipment and software that would allow Apple to rely on its own internal cloud services and wean itself off AWS, Azure and Google.

One group of Apple network engineers led by Jason Forrester, now SnapRoute’s CEO, was detailed to a skunkworks effort to, as one source familiar with the assignment put it, “build something they couldn’t get from any existing networking vendor” — software that was powerful enough to meet Apple’s industrial-grade networking needs, but also flexible enough to allow frequent on-the-fly changes to respond to shifting demands.

As the work progressed, Forrester and his team chafed at their hidden role in the behemoth project. “Slowly, our desires to share our ideas with the world began to overshadow the thrill of working for Apple,” he wrote. They left their jobs last year and started SnapRoute.

SnapRoute makes software that helps companies manage their cloud systems, whether those systems are internal or external. Right now, if a company is overwhelmed with a sudden demand, such as a suddenly popular new app bringing in unprecedented numbers of photo uploads, it’s expensive and slow to change how the network works. SnapRoute’s software makes that switch quicker and cheaper.

The 20-person startup emerged from stealth mode last week with $4.5 million in venture capital investments led by Lightspeed Ventures. It’s one of a handful of startups focused on what has come to be called software-defined networking. Others include Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks.

Apple declined to comment, and SnapRoute declined to comment on any connection to the McQueen project inside Apple.

However, in a post on SnapRoute’s website, Forrester describes how over four years the demands on Apple’s network intensified, sometimes causing service outages.

“When I arrived in 2011, Apple had two data centers, mostly handling internal traffic and doling out songs and apps from the iTunes Music Store,” he wrote. “By the time we left, Apple had several more data centers stuffed with an incredible amount of network devices to handle billions of Siri and Map queries, iMessages and cloud services.”

The scale of the demand on its data centers from hundreds of millions of iPhone, iPad and Mac users on the iCloud service led to problems that Apple and the companies selling it networking gear hadn’t anticipated. Those problems were a contributing factor that led to the Project McQueen research efforts.

One early success: Facebook’s Open Compute Project said last week that it has adopted some SnapRoute-developed software called FlexSwitch as an option on its OpenSwitch operating system.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.