Case Study: Piracy Prevention, E-Commerce, and Content Distribution in One Convenient Package

Penciling out a Foundation of Substance

As far as internet startups go, MathExercise didn’t bring to mind phrases like “high flying tech” or “venture capital darling”. Its focus on kids solving math problems via pencil and paper would more likely draw stares of disbelief from those intent on a paperless world. To say the least, not exactly a shiny object type start up.

But sizzle was never an aim of ME anyway. Its founder believes that basic math skills are essential for everyday success in all walks of life. That a math foundation is best strengthened in early childhood. And that math skill building is best done with paper and pencil.

If you’re thinking that ME missed the memo that the 21st century began a while ago, you’d be mistaken. Underlying ME is a belief that students benefit the most when schools, families and technology come together. Additionally, ME is committed to using internet technology to deliver math tools that also encouraged the use of paper and pencil to improve math skills:

  • Schools could set up accounts so that their teachers could access over 2,200 math books, 109 lessons and more than 400,000 math problems and track students, performance.
  • Parents could subscribe on a family basis for all their children to participate at home with 24/7 access via a simple web browser.
  • Tutors could focus on tutoring and not developing math practice problems while managing each students scores & goals online from anywhere.

From a web development standpoint, the offline aspect of paper and pencil math problem solving was only a piece of the project (albeit an important one). A database cataloging and facilitating distribution of workbook materials, the logging and tracking of each child’s performance, and providing to subscribers access to those items would all occur online. And if ME was going to move from start up to ongoing concern, a balance needed to be struck between ease of access to the materials and protecting ME’s proprietary interest in them.

To Protect & Serve (with Speed)

The core of ME is of course its materials. Subscribers are provided access to math workbooks containing problem sets and their accompanying answers. As illustrated by the volcanic disruption of the music industry, the “sharing” (aka piracy) of digital content can practically kill a business model. Being a small start up, safeguarding its workbook materials from piracy is critical to ME.

The focus of ME on pencil and paper solving of math problems actually helped in that regard. There was no need for subscribers to actually download materials onto their computers. Instead, subscribers would have access to a PDF and only be able print them on a limited basis (e.g., a Tutor can print 15 workbooks per month).

Such a PDF security solution was achieved using a modified version of PDF.js. The result is a JavaScript based PDF viewer as opposed to the traditional Adobe Reader browser plugin. The JavaScript base provided more control over how PDFs are rendered, integrated, and what interactive features are available within the viewer itself (e.g., printing, not downloading).

ME is somewhat of a traditional E-commerce business (i.e., workbook materials are the “product”) but it also provides services via a web application (i.e., a student’s performance can be logged and tracked). As a result, website speed was very important since it equated to how “fast” ME would be serving its customers.

To achieve such speed, the most recent stable version of PHP 5.5 with a tuned Zend Opcache was deployed. That foundation was combined with highly efficient code based on the Symfony2 PHP framework as well as Doctrine2 ORM for MySQLinterfacing. Added into the mix were the benefits of asset versioning with distribution through the Amazon CloudFront content delivery network, gzip compression of text files, and smartly configured HTTP caching headers. The result is a lightening bolt of a website with response times averaging 200 milliseconds or less!

The use of Amazon CloudFront (a part of Amazon Web Services) as a content delivery network provided several other benefits:

  • Is pay-per-use and requires no long term commitments or minimum fees
  • Being in the cloud obviated the need for ME to have its own servers

As a result of the “wrinkles” in developing the ME site (e.g., hybrid of E-commerce and web application with content distribution), a good measure of customization was required. Such made Symfony the go to framework with Sonata for back end content management. Symfony’s ease-of-use, flexibility and numerous timesaving features are why numerous developers use it for developing websites and applications. And for a small start up like ME, the lack of licensing fees for Symfony and Sonata (they are both open source in nature) was also a benefit.

Its Not How You Start, But How You Finish

A well designed and developed start up website resulted from the collaboration of MathExercise and EnderTech. Although its a hybrid of E-commerce, web application service and content distributor, the site still provides “speedy” service to its subscribers. It also provides varying levels of access to a database of printable (but not downloadable) workbook materials to several categories of subscribers. And for a small start up, much needed economic efficiencies were realized by the use of open source technology (Symfony & Sonata) and a pay as you go content delivery network (Amazon CloudFront). Who needs high flying start up sizzle when you can have a foundation of substance instead?


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