Blog Jun 10, 2021

Innovation in Overdrive: How one Canadian SMB scaled at superspeed to teach the world through the pandemic


Our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic starts and ends with business. In this blog series, we look at the different ways Canadian businesses have contributed to helping lead our recovery.

By Peter Gima, Manager, Small Business for Amazon Web Services (AWS) Canada

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many Canadian SMBs to rethink the way they operate just to survive. But some saw the earliest days of the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate. For the team at Ottawa’s Blindside Networks, their quick thinking—and quicker scaling—helped them to ensure millions of people around the world were getting a quality education, even as classrooms sat empty.

Fred Dixon has a dream. He’s backpacking through Africa, stumbles upon a remote village and starts chatting with the locals. They tell him they’re getting a high-quality education via BigBlueButton, the open-source web conferencing system for online learning.

“At that point I’ll be: ‘OK, we did it. We made it,’” Dixon says with a laugh.

But even though it’s a fantasy, it’s not an unrealistic one: Dixon’s Ottawa-based company, Blindside Networks, created BigBlueButton, which provides online instruction in 55 languages to hundreds of millions of people around the world with the help of Amazon Web Services. Blindside provides hosting and support to BigBlueButton clients that run the gamut from the U.S. Defense Department to German universities and Myanmar monks.

Dixon and his co-founder, Richard Alam, didn’t set out to build a commercial project in 2008—they wanted to create an open-source, online learning virtual classroom that would benefit people all over the world. That’s because they believed then and still believe today that access to quality education is the key to solving the world’s problems.

The COVID-19 pandemic ignited an immediate explosion in online learning. For a company like Blindside Networks, any significant downtime can cause a rapid loss in users.

“It was February 2020, and we’re cooking along nicely, and then this tsunami is coming towards us and we see schools closing down in North America. We have less than three weeks before they close down around the world and classes move online,” he says.

“We needed a huge number of servers and we had to scale. Fortunately, we were able to do it and stay three steps ahead. It became a lot less stressful when we were able to spread our load for the hosting of classes over AWS.”

More than a year into the pandemic, and Blindside’s hosting environment has increased 60-fold. It’s running thousands of servers compared to the hundreds it was running prior to the pandemic.

While the company had already been using AWS prior to COVID-19 for disc space, it began to rely heavily on the company as the full force of the pandemic kicked in.

“We had been using AWS for hosting since 2014. When the pandemic tsunami hit, we moved away from dedicated machines to virtual machines and started leveraging AWS very heavily for virtual machines as well,” Dixon says.

As a small company with a small team, Dixon notes, AWS was instrumental in helping Blindside handle the deluge. If their hundreds of existing customers had shown up at the start of the pandemic and Blindside didn’t have the capacity to meet their needs, “they would have just moved on.” Instead, Blindside seamlessly scaled to accommodate both their existing users and a flood of new ones, thanks in large part to AWS.

“We wouldn’t be here without Amazon. We wouldn’t have been able to scale in a way that allowed us to handle the pandemic,” he says. “The ground we covered in the last 14 months is probably more than the ground we covered in the past five years.”

For small companies, Dixon points out, AWS provides a curated set of tools that can solve tough problems early on without requiring a lot of resources, and then provides assistance and support as they grow.

The relationship has allowed Blindside Networks to stay true to its vision: To build the world’s best virtual classroom, to create a global company that provides hosting to people who want to leverage it, and to provide social benefit to anyone in the world who wants to set up their own virtual classroom.

Its commitment to educators is the impetus for the upcoming BigBlueButton World conference. From June 21-24, they’ll gather online to discuss what’s been learned, what’s changed in education and where online learning is headed next in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here to sign up.

For Dixon, it’s clear: The online virtual class is here to stay. The pandemic merely accelerated an existing trend.

“There’s no limit to the value we can provide instructors through innovation. Whether it’s increased engagement with students, analytics, the use of machine learning to assist instructors …  we can improve on the quality of online classes by just focusing on what instructors and students want.”

Watch our latest Canadian SMB on-demand webinar to learn about how Amazon’s innovation methods can help small businesses find the right balance of efficiency and innovation during challenging times. This can be a difference to not only survive but accelerate growth for long term success.