The benefits of visual asset management with guests from imgix

Mitchell and John Henry from Solspace have a conversation with Nate and Bryan from the image and asset optimization web service imgix. We talk about how their service once saved our butts and how it can help businesses easily manage and deliver photos and video without sacrificing page load times or quality.


Full Transcript

[Music] Welcome to the Solspace Podcast. Thanks for listening.

Mitchell: Hey everybody. Welcome back to the Solspace Podcast. Today on the podcast I have imgix. So imgix is a service that we use pretty widely at Solspace.

From the imgix team I have Nate Meyers and Bryan Mathias. Nate is with the senior, he's a senior partner manager. Is that correct, Nate?

Nate: Yes.

Mitchell: Bryan, you’re a support engineering manager.

Bryan: Yeah, I manage the engineering team here at imgix.

Mitchell: Okay. How many people are you having to manage that way?

Bryan: We're a pretty small team, and I think we do really good with supporting all the customers that we have. Our team currently consists of four people. Two people, or three people, in the United States, and one person in Japan.

Mitchell: Okay. And you're there now. You're in Tokyo at the moment.

Bryan: Correct. Along with the other support here who's also in Tokyo.

Mitchell: Okay. Okay, cool. Alright, let me set the stage of what imgix is. So my podcast has basically two audiences at the same time: other web developers who know Solspace because of the plugins that we sell for a couple of CMS platforms and also, really, marketing directors, who are the people who hire us as an agency to help with their web development projects. So, both of those audiences care, or should care, about imgix from my point of view. And the reason is that what imgix does is you provide a, a really, sort of discreet, well-packaged service for handling the problem of images on websites.

And I think the best way from my point of view to introduce you guys is to tell a quick story about how Solspace used imgix to really save our butts one time. This was two summers ago, and we were working with doing a redesign for a client that we'd had for a number of years. This is a Fortune 100 company.

It's not usual for us to have a big enterprise client like that, but we've been working with them for a while. We're in the process of a redesign, and it came down from the level of the board of directors, down through the CEO, that they wanted to really compress that timeline. So instead of about two and a half months, we had five weeks to complete this major redesign, this complete overhaul. And so, we had to really get the machete out and start just chopping stuff, making decisions here and there just to sort of compress that timeline and make things work. And one of my developers came to me and said, we're not gonna be able to do this unless we use imgix on this project. I said why? We'd used it before, but I said why is that? Because we, we have, tens of thousands of images, marketing images for this marketing website. And they all need to be optimized for different device sizes, and they all need to be optimized based on bandwidth. We just cannot possibly do that, do the old way we used to do it.

imgix provides a service where you point it at an Amazon S3 bucket or whatever source, and you, you set up your DNS so that is, if anybody looks at the source, your page, you're referencing your own domain, but it's actually imgix doing the serving. And imgix goes in and gets the images. It'll read from some query string parameters you provide to the URLs of the images in the source of the page, and imgix does all the rest of the work for you. Takes away the problem. We don't have time to do anything else. So that's a little setup.

Nate, I'm gonna point this at you first. That's a little setup for what imgix does as far as a business like Solspace is concerned. You guys help with video as well, but maybe you could help kind of give an overview of the imgix services based on kind what I was just talking about.

Nate: No, thank you. We appreciate your partnership with us as well as being here with everyone listening in today. So, thank you for that. So, you're absolutely correct. So, imgix started out focusing on images and inherently our focus is on how to get the incredible visual content that brands, agencies, partners may have from point A to point B. And the way that we do that, point B being where the end user is, and exactly like you mentioned in your example, regardless of whether they're looking at a smartphone, a laptop, a VR screen, whatever browser, whatever bandwidth, we can automatically set up parameters for them so that the end user gets those images video loaded in the optimal resolution, in the optimal delivery mechanism.

And so what our customers see is twofold. One, like you mentioned in your example, many people do not have the time to handle these things. It tends to take up a significant amount of time. If they're looking for potential solutions, a lot of them can require a very heavy lift. With us, it's very easy to set up your instance with imgix and have it be operational within an hour even because we are storage agnostic and we have a suite of libraries to set people up so that they can set things up to be optimized very efficiently. What then also happens is that as a net result of that, that the end users are able to see that the pages are loading much quicker than otherwise they would have, and this is incredibly important.

So many studies have shown that the longer it takes a website to load, the greater your bounce rate will be. The lower your customer conversion will be, or alternatively, we see examples in which companies may be trying to arrange many different sizes of images that they're storing that can compromise their bandwidth and compromise their storage. And one unique thing that imgix does is it does on the fly rendering. So, we just look at one individual image and we can make all these rendering APIs on top of that to ensure that it's served in the latest generation format that suits the browser that's being viewed at. People can also apply a suite of parameters, so for example, if they wish to crop pictures based upon faces or entropy, apply branding like watermarks, there's a suite of things that they're able to do at scale with us that saves them time, ensure they're able to have a consistent look and feel across their website and reach their audience. Again, regardless of the device, the browser, the bandwidth, because we're optimizing for all of it programmatically.

Mitchell: On the podcast also with me is John Henry Donovan from Solspace. He's one of the lead developers on the team. John Henry was the first person to introduce me to imgix some years ago.

John Henry, when you first used it, what was the reason that you were drawn to it, is what we're just talking about, or was there something else that pulled you toward this service to apply it to a client project?

John Henry: It was exactly as Nate was talking about. It's the time consume in building out our own image architecture that just doesn't allow us to get on with our day-to-day work. And what we often found was scale is always gonna be an issue, especially with a heavy and image intensive website. We're nearly always gonna run into scale problems.

We nearly always run into server problems with hosting that image resizing transformations, thumbnailing would always take away the resources from a website and cause trouble that would get back to the client. And the client was always ringing us saying that the website's down, we’ve got white pages and it was always down to images. And this immediately fixed that problem 'cause it offloaded all of that, all our efforts under the imgix umbrella. And it made sense from a budget performance as well.

And mostly the biggest issue we found with imgix, which isn't a bad one because it starts a conversation, is the budget and pricing, whereas it may initially start out looking more expensive once you run into all the examples or talk with your client about all the examples of how you can actually save overall, all those hours lost in troubleshooting white pages and resource and hosting. Throwing money at hosting would be another something we used to do with clients, where we knew it was gonna make, there's gonna be minimal return from effort in terms of price there. It definitely, it's like it was, I'm not gonna say magic bullet, but it was pretty close in terms of images.

Mitchell: My experience of it on this project that I mentioned was magic bullet. It was, I was interested in optimizing the website. Of course, I knew that website needed to be reliable, and reliable meant fast, and consistently fast and fast without me or the team having to do anything about it. But what mattered even more in that moment was speed. We just did not have time as developers to do any other infrastructure. Nothing else made sense.

Nate, something that we haven't touched on in the few conversations we've had was I've never asked you, what the origin story of imgix was, and I'm, curious about it now. Is that something you could talk about?

Nate: In rough outline form. So our founder, CEO, Chris started out with YouTube, and he saw the use case of this from the time that he spent there. And from there, he then built this company. We were started with Y Combinator and we just scaled from there. I don't know, Bryan, if you have any other further context to share.

Bryan: Yeah, that's about right. Yeah, Chris like pretty close, I forgot like what his working relationship with YouTube was, but he definitely was like a working, a big contributor on that project. And I think like the way he started imgix is he wanted us to be like the image processor of the world.

Like he wanted us to transform how we process images for customers and how, you know, images are delivered today. And a lot of the products we're building today kinda expand on that. Like we have a new asset manager that's adding Google Cloud vision to a lot of these assets. We're expanding to video, so that way we can do a lot more than just images.

We're expanding to AI where we can kind of explore use cases for how AI is transforming image usage today.

John Henry: I saw a quote, which may have been Chris, say that imgix serves over 1 billion images daily, so that was a substantial number back in 2015. Do you know what it is today?

Nate: I don't have an updated statistic for that. I know we're serving images across over 27 million websites today.

John Henry: Wow.

Bryan: It's definitely like more than 5 billion today. 1 billion was a long time ago. We've surpassed that number. Yeah. Well, yeah, we surpassed that number a long time ago.

Mitchell: So Bryan, let's go back to AI. You know this is sort of a, this is a really hot topic, of course. That's an understatement. And I think from the imgix website, it's clear that one of the uses of AI that you guys are applying is that you can, what's the terminology that, that you're using? You can scale an image up, like a, take a blurry image and you use AI to enhance it. What's going on there?

Bryan: So that feature that you're referencing is super resolution.

This is pretty new feature we launched recently, and it's targeted for customers who have a lot of user generated content. Generally, the issue with customers today is they have a lot of users on a platform where they don't have control of the images that are uploaded. And as a result, users upload anywhere, images that are anywhere from 500 pixels wide to 3,000 pixels wide. And some of these can be very low resolution. And when a, when a business has to use these images on a website, using a low resolution image makes it look very blurry. There's no really good way to upscale this.

No matter how you stretch a 500 pixel image, it's still gonna be 500 pixels. What our super resolution AI does is it takes an image, upscales it, and it kind of guesses what the, what the pixel should be when it gets enlarged. And the result is an image that looks very crisp. So if you put a 500 pixel image, we'll spit that out as a one megabyte image or even higher, and it's gonna look a lot more crisp, like it's gonna look as if it was taken as a high resolution image.

John Henry: As an amateur photographer, I’ve been seeing the trend of these AI features creep their way into all my photography tools and no matter, I have four or five of them, no matter, regardless of Photoshop. Other ones I use, they’re all in there now. They all do this, so it's amazing that you've dipped your toes in there. And that technology is obviously something you can't ignore anymore. So, are we gonna see some more AI driven features in imgix in the future?

Bryan: Absolutely. Right now, we are evaluating a lot of different use cases. I think when it comes to developing AI, it could be expensive for investing in AI features. So for us, we're trying to pick out which ones are gonna be very useful for businesses today. Super resolution we identified as very important for users with user generated content.

Background removal is another AI feature we've developed recently, to cut out the processing time for removing backgrounds from images, and this is very common for e-commerce customers who have products that need to get backgrounds removed. Another thing we're looking at is generative fill, which is changing the crop of an image. So that way, we can guess the pixels outside of it and kind of like fill in the content so that way somebody can turn a portrait image into a banner image without losing any of the detailing image. So those, some of those are the things we're looking at today. And we're still gonna continue evaluating whether there are use cases that are for businesses to actually get something out of AI.

Mitchell: So let me ask a question, sort of a zoomed-out question. Who's your customer? My guess is that it's web developers and agencies who need your optimization tool and they pitch it to their client. In my case, it's always a marketing director. So I'm making a pitch to them saying we can save some money and also make the site more reliable and fast. But it, am I off base there? Who is the client target for you?

Nate: Effectively, anyone that has a significant amount of visual content on their website can benefit from us. It could be someone who originates as the website developer. It could be someone who is a CTO, depending upon the company's size. Sometimes it is marketers as well, because what we see with a lot of clients is the amount of time that they're spending, not just on the IT side, but the marketing side in managing their visual assets can be enormous and very costly, and we can be a great solution for it. So again, any company that has a significant amount of visual content benefits from working with us today.

Mitchell: Bryan, you're a support engineer manager of that group. I've never needed, I've never even thought of needing support with your tool because it's, the beauty of it is so simple that it solves such a big problem. What kinds of support issues do you deal with on a regular basis?

Like what kinds of, what are your clients coming to you with saying, all right, we need you to be able to tell us how to do this, or could your tool also do this? Is this possible? What kinds of requests do you get?

Bryan: We get a ton of requests, and as a support team, some feedback that we get is we provide really extensive support. We kind of provide support outside of even on using our normal product. We've jumped on developer calls with somebody who just needed help with fixing their overall JavaScript implementation and like improving their feed that way, which is surprising.

But a lot of the common things we, that we get is basically how to, is like how to set up the service and then beyond that we don't get a lot of other support requests. And I think that just speaks to how easy our product is to use. We kind of say that it's a set it and forget it tool. And once somebody sets up imgix for the first time and they've implemented the best practices, they've used auto compress format, they're using source sets that we suggest and they're using the AI functionality that we have, they generally don't write in again for years until we have a new feature, like a new, super resolution feature and that's something they're interested in. That's pretty much it.

And I guess the most common support question we get is how to optimize my images. Take a look at my website. How can I make my usage of imgix better? And typically what we offer, or the advice that we offer is always use our compression and auto format parameter.

Both of those things save megabytes and 90% of the image weight most of the time. And also use source sets, which is making it so that way the browser uses the best image for the best device. And this helps with reducing page weight and overall like increasing conversion for your users.

John Henry: You mentioned e-commerce earlier on, that's one area where Solspace customers could really benefit with a service like imgix. And as you said, you're taking away all those painstaking tasks and you mentioned features like background removal, optimization, all the various improvements you can do. So have you seen an increase in this sector with the popularity of most e-commerce services like Shopify over the lot more kind of e-commerce shops in the world? Since maybe Covid stuff, people have been focusing on businesses. So would you see a pattern, like what sector has had the biggest boost or have you seen an uptick from your clients in the past couple years?

Nate: Yeah, e-commerce would certainly be one of 'em. NFTs for a period as well were quite pronounced too. And then it's been all the standbys that just do have a lot of visual content. So media companies, real estate, luxury, CPG in general, which does dovetail with e-commerce too, all tend to be core focused verticals for us.

John Henry: Yeah, I didn't actually realize you did the video like as an end-to-end service. Most of the time as a web developer, you're relying on YouTube or Vimeo to host and stream the video content for the website, and you're spending all your time configuring players and letting the customer manage it through that.

But you can really just build out your content in the seamly white label service and just only worry about content creation with your service. Is that correct?

Nate: Yeah, that is correct. And then also you're able to ensure that all your site visitors stay on your website as well. So having that brand consistency and keeping your customers where you want them are also key benefits to having it all be handled by us.

Mitchell: What are your enterprise clients doing? I don't need an enterprise contract. What you offer at your top level tier, which is perfectly affordable for most of the clients that we're working with, it's fine. What is the enterprise level? What are you offering there? Is it additional support or customization or what's happening at that level?

Nate: Yeah, there's a few things. So it is additional support. It is the ability to have some more customization. So for example, you could have your own custom domains if you choose to do so. You also are able then to have access to even greater amount of content. Origin images is one of our key terms as far as how many images are you serving up in a given month, and when you get to the enterprise level, you're able to have access to many more of those. Also, some advanced features such as some of our AI tools, for example, become available once you are an enterprise customer of ours. And you get a direct contact point with a dedicated account manager. You're first in queue with our support team. So those are all some of the benefits that you get by working with us with an enterprise contract.

But again, anyone can visit image.com/pricing and see the options available, which include a free account for just testing the waters with us and seeing how we do and how easy we are to set up.

Mitchell: Alright, so there's a CDN that's baked in to imgix. We run most of our sites through Cloudflare for a bunch of different reasons. And through Cloudflare, those images would be cached in a CDN and they'd be controlled that way. Running through your service means that we're getting the optimizations that you make available.

Like we'd, like I said, we offload the resizing of images, the optimizing of them, per device and so forth. But you also have, as part of that package, the CDN capability. Are you piggybacking on another CDN or did you guys build out your own CDN network? And by the way, for anybody not knowing what that means, content delivery network is what CDN stands for.

Bryan: Yeah. For that one, building out a CDN is not an easy task. I think as a company we want to focus on image processing. And for the CDN fit, we partnered with Fastly, which is the one of the largest CDN providers in the world. I think they power a really good portion and percentage of the internet. And they provide like a great seated coverage. So they have CDN pops all over the world, from South America all the way to Brazil to Europe. And we let them handle that while we focus on what we do best, which is image optimization.

The integration we have with them and the partnership we have with them is very custom and it's optimized to provide like the best image performance that we can, you know, for that seating architecture.

Mitchell: Is the optimization, is the image processing, are you doing it at the edge. Are you, is that happening at the CDN node level or is that handled some other way or is it proprietary and you can't tell me?

Bryan: I could tell you bits and pieces of it. Some of it is handled it at the edge. For example, if somebody makes a request to an image and we transform that image, we will apply some default configurations if somebody has auto compressive format at their source level settings, we're gonna be applying that compression at the edge without, without it going anywhere else.

And this is great. This sets it up for being a no code implementation. If somebody wanted to use imgix out of the box and they wanted to just apply auto compress and formatting, which changes the file to AVIF if it supports it, and JPEG if it doesn't, this can all be done without any lines of code.

They just have to use an imgix URL, it's gonna go to the CDN. At the edge, we're gonna apply that, we're gonna apply those changes and deliver it back to the customer. The request kind of traverses a little bit from edge to shield to their origin where we are fetching the image from their origin. We're applying some transformations there and sending it through the caching to get it delivered to the user.

Mitchell: Nate, I contacted you first because you, imgix, have a partner program. And for the developer, web developer half of my audience on this podcast, can you say a little bit about the partner program and for whom is that relevant? And why is that program in place?

Nate: Sure. So the partner program is intended for any of our partners, potential partners, that effectively are using imgix with multiple end clients or who are working with multiple end clients.

They may benefit from us, and the whole goal of it is to make us as easy as possible for any partners to use, include, refer to with their end customers. And so with that, offerings that are available from it are going to be greater degree of technical support. There's scale pricing available as well based upon use case. There's opportunities for us to be promoting one another and some additional customized support based upon the individual partner and the programs that we may develop together.

Mitchell: John Henry, before we move to wrap up the podcast episode, anything technical that we didn't get a chance to get into?

John Henry: I was gonna say that in the past year or so, I've noticed more and more clients finding Google PageSpeed insights, which is, which is beginning to become the bane of my life, because they're more focused on the high scores and the page speed rather than how the user's actually seeing the page.

So imgix has become useful in that aspect, and it seems like there's a whole trend of clients become more self-aware of their own websites and performance as a kind of a, as a feature on their websites as well. Have you run into any issues with testing tools like that where you know that your product is delivering the images as optimized and fast as possible, but the tool is telling a different story at the same time, which seems to be something I'm fighting with a lot of the time these days.

Bryan: We see that commonly, and that's because Google does use some sort of automated tool for scraping a website and the way it interacts with JavaScript can be a little bit weird. Where, for example, if you are using an SEK or some sort of JavaScript library to render images, Google may not be picking up the changes, right?

They may not be picking up the source set that you may have set up. They may not pick picking those sizes, and they may be setting some other areas. For example, like really large DOM size where it's, it is bad to have a DOM, really large DOM size, 'cause it does add some bytes to that file size.

But in return for having a comprehensive source of images to choose from, you save a lot more in image bandwidth versus a couple bytes of code. So some, those are the, some of the common things that we see with Google PageSpeed. And as Nate mentioned earlier, we did have that enterprise thing.

And one of the things that we do is offer premium support. A lot of customers write in about their page feed and they often reach out to us to figure out how they can solve it. We generally look through a lot of these and we help customers solve it. We look at the JavaScript code, see what kind of issues they're having with rendering images and provide like some tips on how to solve that. It's always gonna be different from customer to customer, site to site.

John Henry: It's just these days I seem to be spending more of my time writing code for Google as opposed to the client themselves. So yeah.

Bryan: Yeah, that is a common thing we have to deal with on the support side as well. Basically looking at it and see if Google's warning is actually legitimate or if it is something that they can ignore because they are getting benefits in one other area.

John Henry: Yeah, but just by visiting any site with imgix, you can immediately see the performance of it anyway.

Mitchell: Good. All right. Well we've roughly hit the 30 minute mark. I think that's a good stopping place. Nate, Bryan, wanted to thank you guys for coming on the podcast and answering some questions about imgix. Hopefully we've set up some conversations between web developers, marketing directors, about these websites and how there are tools like this that can be used to optimize and make these websites more reliable. Nate, any last things you might wanna comment on?

Nate: No, we very much appreciate this time and we're excited to continue working together with you. And again, any interest of clients can visit imgix.com for more information.

Mitchell: Great. All right. Thanks everyone.

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