Making Cloud Infrastructure Management a Piece of Cake - Startup Stories with Chafik Belhaoues

Article by
Anton Oparienko
13 min
In a new episode of "Startup Stories", Upsilon talks to Chafik Belhaoues, the founder of Brainboard, a collaborative solution to visually design and manage cloud infrastructures. From Chafik’s story, you will learn about selling a product to technical specialists, the future of DevOps and the hardest thing when building a company.

Anton Oparienko (COO, Upsilon): Today, I'm pleased to have Chafik Belhaoues, the founder of Brainboard. Can you tell me a bit more about your background and the product you are currently working on?

Chafik Belhaoues (Founder, Brainboard): I'm an engineer. My whole career is connected with the infrastructure that I have been working with for the last 16 years. Before starting Brainboard, I was the SRE and later the CTO of a French cloud provider called Scaleway. And now, we are building an end-to-end cloud management platform here at Brainboard.

Chafik Belhaoues, the founder of Brainboard

Anton: Have you always thought about building your own product or company? How did you get there?

Chafik: Actually, yes and no. I was dreaming that one day I would create my own company, but I’ve never thought I’m going to do it. I really liked what I was doing and decided to start my company. There were many reasons for this. One of them was the potential of being an entrepreneur, which I realized during my work at Scaleway. Another reason was my wife. She kept telling me that this was the right time for starting a company and that I have the mindset for this. And at that point, I thought it’s now or never. So I resigned from the CTO position that I had at Scaleway and started Brainboard.

Anton: Was it scary to start a company?

Chafik: Of course. Starting a company is connected with a lot of uncertainties. You don’t know how it works, who will buy your product. That’s probably the reason why many startups fail. They just don’t know how the future will look. For me, the most challenging part was learning non-technical parts of doing business, like marketing, sales, conducting user interviews, creating a go-to-market strategy, etc. It was challenging for both of us, my co-founder and me, because we are tech guys. 

Anton: Let’s talk about Y Combinator since it plays an important role in the Brainboard story. What motivated you to apply for the program? 

Chafik: First of all, we did this because of the market where we wanted to work. We started developing a cloud management platform in France, while the cloud market is in the USA. We were faced with the question of how right it would be to do sales, marketing, and other things, being not in the USA, but in a completely different time zone. We decided to go there, and YCombinator was the best option.

Investors were also our motivation. Before going to YCombinator, we raised funds in France, and our investors were really excited about us going there and learning more about the market and opportunities there. 

Anton: So it was worth it, wasn't it? 

Chafik: It was definitely worth it, but if I do it again, that’s a good question. What YC does, it allows you to be a better founder. You learn a lot in the areas that you don't know. It is designed mainly for tech founders, so you get to learn a lot about product management, marketing, sales, etc. It allows you to increase your chance of success. So if I needed to do it again, I would probably not mind, but, of course, it depends on the context and the product I’d like to build.

Anton: Going back to Brainboard, what is it about? What is the problem you’re solving?

Chafik: Brainboard is a solution that allows engineers to visually build and manage cloud infrastructures. The idea of it comes from our own observations. All engineers have the same workflow. When we have to build an infrastructure, we need to design it first, either on white paper, whiteboard drawing tool, whatever the tool, then we're going to convert it into code. As now the code is the most used framework to build infrastructures, then we're going to test it, document it, validate it, then deploy it. Once it's deployed, every time we have to make a change, we go from the beginning and that's it. 

In every part of this workflow, we have a separate tool, which means separate learning curves and the necessity to glue them all together to make it work. It becomes even harder when you have different teams and different people. When they interact with each other, they need to understand what they do to be able to give validation of the infrastructure or not.

We wanted to build a product that has all these steps in one platform. Cloud architects, when they build a cloud architecture and ask the security guys to validate it, don't throw on them just blueprints that are just high-level and they don't give them Terraform, which is too much detail. And sometimes, the security team needs to go through the Terraform. We build a solution for all this.

Brainboard cloud management platform

The main value of Brainboard is to cut time-to-delivery. We measured it with our customers. Before Brainboard, they spent 32 days building infrastructure, and now they need only 4 days. 

Anton: What is your client profile? Is it a startup or a large enterprise?  

Chafik: We have a mix of clients, but our main focus is the middle market, even mid to big market. There are two differences between our target as a company and our target as a profile people. We’re targeting cloud architects building infrastructures. And the definition of cloud architect sometimes is not clear in the industry. So it may be someone who is just designing the infrastructure, someone who is designing and deploying the infrastructure, and so on. And in terms of companies, these are companies that have enough and bigger infrastructures to feel the pain. Startups usually use maybe even a serverless platform to build their platform. 

Anton: How do you convince companies to move from their existing tools to Brainboard? 

Chafik: Answering your first question, we have a free module. Everyone can sign up for Brainboard and start using it for free. We wanted it to be like this from the beginning. In such a case, your potential users can test it first and see the value themselves.

Then they either reach out to us because they understand quickly that, yes, this is what we want because it solves all our pains, or we reach out to them when we see that they are building infrastructures and need our help. This is the first part, getting in touch with the users or potential customers. 

Then when we start working with them, we have a structured process, what we want to do, and this is related to how the industry works. So we are not reinventing the wheel. We do a proof-of-concept (POC) with clients, which usually takes three weeks. We work closely with them to demonstrate the value, what you are used to doing within this timeframe. We try to replicate it within Brainboard. You take an architecture to build in two months, and you do it in Brainboard within 10 days or less. And then the business part is just talking to the decision-makers, showing the numbers, and moving forward.

Anton: If you have your own specific code on Terraform with a lot of integrated modules and your own logic, is it possible to import your already working configuration into Brainboard?

Chafik: Yes, we have the import, and this is a very good question for companies that already have the infrastructure, and this is the case of our target as well. They already have the infrastructure either on the cloud provider or on Terraform files. So yes, we developed an automatic migration program. Users import their code or infrastructure from the cloud provider, and Brainboard will draw the diagram. And for the infrastructure without the Terraform code, Brainboard generates the code itself to make the migration easier.

Brainboard: Turning Azure infrastructure into Terraform code
Turning Azure infrastructure into Terraform code

Anton: Brainboard supports Azure and AWS cloud providers. What would you say is the best option for business? What are the tradeoffs these options introduce for the average developer?

Chafik: This is a very tough question to answer because it depends on many things. First of all, it’s the state of the company. AWS is aggressively providing free credits for startups. So if you are a startup and you are trying to save as much money as you can, it’s a good option. So Brainboard AWS can give you up to 200 k, which is something really cool. And also it depends on the knowledge. You need to make a decision based on your context, the competence study, the skills that you have internally, and your financial situation.

What we are observing in the market, AWS is the leader. It has more than 40% market share. But the growth rate of Azure is crazy. They are growing much faster than AWS, GCP or Oracle. We also noticed that Oracle is gaining an introduction. A lot of people start using it, even more than GCP. When you open Brainboard and our cloud providers page, you see them ordered by this, the first one is Azure, the second one is AWS, the third one is OCI, and the fourth one is GCP.

Anton: These are interesting trends. Do you have an idea what is causing them?

Chafik: There are a lot of assumptions from our side. The first one is for Azure; they already have a customer base. I mean, all the people that were using Microsoft, they naturally migrated into Azure. And also, Azure is doing great work on building communities. They are established in the business. 

The second provider is Oracle. I don't talk about AWS because they created the cloud. Even when we talk about cloud products, we tend to use AWS words like noma, clutch. As for OCI, they are competitive in terms of pricing. Usually, Oracle is less expensive compared to AWS and Azure. 

Anton: You have many comparisons on your blog. What would you say is the main advantage of Brainboard? What makes you stand out?

Chafik: At Brainboard, you have one platform with all the fragmented solutions that you can build and manage manually. The biggest advantage of it is that it’s automatic. You just do the work. Once you design, you have the code. And this code that you have is already in an established ecosystem. You don't need to install anything.

And we recently released the ICD engine continuous, an engine that allows cloud architecture to deploy directly to the cloud. It means they do not even do the maintenance of the open source day tools like cost, checkout, etc. So cloud architects can focus on building infrastructures, and Brainboard manages everything else. It saves a lot of time.

Brainboard, visually building and managing cloud infrastructures

Anton: You say that Brainboard is made by engineers for engineers. How do you sell your product? 

Chafik: We moved from the C-level executives to the end users like developers, cloud architects, and designers because these people see the value. They use our platform and understand whether it's a good fit. And then, C-level executives rely on these people's decisions and buy our product. 

We choose this strategy to get the initial feedback. When you start a business, you need to de-risk it. You need to understand that what you build you build for someone. These people are going to use your product if they see its value. That's why we started directly with the cloud architects and technical people. And it turned out that it works. And by the way, this is also what HashiCorp is doing. Brainboard is based on Terraform, and it generates the Terraform code. Terraform is a language that is developed and maintained by a company called HashiCorp. And they follow the same strategy, the bottom-up, and it's a successful strategy.

Anton: You've talked a bit about the feedback. How did you search for the first users?

Chafik: That was challenging. It wasn't hard, but it was a lot of learning. It was easier for me because I'm a tech guy, so when I reach out to people, I'm not a sage man, so they do not expect me to sell them something. That was extremely easier. And for me, it was really easy reaching out to people and asking them questions. 

I used LinkedIn a lot, and it's a great source of leads as well because you can see the background of the people and what they're working on. You can select based on different criteria. And then, when you reach out, you have the full context. You reach out specifically to the people that you target, for instance, cloud architects working at Azure in a small team. You can also filter it. 

When we were reaching out, we asked people about their pain points, how they solved them, what was the last time they faced this particular problem, the consequences, etc. Because when people are getting asked about the feedback, they're usually nice and trying not to offend you. 

Anton: Was it the hardest thing when building Brainboard?

Chafik: No. Actually, the most challenging thing was to go to the market. Since we are tech founders, we needed to learn a lot about launching a business. It was also hard because you have to build enough confidence to convince people to try your product. We were thinking a lot about what we need to do or to say in order to interest people enough to make them try. 

The second part, in terms of business, is understanding who is the perfect buyer. Is it a startup or a big company? What industry are they from? And after these and many more questions, you need to choose the main profile. Try to double down and experiment. Based on this, you will see what works or not. It may seem simple, as I'm speaking about it, but doing it requires a lot of discipline and a lot of passion because you need to wait for the data and to go deeper to understand who you are selling to before moving to another area.

Anton: Security is the main concern for many companies. How does Brainboard approach security issues? For example, how can you implement in Brainboard the transfer of secret variables stored, for instance, in AWS Secret Manager to Terraform variables? 

Chafik: Security is one of the top-2 questions we often get asked. We started by applying for two certifications. We are about to get it, maybe in a week or two. One of them is the Security SOC 2. It means that you went through audits, you did open testing, and the platform is secure enough to be trustable by businesses. 

Then we zoom in on different areas. For example, what we did is we put three offerings. You can buy the SaaS solution, but if you want the on-premise one, we also have an offering for it. So inside your infrastructure is completely isolated within your security rules, and it's like a complete isolated bubble. 

Then moving into using the cloud and building cloud infrastructure. We support all the key vault solutions of cloud providers. And what users do is plug their key vault within Brainboard, and they don't need to put the secrets. They just put the connections, and it depends on if they deploy with the Brainboard or if they deploy with their own infrastructure. We decided to take it to the next level and developed a kind of runner. This is a new solution that will come with the CI/CD. So customers can later use them within their infrastructure. So what we are doing is shifting closely to what makes sense to the users and providing them with these solutions.

Anton: What are your post-MVP plans for Brainboard?

Chafik: Brainboard is one platform to manage all cloud infrastructures and that was my pinpoint because when I had a lot of tools, I needed to figure out which one to use whenever I needed to do something. The excitement around Brainboard is that we have the design to code. 

We are planning to bring managers into Brainboard by giving them dashboards, KPIs in a way they can predict what the cost will be and build strategies. It’s going to increase their productivity. We may need to reduce costs based on a technical fact or any kind of strategy and also integrate many older tools within Brainboard. 

With CI/CD, we also want to manage natively the tools that engineers use to manage themselves. For example, now we have the integrations Chekov and Infracost. All these security plugins later we'll be moving into more plugins like ServiceNow, JIRA, etc. So you can build, run and manage infrastructures within Brainboard.

Brainboad: Collaborative whiteboard platform
Collaborative whiteboard platform

Anton: Great plans! I have a few more questions about the industry. How do you assess the current state and future of DevOps and Cloud Computing?

Chafik: What I'm seeing from my standpoint is we are moving more into cloud-native with different shadows. It's the architecture of the application, or the application that we will build tomorrow will be 99% the application, the architecture of the infrastructure. Because when we say cloud native, it means that we use natively the services of the cloud providers to build infrastructure. For example, if I need API management, I just take off the chef API management of AWS or Azure. I need a database. I need to take an RDS or Cosmos DB from the cloud provider. I need storage, and I just take S3 and so on. 

The architecture of the application is the architecture of the infrastructure, and within this movement, the barriers will be removed, and developers will have more flexibility to choose to architect their work. And the cloud architectures will be close to the application and understand how the application is architectured and works.

Anton: I also wanted to ask you about fundraising. Scaleway, where you worked as the CTO, is a bootstrapped startup. For Brainboard, you chose funding. Was it a principal point for you and why? 

Chafik: If I had the capacity and the possibility to do it without fundraising, I would prefer bootstrapped. We are in the capital market. People and companies can build the exact product you’re making and beat you before you even grow. So fundraising was a strategic decision for us.

We need to grow as fast as possible and to have the right people to be able to do it. So money and people are crucial because we know the value that the VCs may give you is also putting you in touch with very good people. Our investor helped me a lot with connections, while bootstrap founders need to build a network from scratch.

Of course, if you go bootstrap, you have a lot of advantages too, but you need to build a lot of things yourself. And if you raise funds, you're going to lose part of your company, but, on the other hand, you can go fast and be surrounded by the right people.

Anton: Maybe there is something else you want to say?

Chafik: Yes, I’d like to say something to the community. I've seen a lot of people, especially tech people that are really good at what they do and they want to start their company, but they are hesitant. It’s really difficult now. And I just wanted to say, guys, just do it. There is no better time than now. You’ll learn a lot along the way. I personally learned a lot and I’m very thankful for this, because through this process I grew and learned a lot of things that are helping me now and, of course, helping all people around me. 

Anton: Thank you, Chafik, for sharing your experience. And thank you for this interesting conversation!

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