In Latin, “gratis” means “free.” In Spanish, “fono” is short for “telephone.” Fuse those words together and you get “Gratifon,” or free phone. You also get the innovative business concept that Gratifon S.A. is introducing across Latin America. The Panama-based startup has invented a voice-over-IP (VoIP) kiosk that lets users dial any landline or cell phone at absolutely no cost. While they talk, the device displays relevant, interactive video advertisements on its full-color, high-definition screen.

Gratifon video“It’s a win-win situation,” notes Oz Yosef, Gratifon’s CEO. Advertisers deliver targeted offers to a captive and grateful audience. Consumers get free local and international calling, plus point-and-click access to valuable promotions. Say, for example, you’re waiting for your baggage at an airport, Yosef suggests. While you call home to say you’ve arrived safely, Gratifon’s kiosk displays rental car rates and then, at the push of a button, books a reservation for you. “By the time you’re outside, the car is waiting and you’re on your merry way,” Yosef says.

Cloud contains cost
Most of the IT horsepower behind Gratifon’s solution is hosted centrally and delivered via the Internet. The company originally planned to house its infrastructure in a custom-built data center, but the more Yosef crunched the numbers, the less appealing that idea looked. Constructing a mission-critical computing facility, operating it in a region with high electricity prices and continually expanding it in response to rapid growth would all be extremely expensive. “The costs just didn’t make sense,” Yosef says.

Buying data center resources on a pay-as-you-go basis from a public cloud computing provider, he soon realized, was a far better option. “You don’t have the high up-front investment,” Yosef observes, “and you can grow without having people spend their time installing and upgrading hardware.”

The trick was finding the right public cloud partner. Yosef sought a cloud provider with high scalability, easy-to-use management tools and a granular, secure user permissions system. Few of the companies he evaluated offered all three, however, and most provided little to no support. Most of the companies he evaluated had serious flaws, ranging from insufficient capacity to weak service-level agreements and poor support. “Everything was sort of self-service,” he recalls.

Resilient, secure infrastructure
In the end, a chance phone call with the business development and OEM solutions folks at Dell brought Yosef’s attention to the ideal solution: the Dell™ Cloud with VMware® vCloud™ Datacenter Service. Managed by skilled Dell technicians, the solution combines VMware’s state-of-the-art virtualization software with redundant hardware, power and cooling to deliver consistently high scalability and reliability.

“It’s a very resilient infrastructure,” says Errol Emmert, a cloud computing system engineer at Dell. And a secure one too, thanks to network defense and data protection from Dell’s SecureWorks™ Managed Security Services. Best of all, Dell also provides the expert services businesses need to create, operate and grow successful cloud-based solutions.

For Gratifon, it all made sense. “Knowing the data center is managed by Dell helps you sleep better at night, versus working with a company you have no experience with,” Yosef says. Furthermore, Gratifon’s servers were already running on VMware software, so migration would be a snap. To top it all off, with Dell, launching Gratifon’s service wouldn’t be a do-it-yourself affair. “I’d have a team of people there to help me,” Yosef says.

Increased operating efficiencies
Much as Yosef predicted, porting Gratifon’s solution onto the Dell Cloud with VMware vCloud Datacenter Service was a speedy process. “It took us something like two to three days to get our first few servers up,” he says. Dell’s cloud specialists provided configuration assistance and training, and now deliver ongoing support.

The Dell Cloud gives Gratifon almost instant scalability. “I can grow the application at the click of a button,” Yosef says. And with Dell handling hardware maintenance, Gratifon’s technicians are free to focus on more important matters, like developing great software. “It really takes a load off my IT department,” Yosef says. Combined with the operating efficiencies the Dell Cloud makes possible, Gratifon is saving an estimated $5,000 a month—on top of the $50,000 the company saved by not having to buy server hardware.

Gratifon kioskGratifon also uses customized Dell OptiPlex XE™ embedded desktops for OEM solutions to keep its kiosks continuously available, even when they’re located outdoors or in buildings without air conditioning. “Humidity is very high here, and even at night temperatures can get above 40 degrees Celsius,” Yosef says. Gratifon worked with Dell’s OEM Solutions Team to ensure the Optiplex XE had the right fit for their kiosks. This included meeting thermal and environmental requirements as well as consideration of software imaging options. The equipment is also compact, quiet and durable, with a three-year warranty that will lower Gratifon’s hardware maintenance costs.

Yosef’s favorite feature, however, is the OptiPlex XE’s turbocharged performance. When users place a call or click a button, they expect immediate responsiveness. “Even a second or two is too long,” Yosef says. The OptiPlex XE was the only PC he evaluated with the processing power to meet those stringent demands.

Cloud-powered expansion
So far, Gratifon has deployed some 50 kiosks throughout Panama. The company plans to add another 250 kiosks within the next six months, and its longer-term goals are even bolder. “We expect to roll out roughly 3,000 kiosks in Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil within 12 to 18 months,” Yosef says. “With the Dell Cloud running our infrastructure, the sky is the limit on our growth potential.”

Emmert sees a lesson in Gratifon’s experience for other companies with big ambitions and breakthrough ideas. “The cloud isn’t just talk,” he states. “It’s real. It’s a functioning, efficient resource that anyone can use to build a business.”

Yosef agrees. “I would recommend the cloud to anyone,” he says. “It just makes sense.”

--Rich Freeman is an independent journalist covering information technology.