Deb Cameron, author of O’Reilly’s Learning GNU Emacs and managing editor at Evolved Media, interviewed Alison about migrating her 100 or so web sites to Cloud Sites, a move that she describes in her three-part blog on the topic on snipe.net. Alison’s been a web designer and app developer for 15 years – a long time in the history of the Web.
Cameron: What were you doing before you put all your sites onto Cloud Sites?
Gianotto: I was managing my own server.
Cameron: It’s interesting to me that you went with Cloud Sites instead of Cloud Servers. You just didn’t need to do the administration piece?
Gianotto: I was talking to other application developers who were using Mosso and said, “I know we do similar things. Is this really a limitation?” I used to do a lot more systems administration, and I don’t have time to do it now. Because I host a lot of nonprofits, I wasn’t getting paid to do sys admin – it’s a tremendous amount of work if you’re doing it right, and I didn’t have the energy for it anymore. I was a little concerned about not having shell access, but when I asked other developers on Mosso, “How is this really affecting you? Is this preventing you from getting stuff done?” They answered, “Surprisingly, not really.”
Cameron: What happens when you need shell access?
Gianotto: If I’m writing a PHP script that’s meant to be a shell script run from cron, I can usually set it up as a web script first and then talk to Mosso and ask them to run a script for me. Their support is so awesome that generally speaking [they do] the few things that I might need to do by command line – such as a gigantic MySQL dump in phpMyAdmin that times out the browser. Some of my sites have huge databases, and there’s no way that I could export that via the web. So you log into chat, and say, “Hey can you do a dump of this? Here are my credentials.” A few minutes later you’ve got the dump sitting on your server.
Cameron: So, it’s almost as if you have a sys admin, really.
Gianotto: Exactly. You have several, actually, on-call 24/7. I used to be that girl. And, frankly, I’m glad to not be her anymore.
Cameron: It wasn’t that you couldn’t do all that stuff. You absolutely could.
Gianotto: Correct. And I’m a bit of a control freak, so there was an adjustment – part of that had to happen before I even signed on. Can I give up the control that I’m used to having in return for really getting rid of some headaches? I actually ran both Mosso and my own machines for a month – just started moving over some sites to see how the migration would go since they all had databases. I have some kind of kooky .htaccess Apache rules set up. I moved the most anomalous ones, the ones that would potentially create a problem in a situation where I wouldn’t have shell access. I started pulling them over, switching DNS quietly, without really talking about it to anybody – sitting back and thinking, “how is this working for me? Is not having shell access and not having root access really a problem, or is this easier?” And once I got past the sheer principle of not having root over my box, it’s like jumping into a pool – you stick your toe in and say “Oh, this isn’t so bad.”
Cameron: How long did it take to move your sites?
Gianotto: I had a hundred or so sites to move, so the idea of moving them all in a day and a half was ludicrous. I thought, “I’ve got a month leeway here. I’m going to take my time, document as I go and see what I run into.” I gave myself the time to acclimate and see whether giving up control was going to be a problem. And it really wasn’t. Every now and then I need to do something out of the ordinary, and the guys in support are really fantastic.
Cameron: The cloud is a very ethereal concept. People are nervous about that, so support is key.
Gianotto: Web hosting has become such a cheap, generic commodity that the bar has really been lowered. It used to be that you really researched a web host because you had a lot riding on it – and frankly they were more expensive. Because it’s now resold and everybody’s offering it, people have gotten used to really poor service. That’s why I was running my own machine – I don’t need to pay somebody $200 a month to talk to me like I’m a moron when I call them with a legitimate problem.
Cameron: Would you have to pay that much, with GoDaddy or one of the other hosting sites you refer to?
Gianotto: I’ve got a hundred plus sites so it quickly adds up. If I were virtually hosting all of them – even on the cheapest host you could imagine – that’s still $500 a month.
Cameron: And it gives you less flexibility, since you’re giving hosting to people who need it like nonprofits.
Gianotto: The biggest CPU hogs on the site are the nonprofit organizations, out of sheer traffic. It’s pushing me over the [10,000] CPU threshold, which is kind of a bummer. Instead of 10,000 CPU cycles we were at 26,000, so we were well over CPU threshold. And part of the reason why Mosso switched over to CPU-based billing is because some programs are poorly written, and they’re eating up a lot of unnecessary CPU. Basically it was a way to hold the customer accountable for scripts that over-consumed resources.
Cameron: Your scripts are fine; it’s just that your traffic is that high.
Gianotto: And certain applications just don’t work well in a Cloud environment – vBulletin, for instance, is very memory-intense. I have actually two or three vBulletin installs, one being a nonprofit site for animal control officers. This is not a heavily trafficked site – maybe 5,000 unique visitors a month, but it comes in at fourth place in terms of CPU usage, just because vBulletin is so insane. There are certain applications where cloud hosting with a CPU-based billing dynamic may not be the best choice. If it’s an application that you can’t control and can’t really optimize, then you may want to think about it. Two vBulletin sites are in slots number two and four for CPU usage out of my 100+ websites. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with Mosso. It just means that maybe cloud hosting is not the best choice –
Cameron: For absolutely everything.
Gianotto: Moving to cloud hosting, you have to make this decision the same way you would any other major technical decision. It’s a business decision and it’s a technical decision, and you need to be informed. You have to think it through. Sometimes it’s going to be a perfect solution, sometimes not. But you need to be aware that there are different scenarios that require different technology – and if you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business.
Cameron: Valuable point. Can you think of any other applications that fall into that category?
Gianotto: Not really. Forums are the most intense. WordPress is super popular, but with the WP Super Cache plug-in, it reduces the load on the server so significantly that Mosso should be paying WP Super Cache some kind of a commission just for rocking so hard.
Cameron: Anything else people should know about Cloud Sites? For example, a lot of people don’t understand that there’s a whole army of servers running a standard platform? How does that affect you?
Gianotto: All of the different nodes have to have the exact same version of the exact same software, and I have to know what that is. It’s got to be PHP 5.2.4; it can’t be PHP 4.6.3. If I’ve written code that only works with one, it’s got to behave consistently across all the nodes since you never know which node you’re going to end up on by way of the load balancer.
Cameron: Right. So you’ve got to know the version so that your script will work in that environment.
Gianotto: But once I know the version, it had better be the same across all of the nodes, or else it’s going to have unpredictable behavior – and that’s what Mosso does. They make sure that it is the same across all of the nodes so that we don’t run into weird anomalies. But the contents of your file server get replicated automatically. There’s not some guy at Mosso who logs into my FTP site every five minutes and copies stuff over to all the other machines. That part’s automated.
Cameron: So why Mosso?
Gianotto: They’re so responsive. You can talk to them on Twitter, you can email them, you can call them on the phone, you can chat with them – they’re so accessible, and that gives me a great deal of comfort.