Why I looked at mt(dv), EC2, EngineYard, and RackSpace, but decided to launch my site with TextDrive's Accelerators

February 2, 2007   

Quick note: Because this post is my most visited from search engine references, I should clarify here at the top that we have since switch to Engine Yard from TextDrive. In fact, we never got to get off the ground with TextDrive because they were too busy helping more important customers (probably Twitter) with their scaling issues. While there are no hard feelings from being left out in the cold during our site’s launch, we are very pleased to be with Engine Yard now, whose service is really unmatched.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In this game called netrepreneurialism, I want what everyone else wants: to build website smartly, launch the website cleanly, and grow the website into a company successfully and economically.

Monday marks the day I end step one: my company will release a public beta of VentBox, after months of development and testing. I think we’ve done this step smartly.

Monday also marks step 2 and 3: We launch – with a launch strategy – and we aim to grow and solidify our product, hoping to land on wildfire-like success. While we know this will be hard work, we’ve done everything we can to insure this happens.

A major part of this strategy was choosing how to host our website. This post is about why, to make these next two steps work, I’ve decided to launch VentBox on TextDrive Accelerators.

— — — — — — — — Much has been written about why in today’s world agile development and falling infrastructure costs can allow a Digg.com to start with “$200”, or anyone else with even a still reasonable $15,000 (“a business for $15,000?!” most people would exclaim). But regardless of your initial budget, any person planning on launching a serious website (read: with serious plans including plans to execute on a serious level) knows that fables of launching on beer-money-per-month shared hosting is a plan for failure.

Internet users are fundamentally flighty – for this reason you need your start-up site to be super strong, secure and speedy.

So, since I knew I wanted to launch VentBox on super speedy, strong, and secure host, last October I started looking around at all my options. In the über-flexible hosting space, this is what I found:

First to catch my eye was the bling-bling of Amazon’s EC2 (“Elastic Compute Cloud?” I thought, “That sounds amazing! I love elastic – and clouds!”). Then, I distinctly remember this controversial article* on TechCrunch featuring Media Temple’s “new” Grid-Servers., which also got me looking at their Dedicated-Virtual set-up. Meanwhile, I chatted with the folks at RackSpace, and got a great recommendation from Terralien to check out EngineYard. Finally, since I had chosen TextDrive for my basic shared hosting set-up to get started with development and blogging, I looked at their TextDrive Accelerators.

Amazon Web Services’ EC2 Everyone knows EC2, even Wall Street. And perhaps that’s the problem. This service, actually provided by Amazon subsidiary Amazon Web Services, is being marketed as the next big thing for Amazon’s bottom line. As a former IR (investor relations) consultant myself, I know this game well. If people don’t know this already, publicly traded companies have one important client/customer/boss: Wall Street. So, this now infamous article in BusinessWeek, which made claims of selling “excess capacity”, was not a sales pitch to me or other entrepreneurs, it was a sales pitch to investors. So, from the start, I looked at EC2 skeptically, because they spent so many resources on marketing to investors, rather than developing their service.

On a technical side, who cares about the PR stunts? The real question is, “does this service work for me?” I got my beta invite toward the end of November and got my developer looking at the set-up immediately. Indeed, it was a compelling system from a price, power and flexibility standpoint – you could upload an “instance” and then with the flick of an API switch you could start it, stop it, or replicate it. This seemed great, especially considering all this flexibility and power for a metered (read: transparent) and low price. On the reliability front, however, my developer and I ended up unconvinced. Instances were non-persistant, so upon a simple crash (forget something more catastrophic) all data would be lost. Also, perhaps going most against it, documentation was incredibly thin for developers looking to optimize the nascent services.

Honestly, we were disappointed to conclude that EC2 wasn’t quite there. It had potential, and I wanted to be a part of the EC2 movement, but after my research and review, I couldn’t build my company’s launch plans on its early foundations.

Media Temple’s Dedicated Virtual An important thing for us, launching a website written in Ruby on Rails, was to be able to install or use a Mongrel server, however, we were willing to look at other options. Another important thing for us was to have root-access, but if it was near-root access, we were willing to look at those options. Another important thing for us was to operate in true production mode, with at least two servers synchronized and serving the same application, so there would be zero downtime and upgrading would be seamless. Another important thing to us was to pay for a package that was generous with RAM, with storage and transfer capacity less important.

In the end, we knew Media Temple’s solutions looked good, and we knew we could make it work for cheap, but we weren’t sold that they were pushing solutions tailored to us.

RackSpace “Hello, how can I help you?” popped up the little chat box, when I arrived at RackSpace’s homepage. I was never really seriously considering RackSpace (considering the size of my company I knew RackSpace aimed their “FanaticalSupport” spears at bigger fish), but I thought I should give this industry standout a look.

Indeed, after a short live conversation with a sales associate who had no technical experience (i.e. couldn’t explain the technical set-up to me, who needs a lot of explanation), I realized that their cheapest set-up – one server with no support and no add-ons – would fall short for my needs and way too expensive. Well, at least I looked.

EngineYard EngineYard looks like an exciting new company. Is my discussions with development firm “Terralien” out of North Carolina, Nathaniel Talbott recommended I give them a look. Indeed, what I found was exciting: a hosting company solely focuses on providing the best hosting for Ruby on Rails developers and their applications. “That’s me!” I thought.

One thing I loved about EngineYard was their breakdown of what a “Slice” (their unit of VPS) gets you. Their one-price model is simple and convenient. If you buy two slices for production mode, you get all the hardware and support in one package. It’s everything you need, and nothing you don’t.

So what’s going against it? Not much, really. It’s fairly new and while it doesn’t tout a large user-base and thus knowledge-base, I thought it could be overcome by what looked like great support. The real reason I didn’t go with them was because I was “re-introduced” to TextDrive…

TextDrive Accelerators As I said before, I signed up for TextDrive’s shared hosting back in my early days of starting VentBox. The first thing I did was get the VentBox Blog running; then my developer and I started pelting their customer service with special requests to set-up and ideal development mode. Mostly seamlessly, we’ve had VentBox running on TextDrive since the beginning and with Grade A customer support.

Sometime in late December, then, I was getting frustrated with my search for what to upgrade to, and put out a message to the nextNY listserv for hosting recommendations. What I got back was a bunch of great suggestions (many pointing to Media Temple, actually) and then one last comment from Howard Greenstein:

Did you talk with Jason, the CTO at TextDrive? They have some great services there. If you need a direct connection let me know.

Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I should talk to the folks I’m already with. It dawned on me that I hadn’t looked at them because I equated moving up to moving on. Within a few days, I was on the phone with Joyent, Inc. CTO Jason Hoffman (TextDrive in owned by Joyent). Now, surely there are bigger fish to talk to than unproven start-up me, but after an hour long conversation, and after reading their Accelerator Whitepaper and info sheet on Ruby on Rails set-ups, I was pretty much sold.

These guys are not only passionate about hardware and system administration side of things (like EngineYard), they are passionate about Ruby on Rails development. Around the same time as my conversation with Jason, Joyent’s long awaited bundling of their award winning productivity app, the Joyent Connector, with Strongspace (their storage app), and TextDrive came into effect.

Not only did they know system administration inside and out, and know Ruby on Rails development inside and out, they also interconnected these two loves perfectly. After all, they served up these critical applications using the same set-up I would be using. One great example of this synergy is that they can connect your Strongspace to your Accelerator servers, making backing up to a reliable system both seamless and secure. It’s a brilliant set-up for a start-up like mine with most resources going to make my app amazing, and few resources dedicated for system administration.

After all was said and done, Jason walked through the set-up with my developer and I and offered to personally help us switch from our set-up on the shared system to our new set-up. That personal touch, along with what I’m sure will be continued support, will hopefully be a large part of making our plan a success story.

Starting on Monday, here goes nothing, using TextDrive’s Accelerator hosting.

Disclosure: BricaBox, LLC (my company) has no special deal or relationship with Joyent.

—- *More on the TechCrunch disclosure issue: The controversy here was simple. Arrington wrote a rave review of Media Temple (“Media Temple Crushes Shared Hosting” was the headline). In the last paragraph his mentions “as a disclosure” that he hosts with them. Then, he gets reamed in the comments section for not disclosing further. Then, a search of “Media Temple” on TechCrunch reveals several “Thanks to Sponsors” posts (starting the next day!) that reveals that Media Temple is a Sponsor of TechCrunch by way of not charging full price (that’s called in-kind sponsorship, which is no different than an ad).

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