Oakley Studio is experiencing growing pains. Here’s an update.

I’m always pleased when any of my client’s web sites “graduate” to a higher level of hosting. Sustained increases in traffic to your site indicate you’ve attracted more readership, that your marketing efforts are paying off, that other web sites are linking to yours, and you are getting good ranking at the big search sites like Google, Yahoo and Bing.

It usually means you’re doing everything right, and more people want to visit your site and see what you have to offer.

When that happens, you’ll get an upbeat Congratulations! email from me, and the following month you’ll be paying a few bucks more for the next higher level of web hosting service. Hopefully that additional attention from the world at large is translating into more business, sales, signups, and generally good buzz. Really, congratulations!

MacOS Mini ServerYou deserve to be pleased when that happens.

Mac Mini Servers

When enough of you are experiencing steady increases in traffic, I need to ensure that the infrastructure is in place and ready to handle it.

As your webmaster I wear a number of hats — graphic designer, photographer, producer, database and systems manager, consultant and coach, computer repair and maintenance technician, and more. However my first priority is to provide the infrastructure that makes sustained increases in traffic possible. The two technical components of that infrastructure are:

  1. A powerful and dependable web server, and
  2. A big always-on conduit to the internet.

Sounds simple, but a lot goes into operating a business to provide powerful dependable always-on web hosting.

We’re all benefiting from the increasing capabilities of small but powerful personal computers designed specifically for web hosting.

In the fall of 2010 I upgraded server hardware. Prior to that upgrade, traffic to all sites (at the busiest times of the year) was driving the web server computer’s central processor to higher and higher levels, approaching 100%. I believe there were a few days in late 2009 when the ability of the server to handle the traffic load was being pushed to the max. That’s what led me to purchase two dual-processor Mac Mini OS X Servers in 2010. (One as the main web server, the other as a backup.) Much smaller than their predecessors, these Mac Mini servers use less electricity and run cooler while delivering much more processing power.

(Yep, that’s the Mac Mini OX Server pictured above. It’s a 1 Terabyte server with two 500GB hard drives mirrored for redundancy, a 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and 4GB of DDR3 RAM, for those of you who like details.) 

Since then, our Oakley Studio web server has hardly broken a sweat as it delivers more and more web pages to more and more visitors. It’s rarely pushing past 20% of available processing power.

A Bigger Pipe

I have no worries that the hardware is capable of handling ongoing increases in traffic over the next two to three years or more.

The other infrastructure component is our big conduit connecting the server to the Internet. For the past two years the way-faster web server has alleviated the need for a bigger “pipe.” But my growing business has been adding a few new clients each year, and some of those client web sites are handily outpacing their year-over-year traffic. (Again, congratulations!)

I’ve kept an eye on total bandwidth, and have had ongoing conversations with my Business Internet Service provider about the options available should I need a bigger pipe. The next step up would be a T1 line. But over the past two years the cost of a T1 has not come down in price, and it is prohibitively expensive for my small business.

Reaching Saturation

Then last week the unthinkable happened — the usual summer increase in traffic was larger than usual. On Thursday I began to notice occasional slowdowns on the Oakley Studio home-office network. Inbound traffic was slowing down. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. So I opened a service ticket with my ISP to investigate and see if a network router somewhere was beginning to fail. They reported back a couple hours later with surprising news — outbound data was nearly overwhelming my connection. The big pipe was no longer big enough!

The technical term is “saturation,” and it essentially means my web server was trying to shove too many web pages all at once out through that connection to the internet.

I did some calculations the following morning, and found it hard to believe that all our web sites were conspiring to fill the pipe. Turns out this is not easy to predict. Internet traffic is not a steady flow. It comes in bursts. (Imagine lots of people across the country and around the world; they’ve just finished watching the latest episode of their favorite TV show, and now they hit the Internet, all at once. And some of them are visiting your web site! ) Those momentary bursts of traffic were saturating the line.

There’s actually more going on besides just filling the pipe. Once the pipe is full, everything slows down, like traffic at rush hour. Web page data consists of lots of packets, and as the packets slow down, the requesting browsers say, “Hey, we’re missing something!” and they send a repeat request. So now the same packets are having to be sent multiple times to try and address the repeat requests. Suddenly slow web traffic becomes a huge spike of data as more and more requests flood in with resend requests for packets. It happens abruptly and unpredictably. It also subsides rapidly, only to happen again when the pipe is near it’s saturation point. It’s not a problem that just goes away.

A few more calls to my ISP to see what my options were. Not good. They were frankly uncertain whether they could actually provide T1 service to my local home-office neighborhood. So on Friday I began checking into other options. If I couldn’t bring a bigger pipe to Oakley Studio, I would have to bring Oakley Studio to a bigger pipe.

Or at least get the web server there.

The Colocation Solution

Long and short of it is that the Oakley Studio web server is moving. Tomorrow.

I’ve been hosting web and email service from a server room right here in Goshen, Indiana for nearly 12 years. Oakley Studio was one of the first sites in Goshen to get Business SDSL service, back when the local phone company was GTE. (Yes, before it became Verizon, and way before it became Frontier.) GTE was starting to roll out “high-speed internet” to homes across the nation. South Bend was a test site, and when DSL went commercial, Goshen was among the first places to get it. That seems like such a long time ago. (It was around the year 2000, as I recall.)

Prior to that, my web server was housed at my ISP in Bellevue, Washington. That was the only way to get a fast reliable internet connection in the days when the web was just coming of age and modems were the way to get connected. “Colocation” is the term that describes a business web server located at another facility. These days colocation is a specialty service, and for an all-Mac business like mine there are several options to choose from.

The web server could be housed in California, or in Georgia, or in Wisconsin, among other places.

Last Friday I was on the phone with a couple of these businesses, and checking out the web sites of several more. It turns out I can ship my web server to a large data center where it will have access to all the bandwidth my business will ever need, with redundant connections, air conditioning, and technicians on hand should anything require emergency servicing.

And to my surprise, such an option will actually save my business some money while dramatically increasing the bandwidth available to my web server. And these places love Macs. Turns out the Mac Mini OS X Server is popular enough that businesses are springing up to support it.

I’ve selected Mac Mini Vault, about 20 minutes from downtown Milwaukee WI, to be the new home for our Oakley Studio web server.

Early tomorrow I’ll be driving to Milwaukee to meet a systems analyst there and get my backup server placed in a special cabinet with lots of other servers, in a very secure data center with all the bandwidth my business will ever need. (I guess I said that already, didn’t I.)

Can you tell I’m excited? It’s been 12 years since I last colocated my server, and a lot has changed over the years. But I wasn’t paying much attention because I always expected to be hosting my web and email servers right here at my own home-office.

This feels like a paradigm shift happening, and sometimes paradigm shifts can be hard to assimilate. But I have to say this has me more excited about my business than I’ve been in a long time.

So the backup web server will be placed tomorrow, Wednesday July 25th, and it will become the primary web server. The existing server stays here in my home-office server room, but I will immediately begin to migrate hosting service to the colocated server. By next week all sites should be moved. If you happen to be watching your site over the next several days, you may not notice any downtime. But there will be a minimum of five minutes of downtime, and possibly as much as several hours, depending on how well I manage the transition. Some client sites are connected to a database, and those sites will all need to be moved at the same time, once the database is moved.

Watch the Oakley Studio Weblog here for updates on how the process is going. If you have questions or concerns, please call or email me. As always, I am happy you’ve entrusted your web site hosting to Oakley Studio and I intend to earn your trust by working hard here every day to provide the best service possible, so your web site traffic can continue to grow. Growing pains. Challenging, yes. But solvable, in a way that gives every Oakley Studio web site plenty of room to stretch and embrace the world. Here we go!

 

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Your web site’s traffic is measured in several ways — unique visitors, number of visits, number of page views, and bandwidth usage. Specifically hosting levels are determined by the average amount of data (bandwidth) sent out daily by your web site. Any web site can experience unusual spikes in traffic, but it’s the sustained average daily data rate that determines your hosting level.