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21 Jan 2006

by Noel

Untyped hosting?

In chatting with Nick about hosting, I began to realize how complex the ISP game can be. These are some thoughts, all provide starting points for further brainstorming and discussion.

We’re building our new machine for ourselves, make no mistake. We took this route because it looked cost effective for the needs we had for ourselves. However, we can, in theory, provide services to others as well—as our server is more than capable of supporting more than just untyped.

But what services would we offer, and at what cost?

We currently run Apache, Exim/Courier, Postgres and MySQL, Subversion… in general, a full assortment of services that users might want to make use of. Through judicious use of LDAP, we’re hoping to expose some of these services (email, WWW) without needing to provide full (shell) accounts on the server. Likewise, we’re planning and building scripts to automate many of our maintenance tasks on the machine; we’re stopping short of CPanel, however.

So if we have the means to support other users, why would I be hesitant? Because we are not an ISP. We are people who enjoy making software. Our machine is like our workbench—it provides the essential services we need to make that software. Therefore, we have no interest in trying to compete with your run-of-the-mill ISPs… you can get a $5/month web account anywhere. So what kind of hosting will we provide?

At the least, I imagine we might offer hosting for “odd” servers and languages. By “odd”, I mean “anything not Apache.” For example, we know that there might be some interest in the PLT Scheme; likewise, I imagine that allowing servers written in Erlang may be of interest as well. Beyond that… how much bandwidth can someone expect to get hosting with us? Do we provide backup services? What kind of quota does a user’s account come with? What kind of response time to user requests are we going to try and make good on?

Bandwidth

We will probably have 50GB of traffic per month in our colo agreement. We will be charged beyond that as per Bytemark’s policies. Therefore, I could simply pass on costs to clients. Really, though, we’re not prepared to deal with the administrative overhead of billing clients for bandwidth, etc.; we’ll barely be in a position to administer billing for basic services. Again, we’re back to the mantra “we are not an ISP.”

We’ll have bandwidth accounting in place; how you charge for bandwidth, I don’t know. Just having to administer this takes time, and time is money (“We are not an ISP…”). Perhaps there’s a simple way to handle this… perhaps not. I need to think more on this one; insights are welcome.

Backup

Backup is expensive. It takes careful scripting on the host, regular movement of data from the server to a remote site (see “Bandwidth,” above), and it takes time to archive that to some kind of storage media. I don’t have a tape jukebox anywhere near the server, nor can I afford one (“We are not an ISP” ). Therefore, backup is an issue of me having a second machine that runs a cron job, and regularly pulls backups off the server. Then, I’ll have to manually burn DVDs and/or make digital tapes archives of that data. There are time and media costs involved in this that are non-trivial.

Backup is something that typically is not offered with a shell account, period. Taking a look at Mythic Beasts, their shell accounts start at £15 per quarter, they offer 200MB of disk space, and there is no mention of backup. I found some backup services while investigating storage (below), and they charge a lot per month for 1GB of backup (£25). This says to me that most hosting facilities assume the following:

  • You backup your own data
  • If the server dies, you’re on your own

I’m not committed to either route at this point, but it’s clear that I should charge money for backup services. I’m willing to spend my time to guarantee my own data’s safety, but I’m not willing to do that for others, for free.

Storage

What kind of quotas should we provide users? What can I get shopping around the internet?

 

 

Site Capacity Monthly
storegate.com 50MB £1.50
box.net 1GB £1.70
box.net 5GB £4.50
storegate.com 1GB £5.00
xdrive.com 5GB £5.60
ibackup.com 5GB £5.60
www.datafort.co.uk 1GB (compressed) £25

 

 

Epinions has more commentary on online storage than I care to duplicate here. I myself have a 1GB Box.net account, and am quite pleased with it—their pricing is competitive, and the interface to the site, as well as features (instant photo albums, passwords, RSS feeds) are great.

Point being? If I’m going to offer space, I have to charge at least £1.75/GB; and since we’re not really in this market space to compete, I’d probably have to charge more than that (due to the administrative overheads, and limited resources on our own machine). Furthermore, that’s assuming it’s a gigabyte of unarchived storage. It looks like sites that actually offer backup of a gigabyte of data charge around £25/month for a gigabyte of content that gets archived monthly. This doesn’t surprise me in the least—offering security is an expensive proposition, both in terms of tools and in terms of time.

Again, comparing, Mythic Beasts charge £30 per month for a “developer” account with 1GB of disk (no backup). The reality is (because we’re not an ISP), we only have one server, with limited disk space. I can resell storage from Bytemark, which eases the stress on my own disks… but as can be seen, having active disk space that you can serve out to the world costs money.

Administration

All these services take time to administer. Yes, we have to do it for ourselves… but it’s another thing entirely to have customers who want guarantees, and support when things go wrong (regardless of whether it is at our end or their end). What does administration cost? I can look at other ISPs and see what they charge for adding a subdomain, or configuring databases, or any of a host of things… and I don’t want to get trapped in a situation where we offer to do these things “for free,” and end up playing sysadmin to a bunch of customers without any recompense.

Again, this is a tough one.

In Conclusion… or, something like that

This isn’t necessarily the kind of laundry a small business should air in public. Typically, this is the kind of uncertainty that would be kept private, resolved off-line, and then published to the world as policy. However, these are probably the kind of questions that others have wrestled with in their time, and it’s possible someone who reads untyping may have some insights into these issues that we don’t have. Given that we only have one machine (“We are not an ISP”), it may be that we should avoid hosting altogether. Or perhaps we can come up with some reasonable terms of service and pricing structures that reflect the quality and nature of services we will offer. Who knows? Either way, they’re challenging questions.

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