Hosting DecisionsWhere do you fit on this scale?

Sysadmin -> DBA -> Backend Programmer -> Frontend Programmer -> Designer

I have a range in the middle, but lack on each end of the spectrum. So when it comes to setting up a hosting server, I’d rather turn it over to someone more experienced in the sysadmin realm. But, when bootstrapping a startup, you find yourself becoming a jack of all trades (and master of none).

I’ve been in the process of re-writing Inzolo and re-launching as Envelope Budget. It recently came time to launch (ready or not). I spent way more time than I intended setting up a hosting account. I have been hosting Inzolo on Webfaction since its inception. Overall I’ve been quite pleased. I don’t really have any performance or downtime issues that I can remember, Webfaction has a nice interface to set up everything I need. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised in how it has met my needs.

I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Heroku though. And so, I thought I’d try deploying there before I went live. First of all, let me explain my stack. EnvelopeBudget.com is written in Django and I’m using PostgreSQL as my database. I’m making use of johnny-cache and using Memcached to speed up the site a bit. I wrote a utility to import Inzolo accounts into Envelope Budget and found that I finally had a real need for asynchronous processing, so I implemented Celery and RabbitMQ to process the import and return status updates to the browser.

I was impressed after doing the Getting Started with Django tutorial on Heroku. What kind of magic is this? So I attempted to get my EnvelopeBudget stack up and running next. I modified my django project structure to be more Heroku friendly. I probably spend a good 8 hours leaning how Heroku makes deployment so simple though it never really seemed simple. I got it up and running but in the end I decided it wasn’t for me (at least for this project) mainly due to the price. Minimally it would cost me $55 per month because I needed two dynos (one web and one worker), and the SSL add-on. Seriously, why do they charge $20 per month to use SSL? SSL set up is free on the other 3 hosting plans I’m reviewing here. That was probably the biggest deal breaker. Also, this price was for using the dev PostgreSQL add-on which wouldn’t last long. Soon I’d need to upgrade to the Basic ($9/mo) or Crane ($50/mo) package. So, now my hosting was looking more like $105 per month. On top of that, you deploy by pushing to git (‘git push heroku master’). This is cool, but it seemed to take forever each time. It was annoying since I had to keep committing and pushing to troubleshoot problems. Deploying with fabric is much faster for me on the other three servers. Time to move on.

So at this point I’ve decided I’ll just go back to Webfaction. As I’m riding the train home from work and reading through my twitter feed I come across a link to a Complete Single Server Django Stack Tutorial. I read through it and it suddenly didn’t seem so scary setting my up own server. I’ve don’t pretty much all of this before on my own development environment. So, I go to the best place I know to spin up a new server fast – Linode. It probably took me about 2 hours to get everything up and running. I took copious notes along the way though. After getting it to work on the 512 plan ($20 per month), I destroyed that linode and set it up again on a 1 GB plan ($40/month). It took about 40 minute the second time (setting it up twice was faster than figuring out Heroku). I was surprised at how much faster the performance was on Linode. Webfaction & Heroku felt about the same, but Linode felt significantly faster.

After getting it all set up I got a tweet from a friend recommending I try out DigitalOcean while I’m at it. After looking at the prices and specs, I could get a 1 GB server for half the price and it had an SSD to make it faster – but only one core instead of 4. I took the time to set it up. The process was pretty much the same as with Linode. It only took about 30 minutes this time. Overall the site felt slower than Linode though. I’m guessing it was due to having only one core and because I’m located in Utah, my Linode was in Texas and DigitalOcean is New York. Still, installing packages seemed to take a lot longer so I’m thinking it was their data center’s internet speed that was source of slower speeds. Sorry, I don’t have any benchmarks so I can’t really give real numbers. One thing that really impressed me though was the reboot time of the server. It seemed about 5 times faster than my linode likely due to the SSD.

So, now it was time to make a choice. I had a launch counter ticking down on my homepage and I had to decide NOW. I had already spent 3 days making a decision. I finally decided to go with Webfaction’s 1 GB plan which is $40 per month (or $30 per month if paid yearly). I like the idea of having a managed plan. The biggest downside for me is that I don’t have root or sudo access. They don’t use virtualenv for their application setup and setting up projects is a bit kludgy felling because of it. Also, setting up Celery & RabbitMQ doesn’t feel as painless, but I managed it thanks to Mark Liu’s tutorial. I know there is a way to use virtualenv and gunicorn on Webfaction, but I doubt I’ll take the time to set my project up that way.

There was a snag though. I had originally set up my account on their most basic account with only has 256 MB of RAM. My site was already killed for running 2x that amount. I needed to upgrade ASAP but I need someone there to set up the new account and migrate my existing account. So I actually ended up launching on Linode. The site is up now and hosting performance is great, but I will likely move back to Webfaction because I soon started to realize there is always something else to set up. I have a git repo, a Trac system, email, & FTP already set up on Webfaction. I would likely want to put a WordPress blog at /blog. All of this is so easy with Webfaction and its more I have to research to do all of this on Linode.

TL;DR

So here is my tl;dr version in alphabetical order:

DigitalOcean: I love their pricing. For as little as $5 per month I can spin up a linux server. This would be great for a ZNC IRC bouncer for example. They seem fairly new still so time will tell how they compete with Linode. Their internet connection seemed a bit slow, but for root access to a server, it can be overlooked.

Heroku: If I were a hipster I’d bite the bullet and host here to get in with the cool crowd. Overall it was just too expensive for a bootstrapped startup project. The biggest benefit I see with Heroku is the ability to scale fast, both forwards and backwards when you need to. Scaling is a good problem to have. If I get to that that point, money won’t be an issue and I will revisit Heroku. I would probably also use it if I built a very small site where the specs fit within their free model or if I was in the middle of a hack-a-thon and needed to get online fast.

Linode: This seems to be the standard for spinning up your own dedicated server with root access. If I root access, performance and a history of good support, I’ll go here.

Webfaction: I’ve been around the block and learned that the grass is not really greener on the other side. Although I don’t have root access and it’s hosted on CentOS rather than Debian/Ubuntu which I’m more familiar with, it has so many features for making it easy to set up email, multiple domains, SSL, different types of apps (Django + PHP + Ruby on Rails anyone?), Trac, Git, etc. The price is competitive, the support is good, the uptime and performance is good – I haven’t found sufficient reason to leave.

UPDATE

After doing a number of installs at work I got more comfortable with deploying on gunicorn & nginx, so I ended up switching to DigitalOcean. This is where EnvelopeBudget.com is currently hosted. The main reason I left Webfaction was that I needed to update my SSL certificate ASAP and there is a slight lag time with Webfaction because you have to submit a ticket to complete your SSL setup.

Reasons for leaving Webfaction:

  • Total control of SSL setup
  • Performance – I wanted SD drives
  • Price – more computing power for the price
  • Virtualenv – Upgrading is a lot easier when using virtualenv

Things to consider before leaving Webfaction

  • Webfaction comes with email. I’m now using Zoho for free email.
  • Easier to configure – It took a while to figure out how to run WordPress on /blog with nginx. Also, I had to learn the whole process of configuring an SSL certificate.
  • I didn’t bother migrating Trac. Webfaction had a nice one click installer. I’ve moved to YouTrack instead.
  • There are a number of other one-click install solutions available on Webfaction. Be sure you know what you are leaving.