Openstack. Open source cloud computing from NASA and Rackspace

Cloud computing has tremendous advantages over traditional methods of website hosting, data storage, and back end database applications. It scales instantly to meet demand, you often are billed only for resources actually used, and data is stored redundantly by default, lessening the chance of loss.

Rackspace and NASA teamed together six months ago to create Openstack, which is open standards, open source cloud software. They now have dozens of high profile companies and organizations participating. Openstack has two segments; Compute which essentially is the operating system, and Storage which handles long-term storage of more static data.

If there are other open source cloud projects, why start a new one?

We’ve been eagerly watching these projects emerge, but unfortunately weve found most of them incapable of dealing with the tremendous scale we require. (Rackspace serves over 100,000 customers and is the second largest public cloud provider.)

The one exception we found was the code that powers NASAs Nebula cloud. Rackspace and NASA share similar problems, including the need to manage huge datasets and thousands of instances of compute. With similar philosophies about cloud architecture and open source software, it was an easy decision to combine our projects into one new effort, now called OpenStack.

Rackspace thinks Openstack could be the next Linux. They may well be right. This is a genuinely exciting and welcome project. Open source like Apache, MySQL, and PHP already runs most of the net. With Openstack, open source will now run the cloud. Good.

Cloud website hosting. Why it matters

So, your website is humming along getting 1,000 hits a day on a shared hosting server when Boing Boing links to you. Suddenly you’re getting 5,000 hits an hour. Fantastic, you think. But wait, the site is really sluggish and you can’t even post to it. Then your web host sends you a grumpy email saying you’ve exceeded your bandwidth limits and has temporarily suspended your account. Oh no! All those wonderful incoming hits will never see your website. Aargh.

This can and does happen often on traditional shared hosting websites. But with cloud website hosting, the system automatically scales to meet big traffic spikes. Your website stays up and responds snappily to all that wonderful incoming traffic from Boing Boing. Your AdSense revenue for the day is 10x the normal amount. W00t!

With traditional web hosting, most of the time you will have a shared hosting account. Your website is installed on a server with dozens, maybe hundreds of other websites. That big spike in traffic from Boing Boing slows down all the sites on the server, not just yours. The web host really has no choice, they have to suspend your site so the other sites can return to functioning normally.

The next step up from that is a dedicated server. It’s yours, and no one else is on it. But as with shared hosting, traffic spikes can slow it down. Plus, it’s just one server and one hard disk. If equipment malfunctions, your website is down.

Cloud hosting has redundant hard disks and computers. It spreads the software and data around into, well, a cloud. If one piece of equipment fails, the system simply routes around it. If suddenly there are 500 simultaneous users on the site and not the normal 5, the cloud simply makes more computing cycles and bandwidth available. Your website stays up.

Politics in the Zeros is hosted by Laughing Squid, who hosts everything in the Rackspace Cloud. I’ve used multiple hosts in the past and Rackspace has absolutely been the most reliable. I can’t remember when there’s been downtime. (Laughing Squid has excellent tech support and provides web hosting for the smaller accounts that Rackspace doesn’t handle.) If Polizeros gets a huge traffic spike, the cloud simply allocate more resources to meet the load. I might go into a higher pricing tier (the tiers are in $4 a month increments) but hey, that’s about the price of a frappuccino at Starbucks.

If your websites aren’t already in the cloud, you might consider doing so. The advantages are obvious and many.

Polizeros caching software change

Warning: The post is deeply geeky.

Polizeros is now running W3 Total Cache. You may notice the site is loading faster. (There were a few hiccups earlier in the day while installing it but those have been resolved.)

Caching software makes copies of frequently used pages, like the Home Page, then serves them up to those browsing the site. So, rather than WordPress having to load the php page, pull data from the database, then render the page, it simply uses the cached copy. This greatly cuts down on server usage and load, especially when you have hundreds of simultaneous users.

I switched caching software at the recommendation of Laughing Squid, our hosting company. Polizeros was bumping up against a compute cycles limit, which is the amount of processor time being used. They analyzed the site and said W3 is more powerful than the cache I was using and should help.

They may have a funny name, but Laughing Squid is the best host I’ve used. They host everything in the Rackspace Cloud. I can’t remember having downtime, and their tech support is superb. After some weird glitches trying to install W3 – which turned out to be a PHP memory limit issue – I emailed them and they did it for me.

Even better, if Polizeros does exceed the limits for the account, they simply upgrade the site in $4 a month increments so everything keeps going rather than blocking the site as some hosts do. That’s a big advantage of cloud computing. It scales as needed. Rackspace doesn’t do hosting for small sites per se, so that’s why I use Laughing Squid.

Big thanks to Jamie Holly at Intoxination for advice and help. If you ever get a 500 Server Error on your site or blog, check your .htaccess file, because that’s probably where the problem is. And make sure all remnants of the old cache are gone before installing the new one, otherwise a festive and alarming set of error messages may ensue.