Mullenweg: Open Source Trumps The Cloud

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Using cloud storage from Amazon has helped Automattic scale its fast-growing WordPress.com blog hosting service. But WordPress founding developer Matt Mullenweg said he’d much prefer to run an optimized open source solution on leased servers. While cloud computing is the hot buzzword, Mullenweg said open source is the key to competing in the new digital economy.

“When I have to go to the cloud, I consider that a failure,” said Mullenweg, speaking on a panel at GigaOm’s Structure 09 conference in San Francisco. “The thing that’s been most exciting to me is how the open source tools have evolved.” In particular, Mullenweg cited the significant savings WordPress.com has realized by using the nginx web server for load balancing.

WordPress.com, the hosted version of the open source WordPress blogging software, now runs about 5 million sites serving more than 1 billion page views a month (see the WordPress.com stats page for more). Automattic uses two data center providers, the dedicated hosting specialists ServerBeach (PEER 1) and Layered Technologies.

“The biggest mistake we made with the WordPress.com infrastructure was actually buying servers,” said Mullenweg, who said buying servers was “not a utility. Now we lease then all on a month-to-month basis.”

Mullenweg said the decision to use Amazon’s S3 storage service to host static files was driven by the fact that there wasn’t an open source solution that solved the problems Automattic was facing. “I hope that over time that will develop,” he said. “We should have the option to do it ourselves. Having one provider for that is kind of scary. We’re probably not going to go up the stack (in using other Amazon cloud services). It’s just storage for now.”

Although the Structure 09 conference is focused on the cloud, Mullenweg said the term “doesn’t really mean anything. When you’re talking about it, I’m trying not to laugh.”

But Mullenweg sees the value in content distribution networks. “CDNs are incredibly important,” we loved Netli, but they got acquired by Akamai. Now we’re just using dumb CDN for static files. We’re trying a few people for that. CDNs have become totally commoditized.”

Thirty one percent of WordPress.com blogs are written in languages other than English. But Mullenweg said Automattic will focus on CDNs for delivering international content, rather than actually moving infrastructure overseas. “”We like keeping our servers in the United States because we only have to abide by one set of laws” he said. “They’ve got some crazy laws in other countries.”

For his closing thoughts, Mullenweg circled back to the importance of open source. “My challenge to everyone competing with Amazon, Google and Microsoft is to remember that you’re competing with Amazon, Google and Microsoft,” he said. “These are strong technology companies, and if you’re going to compete with them, open source is the only way to do that. Otherwise, you have no leverage.”

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13 Comments

  1. Pretty sure Akamai acquired netli not Amazon.

  2. Michael D.

    I'm amazed that a mention to Eucalyptus (http://www.eucalyptus.com/) was not made -- especially when they are looking for an Open Sourced alternative to S3...

  3. With Linux + Hadoop, you got a 'cloud' very easily. Subhankar Ray AAfter Search

  4. Phil

    I'm not sure I understand his points...especially about Amazon. With Amazons EC2 service you're basically leasing servers (which he advised) that are simply virtual cloud setups rather than physical systems. You are able to install an open source OS of your choice. Their entire cloud system is built on RHEL to my knowledge. So I'm not sure I understand where using Amazon is not using open source. Its no different than hosting with any traditional service. Now I agree that you can't grow bigger than your competitor by using your competitors software. Thats why I think its silly to see tech companies using MS since they like to compete with everybody on everything. But I'm just not getting the anti-Amazon feelings here.

  5. I don't think there's an either-or between open source and the Cloud. In fact, our customers here at ENKI typically enjoy the benefits of both, and they have a certain synergy: by combining them, you pay only for what you need to run your business. Pay for open source, you ask? Yes, if you're using it in your business and making money from it, why not give something back. If it's not code, then support the developers or their organization. After all, it's responsible for your success! I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if you want to run a professional web service of any sort, you should *never* use leased servers. There. I said it. I can hear the objections coming now, so I'll address them: 1) Leased servers are cheaper than cloud. As a cloud provider, I'll have to agree that the cost of a leased server is cheaper than cloud services for the same amount of CPU. However, the cloud technologies available from many vendors today only allocate what you actually use, which means you need a *lot* less CPU to run your app than you would reserve with leased servers taking into account both growth and peak load. That's good for the earth (less CO2) and you can share the savings with your friendly cloud provider who has the technology and knowledge to bring you the service. All this ignores the other huge cost of leased servers which is the staff required to care for them. Both Wordpress and Digg have spent a lot of money on salaries that wouldn't have been needed if they'd purchased cloud services. 2) Leased Servers are under my control. Well, how much control can you truly exert? Most growing companies and startups can't hire or retain the level of expertise - or develop the level of experience - that a cloud provider can since they're aggregating demand and leveraging economies of scale. That skill and experience is what "controls" the servers to keep them running successfully. At a cloud provider, one well-trained engineer can keep 1000 servers running at 4-nines. Can you? Just being able to see the hardware and turn it on and off doesn't give you control: knowing how to manage it so it stays up and keeps your web site running successfully is the measure of control that you care about! 3) I can arrange leased servers in a way that gets me better performance and reliability than the cloud. Well, if you believe this, then you haven't looked around at all the cloud providers there are out there. Some of them offer virtual private data centers that can out-perform anything a corporate IT department can cook up - because they have the visionaries and engineers to do so. Amazon is NOT the standard against which Cloud should be judged. Amazon has done a great job of making cloud cheap and accessible to programmers. They haven't focused on performance, uptime, manageability, or transparency. You have to look elsewhere for that. I think Matt's comments simply indicate that even the best and brightest in the industry are still confused about what Cloud is and isn't. In my view it is a way to aggregate demand for a data center run under a highly automated virtualization management