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DrupalCon on a shoestring budget

Last year’s announcement that DrupalCon would come right in front of our doorstep made it clear that a special marketing budget and a lot of preparation lay ahead of us. Sure enough, DrupalCon Dublin was quite a challenge for me as the only freistiler wearing a marketing hat. In this post, I’m going to tell you how I managed to create quite a buzz about freistilbox at minimal cost.

Jochen arriving at DrupalCon Dublin

Drupal Frugal

Like many bootstrapped companies, we don’t have a big marketing budget. How could we make the best of the most important Drupal conference in Europe without breaking the bank?

We’re also a tiny team. Putting our daily business on hold during a conference isn’t really an option because our daily business is taking great care of our customers.

Well, constraints are the mother of creativity!

Representin’

One of the best ways of keeping DrupalCon expenses low is to give a talk. (It’s also a great way of showcasing your expertise and giving back to the community.) I made the mistake of not putting enough effort into my talk proposals, so I didn’t get a session slot. (Building Resilience in IT Teams got added to the DevOps Summit, which unfortunately had to be canceled.) That left me with the option of a sponsorship that comes with a stand in the Exhibit Hall.

How does such a stand even work? Many times at expos and tradeshows over the last two decades, I witnessed how people would arrive at a vendor’s stand to be greeted by a well-dressed sales person who’d accompany them to a VIP area where they would discuss a common future. Well, for the reasons mentioned above, I couldn’t see us pull this off any time soon. But reading through the sponsorship prospectus for the third time, the Drupal Village plan caught my eye, offering us an affordable option to support the Drupal community and have a small presence for a single day. I decided to use DrupalCon Dublin for an experiment and got us a stand for Tuesday.

When the Irish Drupal Association approached us if we would sponsor their Welcome Party on Tuesday, I made a spontaneous decision to stretch our marketing budget a bit. It seemed like a win-win deal — more financial security for the Irish community team, more exposure for freistilbox.

Taking a stand

With regard to stand decoration, we already had a pop-up banner but I also wanted to have a digital display. With hundreds of servers at my fingertips every day, I never felt inclined to get my hands on a Raspberry Pi, so this was the perfect opportunity to try these tiny Linux machines. Add a cheap TV and a set of slides — project digital signage sorted!

The freistilbox stand at DrupalCon Dublin 2016

Thinking outside the conference

Compared to our competition, this was still less than par for the course. How could we create a bit of a buzz for freistilbox within all the noise? Remembering the fun I had throwing a party at the Drupal Developer Days in Szeged, I decided to give that another go. With the advantage of knowing the local pub scene, I reserved the top floor at JW Sweetman Craft Beer Brewery. I got free drink vouchers printed and started spreading the word. Keeping the venue a secret until right before the event also proved to be an effective tactic.

Having the craic at the freistilbox Happy Hour

What did we get out of it?

Up until this DrupalCon, I thought that having a stand only made sense for bigger companies. I could not have been more wrong. First of all, it was a great way to raise brand awareness for freistilbox. While growing our customer base mainly by word of mouth creates a lot of trust up front, it lets us reach only a fraction of our market. After DrupalCon, there are now a lot more people in the world who know of a great alternative for managed Drupal hosting. Dublin also was the perfect place for me to learn that exhibiting is just about having the craic — talking about whatever topic comes up.

Final tally:

  • I got to attend a great conference!
  • We had a stand!
  • We supported a party!
  • We threw our very own party!

And all this cost us about 3000€.

DrupalCon Dublin was an experiment and I enjoyed every single bit of it. The experience actually has shaped my decision to hop on my first transatlantic flight in April next year. Watch out, Baltimore!

Managed hosting for any demand

Dublin, 27 September 2016 — freistil IT Ltd is pleased to announce the launch of three new product tiers for freistilbox, their managed hosting platform for Drupal and WordPress websites. With these new tiers, the Dublin-based IT services company expands its high-performance web hosting options to cater to any size of website, from small business to global brand.

Same power, less complexity

For more than six years now, freistil IT provides specialised web hosting services with the purpose of helping web development shops focus on their core business. It was both internal and customer feedback that led freistil IT to launch a simplified product lineup at DrupalCon, the biggest conference for Drupal users in Europe.

While our previous ’T-shirt sizes’ met most common demands, we encountered edge cases where we previously haven’t quite been able to offer an economic solution., explains Jochen Lillich, founder and managing director of freistil IT. This was especially true at the ends of the spectrum where customers have either fairly low requirements or pretty high ones. Now, customers can simply select one of three base setups depending on the type of their projects.

Capacity on demand

The new middle tier of freistilbox is based on a distributed hosting infrastructure that allows for both scalability and high availability. Named freistilbox Pro, this product is optimised for web developers who manage multiple projects. It is similar to the previous product line but drops the S-to-XL levels in favour of simple capacity upgrades.

Lillich comments the reasoning behind this change frankly: I think that the T-shirt sizes created too much complexity on both sides, especially where customers used a ‘mix & match’ approach. We have users who grew their setup over time to something like 'L+L+M+S’; on the other hand, a few of our customers might not even know they could do that. With freistilbox Pro, all customers start from the same base setup and simply add things like storage capacity or request processing units on demand. And since redundancy is now built in by default, there’s no need anymore for doubling a plan just to make the setup more reliable.

Hosting at scale

A new high-end plan is geared towards business-critical websites with millions of visits per month. freistilbox Enterprise uses the same distributed software infrastructure as the Pro tier but runs it on dedicated physical servers and includes an enterprise-grade service level agreement.

A lot of high-traffic websites such as the Rolling Stone Magazine or Doctors Without Borders depend on freistilbox to deliver their content reliably to a huge audience, Lillich says. In order to meet their growing demands, we often built custom setups like '3x XL plus dedicated database cluster’. And still we encountered occasional performance bottlenecks. With freistilbox Enterprise, we eliminate the risk of resource contention by providing customers with a fully dedicated IT infrastructure on physical servers. As a side effect, this isolation also has positive effects on security.

Flat-rate billing

What distinguishes freistilbox from the competition is that both the Pro and Enterprise tiers are not billed per website or by number of incoming requests. Customers are free to set up as many websites as they like, at no additional cost. Lillich regards this approach as the most economic for both sides: We provide a managed hosting platform with a certain capacity. It’s completely up to the customer if they use their hosting power to run a single web application or if they share it between thirty websites.

New solution for small projects

With the previous hosting plans, this argument fell apart when a customer actually had only a single website to run. Due to the high entry price, some customers looking for a simple but powerful hosting solution found freistilbox appealing from a technological perspective but simply not affordable.

It may have taken us some time to respond to that particular demand but that’s exactly why we’re launching freistilbox Solo today, Lillich admits with a smile. This hosting plan offers customers similar technology as its siblings but is limited to a single production website and 3 staging environments for development. At a monthly fee of 49€, it is priced at less than half of the former entry-level plan.

DevOps instead of tickets

The hosting infrastructure for all three plans is purpose-built for Drupal and WordPress. Each plan comes with all the services required by high-performance web applications, for example a Varnish content cache, SSL encryption, an Elasticsearch indexing engine and a Redis database for storing internal application state. The whole system is fully configured and managed by the freistilbox operations team.

I don’t doubt that web developers have the skills to do their own hosting, states Lillich. But building amazing websites is hard when you spend your nights resolving server issues. Our managed hosting platform offers a better alternative: While we take care of all the operations aspects, our customers can work efficiently and sleep peacefully.

Modern DevOps practices are central to how the freistilbox team works with their customers. Keeping the dreaded support ticket only as a last resort, the freistilbox team prefers a casual chat with their customers via services like Slack and Intercom. I’m proud of how our distributed team culture reflects in our customer relationships, says Lillich. In modern IT we have left the dark ages behind us where development and operations worked in their separate silos and viewed the other as either an enemy of progress or a threat to uptime. We love to cooperate with our customers day by day, answering questions, resolving performance issues and recommending ways to get the most out of our hosting platform.

Starting today, freistilbox Solo is available at a monthly fee of 49€, freistilbox Pro starts at 159€ per month, and freistilbox Enterprise has an entry price of 1800€. For details see www.freistilbox.com.


About freistil IT

Founded in 2010, freistil IT delivers high-performance web hosting solutions for leading open-source content management systems Drupal and WordPress. With their product freistilbox, the Dublin-based company provides customers with a fully managed, scalable and reliable hosting platform. A distributed team of web ops experts guarantees that business-critical websites hosted on freistilbox operate at optimum performance and availability.

Hey DrupalCon, drinks are on us!

Alright, we’ve booked the party venue, got the drink vouchers printed — now all that’s left is for you to show up!

If you are attending DrupalCon Dublin, we’d love to meet you at the freistilbox Happy Hour on Wednesday night! And where else would we celebrate DrupalCon in Ireland and the launch of our new Drupal hosting plans than at one of Dublin’s finest pubs? Join us for some great craic — first few rounds will be on us!

There’s limited space, so we’re keeping the venue a secret until right before the party. Make sure to sign up early to get our invitation email!

It might also be worth a try to chat with Jochen at the freistilbox booth on Tuesday (only!). Maybe you’ll be able to tease something out of him ahead of time?

(Image ‘Alluring glow’ by Brendan Atkins)

Speed up asset delivery with the freistilbox CDN

A recent unrepresentative study among our customers revealed that there is no such thing as too much performance for Drupal and WordPress websites. 😄 So we did a bit of brainstorming about what we could do to enhance website performance on our managed hosting platform even more. The feature we found is: boosting your website’s asset delivery.

Our Varnish-based Content Cache is already increasing content delivery speed for Drupal and WordPress websites significantly. But especially with asset-heavy websites, its limited RAM capacity can lead to low cache efficiency. For example, if visitor traffic is distributed over lots of pages containing high-res photos, the cache reuse ratio will not reach the same impressive levels that we see with websites that have only a few hot spots at any time (e.g. start page and the latest blog post). Increasing Varnish cache size might help for a while but because of diminishing returns increasing cache memory will not be a cost-effective solution in the long term.

That’s why we’re adding a new optional feature to freistilbox: the freistilbox CDN.

To be honest, at the moment it’s not so much a Content Delivery Network but a few Content Delivery Nodes. We’re launching this feature on a limited number of servers in our European data centres. Later, we’re going to expand this service to a real CDN by adding content delivery nodes at key locations all over the globe.

Before we enter the global stage, we’d like to give this new feature a thorough burn-in test. That’s why we decided to run a free beta for a limited time. If you’d like to see how your Drupal or WordPress website can benefit from the freistilbox CDN, get in touch! We’ll let you test drive the freistilbox CDN option for eight weeks at no additional cost. Simply send us a support request from the Dashboard page of your website!

(Image ‘courier’ by Sean Jackson)

freistilbox now with free DDoS protection

Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks are a serious threat to the availability of websites and web applications. Malicious parties use these attacks to overload the bandwidth and capacity of a website’s hosting infrastructure with data packets. Most often, this traffic originates from lots of compromised computers, so-called bot nets. The result is that reaching the target website becomes very slow or even impossible. For all practical purposes, the website will be offline for the duration of the attack.

With bot nets being offered for lease commercially at extremely low prices, DDoS attacks have become more prevalent recently. They’ve almost become a fun sport.

Unfortunately, things aren’t as trivial on the receiving end. Since it does not originate from a single address but from an always changing set of machines, separating malicious traffic from valid requests requires sophisticated network technology and lots of bandwidth.

We’re happy to announce that Drupal and WordPress websites hosted on freistilbox are now protected by an Anti-DDoS system based on specialised hardware from Arbor und Juniper. This system mitigates attacks effectively in multiple stages:

  1. Automatic detection and classification of attacks — By measuring traffic volume and packet flow, first the type of attack is identified precisely. This allows the DDoS protection system to choose the most effective measures to mitigate the attack. For example, while a UDP flood with 500,000 packets per second is quite harmless, 500,000 TCP packets could cause problems. That’s why classification is an important first step.
  2. Traffic filtering based on known attack patterns — In this stage, common attack patterns are filtered efficiently by dropping packets early in an upstream filtering network. This mitigates attacks like DNS reflection, NTP reflection or UDP floods on port 80.
  3. Challenge/response authentication and dynamic traffic filtering — This stage mitigates attacks such as SYN floods, DNS floods and invalid packets.

This DDoS protection technology allows a flexible and reliable response to each type of attack as well as a high degree of automation. By refining the filter algorithms with each attack, the effectiveness of the DDoS protection system is improved continually. The new DDoS protection system is active all the time; in case an attack is detected, the filter kicks in within seconds and starts to mitigate the attack. Thanks to a dynamic adaptation algorithm, legitimate website traffic will normally not be affected by the protection system.

Keeping your website available and secure is our top priority. That’s why we make this DDoS protection available to all freistilbox customers free of charge. It’s just another element in our service mantra:

Work efficiently. Sleep peacefully.

Interested in what freistilbox offers you beyond high availability?

Get our white paper!

(Picture by Ian Clark under CreativeCommons)

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