It’s just over a year since I announced our intention to migrate our web hosting environment to a third-party service (Dreamhost). This morning I shut down the web and database servers on the venerable “Clue” web server, marking the successful completion of the project. Also marking the end of an era in L&S computing, and really, on campus as a whole, though not everyone has noticed it yet.
The feeling is a bit melancholy. I personally set up the Clue environment back in 1997, and I have remained involved in managing it for the past 14 years as I became a full-time Unix sysadmin and later L&S Director. We migrated to Clue, which at the time was a Sun box running Solaris 2.5, from a WebStar environment running on a Mac Centris 610 (an ill-fated desktop from the dark years of Apple’s history). To actually have a professional Unix server, housed in a server room (with air conditioning!) was a huge step forward at the time.
Departments flocked to the new service, which was funded by L&S as a common good; eventually, it hosted some 80 domains for 45 separate units. Over the years it also acted as our modem/PPP server (back when the campus was charging for dial-up access), our Meeting Maker server, our first Corporate Time server (before Steltor was bought by Oracle), and the email server for LS.berkeley.edu.
The server proved remarkably reliable, despite running on workgroup-class hardware lacking much redundancy. In the 14 years that Clue existed, we upgraded the hardware only once, from the original Sun to a PC server running RedHat Linux. The shared hosting environment led to some security issues (all it took was one bad piece of code on a departmental web site to ruin everyone’s day), but in general the machine ran with remarkably little trouble considering what a workhorse it was.
Clue was one of LSCR’s great successes; over its lifetime it added significant value to L&S departments by providing a more robust, more secure environment than most departments could provide on their own. I will miss having a real shared Unix system that we can customize to meet whatever need arises. But as technology marched on, and funding faded away, it became necessary to pull the plug on Clue, and really, on the idea of running commoditized services locally.
The biggest change in technology in the past 15 years is the move towards service commoditization. You can now get infrastructure, platforms, or software provided as a service, on more robust hardware and with better support than we can possibly provide locally, generally at a fraction of what it would cost to run it ourselves. For something like $50/month, we’re getting access to a highly redundant, scalable architecture, with “unlimited” disk space and bandwidth, 24×7 tech support, and a suite of tools to greatly reduce the cost of deploying services. We still have management costs over and above the cost of the platform–LSCR will continue to provide user management, and configuration and consulting help on using the Dreamhost environment–but the total cost of running the environment will be less than half of what it once was, and we’ll be getting a higher level of service. The financials are compelling for anyone who’s really looked at them.
I say this with a bit of a wistful tone. I’m a geek at heart, and running my own server is a lot more fun than using someone else’s. But in this environment of aggressive cost-cutting, I can’t plausibly justify running services which duplicate those provided by commodity vendors at lower cost.
Our environment will be available to anyone in L&S who needs hosting services, and for the other web hosts we are still managing, we will work with the department to migrate to Dreamhost.
Because there is no longer college-level funding to support the service, each L&S division will decide whether to pick up the cost of the support for its units, or distribute those costs to the departments using the service. My recommendation is to aggregate the costs at the divisional level (absent college funding), but the final decision will be for the deans to make.
In closing I’ll share my favorite Dilbert strip, from the era that was: