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Geekzone over the years: the tech behind the scenes

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 9-Feb-2013 16:49

As part of keeping up with times, this last weekend I finished moving the Hyper-V VMs behind Geekzone to Windows Server 2012. Someone in our forums was curious on how we could have Geekzone running on a single VM instance with no load balancers and so, so he asked me to post what's behind our website, how it changed over the years and what do we do to keep performance up.

We currently serve around 230,000 pages a day (user requests and AJAX request for some pages) plus other resources such as images, scripts and CSS files.

When I started Geekzone it was a domain in a shared host service called Ocoloco, provided by a small Masterton-based company called SiliconBlue. In 2003 Auckland-based ISP ICONZ bought Ocoloco and with that they became our hosting providers. Back then we had a single domain running on IIS, Classic ASP and a Microsoft Access database. We were serving 10,000 pages a month after a few months and that was BIG.

Our first project was to move from Microsoft Access to Microsoft SQL, still in the shared environment. We know Microsoft Access doesn't scale well, but back then we never thought we'd be serving more than 10,000 pages a month.

This worked out well until we got big enough that we had to sometimes call our provider and ask them to restart their SQL server two or three times a day, due to the server crashing under our load. ICONZ suggested we should really get our own server (back then virtual environments weren't a big thing).

We bought our first server from ICONZ, an Acer server with 3GB RAM. We installed Windows Server 2003 and Microsoft SQL. An entire server just for us! It worked fine for a few years until we got to the point where our requirements were really pushing the limits of that 32 bit hardware.

HP came into play and we were supplied with a HP Proliant DL360 server (like the one in the picture above) with 10GB RAM. Loaded with Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V we had enough to run a VM for Geekzone (IIS/SQL database), a test VM and a monitoring VM.

That's when I started getting serious about performance. While many companies solve their performance problems by installing more hardware we tried to use more of the resources we had available. The monitoring VM runs SQL Sentry and SQL Monitor for database monitoring, cache plan testing and other management tasks. I spent a lot of time optimizing indexes, working the database model and so on.

At this time I also decided to move from a single IIS worker model to a multiple workers (IIS web garden). To get to this point I had to write our session management routines using the SQL database to allow for persistence between the odd server restart (we do restart servers after applying the monthly patches released by Microsoft every second Tuesday of the month) and to allow session to persist between IIS workers. I also worked with Redjungle's Phil to have separated email notification delivery from the web application, as well creating a metaweblog API for our blogging platform and a couple of .Net MVC web sites (Geekzone Mobile and Geekzone Jobs).

Another advantage of this approach is the ability to scale out - and it does work well as I found out when migrating our applications from the old Windows Server 2008 VM to the new Windows Server 2012 VM. I was able to move web applications one at a time and sessions worked across different hosts, sharing the database across a Hyper-V private network.

Around the time we started playing with performance I got to meet the folks at Aptimize, now Riverbed Aptimizer. Aptimize was a Wellington-based company until Riverbed acquired them in 2011. The software works automatically, examining all pages served from our servers and applying rules that determine how to optimize web pages for best client performance. This includes image sprite creation, script and CSS minification, URL rewrite for CDN resources, lazy loading images, loading async scripts and so on. We start using Aptimizer and it improved page speed almost instantly so we had time to put a lot of effort into the database side of things, to get everything a step further.

Around 2009 we decided to move our server from ICONZ, mainly due to colocation and traffic costs. We know 60% of our traffic is New Zealand-based, and of those 75% is from Auckland alone, so when the time came for us to move hosting companies we examined a few companies around Auckland and decided to go with Datacom. They were really good at putting together a package for our small one man operation. And so one day we unplugged the server at ICONZ, loaded it into Nate's car and drove across Auckland to its new home. The Datacom datacenter is so huge that I am pretty sure i might not ever see the server again.

The Datacom move was really good, with improved bandwidth giving our users even faster access to our website. But we know a lot of people access Geekzone from outside New Zealand so we started using a CDN to distribute the heavy resources around the world. Initially with MaxCDN (their prices are really good) and lately with Cloudflare. There are two reasons we moved to Cloudflare: they have a POP in Sydney, which is pretty close to New Zealand, so we could move to them with low impact to our users and their Pro plans support SSL for the CDN - which was a problem for us before (we used to have different CDN rewrites for SSL and non-SSL pages, now we have only one).

We do not use Cloudflare for page optimization because that would add unnecessary round trips for the majority of ours users. But using Aptimizer together with Cloudflare for CDN we can get our resources closer to users, manage the cache expire in their browsers and in the ISP's proxies making all faster than ever.

Since then we increased memory on the server to 24GB to allow for better memory management as well. And while our Windows Server 2008 was working perfectly well, I decided to move to Windows Server 2012 for a few reasons but mainly because of a faster OS startup, OS support for NIC teaming, and Hyper-V Dynamic Memory. And also because this is Geekzone so why not then?

So that's it. A bit of geek history and things I've done the last few years. More to come (and if you need more information or some help with your current setup, contact me and we can have a chat).



Other related posts:
Google Chrome cache performance
Geekzone experience using Pingdom RUM
Again: use your ISP DNS for better performance






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Mauricio Freitas
Wellington
New Zealand


I live in New Zealand and my interests include mobile devices, good books, movies and food of course! 

I work for Intergen and I'm also the Geekzone admin. On Geekzone we publish news, reviews and articles on technology topics. The site also has some busy forums.

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