A look back on 2013
Published 2014-01-29 by Jochen Lillich
2014 has gotten off to a good start but it’s still time to do a review of the last year. Learning is a big part of what we do at freistil IT and 2013 did teach us quite a lot of things!
I don’t exaggerate when I say that 2013 started with the most important events of the whole year. My son Richard was born in January and Markus became a #newdad with the arrival of his wonderful daughter Marlene in February. First there had been a comfortable span of time between the two estimated birth dates, but Richard decided to take his time while Marlene wasn’t patient at all. This lead to the first challenge in 2013: How can we both at the same time put our “Family first” principle to practice by taking care of mothers and children without losing our productivity (or even actual business)? The serious product problems we had at that time made things even more difficult, but I’ll come back to that later. Well, we managed somehow and two beautiful children are celebrating their first birthdays these days.
In June, we went to the Emerald Isle for Drupal Dev Days Dublin. freistil IT was Gold Sponsor and we almost didn’t get our freistilbox banners made in time because of a botched job by the printer. At the event, we launched freistilbox Solo, our virtual freistilbox environment for development and testing. I had arrived a few days early to start scouting for houses because this would be the year my family would finally make a long-held dream come true and move to Ireland.
In August, I flew over with my family and, as luck would have it, we found a house on the very first day of hunting. freistil IT is a distributed team and completely location-independent, so my move didn’t cause any major disruption. I only had to make do with a 3G modem until they switched on our broadband. In Freiburg, I had worked from a shared office in town, now my office is only a few steps from my bedroom. A home office has its own challenges, but if things gets too distracting, I simply go to a coffee shop like the one I’m typing this right now.
Drupal Ireland is a lovely bunch of people and I enjoy the monthly meetups in Dublin. In September, I met a few of the folks at the Prague airport where I had arrived for DrupalCon Europe and not much later, we found ourselves at an Irish Pub watching the GAA final. Prague actually was my first trip to eastern Europe and I enjoyed it very much. DrupalCon was a good opportunity to catch up with some of our customers. Not all of the feedback we got in these talks was positive but that’s not why we do them anyway: Improving first needs learning what we can do better. That’s why we appreciate honest feedback , and in the long run, constructive criticism pays for both sides.
We attended not only Drupal conferences, though. Since we’re doing cutting-edge IT work, we spent time exchanging knowledge and experience at DevOps Days in London and Berlin as well as at the Open Source Datacenter Conference in Nuremberg. We found these events great to gain new impulses and to share what we’ve learned.
During the year, especially in the second half, the reliability of our freistilbox hosting platform suffered a lot from network issues. In order to be more resilient against power or network outages, we had spread our servers over several datacenters. We didn’t experience a single outage on the datacenter level. What happened a lot, though, was the “noisy neighbor” problem: servers on the same network segment that were either origin or target of a DDoS attack which then impacted the whole segment. The only way to solve these problems back then was to notify datacenter staff who then identified and isolated the server involved in the attack; a procedure that usually takes 5 to 10 minutes. We realised that the distribution of our servers exposed our infrastructure too much to these problems and decided to move into dedicated racks that housed only our own servers. With that change, things got much quieter. This is a big advantage our bare-metal infrastructure has over cloud-based solutions: we have full control over where our IT resources are located and how much or how little they share with others. In November, our datacenter provider experienced a massive DDoS attack with no clear target and a traffic volume that caused problems even at their uplink carrier. It was a rough weekend for us and our customers. Interestingly, after that event, we’ve not experienced any other serious network problem at all. Looks like our datacenter provider made some effective changes. Additionally, they officially announced plans to overhaul their network infrastructure and to put anti-DDoS systems in place.
We’re proud to say that we achieved quite a bit in 2013, especially with freistilbox. To be honest, we had started the year with a massive low because we launched the platform before it was ready for prime time. The negative feedback from our customers made it clear that by rushing the launch, we had caused big disappointment and lost a lot of our customer’s trust. Some customers also questioned the decision to divert manpower from the production platform to freistilbox Solo. In consequence, making the system reliable and efficient was our topmost priority during the year and we put a lot of hard work and many hours into it. I’m very happy to say that we now managed to give freistilbox the high level of quality it should have had from the start. In a round of customer calls I did in December, we got a lot of praise for how well the platform is working and how good a job we do with improving and supporting it. We are incredibly grateful to our customers for all their feedback.
We received 1,693 support requests last year, down 28% from 2,367 in 2012. The first quarter had the most new tickets (479) and Q4 ranked lowest (367). This is a good sign that we’re making progress in improving both the quality and the ease of use of freistilbox.
For a team with only two DevOps engineers, we’ve certainly created a great product for hosting Drupal and WordPress sites. And we’re only able to keep up doing the daily business as well as the tech support and 24/7 on-call because we’ve learned to collaborate effectively. The key to effective teamwork is communication, especially in a distributed team. Judging from the fact that we replaced Campfire as our communication backbone with HipChat, and heavily use Confluence for internal documentation, JIRA for task and project management and BitBucket as our code repository, Atlassian products seem to fit our needs quite well. Another communication product that I first didn’t expect to catch on actually became one of our most important channels: Sqwiggle. It took a bit getting used to a slight “Big Brother” feeling but we highly appreciate being able to tell at a glance who’s currently at their desk and to start a video call with a single click.
Over the recent months, we also reshuffled our areas of responsibility in order to put our strengths to use more effectively. Markus took over some of my technical tasks and now takes care of daily operations. I’ve assumed a more strategic position in business development.
Laying stronger foundations: We’ve chosen Ireland as our new base of operations because of its growing importance as a tech hub for Europe. Our new company “freistil IT Ltd” will soon take over all business we’ve done so far as the partnership “freistil IT GbR”. The first benefit this change brings for our existing customers is that we’ll now be able to accept credit card payments.
Growing our team: We’re great in automating IT processes but we can’t automate innovation, that needs pure brain power. And for better “load distribution”, we need more “nodes”. We’ve been looking for quite some time and finally found two talented system administrators that are going to join our team over the coming weeks. This means we need to learn quickly about hiring and being a great employer.
Expanding our business: So far, we’ve mostly gained new customers by word of mouth. We love the fact — and we can’t be thankful enough for it — that our customers are so happy with freistilbox that they recommend our hosting platform to their friends and clients. To really expand our customer base internationally, though, we need to increase our sales and marketing activities. Since neither Markus nor I have a strong background in these areas, we decided to get external help. Thanks to an Enterprise Ireland Mentor Grant, a consultant experienced in international business will work with us on our growth strategy over the coming months.
It’s obvious that we’ve learned a lot of things in 2013, sometimes the hard way. We’re thankful for all the good will, feedback, advice and encouragement we’ve received from our families, friends and our customers. Every day, we’re getting better in fulfilling our mission: Making sure that our customers can work efficiently and sleep peacefully. To a great 2014!
 I recently found out that we were destined to go to this conference: Who would have thought that “Markus & Jochen” is an anagram for “Shamrock & June”!