freistil News

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We’re happy to move another entry on our new product roadmap to the “Finished” column: We’ve greatly improved the error handling on our load balancers.

Handling of application errors

Before this change, our load balancers delivered a terse “503 Server Error” page for each and every condition that prevented the content requested from being delivered. Unfortunately, this included the situation when it wasn’t a part of the hosting platform failing but the web application. For example, if Drupal is put into maintenance mode or has issues connecting to its database, it delivers an error page with a HTTP error code 500 and an error message in the page body. But instead of delivering this page, our load balancers replaced it with their plain “Server Error” page. In other words, they made the issue worse by concealing its cause.

We’ve improved the load balancer configuration so that now, a “503 Server Error” is only displayed when there is no way of delivering useful content. But if its just the application sending an error page, its content will be passed through to the visitor.

Trying everything to deliver

The most frequent cause of the dreaded “503 Server Error” is that a load balancer has run out of healthy application boxes to which it can pass on incoming requests. Especially customers that with only a single box ran into this problem when that box got overloaded, even if only for a few seconds.

We’ve found a way to prevent ugly error messages even in this situation: A Varnish function named “grace mode” allows us to keep content remaining in the cache for a defined period of time after its expiry time. If a request can neither be answered with fresh cache content nor be forwarded to any box, Varnish will now try to deliver recently expired cache content (max. 1 hour over expiry time). Only if there isn’t anything left that can be delivered to the visitor within reason, an error message will come up.

Minimizing box downtime

We’ve also optimized the intervals in which our load balancers check if the application boxes in a freistilbox cluster are healthy. An unresponsive box is now detected and taken out of the load balancing pool within only 5 seconds. Previously, the delay was about 15s, so we’ve greatly reduced the amount of failed load balancer requests. And boxes that have recovered are also taken back into the pool fare more quickly, giving us a more stable load distribution.

Looking at our monitoring metrics, we’re quite happy with the results of these changes. We see far less failing requests, less spikes in box usage and overall more stable website operation.

We’d love to hear from you: Are you experiencing a positive change in your application’s stability? Please let us know in the comments!

28 Sep 2013

Next week, DrupalCon Europe is going to take place at the Congress Centre in Prague. Both Markus and I will be in the Czech capital for this event. If you’d like to meet us, tweet us!

DrupalCon, the biggest Drupal community gathering of the year, is always a great time to talk to the people that make this open source project so great: developers, users and businesses providing services of all kinds. Of course, it’s also an opportunity for us to meet our hosting customers from all over the world in person.

For all attendees, DrupalCon is a valuable opportunity to learn how other people make use of Drupal. More than 100 sessions, divided into 8 topical tracks, will offer plenty of insight and know-how to attendees. When I was asked to curate the DevOps track, I was honoured and more than happy to accept the track chair duty. I had the chance to get some session previews and I can certify that they’ll be great!

DrupalCon Prague will be my first time in eastern Europe and I am looking forward to a week of inspiration and fun! If you’re in Prague for DrupalCon, be sure to find us and say hello!

21 Sep 2013

We are developing and running our growing freistilbox infrastructure with a tiny team. This limited capacity requires from us careful prioritization and task management so that the right things get done at the right time. And let’s be honest: We don’t always succeed in that regard. Several times, we got feedback from customers saying that…

  • …they weren’t sure what we were working on (or if we were working at all), or…
  • …they knew what we were working on and didn’t agree that it was the most urgent issue at the time.

Both kinds of feedback are warning signs. They mean that either we were spending time and effort on things that didn’t matter nearly as much to our customers as they did to us, or we might even have had the right goals but had failed to communicate our efforts properly.

It’s all a matter of transparency. Transparency is important because it is the precondition for trust. In the case of product development, transparency also helps us to effectively focus our efforts and let our customers know that we’re working on the right issues.

That’s why we decided to make our product roadmap publicly available.

The URL http://roadmap.freistilbox.com takes you to a public Trello board where we publish our current product development. The board is divided into three lists:

  • Planned work: Things we’re planning to tackle next
  • Work in progress: Things we’re currently working on
  • Finished work: What we got done recently

For each new feature, each improvement of an existing component and each known problem, we’ll create a separate card that will go through these three phases. That way, you can see exactly what we’re doing to make freistilbox an even better hosting platform.

We don’t want the roadmap page to be a one-way channel, though. With a free Trello login, you are able — and explicitly invited! — to comment and vote on any card. So, if you have questions or feedback on a specific project, please let us know!

The best ideas for improvements come from our customers and they aren’t always obvious to us. So, if there is a topic close to your heart that you feel we should put on our roadmap, please post a suggestion to our Ideas and Feature Requests forum on our Help Center website!

We’re very excited about this new way of communicating our efforts to improve freistilbox so that you can work more efficiently and sleep more peacefully.

We’d like to thank all our customers for their continued loyalty and their feedback that helps us improve. We’ve always been working hard to justify your trust, and with our freistilbox Roadmap page, you can now see and influence what exactly will be keeping us busy.

05 Sep 2013

As GigaOm reports, Edward Snowden’s email provider LavaBit got shut down under strange circumstances. This incident adds more fuel to the running discussion how much power law enforcement and other state agencies should have over information trusted to internet service providers.

In this regard, Ladar Levison, the creator of LavaBit, comes to a devastating conclusion:>”This experience has taught me one very important lesson: Without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.”

It’s important to note that “physical ties” is not limited to just companies located in the US. For example, while Amazon Web Services do have a hosting location in Europe, they’re no less an american company. And it’s unclear how much access US agencies actually have to data stored by Amazon, even if it’s hosted in Europe.

With freistilbox, on the other hand, the situation is transparent: freistilbox is hosted in data centres in Germany and the german data protection laws are among the most restrictive ones in the world. That means your data is guaranteed all the legal conditions regarding data protection and information security that your business needs, especially if it’s operating in international markets.

If you have any questions regarding the security of your data on freistilbox, we’re happy to answer them. Just drop us a line!

09 Aug 2013

Much too quickly, the Drupal Dev Days in Dublin were over. About 150 people had come to do code sprints, pub tours and participate in talks about project management, Drupal internals and — looking at myself — building virtual development environments. (More on that later.)

We were lucky that the Dublin Institute of Technolgy provided the conference venue for free. Its building in Aungier Street was easy to reach and had more than enough space for us. Thanks, DIT!

freistil IT supported the Dev Days as Gold Sponsor and we’re very happy with our engagement. freistilbox was featured prominently both at the conference venue and at the Odeon where we had the freistilbox Party with drinks and barbecue on Saturday night. The organization team managed to answer all our questions quickly and always kept us up-to-date on what was relevant for us as a sponsor.

We participated in the Job Speed Dating on Friday afternoon, but unfortunately, there were only a handful of interested applicants. Actually, there were quite obviously more companies looking for people than people looking for jobs. But that doesn’t make the idea of quickly connecting job seekers with relevant businesses a bad one. On the contrary, we hope that more conferences are going to add such an event to their programme!

The session schedule on Saturday and Sunday was diverse and interesting. (I have to say that it made me sad to see attendance dropping heavily on Sunday, probably because of the freistilbox Party the night before.) Together with Steven Jones and Marcus Deglos, I gave an introduction into easy VM management with Vagrant. In my part, I highlighted how using automation tools like Chef simplify setting up an individual system configuration from scratch that can then be replicated exactly and within minutes.

Since I’m going to move to Ireland next month, I was double happy to visit the green island for Drupal Dev Days. I enjoyed my stay very much and would like to thank everyone for making it a great Drupal community event! Special thanks go to the organization team for their tremendous efforts. Togha oibre!

08 Jul 2013

We're sponsoring DevDays Dublin

We’re very busy preparing for the Drupal Dev Days in Dublin in a few weeks! Aside from supporting the event as GOLD sponsor, we’ll be giving a talk about automating your development environment. And with “ freistilbox Solo “, we’ll also be presenting the first release of our standalone development environment for freistilbox users!

When, a few days ago, the event organizers asked us if we’re interested in also sponsoring the social event, we happily said yes! So, be our guests and join the freistilbox Party on Saturday night!

Will you be at the Drupal Dev Days and would like to learn more about freistilbox? Please drop us a line and we’ll make sure to talk to you!

11 Jun 2013

As I already posted on my personal blog, I’ll be at DevOps Days Berlin next week. If you’re going to be there, too, I’d like to meet you! Simply drop me a line in advance or say Hello to me there!

I’ll tweet updates from the conference mostly from my personal account, so make sure to follow both @freistil and @geewiz.

22 May 2013

In his blog post “Chef Cookbooks for Busy Ruby Developers”, Huiming Teo announces two Chef cookbooks that make setting up a Ruby on Rails development environment easier and quicker:

  • rackbox - to provision a rack-based web server
  • databox - to provision a database server

Since they run with Chef Solo, the cookbooks don’t require a Chef server.

Huiming’s cookbooks are a great example how automation can be very effective even for small installations. We’re busy building something similar for our freistilbox hosting platform.

And if you’d like to learn how to use Chef for automating many hundred servers, join our operations team!

14 May 2013

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