Save Money On Hosting & CDN By Optimizing Your Architecture & Applications

If you manage technology for a company that has a large Web presence, it is likely that a large percentage of your total technology costs is spent on the Web hosting environment, including the Content Delivery Network (CDN, e.g. Akamai, LimeLight, CDNetworks, Cotendo). In this article, we discuss some ways to manage these costs.

Before we discuss how to optimize your architecture and applications to have economical and the optimally low hosting expenses, let us develop a model for comprehensively understanding a site’s Web hosting costs.

Step 1. Develop a model for allocating technology operations & infrastructure costs to each Web site/brand

Let us assume for this example that your company operates some medium to large Web sites and spends $100K/month on fully managed1 origin2 Web hosting and another $50K/month on CDN. That means your company spends $1.8MM/year on Web sites hosting.

It is important to add origin Web hosting and CDN costs to know your true Web hosting costs, especially if you operate multiple Web brands and need to allocate Web hosting costs back to each. For example, let us assume you have two Web sites: brandA.com, a dynamic ecommerce site costing $10K/month on origin hosting plus $2K/month on CDN; and brandB.com, serving a lot of videos and photos costing $5K/month on origin hosting plus $19K/month on CDN. In this example, brandA.com actually costs $12K/month, which is half the hosting cost of brandB.com, $24K/month. Without adding the CDN costs, you may mistakenly assume the opposite that brandA.com costs twice as much to host as brandB.com. Origin hosting and CDN are two sides of the same coin. We recommend that you manage them both together from both technology/architecture and budget perspectives.

Then you add the costs of third-party vendor provided parts of the site rented in the software-as-service model. Next, add licensed software costs used at your hosting location. Let us assume that brandA.com also has:

  • some blogs hosted at wordpress.com for $400/month
  • Google Analytics for $0/month
  • Other licensed platform/application software running on your servers billed separately from the managed hosting. Let us assume brandA.com’s share of that is $1,000/month.

So your Web hosting and infrastructure costs for brandA.com would be $13,400/month. That’s $160,800/year.

Assuming that many of your Web sites share infrastructure and systems management & support staff at your Web hosting provider, you may not have a precise allocation of costs to each brand. That’s ok: It doesn’t need to be perfect nor a staff-time consuming calculation every month. Work with your hosting provider and implement a formula/algorithm that provides a reasonably good breakup and needs to be changed only when there is a major infrastructure change.

Side Note: In order to stay competitive, adapt to changes in the market and meet changing customer sites, brandA.com also needs to do product and software development on a regular basis. However, that’s beyond the scope of this discussion. Managing ongoing product and software development costs for brandA.com could be the subject of another article.

Step 2. Regularly review the tech operations costs for each brand and make changes to control costs

Every month, review your tech operations costs for your business as a whole and for each brand. Make changes in technology and process as needed to manage your expenses. If you don’t review the expenses on a monthly basis, you run the risk of small increases happening in various places every month that add up to a lot.

Without active management done on a monthly basis, brandA.com could creep up from $13,400 to $16,000 the next month and $20,000 the month after. That $1.8MM you were expecting to spend on hosting for the year could turn out to be $2.4MM.

So what does such active management include?

Monitor and manage your bandwidth charges. This is one to keen an eye on. If you bandwidth charges go over your fixed commit, your expenses can quickly blow over budget. If you find bandwidth use increasing, investigate the cause and make course corrections. In some cases, this may simply be due to expected increase in traffic, but in other cases it could be avoided. A related article about taking advantage of browser caching to lower costs provides some tips.

Request your engineers to monitor and manage your servers resource usage (CPU, memory) so that the need for adding hardware can be avoided as much as possible. Enable and ensure regular communications between your technology operations team and your software development team so that software developers are alerted of any application behavior that is consuming more than expected server resources. Give the software developers time to resolve such issues when found.

Review the invoice details to make sure you understand and are in agreement with the invoice. A Web hosting bill can be very detailed and complex to understand. Do not hesitate to ask the hosting provider to explain and justify anything that you don’t understand. Don’t just assume the bills are always correct. They could (and occasionally will) be mistakes in the bills. Be sure to dispute these with the vendor in a respectful and friendly way.

These are just some examples. Please feel welcome to make more suggestions via comments on this post.

The time (and thus money invested) in controlling tech operations cost will be well worth the savings / avoidance of huge cost increases.

Keep abreast of evolving technologies and cost saving methods. Periodically review these with your vendor(s).

Cloud computing is exciting as a technology, and it is equally exciting as a pricing model.

If you find market conditions have changed drastically, request your vendor to consider lowering rates/prices even if you are locked into a contract. You don’t lose anything by asking and the vendor’s response will be an indicator of their customer service and long term business interest with you.

  1. Fully managed Web hosting includes network & hardware infrastructure, 24×7 staff and real estate []
  2. The origin part of your Web hosting environments includes the network and server infrastructure at your hosting facility location(s) where your Web applications and installed and running. It could be in-house data centers or at providers such as RackSpace, IPSoft or Savvis []

Save Your Company Money In Monthly Bills Using Browser Caching

Bandwidth MoneyCompanies that operate heavily trafficked Web sites can save thousands of dollars every month by maximizing their use of browser-side caching.

Large Web sites pay for bandwidth at their Web hosting data center and also at their content delivery network (CDN, e.g. Akamai, LimeLight, CDNetworks). Bandwidth costs add up to huge monthly bills. On small-business or personal Web sites where bandwidth costs don’t go over, this is not an issue, but on large Web sites, this is important to address and monitor.

Companies operating large Web sites often have complex situations like the following:

  • An comprehensive and deep understanding of all technology cost drivers and their impacts on each other. For example, a programmer may think they are saving the company money by architecting an application in a way that it requires minimal hardware servers, but not realize that the same design actually results in even higher costs elsewhere like CDN bills.
  • Busy development teams working on multiple projects on tight timelines. This results in compromises between product features/timelines and technical/architectural best practices/standards.
  • Web content management and presentation platform(s) that have evolved over the years
  • Staff churn over the years and an uneven distribution of technical knowledge and best practices about the Web site(s)
  • The continued following of some obsolete “best practices” and standards that were established long ago when they were beneficial, but are now detrimental.

Tech teams at complex Web sites would likely find upon investigation that their Web sites suffer from problems that they either didn’t know about or didn’t know the extent of the damage they are causing.

One such problem is that certain static objects on the company’s Web pages that should be cached by the end users’ Web browsers are either not cached by the browsers at all or not cached enough. Some objects are at least cached by the CDN used by the company, but some perfectly cacheable objects are served all the way back form the origin servers for every request! An unnecessarily costly situation that can be avoided.

In addition to wasteful bandwidth charges resulting in high monthly bills, there are also other disadvantages caused by cacheable objects being unnecessarily served from origin servers:

  • They slow down your Web pages. Instead of the browser being able to use local copies of these objects, it has to fetch them all the way from your origin servers.
  • Unnecessary load on origin Web servers and network equipment at Web hosting facility. This can be an especially severe problem when a Web site experiences a sudden many-fold increase in traffic caused by a prominent incoming link on the home page of a high traffic like Yahoo, MSN or Google.
  • Additional storage in logs at the origin Web hosting locations’ servers and other devices.
  • Unneeded processing and work the origin servers, network equipment, CDN, the Internet in the middle all the way up to the client browsers have to do to transfer these objects from origin to the end user’s browser. Be environmentally friendly and avoid all this is costly waste.

The increase in bandwidth, load on servers and networking equipment and log file storage space increases caused by a few objects on Web pages being served by origin servers for every request may mistakenly seem like an insignificant problem, but little drops of water make the mighty oceans. Some calculations will show that for large Web sites, the cost of this can add up to tens of thousands of dollars a month in bandwidth costs alone.

How should companies operating large Web sites solve this problem?

For technology managers:

  • Make it a best practice to maximize the use of browser-side caching on your Web pages. Discuss this topic with the entire Web technology team. Awareness among the information workers is important so that they can keep this in mind for future work and also address what’s already in place. Show the engineers some sample calculations to illustrate how much money is wasted in avoidable bandwidth costs: that will prove this is not an insignificant issue.
  • If this problem is widespread in your Web site(s), make the initial cleanup a formal project. Analyze how much money you’d save and other problems you’d solve by fixing this and present it to the finance and business management. Once you show the cost savings, especially in this economy, this project will not be hard to justify.

For engineers:

  • Read the article about optimizing caching at Google Code for technical details on how to leverage browser and proxy caching. It explains the use of HTTP headers like Cache-Control, Expires, Last-Modified, and Etag.
  • Review any objects that are served by origin servers every time for legacy reasons that may now be obsolete.
  • Combine some JavaScript files commonly used by your Web pages so that the one unified and shared file would have higher caching probability. Do the same with external CSS style sheets.
  • Study a good book on Web site optimization like Even Faster Web Sites: Performance Best Practices for Web Developers. Share these recommendations and hold a discussion with your tech and production colleagues.