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Politicker.com Impeaches Amazon Web Services

Political Web site Politicker.com has ditched Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud service in favor of Voxel dot Net's managed Web hosting service. In an unusually frank assessment, Politicker says scalability, clustering, stability, and cost issues drove it away from EC2.

Political Web site Politicker.com has ditched Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud service in favor of Voxel dot Net's managed Web hosting service. In an unusually frank assessment, Politicker says scalability, clustering, stability, and cost issues drove it away from EC2.Politicker transitioned its Web site from EC2 to Voxel just days before the Nov. 4 presidential election. The timing is noteworthy because the height of the political season is when Politicker's Web site is busiest, and the company points to uptime and reliability among the reasons for the switch.

In a press release, Austin Smith, director of software development for the Observer Media Group (parent company of Politicker), cited "unacceptable stability issues" with the load balancer used on EC2 and said the company was "paying more than we expected" to use Amazon's cloud services. Smith and his team created a report documenting their experiences on EC2, which they are sharing as a case study in cloud computing gone awry.

Voxel, a nine-year-old hosting company based in New York, represents the old way of doing things, where customers' Web and other computing workloads are run on dedicated or shared servers managed by Voxel. If customers want more server capacity, they call Voxel, and Voxel handles it. Pricing is determined by the month, not the minute. By contrast, in EC2's highly virtualized environment, customers can add and remove server instances on their own, and billing is granular and based on usage.

Those distinctions are important because Politicker's IT team decided the old Web hosting model -- with its fixed (and in this case lower) costs, Voxel's 24-by-7 support, and no-fuss configuration -- was the preferred way to go. In an interview, Smith said that Politicker's IT group was spending too much time and money trying to get the workload optimized on Amazon. "We're a media company, not a server infrastructure company," says Smith. "We needed something that would just work."

Politicker had been using Varnish, open source HTTP caching software, and Pound, an open source load balancer, in an effort to maximize performance on EC2, but the hands-on work and server horsepower required to get it right proved too much. So Politicker began using Voxel's VoxCast content delivery network as an interim step, then switched over to Voxel's managed hosting service entirely.

As it happens, Politicker had previously been a customer of Voxel. Politicker switched from Voxel to EC2 earlier this year following a service outage on Voxel, which Smith attributes to a hardware glitch that, he says, wasn't Voxel's fault.

In fact, Smith isn't really pointing a finger at Amazon, either. The load balancing issue, in particular, wasn't Amazon's doing, he says. "It came down to technical issues that we were having that weren't directly related to EC2," says Smith. "There's no fundamental flaw [with EC2]."

Amazon is coming out with new features that would seem to address some of what ailed Politicker. Just last month, Amazon introduced its own CDN, called CloudFront. And a management console and load-balancing and auto-scaling capabilities are on Amazon's EC2 road map for 2009. I have a note into Amazon to see if it has anything to say about Politicker's experience, and I'll let you know if I hear back.

In the long run, Voxel CEO Raj Dutt knows that he stands to lose more customers to cloud computing than vice versa, and Voxel is adapting its business model and services to be more cloud-like. I'll have more on my interview with Dutt in an upcoming post.

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