This Blog Is Running on an Amazon EC2 Micro Instance (for free!)

EDIT: Note that I’ve since posted a follow-up.

This blog has been running on a miserable little Amazon t1.micro instance, alongside several other family blogs. Nginx serving WordPress instances on mySQL, lubricated through the use of W3 Total Cache.

I have various other larger instances running in the EC2 space, but the blogs live in the poorly resourced fringes.

Some days have seen fairly significant traffic (despite having unfortunately neglected this, some historic entries occasionally come to the fore somewhere on the net), all successfully served with a smile. The notorious “database unavailable” issue that plague so many WordPress instances has generally been limited to a period when the PHP process malfunctioned.

I mention this only because there’s an interesting relative effect at play when considering the capacity of hardware: If you read around regarding the t1.micro instance, running anything beyond the trivial is presented as a herculean effort, as if you’re fitting thirty clowns into a Volkswagen. The 613MB of RAM and burst CPU capacity unable to do more than the simplest of tasks.

While this dates me a bit, I think back to around 2000/2001, working at a small engineering shop. We had just gotten our first real server (thirty employees and the organization ran on someone’s desktop): a dual Pentium III Dell PowerEdge 2400 with, I believe, an unfathomable 192MB of RAM (for comparison, the most recent servers I’ve acquired have 192GB of RAM). It might have actually been 96MB.

It hosted the organization file server, a number of data processing services pulling data from remote sites and doing data clean-up and ETL, SQL Server 7, plus various presentation layers, all on a shiny and new copy of Windows Server 2000. We’d keep loading it up because it had so much potential.

We would take visitors to see the server. Behold! Look at the beast that makes the magic happen!

The only hiccup occurred when the sysadmin of the shop set the screensaver to Pipes, the no-hardware-acceleration server spending 100% of its processor time drawing pipes for the entertainment of no one.

Now my smartphone has a significantly faster processor, plus ten times+ the memory. And dramatically faster flash storage. And a GPU.

This all came to mind yesterday when installing Quickbooks Pro 2013 for the corporation. While the installation bar slowly marched to the right I perused the box to see the recommended system requirements: At least a 2.4Ghz Intel Pentium III (or equivalent) with 2 GB of RAM. This for a system that “supports a maximum of 14,500 customers, jobs, items, employees and other names combined.”

I always find system requirements a little curious as they seem to be randomly generated. Even if they were legitimately analyzed and considered, they seldom have utility given that hardware alone tells you remarkably little about the resources available for any given program, or the experience it will present to the user: Your yield(*1) in experience and functionality often differs dramatically from the theoretical. Whether XP, Vista, Windows 7, 8, or Server 2012. Run Kaspersky’s Endpoint security with all of the options and your resources, it seems, shrinks by more than half.

The various Windows Experience metrics were a step in the right direction, if imperfectly implemented. Certainly more useful than vague notions of “minimums” or “recommended” that are essentially pulled from a hat.

All of which is really just meandering thoughts. The computing power that we have available to us now is simply incredible, and awesome. Often we’ll grow the trivial things to occupy that new potential. As an example, I caught a humorous animated downvote GIF on Reddit a few days ago. That single GIF would have taken over an hour to download on a 28.8 modem. And remarkably there are still people using dial-up!

*1 – If you have a desktop PC for over a year, pop it open and clean the processor and GPU heat-sink with a can of compressed air. All recent processors offer transparent thermal regulation that will start thermal regulation restrictions when they can’t shed heat fast enough. They’ll do this with no alerts or warnings, for years on end if not dealt with, robbing you of computing potential. This is a common issue if you use forced air cooling (meaning the vast majority of devices), an insulating blanket of dust quickly smothering the heat-sinks ability to do its job.

Do it. You will be surprised.

EDIT (2013-02-25) – Humorously the blog has gone through periods of downtime, “ironically” caused by an update to a plugin called “Bulletproof Security”.