Back in the day (the 90s), the servers were kept in the Cold Room. This was a floor devoted to rows of black boxes on racks that served up our web pages. They would sit there, seemingly inert, until something went wrong. Then the cry would go out “the servers are down!” and the techies would disappear into the Cold Room to fix the problem.
The downside to having physical servers in your office is obvious. You need to keep them secure and safe. Your technical staff is tasked with maintaining a physical asset. They spend their time unboxing and installing new equipment. And you’re limited by the amount of space you have. You can only serve up so much web. Too much traffic and your web site goes down.
Russell Heimlich, web developer at Billy Penn, illustrated this problem – and a solution – in his recent presentation on Amazon Web Services at the January WordPress DC Meetup.
He used to work at US News & World Report. The biggest thing they do all year is their issue on college rankings. Millions of parents and students check it out to find the best universities in America. Back when Yahoo was relevant, the web portal ran the college issue as a featured link on their home page. The US News site crashed within four minutes, their servers unable to handle the massive spike of traffic.
The solution is to have a more flexible hosting environment than boxes sitting in a cold room. For many organizations, that is Amazon Web Services (AWS). Instead of unboxing equipment, web developers set up servers virtually in the AWS environment, pointing and clicking on a grid until they have the idea solution for their hosting and traffic needs. Rather than serving web pages off your servers, you’re serving them from Amazon’s. While Russell made it look easy, it’s an expert-level tool that is customizable and complex.
However, AWS is so robust and efficient that it powers much of the social media and network services that we think of being in the Cloud. But the Cloud is not magic. It has been configured, set up and hosted by humans. Rather than working in the cramped confines of the Cold Room, developers now play in the infinite spaces of the Cloud.