If you thought that we were going to get all the way through Q1 without a letter from the editor, you were very close to being correct this time. Still, as has been the tradition for a few years, I wanted to share some background perspectives on running STH. Since the beginning of STH, I have always treated this as a resource for our users, and so part of that I believe is also sharing behind-the-scenes looks at how I am steering the site. Today, we are going to get into my Q1 struggle.
If you want to check out how this series has evolved, here are the links to the previous ones:
- STH Q1 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q2 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q3 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q4 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q1 2020 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q2 2020 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q3 2020 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q4 2020 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q1 2021 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q2 2021 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q3 2021 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q4 2021 Update A Letter from the Editor
This update marks the start of the fourth year of this series.
STH Q1 2022: What is STH?
This is perhaps the most meta-question one can ask, and I think it is highly deserved in Q1. Personally, I have been struggling with how do we define STH going forward. Traditionally we have been considered “press” by many companies. Over the last few years that has become a more challenging classification, and I thought I would just explain why.
In the industry, there are basically a few types of outlets that deliver information from organizations to audiences. I usually use the categories of press, analyst, “white paper house”, and influencers in the data center IT realm. Here is my quick breakdown:
- Press – The general model is that companies and industry organizations send news via a press release (PR.) News sites generally take the PR and either wholesale repost it, add a few lines to a press release or write an original copy covering the press release. This can also include things like interviews. Most of the activities for traditional “press” one can write a story over a cup or two of coffee without ever leaving a chair in the world of Zoom.
- Analysts – Generally these are folks that are retained by companies to provide third-party perspectives that will be placed in other media outlets. They also often do paid engagements for specific activities such as white papers or video work.
- “White paper houses” – Traditionally these have been white papers, but now they can be videos or other collateral. These firms usually do a sponsored piece to show that one company’s offering is better than another company’s offering. Usually, distribution for these is the responsibility of the sponsoring company.
- Influencers – Generally these are folks who have large followings on social media that are paid to present points of view to their audiences. There are many different ways that support is provided, but that is the general model.
Our big challenge these days is our alignment between a press classification and what we actually do. I am going to use the Inspur NF5280M6 review as one example. Here is the video for that:
A Process to Make STH Content
In our normal article where we have a video involved, we have to:
- Arrange to get a product from whatever source
- Receive the product and unpack it
- Validate the test part/ system’s operation
- Test the part/ system
- Do photography of the part/ system
- Capture B-roll of the part/ system
- Capture the main talking head video and audio
- Edit the video
- Write a piece for the STH main site
- Edit the written piece
- Publish on the STH site, including adding metadata and pushing out the review
- Publish on YouTube, including adding metadata and linking that elsewhere
- Decommission part/ system
- Pack and ship part/ system
Even after that entire 14-step process, we are not including indirect background work. This also assumes that there are no troubleshooting or other steps involved in the process. For example, with the EPYC 7773X piece, we had to remove the old CPUs, update the BIOS/ firmware of the test system and attend a morning to evening briefing on the chips as well. There is background prep work like maintaining a lab to test in, having tests, maintaining data, maintaining applications and even just the site itself, and so forth. Even after that, we have not discussed using the forums, the comments section (main site and YouTube), and social media to take and discuss questions. I am clearly missing a few steps, but hopefully, this shows the point here. Folks sometimes ask why we do not have full reviews with videos every day, the above is the exact reason.
Facilities have become such an important part of the process for us as well. We have tested many 4x and 8x GPU systems over the years, and with the next generation NVIDIA DGX H100 we will have single systems going over 10kW. 700W is not an upper limit for accelerators in the near future, and I fully expect a high-end 2U dual-socket “average” server will be a 1.5kW box by the end of 2022. We also will need to invest in liquid cooling for our lab. Facing a 5-figure power bill, keeping the lab going was a big reason for the move to Austin.
Is STH Traditional “Press”?
Given that general outline, our challenge is that many in the industry treat us as “press” where a PR is sent and is wholesale reposted by thousands of sites in an automated fashion. That is why we always write our own news pieces and why I am very selective of what the team covers. Typically there is an industry of editors that works to tailor press releases and reporters that will come up with unique angles. Again, there are interviews and unique musings about developments, but generally, this is very low cost content to create.
The “reviewers” that are press are largely a holdover before there was a concept of an “influencer”. There is also a fairly between most of the products we cover that are B2B versus most “review” press sites that are focused on B2C products. B2C review sites are usually geared towards buyer’s guide, best of, and our top-rated is now the cheapest ever on XYZ shop in order to generate affiliate revenue. In some organizations that focus on B2C segments, reviewers are press, but the intention is to drive huge traffic and get affiliate sales that can be 80%+ of a site’s revenue. B2C products that have large audiences have a simple formula because they can be sent a product or buy one, review it, and drive sales. On a 2% commission, it is easy to drive 50+ sales and generate profits. This is a formula many influencers use today, but it originated on the press side.
We are calling this “Press” because the term “media organization” gets very close to “publisher” and once there are multiple publications, things get murky fast. Instead, we are going to focus on the world of B2B publications we normally see grouped as “press” in what we cover.
Being very clear, my little formula of “make a site that I would want to read” is expensive, but it is also good. STH dwarfs the rest of the traditional hands-on review media in the data center, and not usually by a 2:1 ratio in terms of page views, but more like a 10:1 ratio or more. STH size-wise is more like a good size consumer/ gaming site even though we have virtually no demographics before folks enter the workforce. I do not want to read vendor-written content that is paid to be reposted on a site and is trying to look native even with a few disclaimers, so I make it a rule that we will not post that stuff. We have lost advertisers for it (Albeit only temporarily because folks always come back due to the ROI they get advertising on STH.)
For the past few years, we have had an external marketing firm handle all of the ads on STH. I think we have removed just about every non-STH-served ad that gets displayed on STH. It has been a rough process or a VERY rough process, but we have done it. If you look at STH ads today and see server vendors, not random fill ads, we lose a few thousand dollars every month from the decision that I made that I would rather show white space rather than fill ads. Also, at least once a day a firm asks if we can do auto-play video, giant overlay, or something of that nature. I told the external marketing firm: no. While this has been a tough process to get to where we are entering Q2 2022, it is about building a site I would want to visit as-is without ad blockers.
Generally, the “press” model relies on advertisers to buy space and support a site (or affiliate revenue, but that is less on the B2B side.) The way this model is set up is that (generally) a press site takes a PR, reposts it with or without any additional insight. This usually costs only a few dollars even if a human is involved in writing a few sentences. If that post can get 5000 page views, and sites can put 6-10 ads on a page, with a 50% ad-block rate, it generates 25,000 impressions and maybe $20-100 in revenue. Paying $10-20 and having $20-100 come in is a simple model and lends itself to automation to lower the costs and increase throughput.
Just for some context, if you are running a site with <2M-2.5M page views/ month, it is very hard to sell direct advertising. If you cannot deliver $1-10M+ of advertising a quarter/ year, it is almost impossible to sell direct advertising to large vendors because they do not want small advertising contracts because you are too small. STH is large enough to have an external firm sell direct advertising, but we frankly cannot sell $10M of inventory a year. This behavior has led to publisher consolidation with companies like Future having huge amounts of ad inventory to sell to large companies, but it also means individual sites lose control of the pervasiveness and invasiveness of ads. Although, if any company wants to spend $10M/ year, please reach out to the ad sales folks and I am sure they will sell you every banner that is on STH for the year. Even with that, we will still only have the same ad spaces and guidelines we do today because I am not working on a site I would not want to visit as-is without ad blocks.
Also, just as another behind-the-scenes insight, we now have data on even the news pieces that Cliff writes for us (he actually writes articles based on news, not just copy/paste reposts) versus our review content. Pageviews are much higher on reviews over time than news pieces.
The #1 challenge I face is PR folks asking why we will not cover something that they want to put out. My basic response is that if we just copy/paste a press release, we will get no traffic and it is only there for historical posterity. Plus, as a site I want to read, there is no need for STH to copy and paste a press release. Search engines are good enough I will find the company’s release anyway.
From time to time we do interviews and we will cover launches, but our main focus is always on being able to actually show hardware.
The press model is very different than what we do with hands-on reviews (or touring data centers.) Hopefully, our readers understand that there is a different level of effort involved in reposting a press release with automation and flying somewhere doing something like this:
Also, that is why you see fewer third-party press release videos. Video is more expensive to produce and slower to consume so other than a few bots, press releases generally do not have a direct answer in video.
Is STH an Analyst Firm?
Some companies now in the industry see us more as “analysts.” The reasoning is that we do not just re-post press releases. At this point, STH is probably more in the spirit of an analyst firm in terms of creating unique content (not re-posting news.) We also do not have annual retainers. Annual retainers are similar to what you would see in the legal profession, for example. We do not pre-share pieces with vendors, even if they are sponsors of STH and buy ad space. I see the ads, so I know who is running ads, but to STH we just get lump sum monthly payments from the external marketing firm so I do not know all of the details like the magnitude of the ad buys.
This structure is not what an analyst would use, but I think it is still important for STH and the integrity of the site. STH will create content. Companies have an avenue (albeit indirect through ads) to support us. It is, however, going to be content that the STH team wants to make and it will be made so as not to offend my first principle of “would this be a site I want to read?”
Analysts also do behind-the-scenes work like messaging testing providing feedback before information or new campaigns go public. There is certainly more to it than just getting information out, but STH is focused on the distribution side.
The other challenge with the “analyst” role for us is also distribution. Most analysts need to use other sites to reach audiences. At STH, we have our own distribution that reaches a relatively huge audience on the written side and is growing on the video side. Of course, if we did content on phones, games, cooking, or music we would have a larger audience, but about the furthest I am willing to go into that realm is network switches. My general theme is that what goes in or runs from a rack somewhere.
Is STH a White Paper House?
“White paper houses” have one aspect I admire. Some of these firms do absolutely awesome testing. Usually, the awesome testing gets packaged in a document that the sponsor reviews and crafts. That usually means that the great testing gets significantly slanted towards the sponsor before publication. Frankly, these firms have much larger budgets than we do and can spend weeks with a team on a piece.
The other challenge is that these “white paper houses” have limited distribution. Everyone knows that the awesome testing will be presented in a view favorable to the sponsor so it erodes trust and audience.
Just for some perspective, we recently had a large networking vendor tell us that they usually use one of these “white paper houses” to do testing, so there was no point in having reviews on STH since the existing company does better testing. My simple reply was “sure but you are spending $50-75K on that whitepaper, and then you have to pay to have folks get it out to a small audience.” The fact is we still run on a relative shoestring budget, and if we had $50K to work with on each piece, we would have awesome testing as well. On the flip side, my 2022 charge is that for any piece that we do, video and/or web, I expect to get no fewer than 10,000 views. We may not hit it with every piece, but that is the goal right now so I say no to anything I do not think will interest at least 10,000 people on the STH main site or on YouTube. Those do not include the fact that we have many thousands of people on our weekly newsletter that I sit down and send every Saturday.
There are also websites that are out there in the enterprise IT space that have comparatively small audiences and are directly supported by vendors and allow vendors to pre-read and edit work before publication. Perhaps the majority do. Often these smaller sites get huge sums on the back-end for consulting work and yet present themselves as “press”. I think they are struggling with this model as well, but do not have the audience for direct ad sales. Disclosures are weaker, here, but many of these sites are really “white paper houses” with limited distribution.
Given STH is designed to be hands-on like many “white paper houses”, but with editorial independence and distribution behind it, we do not fit in that model well.
Is STH an Influencer Shop?
“Influencers”, and let me first say there is a huge range here, typically are supported directly by companies they work with. With influencers, there is a tacit agreement that vendors will provide support in exchange for driving an audience to a solution. We have already mentioned the affiliate model, but one can see how influencers and traditional “press” organizations that rely on affiliate sales are similar.
I will just say, there is a very popular WiFi, switch, and even now site security vendor that targets the SMB space. They sent an influencer NDA in order to review products. I was absolutely shocked when I read it. It gave the right to pre-review content and even restricted how we would work with other vendors. This was in exchange for getting “free” product to review. At first, I was in complete shock thinking how could anyone sign this? I went to the company’s legal team, and they were set that this was the standard one that influencers sign. It 100% makes me think less of many of the “reviews” of the company’s product on the Internet that are almost always glowing.
My response to this influencer NDA was simply that as an established site, we never sign these types of agreements, and that if we wish to cover the company’s products I would rather purchase units and have legitimate independent reviews than have those terms.
So now, we are going to have an honest review series of the company’s products, including switch products.
Influencers often now flock to video platforms that have their own traffic generation algorithms. What is very interesting for STH is that our overlap of STH readers to YouTube viewers is usually around 1-5%. This surprises a lot of folks, but they are basically running as different audiences. Some may have noticed we have had experiments where we do not link the STH YouTube piece to the main site article, or we delay linking. We also have experimented with publishing the video before the main site article just to validate. Effectively STH’s YouTube and main site readers are different audiences. Neither demographic has folks under 18 (usually <18 is 0.3% or less of our traffic), but YouTube is more slanted to a younger audience in our target 25-55 demographic.
In many ways though, the “influencer” model actually would fit STH well. Most companies do not have minimum spends in the million-dollar range for influencers. It also would provide a direct avenue to be able to support STH. Remember, we have huge power bills and running a lab to actually test gear that was up to 5kW in this generation, and going up from there is not negligible. Most vendors in the industry already support STH because we need to keep the lab running even between server release cycles. The fact that STH is nearing 13 years old and the data center lab has gone from one rack in September 2015, to many racks now expanded into the fourth facility means folks understand what we do. The few companies that do not support STH, the real challenge is that we cannot handle large advertising sums to hit their minimums.
Overall, I actually think that the influencer model may work best for STH, but it would be a huge shift, and I am not willing to give up editorial independence.
So What is STH in 2022?
In a few weeks, STH will turn 13, and there is no way that I could have predicted something that was a hobby would turn into my full-time work. Starting with my 2022 principles:
- I will not give up the editorial independence of STH. Full stop.
- We will always put our readers first, taking a view of “is this a site I would visit if I knew all of the inner workings?”
- We will continue to grow the main site and the YouTube channel. I want the YouTube channel to hit 100K subscribers this year and get to be >10% of the monthly views we get on the main site. (Subscribe now if you have not!)
- I will continue to use the filter that every piece on the STH main site should have a 3+ minute average page view and at least 10,000 views. If I do not think a piece can get that, I will not greenlight it. That means no wholesale reposted press releases or vendor-written pieces.
- We need to ramp facilities higher power servers coming in the late Q3 or Q4 2022 timeline and beyond. Hands-on testing is a crazy idea in 2022, but it is very important to what we do.
- We are going to continue being ad-supported, but I have said no to video ads, margin ads that you click on when scrolling pages, and so forth.
- We also need to grow the team.
STH is bad at being press because I do filter to try getting only the most impactful piece online that we can every day. Our readers do not have unlimited time, so I heavily curate with the team. Hands-on reviews are still a staple, so we spend a lot to do those instead of inexpensive to produce pieces like press releases and interviews. A good press outlet would do the opposite of what we do, and I have been told this by many publishing veterans.
STH is bad at being an analyst because we do hands-on with hardware and have our own distribution channels with audiences. Conceptually I do not have an issue with a company paying for STH’s time, or supporting our lab, but the line is clearly drawn at buying our thoughts. Those are not for sale. For example, I sent a pre-read of this to Dr. Ian Cutress who was previously at Anandtech but is now an Analyst with More than Moore since he has operated in many of these realms. He gave insightful feedback that was incorporated into bits of this, but what is here is ultimately how I want to frame the environment instead of being framed by any third party. A lot of what we do though can be considered in line with what analysts would do.
STH is bad at being a “white paper house” because we cannot do the same level of testing just due to budgetary constraints.
STH is bad at being an influencer organization because we like to maintain editorial independence. Sometimes we see bad things, and we explicitly call them out because it is the right thing to do. Pieces that traditional influencers/ smaller sites in domains will not post would be like Lenovo Vendor Locking Ryzen-based Systems with AMD PSB, Dude this should NOT be in a Dell Switch or HPE Supercomputers, and Discussing Low WD Red Pro NAS Hard Drive Endurance Ratings. The reason many sites that should have figured out and told those stories did not is that they are impacted by the conflict of doing right by users with their revenue from companies. I firmly believe we need to try to do what is best for our readers, and that is what drives STH’s growth. We need support from vendors to operate, but they cannot pay to control my thoughts. Frankly, they do not have the budget for that. I do recognize that is a privilege I have, but it is something that makes STH unique in many ways.
In summary, we really do not fit into buckets, and that is a big problem. It makes it difficult to interface with companies that have PR departments, analyst relations departments, influencer relations departments, and technical marketing teams. We span all four in some respects, yet do not fit neatly into any of them.
With that, the big question is: which bucket should we be in when discussing STH? Maybe my answer is changing. STH has been around for long enough that maybe the answer is whichever fits so long as we do not compromise on our key principles.
My question may sound guided by “wokeness” by some, but can STH declare it is “non-binary”? I think we have a direction, and we have an identity in the industry for STH. At this point can we be part press, analyst, white paper house, and influencer without solely picking one bucket? Even companies in the industry treat us as some combination of all four. At this point, I struggle with seeing how we fit in one bucket, and the best STH frankly does not. We are unique in the industry, and part of that is by stubbornly saying we are not solely one of the above.
This quick letter is now going to be a 4000-word essay. Perhaps the underlying message is that there is someone and a team behind STH that is driving a vision of an independent site that does high-end data center reviews (along with fun segments like edge networking and 1L corporate desktop PCs.)
We are far from perfect. We constantly make mistakes and try to do the best we can. When NVIDIA sponsored the GeForce RTX 3080 Ti giveaway, it took some time to do some soul searching on actually doing a giveaway (that I do not like because I do not think they build “real” audiences) and getting something useful to our readers that is in high demand. Little struggles like this I have every week. At the same time, I want folks to know that what they read on STH, see on our YouTube, and get every week in their newsletter inboxes is created by people, not just a mindless press release re-posting bot. Our readers deserve better.
Subscribe to the STH’s Newsletter and YouTube
Did you know STH has a weekly newsletter that comes out Saturday with curated “Top 5” pieces from the week? We know you cannot visit every day, so we can deliver our picks for weekend reading directly to your inbox. Subscribing to the newsletter is easy. Here is the form.
We are not selling your e-mail addresses and MailChimp is managing everything at this point so you can subscribe and unsubscribe from the list as you want.
We are not promoting the newsletter via overlays and pop-ups. Those are very effective, but they are bad for readers. I do not like them, so as long as I have a say, we are not going to have newsletter signup overlays. I run STH as something I would want to visit daily even if I did not work on it.
Finally, subscribe to our YouTube and check it out here. This is an area that we are going to have more of in 2022, especially if the pandemic subsides a bit more.