In 2019, we kicked off a quarterly series where I do an update for our readers. Our Q4 2019 update was very tough to fit in given our publishing schedule this year. In this edition, I wanted to share a bit about how we drove STH to meet our goals in 2019 and a bit about running a site like STH. Our Q1 2020 letter will go into some of the major pushes for the new year, so this will be more of a recap and behind-the-scenes look.
If you want to check out how this series has evolved, here are the links to the first three:
- 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
We are going to focus our discussion a lot on the Q1 2019 letter as we are wrapping up the year.
Execution on Ambition
In 2019, we had three main goals to grow STH:
- Increase review tempo
- Do more interviews
- Cover a broadening server industry
We primarily focus on delivering one piece of content per day. Sometimes, we will do some editorial news coverage along with the primary piece. Here is an example of how we plan and track content. Far from fancy, but effective at tracking what we are covering, when, and progress.
Taking a look at 2019, we are going to end up with just shy of 40% of the days being covered by a review. That is something that we absolutely would have had zero chance doing in 2018 or the first nine years of the site being around. Thanks to the STH team for making this happen.
On the interview side, we will end the year in the range of 3-4% of days covered by an interview. That is much better than doing one or two a year previously.
When it comes to covering a broadening server industry, many of our readers will have noticed something. My personal reviews are now typically focused on server systems, show coverage, and server platform launch reviews. I still write targeted pieces outside of those two areas including this one, but those days are fewer. William, Cliff, John, Rohit, and Eric have taken over a lot of the other content which has helped me a great deal.
Part of what I have been doing to expand STH is covering new and interesting areas. Perhaps my favorite of this year was the Inspur Intelligent Factory Tour from Jinan, China. If you have not watched it, check out how robot servers are making cloud servers:
Overall the goal of expanding coverage is happening, albeit at a pace that I always want to be faster.
Behind the Scenes Challenges
Although STH is still growing at a healthy pace, it is not easy. There are a lot of headwinds in the publishing industry right now. I wanted to talk a few of those on the business side.
STH is still editorially independent. We use outside advertising firms to handle all of the marketing and ad sales where Virginia leads the effort. Personally, I am one of the slowest learners of the publishing model. Folks like Timothy Prickett Morgan at The Next Platform are much smarter than I am in the space and I appreciate TPM’s look of disbelief whenever he mentors me with the “how did you not know this” look. Likewise, all of the “well Anand used to do x” teaching moments from Virginia are similarly humbling and instructive.
Personally, I find the publishing world to be absolutely fascinating. I get e-mails several times a week saying something like “we will give you $100 to review this product.” Those go directly to my junk folder now, but whenever I read reviews online, all I see is the scope of that. $100 in the Silicon Valley is less than an hour of automobile mechanic time, yet there are a lot of places where I can imagine people are more than willing to spend 10+ hours on a review in that model.
For some context, just doing a STH server review these days is insanely expensive. Our lab costs to do a single server review in 2019 exceed $2000 on average once we account for our direct power and cooling costs as well as amortize all of the 25GbE/ 100GbE networking, lab storage, load generation nodes, PDUs, and etc. That does not include labor such as racking, de-commissioning, bringing things to and from loading docks, or even writing the reviews.
Those costs are only going up. In 2020/ 2021 we will see several CPU TDPs in the 300-350W maximum range from 205-240W today. We are already planning for a single ~6kW node review in Q1 2020. We budget around $250-300 per kW per month excluding all of the test gear such as load generation nodes, networking, PDUs, and etc. 60 days to review a server like that is enormously expensive and they are going up from there.
There are some impacts as a result of this. First, the number of sites that are doing high-quantity server reviews is very limited. One can beat these economics for small quantities. Not locating the lab in Silicon Valley is a good example, but we have support staff from virtually every company we work with within a 20-minute drive. One of the sites that does regular server reviews shows very little in terms of testing, yet gives almost everything an award. That award system vendors are charged to use. If you did not know that is a thing, I did not even know that the publishing model existed until about a year ago. I do not like that model for STH.
Aside from the facilities costs, I mentioned in the Q3 2019 update letter that we have now added a 28 square meter or about 300 square foot space dedicated to product photography and video. I am hoping to get a larger space at some point. Having better photography and some video in 2020 has not been a low-cost investment.
I know our readers get frustrated that we cannot do XYZ test or test every server out there. I am frustrated as well. At some point, I do make decisions on what I think our readers will find interesting simply because each review is such an enormous investment for the site. I do not want STH to go down the path of doing de minimus hands-on work and calling it a review.
Of course, challenges are what get us up in the morning. If it was easy, it would not be fun.
I always worry that this type of article is the least exciting. At the same time, I just wanted to get some behind-the-scenes look into STH.
From 2009-2018, STH was very sterile. I ran it more like a textbook and the site felt like that. Hopefully, our readers noticed in 2019 that we have been moving away from that. I feel that we have hit the cadence where STH has a well-informed opinion on a number of topics since we are doing hands-on reviews. As a result, you are going to see more opinions. While it is hard to maintain absolute objectivity, it was actually very difficult to allow more opinions to make it through the editing process.
For 2020, my #1 goal is to continue making progress towards the vision of reviewing every server and every major component that goes in or around a server. I know we will not get there, but I also firmly believe that increasing the amount of source data we get leads to more informed opinions.
As always, I want to extend a big thank you to our readers, our team, and our partners for continuing to make STH grow.
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