STH Q4 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor

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Patrick Shanghai Night
Patrick Shanghai Night

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.

Previous Updates

If you want to check out how this series has evolved, here are the links to the first three:

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.

STH Editorial Planning Example 2019
STH Editorial Planning Example 2019

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.

Dell PowerEdge R930 Excellent Packaging
Dell PowerEdge R930 installation in our data center

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.

MikroTik CRS312 4C 8XG RM Heat Sink
MikroTik CRS312 4C 8XG RM Heat Sink

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.

Final Words

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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6 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting. Appreciate the behind the scenes look. My unsolicited opinion on revenue: I would pay a modest fee (I’m no expert on pricing) to support STH in exchange for some value added stuff like perhaps once a month discussions where subscribers would be able to ask questions and get you to discuss roadmaps, products and specific hardware. Or other stuff, as long as it never puts STH content behind a paywall.

    STH succeeds, in my opinion, because it doesn’t try too hard, doesn’t pander and has clear articles written by people who are knowledgeable in the field. That happens to be a recipe for the kind of site I want to visit. Keep it up.

  2. I feel that STH has been VERY GOOD at showing the technology trend that matters, showing products that sometime get little attention from mainstream tech website, and also showing the non-obvious points behind significant development. I am very happy to have found STH providing the datacenter tech news but also good insights, as that was long lost (unfortunately) in the other previously good review website such as InfoWorld and BYTE.
    Thank you for continuing to push the envelop for more product reviews and on-time publication, to pursue integrity in your reviews (not just showing the marketing sponsor’s statement), providing meaningful information to the public. You’re making great service to the enterprise IT industry, and not charging anything for it!
    Have a good holiday, and looking forward to more STH articles in 2020.

  3. Thanks Patrick for another insightful update. I appreciate the effort you make in keeping quality up while still making money. It’s not always an easy balance, which is why many sites take the easy shortcut and sell out. I think that not taking that shortcut is what makes STH stand apart (and having a sort-of monopoly on good server and server component reviews is pretty good). I wish you good luck with your business and a good 2020.

    PS. It would be nice if this website doesn’t refresh automatically and delete your work when you spend five minutes writing a thoughtful reply. This comment is therefore a bit shorter than the previous one. 😉

  4. Like the others, THANK YOU for such great reviews and coverage. There’s a reason I’ve been coming to your site since 2011 now. When Anand left Anandtech is around the time that I started making this my new home. Don’t get me wrong, I think Ian Cutress knows his stuff, but the content there doesn’t seem to nearly interest me as much as what’s posted here.

    That said, your comment on another regular server review site charging vendors for awards interests me. We, like you originally, have no experience in this area, and I find it fascinating as it affects us so much without us even realizing it. Perhaps you can use your learning experience with Timothy Prickett Morgan to educate the rest of us. Could be a mini-series or something; I know I would be interested.

    Best of luck to you as 2020 approaches… STH just keeps getting better and better. 🙂

  5. I’ve been a STH reader for a few years now and it’s my goto place for enterprise level reviews. I’m not involved in procurement but most of the companies I work with fall into the enterprise category so it’s great for keeping abreast of trends there.

    At home my wife is a tech Luddite and cares not that there’s 10GigE in the house. I don’t see enough reason to go further than this in the short-medium term and generally I’m happy with hand me down enterprise kit off of eBay (apart from a recent Mikrotek 10G switch). Nevertheless, I salivate over the high end kit that I have no real need for. My v3 E5 box is handling my VM needs but it’s fascinating to watch performance changes.

    Live what you’re doing and although I wish there were more articles, I had no idea, or hadn’t considered, the costs incurred in doing a proper job. I’m happy that you’ve maintained your current high standards and independence rather than increase the cadence.

    Excellent work by everyone.

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