Interview with Jonathan LaCour, Vice President, Cloud and Development, at DreamHost
If you’ve been in the hosting arena for awhile, you know DreamHost. What you may know is that they have had these great deals on domains+hosting that may have even reeled you in. But you may not know about the commitment to cloud infrastructure. We learned more about this with Jonathan LaCour, the Vice President of Cloud of Development at DreamHost, who gave us a really exhaustive look at his involvement in the company and in working on the cloud.
Can you tell us about your background and your primary focus at DreamHost?
My background by education and trade is a programmer. I was a software engineer for a long time. I’ve been involved in open source, joining the programming movement through my usage of Linux and in coding in Python for many years, and then I started into subscription software services doing medical records software. Later, I worked on enterprise document management.
In 2007, I co-founded a company called ShootQ and became its CTO. ShootQ made a very early cloud based application on infrastructure as a service using open source software. We grew that business very successfully and then sold it to a company in Los Angeles, where I met Simon Anderson who later became the CEO of DreamHost–that is how I eventually ended up at DreamHost.
At DreamHost, I was originally the VP of Software Development where I was managing software developers. After a year, I took on product as well with product management across the board.
About two years ago, I shifted to the cloud function and cloud business unit. I still run the software engineering teams as well, but now I have additional responsibilities running the cloud services, of which there are two: DreamObjects and DreamCompute.
DreamObjects was our first foray into cloud services. It was in development when I joined. It was built on Ceph, which is open source software built by one of the four DreamHost founders, Sage Weil, and which is a pretty revolutionary piece of technology. It allows you to take a large number of commodity servers with inexpensive spinning disks, or SSDs, and network them together and present them as a unified storage pool that can be accessed as block or object storage. DreamObjects gives our customers object storage compatible with the Amazon S3 and OpenStack Swift APIs.
It is offered at a lower price point than the rest of the industry and we’re open as to how we created and deployed the service, in that we are happy to share what software/hardware we’re using. Today, we have 10,000+ customers, multiple petabytes of storage, and it’s integrated with a CDN.
The second cloud service is DreamCompute. It’s our answer to cloud computing and is build on top of an open source project called OpenStack (as well as Ceph). OpenStack is the fastest growing open source project since Linux. We have been involved since the early days and are a founding member of the OpenStack Foundation. In the 3.5 years we’ve been developing DreamCompute, we’ve been helping shepherd along the OpenStack project. DreamCompute provides people the ability to spin up virtual machines, networks, and block devices. DreamCompute has over 1,000 customers in the beta, but we’re hoping to scale up significantly with the launch of our new DreamCompute 2 platform, which is launching this quarter with an all new architecture, including ultra-fast SSD storage, hardware accelerated open source virtual networking, and fast Intel processors.
Can you tell us about the evolution of DreamHost from dorm room company (how did that begin) to where it is today? How many offices do you have and how many staff members do you have?
DreamHost was founded in a dorm room with four cofounders at Harvey Mudd in southern California. They knew that the web was becoming a big thing in 1996 and 1997 so they set up a little Linux server in their room with Apache and PHP. The founders began hosting websites for people they knew and then decided to expand their focus. Eventually, it grew into a real business.
Sage Weil was part of this launch and built another piece of software called Webring, which was popular in the very early days of the web. He sold that service which helped fund the creation of DreamHost.
Today, we have about 200 employees, nearly 400,000 customers, and we currently have 3 physical offices: Downtown LA, one in Orange County in Brea, CA, and we just opened an office in Portland, OR.
What services does DreamHost offer today?
We offer cloud services, and the bread and butter are our managed hosting services: shared hosting, VPS hosting, and dedicated servers. They are all built on the same platform, a managed platform offering a full rich user experience. You don’t have to worry about managing applications, as the platform provides one click install support for many popular open source applications, such as WordPress.
We offer domains and DNS and registration services as well, and we bundle email with our services, so we really provide the whole package. If you sign up for hosting and buy a domain, you get email, which includes webmail and email storage.
The newest product we have is DreamPress: the best way to run a WordPress site. It is optimized for high performance, auto-scaling, and is really easy to get started with. Its built to give you the best possible experience when you are setting up a WordPress site. There’s nothing for you to install or worry about, just sign up, enter your domain name, and off you go!
It seems that you and the company are proponents of open source technologies. Can you please give a background into OpenStack and what DreamHost is doing on that end?
DreamHost has been a big contributor and supporter of the OpenStack project, and has even spun off a separate company called Akanda, which develops and supports the Astara project, which provides virtual network automation for OpenStack clouds. We also were the creators and incubators of the Ceph storage project, and spun off a company called Inktank to develop and support Ceph, which we sold to RedHat last year. Open source is a big part of our culture and values, as well. We have our values painted on the walls of our office, including the value “Embrace Open Source.”
Can you tell us a bit about the CDN and cloud computing services that are offered by DreamHost?
The CDN is called DreamSpeed CDN, which is built into DreamObjects as an extension to our cloud storage service. It’s a partnership with Fastly, a popular CDN that is built on all-SSD storage and open source technology. If you are using DreamObjects as a customer, you can toggle on the CDN and content will be pulled out globally to wherever your customers are, offering higher performance to visitors on your website or application.
What is the typical demography and geography of your customers at this time?
65-70% of the customers are in the US. There are significant contingents of customers in India, Asia, and South America. We’re a global reach business. That said, currently our infrastructure is all in the US on both the East and West coasts.
Being a mass market web host, we really can serve a huge gamut of customers. We have a significant number of individuals, but scale all the way up to big businesses who are hosting sites and apps with us. We’ve had many celebrities and comedians and rock bands hosting their infrastructure with us, and we also have developers. That’s a big focus for our cloud product, developers and businesses who need to scale up their services. They’re more interested in open source than your typical consumer.
Our customer base is really anyone who wants to get a website online, who wants to have their email in a place that respects their privacy and the ownership of their data. With the market that we’re in now, we’re competing against these giant players, where they’re providing services for free, but supported by advertising. Google offers Gmail but they’re indexing data to provide you with free product. Contrarily, we’re an open business built on open source, and we respect privacy and ownership. We like to encrypt as much as possible. We’re encouraging free encryption more so than ever before with a new integration with Let’s Encrypt.
Our customers, by and large, are more interested in their privacy and the safety of their data and have that respect for open source and freedom.
Can you tell us what a typical server looks like? Do customers who have stayed with you automatically get upgraded to bigger and better servers over time? How does this work?
It depends on the product, but on a product by product basis, we always bring customers forward as infrastructure gets better and performance improves.
Our shared hosting product line has served some customers for over a decade. Those customers with us have been moved 4-5x times to better servers, servers that offer better storage, memory, etc.
We also upgrade networking. Recently, we revamped our entire network foundation, with brand new enterprise grade networking gear, which has really improved our overall level of service.
We’ve done a lot of upgrades over the years. In shared hosting, we moved to SSD storage for our platform, and we did this with VPS hosting as well. We’re not going back and retrofitting every single server, but customers are rotated onto new servers as their existing servers age out.
Our new DreamCompute region will be all SSD backed, and will offer over 2X performance over the existing product across the board.
We’re very patient about it and diligent. It is a seamless process to newer, faster, and better. Customers always have access to new gear as their old hardware ages out.
We have also moved to new datacenters, from LA to Virginia and Portland. We do it over the wire, in concert with the customer. Pretty much every customer we have had is refreshed and upgraded.
How did your experience in being a CTO of a company translate to being a VP at one of the biggest web hosting companies in the US?
When I was a founder and CTO at my other business, it moved me out of a pure software development focus to a more holistic view of the technology that drives a business.
It wasn’t just about getting the software written, it was about getting it deployed, maintaining it, monitoring it, and operating it. Also, the discipline of managing software teams over the last decade helped to ensure I knew how to get them excited, giving them the vision of what we’re trying to accomplish and the tools and support to make it happen so that they can run free. That experience was vital to me.
Being an early cloud customer was a huge part of my journey to DreamHost as well because it gave me this customer perspective. When I joined, I knew what it meant to be a customer of an infrastructure provider and have a great deal of appreciation of building on open source product.
What takeaways have you brought from your other experiences to DreamHost?
The startup world was a transition for me but the biggest one was in early days, when I became adept at the Python programming language and an active part of the community. I was accepted into the Python Software Foundation as a Fellow and that experience was really valuable as well because I’ve been a participant in a vibrant open source community. At DreamHost, we participate in several open source communities where individuals and companies work together to build these platforms that drive the web forward. My experience in the Python community really prepared me well for that atmosphere.
Are you focused on the software side of the equation, or also the infrastructure/hardware in that you are VP of Cloud and Development? What does this look like and how have you been growing the infrastructure with your software-focused background?
As you said, my title is the Vice President of Cloud and Development. For our Cloud services, I am in charge of the teams that develop the software, operate the services, monitor and deploy the service, market it to our customers, etc. I am also in charge of the entire software development function for the rest of the organization. I am definitely not focused exclusively on the software side, but I bring my software knowledge into the picture. As a company, we’re focused on how we can use code to automate everything. So, that is part of the focus. I am also a heavy participant in hardware; we identify our needs and work closely with the Data Center teams to benchmark, run tests, and select hardware that is best for our customers.
What can you tell people about embracing open source technologies?
Open source is: many eyes and many brains from around the world across many use cases hammering on the same technology and making it better. It’s not a panacea – you won’t find every security issue and bug right away – but that “open” word is the key. If you’re a business embracing open source technology, having engineers who can read and write code, creating code that is for your eyes only, it’s overwhelming. But with open source, you leverage the global brain to help you solve problem. It’s not magic, it’s not perfect, but it’s better than owning things yourself and worrying about everything on your own.
If someone who was clueless about the web hosting space today asked you what type of service they should sign up for, what would you recommend and why?
People searching for hosting today don’t search for the same thing they did 7-8 years ago. “Shared hosting” or “VPS” were the searches of those older days. Today, they’re searching for “I need a website” or “I need email” or “I need a domain.” If someone is purely looking at that, the type of service they should sign up for is the one that will make them successful the most quickly. From our perspective, DreamPress, our managed WordPress offering, is the gold star for their needs. They can get started really quickly on the best open source CMS on the planet.
Do you find that open source has taken a bigger role in the current state of the Internet compared to when you first started at DreamHost?
Open source has run the Internet for a long time. Linux has been pervasive for years, and Apache has been running a significant chunk of websites. The biggest change that I’ve seen over the last 4.5 years at DreamHost has been the rise of WordPress. It’s become a juggernaut. It runs a significant portion of websites on the Internet; something like 20% of websites are run by WordPress.
Being one of the top places in the world to deploy WordPress is great for DreamHost. That’s the biggest dynamic that has changed that’s specific to DreamHost.
Similarly, do you have long term goals to transition to more of a cloud based infrastructure? Are you finding that to be more relevant?
We started developing the cloud infrastructure for our customers before we started developing it for ourselves. The infrastructure for our shared/VPS/dedicated is cloudy to a degree, but isn’t yet fully transitioned. We’re going to work on internally adopting OpenStack more over the next few years.
How does the company’s reliance on SSD impact customers and the bottom line? Does it have a financial impact?
Over the last 5-6, SSDs have really changed the game. Traditional spinning disks have seen a great deal of accelerated development but it’s mostly on the cost and density side, not on performance. We can buy much higher capacity drives at a low cost that we were able to even just 12 months ago. They’re not as reliable, tend to fail, and they’re built to fail because they have lots of moving parts. Their performance is fine, but they’re not going to blow the doors off. SSDs are more expensive but perform very well. With the proliferation of content at high scale, people having smartphones with high def and 4K, with more photos and videos, collecting more music and movies, that high capacity is important, but performance is also critical. SSDs impact customers significantly because we can provide much higher performance to them and we’re providing that nearly across our entire product line at this point.
As customers become more interested in performance and less interested in capacity, you can give that to them with SSD, but it may mean storage caps. There’s a financial impact to us but it’s worth it for our customers to have high performance.
What are your plans for the next 5 years?
We’re in a phase of transition right now. Our CEO just departed and we’re doing strategic planning to really think critically about the future of the company. The things we’re actively talking about largely relate to better serving our different customer segments:
The first segment is anyone who wants to get a website online – your average individual blogger or company who wants to put a website online. They want to get online quickly and not worry about operating it. Their privacy is important to them especially due to Snowden and those who may be looking at their data. Encryption is a big deal for us as a company. Targeting that with our hosting platform and DreamPress and new ways to get people online as quickly as possible.
The second big part of our plan is developers. As technology becomes more pervasive and more people get ahold of it and education advances with STEM becoming more of a priority, we’re planning on providing people with the best platform to affordably learn how to interact with things like cloud. We are looking to answer questions like: How can I get an application online quickly? How can I learn about infrastructure as a service and these new technologies? For growing businesses, how can I deploy my application more affordably and get insight into how it operates? The big giants in the space are Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, but their platforms are built on completely proprietary stacks with no insight into how they work. How do we serve developers and builders who create applications and services who care about value, open source, and security?
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