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19 Oct 2011

A Sustainable Flying Sphinx?

In which I muse about what a sustainable web service could look like – but first, the backstory:

A year ago – almost to the day – I sat in a wine bar in Sydney’s Surry Hills with Steve Hopkins. I’d been thinking about how to get Sphinx working on Heroku, and ran him through the basic idea in my head of how it could work. His first question was “So, what are you working on tomorrow, then?”

By the end of the following day, I had some idea of how it would work. Over the next few months I had a proof of concept working, hit some walls, began again, and finally got to a point where I could launch an alpha release of Flying Sphinx.

In May, Flying Sphinx became available for all Heroku users – and earlier today (five months later), I received my monthly provider payment from Heroku, with the happy news that I’m now earning enough to cover all related ongoing expenses – things like AWS for the servers, Scalarium to manage them, and Tender for support.

Now, I’m not rolling in cash, and I’m certainly not earning enough through Flying Sphinx to pay rent, let alone be in a position to drop all client work and focus on Flying Sphinx full-time. That’s cool, either of those targets would be amazing.

And of course, money isn’t the be all and end all – even though this is a business, and I certainly don’t want to run at a loss. I want Flying Sphinx to be sustainable – in that it covers not only the hosting costs, but my time as well, along with supporting the broader system around it – code, people and beyond.

But what does a sustainable web service look like, particularly beyond the standard (outmoded) financial axis?

Sustainable Time

Firstly (and selfishly), it should cover the time spent maintaining and expanding the service. Flying Sphinx doesn’t use up a huge amount of my time right at the moment, but I’m definitely keen to improve a few things (in particular, offer Sphinx 2.0.1 alongside the existing 1.10-beta installation), and there is the occasional support query to deal with.

This one’s relatively straight-forward, really – I can track all time spent on Flying Sphinx and multiply that by a decent hourly rate. If it turns out I can’t manage all the work myself, then I pay someone else to help.

It certainly doesn’t look like I’m going to need anyone helping in the near future, mind you – nor am I drowning in support requests.

Sustainable Software

Ignoring the time I spend writing code for Flying Sphinx (as that’s covered by the previous section), pretty much every other piece of software involved with the service is open source. Front and centre among these is Sphinx itself.

I certainly don’t expect to be paid for my own open source contributions, but it certainly helps when there’s some funds trickling in to help motivate dealing with support questions, fixing bugs and adding features. It can also provide a stronger base to build a community as well.

With this in mind, I’m considering setting aside a percentage of any profit for Sphinx development – as any improvements to that help make Flying Sphinx a stronger offering.

(I could also cover my time spent on Thinking Sphinx either with a percentage cut – either way it would end up in my pocket though.)

Sustainable Hardware

This is where things get a little trickier – we’re not just dealing with bits and electrons, but also silicon and metals. The human race is pretty bad at weaning itself off of limited (as opposed to renewable) resources, and the hardware industry certainly is going to hit some limits in the future as certain metals become harder to source.

Of course, the servers use a lot of energy, so one thing I will be doing is offsetting the carbon. I’ve not yet figured out the best service to do this, but will start by looking at Brighter Planet.

From a social perspective, there’s also questions about how those resources are sourced. We should be considering the working conditions of where the metals are mined (and by whom), the people who are soldering the logic boards, and those who place the finished products into racks in data centres.

As an example, let’s look at Amazon. Given the recent issues raised with the conditions for staff in their warehouses, I think it’s fair to seek clarification on the situation of their web service colleagues. And what if there were significant ethical issues for using AWS? What then for Flying Sphinx, which runs EC2 instances and is an add-on for Heroku, a business built entirely on top of Amazon’s offerings?

I could at least use servers elsewhere – but that means bandwidth between servers and Heroku apps starts to cost money – and we introduce a step of latency into the service. Neither of those things are ideal. Or I could just say that I don’t want to support Amazon at all, and shut down Flying Sphinx, remove all my Heroku apps, and find some other hosting service to use.

Am I getting a little too carried away? Perhaps, but this is all hypothetical anyway. I’m guessing Amazon’s techs are looked after decently (though I’d love some confirmation on this), and am hoping the situation improves for their warehouse staff as well.

I am still searching for answers for what truly sustainable hardware – and moreso, sustainable web services – financially, socially, environmentally, and technically. What’s your take? What have I forgotten?

19 Apr 2009

Link: The Perfect 3 Column Liquid Layout: No CSS hacks. SEO friendly. iPhone compatible.

17 Mar 2009

Link: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable « Clay Shirky

"The core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem."

04 Feb 2009

Link: Rosenfeld Media - Web Form Design Book Site

"everything you need to know about designing effective and engaging Web forms"

03 Sep 2008

Link: mySociety » Welcome to mySociety.org

Creators of TheyWorkForYou

10 May 2008

Link: WorldChanging: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

"But media is actually a triathlon, it 's three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share."

28 Apr 2008

Link: Chris Shiflett: URLs Can Be Beautiful

"Instead of thinking purely in hierarchies, I wanted to also make the URLs powerful statements that stand on their own."

28 Apr 2008

Link: hatom - Microformats

blog post microformat - need to keep this in mind when retweaking my blog

06 Apr 2008

Link: 24 ways: Back To The Future of Print

05 Apr 2008

Link: Edge: BETTER THAN FREE By Kevin Kelly

"In the digital arena, generative qualities add value to free copies, and therefore are something that can be sold."

31 Mar 2008

Link: Animated in-progress indicator for long running pages - Stillnet Studios

not the cleanest code, but a good starting point

15 Jan 2008

Link: With friends like these ... Tom Hodgkinson on the politics of the people behind Facebook | Technology | The Guardian

Sounds a bit conspiracy-ish, but still, just another reason or two to steer clear of facebook.

01 Jan 2008

Link: Trading for their own account

"Everyone applauds when Google goes after Microsoft's Office monopoly, seeing it simply as "turnabout's fair play," but when they start to go after web non-profits like Wikipedia, you see where the ineluctible logic leads."

12 Dec 2007

Link: Wufoo · HTML Form Template & CSS Design Gallery

Collection of form designs

10 Dec 2007

Link: Airbag - Fail.

"Here's an idea: make fantastic products and services and stop trying to control the citizen voice. It only comes back to haunt you. Always has, always will."

18 Sep 2007

Link: Dash - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Useful ref for when I've forgotten which dash should be used where.

20 Aug 2007

Link: Start faxing by email. TRY IT FREE

Tags:

18 Aug 2007

Link: reCAPTCHA: Stop Spam, Read Books

17 Aug 2007

Link: Syncotype Your Baselines — RobGoodlatte.com

28 Jul 2007

Link: Common fonts to all versions of Windows

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About Freelancing Gods

Freelancing Gods is written by , who works on the web as a web developer in Melbourne, Australia, specialising in Ruby on Rails.

In case you're wondering what the likely content here will be about (besides code), keep in mind that Pat is passionate about the internet, music, politics, comedy, bringing people together, and making a difference. And pancakes.

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