4 years at Engine Yard, what a long strange trip it's been.

Posted by ezmobius Fri, 13 Aug 2010 08:27:00 GMT

So by now most folks who know me know that I have resigned from the startup I co-founded, namely Engine Yard Inc. It’s a long strange story that has lead up to this point and a lot of it I cannot speak of but I am going to give a short history of a 4 year startup that took $38million in VC money over 3 rounds and my view from the cockpit and trenches both.

Back in February of 2006 Ruby on Rails was still in it’s infancy and things were still changing very fast with regards to deployment especially. It was obvious that Rails was going to be a smashing success and I had actually launched one of the first commercial Rails applications in late 2004 when I worked at the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper in Yakima WA. They had a website already written in PHP that got about 250k uniques/day, so not a small amount of traffic but it was no twitter or anything like that. Still back then almost no one knew how to efficiently deploy Rails apps and scale them without them falling over. And the landscape was going through major changes, CGI, webrick, Fast-CGI, mod_ruby, mongrel etc. With a plethora of front end static file web servers to put these things behind.

I was the only technical person at the whole newspaper and I was tasked with rewriting their entire website, intranet and classified and obituary entry system. THey had a small data center in the newspaper building and they bought me two Apple X-Serves and said “here you go, your Rails application must take the 250k uniques on day one without faltering or we will roll back to the php app and you will be in hot water buddy”

So I had to become the deployment expert in the Rails community, if you search the ruby on rails mailing lists from 2004-2007 you will find literally thousands of my posts helping folks figure out how to deploy and keep their apps running. I was approached by Dave Thomas of the Pragmatic Programmers and asked if I’d like to write a book on Rails Deployment. “Hell yeah I’d like to write that book I said”. Little did I know how much work that was going to be with all the changes Rails deployment was about to go through. But it gave me a name in the community as the “Rails Deployment Expert”. And I did finally finish the book “Deploying Rails Applications” 2 years later with the help of two other authors. But I rewrote most of the book a few times as things changed so often.

Anyway back to February of 2006, Tom Mornini and Lance Walley called me up out of the blue(I did not know either of these guys before this call) and told me about an idea they had to build a “Rackspace for Rails”. They asked if I was interested and said they found me through my thousands of posts on the rails mailing list and my Pragmatic beta book and figured I was the obvious expert to help them build their vision. So I agreed to become the 3rd founder with them and we started the planning stages of what was to become Engine Yard Inc.

The first Railsconf was in June of 2006 and we had a teaser website up and I was giving a talk on Rails Deployment at the conference. I announced the then vaporware Engine Yard as my “One more thing” at the end of my speech and linked to our site where we took emails.

We rounded up about $120k by begging, borrowing and stealing(not really) from friends and family. I must admit that Tom and Lance raised most of this first money here while I was busy writing the first code for Engine Yard. We raised this seed money in August of 2006 and that was when I quit my full time job and took the plunge. We all flew down to Sacramento where we had rented our first rack at Herakles data and bought our first 6 Super-micro servers and first Co-Raid JBOD disk array.

I still remember building the servers and racking them while at the same time fast talking folks on the phone trying to sell early accounts on our not yet running first cluster.

Now you need to know that this was way back before everything was “Cloud” Amazon had not yet come out with EC2 or any hints of it. But we knew what we needed to make our vision happen so we ended up building a cloud before the word cloud meant what it means today. We went with Xen and commodity pizza boxes and hand rolled automation written in ruby and python.

At this point Tom and I had realized we were out of our league with the low level linux, Xen, networking and basic ponytail type of stuff. This is when we took on our 4th founder Jayson Vantyl. He was the guy answering all our Xen and coraid questions on the mailing lists just like I had been the guy answering the rails deployment stuff. So we first hired him as a contractor and flew him out to help build our first cluster. We quickly realized we needed this guy as the 4th founder and made him an offer and he joined the company as the 4th and final founder in September I believe of 2006.

So we were able to cobble together our first cluster and get it working well enough to take some trusting early customers. I personally hand deployed the first 80 or so customers. I mean I literally took their app code and worked with them to learn about their app, and personally wrote the caspistrano deployment scripts for each of these customers myself. I was the only support staff on call 24/7 for the first year as far as application support went and Jayson was the only cluster support guy for the first 6 months or so as well.

I quickly built up a collection of best practices and a set of automation tools that let me do this easier and easier for each new customer. Slowly building out our Engine Yard automation toolkit.

I was also responsible for putting together the “Rails Stack” we used. Jayson chose Gentoo linux because that was what he was most familiar with and it was the distro we could hand optimize to get the best speed and flexibility out of. But I built the entire stack that ran after a blank VM was online with networking, storage and all that jazz.

I chose Nginx, Mongrel, Mysql, Memcached, Monit, Sphinx and a handful of other open source items that we made custom builds of highly tuned for ruby and running Rails apps as fast as possible. Many of you will remember me sharing my nginx and other configs on this blog and I am sure that my nginx.con for running rails apps with mongrel clusters is probably one of the most widely used nginx.conf files in existence ;)

Fast forward a year or so and we hired a few folks to help me. We were having massive success. Hardly any other hosting companies knew how to host, scale and keep rails apps online. We specialized in rails apps only and we also did the full white glove service. Anything you needed you could file a ticket for and we would bend over backwards to help you get it done.

We helped many folks get through slashdottings and digg and techcrunch ‘attacks’ by temporarily giving them more ram or cpu or bigger databases and then scaling them back down after the onslaught was over. We were one of the first hosting companies to be truly ‘cloud like’ IMHO. EC@ came out in 2007 and looking back if it had come out before we built our own cloud I would have chosen to use them as a substrate instead of building our own cloud. But also looking back I think rolling our own gave us a unique perspective on the whole thing as we have seen the cloud stack all the way from the blank cages to the PaaS we currently run on top of Amazon.

But in late 2008 I was between projects and we had taken our series B VC round which included Benchmark, NEA and Amazon as investors. So I decided to go off into a cave for a month or two and see if I could decouple our ‘stack’ from our hardware and make it run on top of EC2. It took me about 6 weeks to have a working prototype of what is now called AppCloud. I’d like to shout out here to Adam Holoway from Opscode here for training me on how to use Chef. I hired him for 3 days to come down and help me convert my Engine Yard automation system that was mostly based on capistrano to chef and a central gui to manage it. He helped me jump start the whole thing and Engine Yard owes him and Opscode a debt of gratitude. We were the first company to use chef commercially, heck we even used chef in production for pay before opscode did! So big ups Adam.

This was all done in october and november of 2008. Then I showed it to the rest of the company and we started to build a team around me to help productize the prototype spike and thus was born AppCloud.

We launched it in late January 2009 as Engine Yard Solo as it started out only managing single machines at a time with the app servers, database servers and cache servers all running on one box. The only way to scale was to move to a bigger EC2 instance. But we launched and pretty fast too!

We started taking customers rapidly and taking customer feedback to rapidly iterate the system. By the end of the summer of 2009 we launched Engine Yard Flex(horrible names here, bear with me) which was the same system but supported full clusters on EC2 with load balanced self healing application tiers, Database tiers with read only slaves and utility servers so anything that didn’t fit into the other two boxes like nosql databases or search engines etc.

Then we took on even more customers and rapidly iterated on this until it was pretty nice and solid. The team has been doing this ever since and now there are way over 1000 customers on AppCloud(we removed the solo and flex names and just called it AppCloud). Many features have been added and the current incarnation of AppCloud is the vision I had in my head when we first started Engine Yard way back in 2006. We just were victims of our own success and could not deploy customers fast enough to get free time to build the automated system that AppCloud is today.

And we started moving people out of our own data center and off our own cloud onto AppCloud as it got more and more featureful. As far as I see it there is zero value in racking and stacking servers anymore. The money is going to be in management platforms for other peoples IaaS clouds like EC2 and others that are popping up all over the place.

But I believe the true future of cloud computing for developers is to not think about servers at all. It is now time to focus on the Application and new levels of abstraction that allow folks to use the computing resources in easier and easier ways.

So here it is the summer of 2010, I’ve been working my ass off at Engine Yard for 4 years now pouring every ounce of blood sweat and tears that I could muster to make it the best it could be.

February of this year my wife Regan and I had a beautiful baby boy named Ryland and that changed the game entirely. Now is the time for me to focus on spending as much time with my son and family as I can and I can no longer commit to 100 hour weeks at Engine Yard. I also wanted to move to Portland where my folks live so my son can grow up near his grandparents and my wife and I can have trustworthy babysitters so we can have a social live of our own(even if it’s just a little bit;)

After 4 years at Engine Yard I was so close to being fully vested on my stock that I decided to resign and leave the company in the competent hands and team that has been built up there over the years. I wish all of you the very best and will be watching closely to make sure you make me a ton of money someday when you sell the company like you promised me you would ;)

So here we are at the beginning of a new era. What comes next for me? Something truly awesome and even more challenging then Engine Yard, but that will allow me to work from home in Portland. I cannot yet reveal where I am going to work next but I can promise it will be another game changing project and I am chomping at the bit to get started.

I will make another post when I am allowed to reveal my new job and what I will be working on, but for now I just wanted to write down a short history of “Engine Yard, the Good Times”. Don’t get me wrong it has definitely not all been roses and taking lots of VC money is a hard thing to do and keep the balance of your vision of a company. But I believe I did the best I could for Engine Yard, I gave them many great inventions and lots of good code and I practically hired most of the devs, ops and support folks there just by knowing them from online or at conferences or by working with them on open source projects or talking with them on irc. That is the new way to build companies, College degrees don’t matter much IMHO anymore, for developers anyway. It’s more how you interact with the open source community and what you release yourself. Your github account has become your new resume and what you say on Twitter and in various IRC channels are more likely to get you the best jobs then any recruiters ever will.

I just want to say a fond farewell to Engine Yard and all my people there. I wish you all the best of luck and I know you will be a success with all the smart folks that work there.

It was just time for a new challenge for me, time to move on and time to focus a bit more on family then on startup life 24/7.

Farewell fond memories and friends at the Yard, I will miss each and everyone of you. Oh the stories I could tell if only I could. But I feel that telling this positive story of the history of EY is the classy way to go out and I wish Engine Yard all the best in the world.

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EY Looking for Mad Scientists

Posted by ezmobius Tue, 19 Aug 2008 22:51:00 GMT

We’ve got a few job openings I wanted to float out there for your consideration. Here are the listings:

Ruby Developer

Systems Engineer in Sacremento

Systems Engineer

We need another team member for the Vertebra project. You know ruby like the back of your hand and are interested in distributed systems as well as learning erlang.

Systems engineers work on our cluster systems and will help with our custom Gentoo linux build as well as be involved with the Load Balancers, Switching Fabric, Linux, Xen, Coraid and helping design the latest and greatest platform for running Ruby applications in the cloud.

If you think you have the chops for any of these jobs then we want to hear from you. Please send a resume and a short email describing who you are and why you kick ass to jarnold@engineyard.com and cc ezra@engineyard.com

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Engine Yard takes $15mill Series B Round from NEA, Amazon and Benchmark

Posted by ezmobius Mon, 14 Jul 2008 00:17:00 GMT

Man it seems like yesterday that Engine Yard was a small 3 person startup with big ideas and little cash. People seemed to like what we were offering and the business grew into a thriving startup.

In the beginning we only had plans to be the best fully managed rails/ruby hosting company. And I think we met this goal early on. But it became apparent that we had a strong brand and we started kicking around ideas of becoming an open source software company as well.

We believe in Ruby as a platform, and we’ve put our money where our mouth is when we sponsored Rubinius and Merb, hiring many developers to work on both projects.

Engine Yard has become much more then just a managed rails hosting company, we want to strengthen the Ruby ecosystem for everyone by providing the infrastructure and open source software for the next wave of Ruby deployments in the cloud.

We’ve also been delving into the cloud computing arena as I think the next 5 years are going to see huge transition from standard hosting models into the cloud. Our upcoming Vertebra project is a new application programming platform for building distributed cloud applications with XMPP. You can expect to see the first open source release of Vertebra this summer, I think this is a truly unique and very fun project to work on. I think a lot of folks out there will have tons of different use cases for it.

So fast forward to right now, Engine Yard now has more then 80 employees worldwide. Half of these people are Application Support and SysAdmins working to support all the awesome applications we host. Providing 24/7 support. But we also have a growing Engineering team working on all kinds of exciting stuff. I consider myself lucky to work with such a talented team.

So with all that being said, I’m excited to annouce that we have just closed our Series B round of VC funding totalling $15million dollars(insert austin powers joke here)! This round includes investment from NEA, Amazon and Benchmark.

We’re going to use this money towards making Ruby the platform of choice for cloud computing and web development in startups and the enterprise alike.

Watch this space, we have lots of exciting announcements in the coming months. I’d like to thank all of our customers and users of our open source software and the Ruby community in general. It has been a wild ride these last 2 years and I expect many more exciting things to come!

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Rubyology Podcast Interview

Posted by ezmobius Mon, 23 Jun 2008 02:06:00 GMT

Chris Matthieu and Steven Bristol interviewed me for the Rubyology Podcast a few days ago and they have posted the interview here. I talk about my early days of computing, merb, vertebra, rubinius and the story behind how Engine Yard got started and has grown. I’ll warn you though it’s a long interview, 120 minutes! Have a listen if you want to hear the story.

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Engine Yard takes $3.5 million in VC money

Posted by ezmobius Fri, 11 Jan 2008 21:44:00 GMT

Just a quick note here so say that we’ve finally let the cat out of the bag. We’ve been working with Benchmark Venture Capital on this investment for the past 4 months and it has finally closed!

Our hosting business has already been profitable for some time now and this investment will allow us to pursue the goal of our own Engine Yard open source technology stack. The stack includes Rubinius, Rails, Merb and our custom Xen clustering management technologies.

I’m really excited about the future of Engine Yard and what we plan to do for the Ruby community. Hard to believe we started with 4 people and 6 servers in October of 2006 and now we have many clusters and 32 employees across the globe!

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Engine Yard looking for new employees in the UK or Europe and Australia

Posted by ezmobius Thu, 03 Jan 2008 18:56:00 GMT

Engine Yard is looking to hire one or two more team members in the European timezones.

These positions are for Ruby/Rails application support technicians. You would be working with customers to deploy and maintain their applications. You would also have a hand in building our set of ruby based automation tools.

If you think you have what it takes and would be interested in working here then please send a resume and short description of why you would kick ass to :

jvandyke@engineyard.com

We are also looking for people in Australia, so if you are interested send am email to :

degan@engineyard.com

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Want to work at Engine Yard? (again)

Posted by ezmobius Fri, 31 Aug 2007 17:46:00 GMT

Hey folks-

Due to overwhelming influx of new customers we need to find some more help ASAP.

Are you a hacker at heart? Do you know rails, capistrano, linux and sysadmin stuff? Can you learn fast things you don’t know? Can you solve problems on your own and work with many diverse technologies?

We are very much still a startup company so we work long hours, doing cool stuff. Everyone wears multiple hats.

We need some people that aren’t afraid of anything on this list:

linux
mongrel
rails
nginx
swiftiply
capistrano
ruby
mysql
postgres
subversion
python
lvs
xen
some advanced network knowledge
coraid experience
vlad
god

You don’t have to be an expert in all of these things, but you need to be willing to learn from us and on your own.

Work would consist of doing new customer deployments, customer support(tickets, phone), writing automation tools for anything you do more then twice and pitching in on some of our open source projects like rubinius or merb.

If this sounds good to you and you aren;’t afraid of hard work then you may be the person we are looking for. Please send a quick note about why you would kick ass at this job and include a resume and any ruby code or tales of sysadmin heroics you want to show us.

We need some folks to start ASAP like today even. It’s a bonus if you are in the east coast usa timezone or even australia would be good.

So drop me a line at info@engineyard.com and tell me why we should hire you and why you want to work for us.

Thanks!

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Want to work at Engine Yard?

Posted by ezmobius Tue, 17 Apr 2007 20:45:00 GMT

I’m really happy to report that my startup company EngineYard.com has been growing at a very rapid pace. We started with 3 people: Lance, Tom and I and now we are up to 9 people total. But this still is not enough! We opened our doors for customers in October of 2006 and we’re a profitable company as of January 2007.

I know a lot of smart folks read my blog here so this is a call to arms. Engine Yard is looking for 2 more employees that know rails and capistrano well. Sysadmin knowledge is also a big plus and knowledge of Linux is a must. You would be working in a very fun company helping us develop our custom internal software and capistrano automation code base. You would also help with customer support and customer code reviews/recommendations. Never a dull day here so you should be comfortable wearing multiple hats and work well under pressure.

This is a full time salaried position with benefits. The cool part is that you can work remotely so you do not have to move to take this job. Our data center and headquarters is in Sacremento but most of our Rails tech people are scattered across the states. In fact it’s a bonus if you live on the east coast or in Europe since the internet never sleeps and we are getting more and more customers from overseas.

You would be working closely with me and my team. You’d get to play with kick ass hardware and work with Rails developers from all over the world to get their apps and deployments all ironed out.

Interested? Shoot me an email with some info on who you are, what your skills are and why you think you would kick ass if we hired you.

ez@engineyard.com

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EngineYard.com gets some love

Posted by ezmobius Sat, 27 Jan 2007 21:16:00 GMT

We have been extremely busy working on Engine Yard. I couldn’t be happier with our progress. We are already running more then 130 slices and growing rapidly.

But I think our website didn’t do a very good job of explaining what kind of service we realy offer. Also it wasn’t clear what an EngineYard slice really gets you.

Well Damien Tanner from new-bamboo.co.uk and Lance form EY have been working very hard on revamping our site to better showcase our offerings. So here is our new updated website:

www.engineyard.com

And the what you get page is much better now.

what’s a slice really mean?

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EngineYard Control Panel Screencast

Posted by ezmobius Mon, 16 Oct 2006 01:09:00 GMT

I’m happy to release a preview screencast of the control panel I have been slaving away on for EngineYard.com. It is not complete yet but you can begin to get a feel for how nice it will be once its finished. I’ll post more as I finish parts of it.

EY Control Panel Screencast

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