What it costs to run my sites, 2023 edition

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 24, 2023, 4:33 PM | comments: 0

The curve of site running costs has been pretty crazy over the last 25 years. It started out relatively cheap, around $50 a month. By 2001, it was often as much as $800 per month, at which point I had a T-1 connection installed at my house for $1,230 a month. That had a remarkable speed of 1.5 mbps (you likely get more than 100 mbps downloads at home now), and I had to buy my own server and software. Eventually it settled into a rhythm of around $120 per month for a great many years. The performance wasn't great, but it more or less worked. When that server finally had to be retired, I was spending around $180 per month. That had its issues too, when I had a server die on me once, a fire at the data center cut it out another time, and I had a hard drive die once too. No redundancy. In 2014-ish, I moved everything to the cloud, specifically Azure.

In these days where ad revenue has become, for lack of a better word, dire, I thought it would be good to talk through my spend now. I spend a little more, but the performance is extraordinary and redundancy is included. Here's the run down:

  • $110: Database - This is the largest cost that I have. I use a SQL Azure database pool, which means that I can make as many databases as I want that share a pool of "database transaction units," which is some arbitrary measure of CPU and memory usage. I average under 10% utilization, so plenty of overhead for random Google algorithm spikes or bots slamming the sites. It's fully redundant and I can go back in time if I mess up a database. I could over time adapt everything to run on PostgreSQL, but on Azure at least, this isn't likely less expensive for the same performance.
  • $23: Primary site hosting - This is abstractly a Linux virtual machine running all of the sites in containers. To accommodate all of the sites, it's not at the cheapest level because it takes a lot of memory. I'm only running one instance, instead of multiples, which is why every now and then it appears to go "down" for a moment because the underlying machine dies, is being decommissioned or some other condition. All of CoasterBuzz runs here, and the non-forum part of PointBuzz runs here.
  • $23-46: Forum hosting - As above, but there are two slightly lower powered instances that are load balanced. This is the hosted POP Forums app, which includes the PointBuzz forums and sometimes other customers. At times of slightly higher demand, I have to either add a third instance or double the resource level (CPU/memory).
  • $15: Redis cache - This is a small pile of in-memory data that is shared between the hosting instances, as well as the main sites. It's faster to get commonly used data out of memory in the app itself, or in lieu of that, in a shared in-memory database like Redis, compared to the regular database. This is one of the reasons everything is so silly fast.
  • $6: Various storage accounts - There are a bunch of these that do different things. They host the images that people upload into the forums, different bits of state and backups.
  • <$0.05: Background functions - The systems do all kinds of background tasks like updating the search index and other things, and I love that the sites themselves are not taxed by this, and it costs virtually nothing for them to fire off these tasks tens of thousands of times per day.
  • $40: Elastic search index - I task Elastic to manage a search index, which also runs in Azure. All of the sites use the same index, because I was clever about making it a multi-tenant affair.
  • $10+: Miscellaneous - Add extra costs for bandwidth, DNS and some other minor things. Bandwidth used to be the most expensive thing, now it barely registers.

So my cloud spend is around $230 a month.

Those are the monthly hard costs. I also spend $30 per month on an Adobe subscription, though I don't use it all that much. I also have domain name fees that are a few hundred bucks a year, an annual fee to Florida for the honor of having an LLC, accountant fees to do taxes, postage to mail membership cards (until I run out of them) and credit card fees.

The traffic between the two sites tends to be between 5,000 and 20,000+ page views a day, with the low end happening during the holidays, and the high in the middle of summer or when there's a big news event. The traffic trends have been pretty steady the last five years, still seasonal, still concentrated during the work day. To break even on hosting alone, I need to make about $10 in ad revenue daily, because half of the PointBuzz ad revenue goes to Walt. So on the low end of the traffic spectrum, I need to make $2 per thousand page views, and on the high end, $0.50 per thousand page views. Even with traffic picking up as we head toward spring, I'm not making that minimum, so I'm paying out of pocket.

The other problem is that club membership revenue is way down since you don't need a membership for most of the big coaster events. There was a time when that alone would cover my costs. Between that change, and the Google-Facebook ad duopoly that has destroyed competition among ad sellers and devalued independent publishers, there ain't a lot to go around. And while traffic is steady, it's not what it was during the pre-Facebook days, when I could pay my mortgage on ad revenue.

For now, I guess I'll roll with it, because it's hard to stop doing something you've been doing for 25 years, and I can afford it. But I kind of hate what the web has become. It's all walled gardens on platforms in exchange for a reduction in privacy, and consumers don't care. I could add more ads to the sites, but they're the worst kind that you see on your local TV station's news sites, with link bait nonsense selling crap. I'm not going to subject my visitors to that.


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