WebCom secrets: How we hosted 70,000 domains on one Apache instance

A chief virtue of time is that it provides distance. Time is the 4th dimension we live in and it gives us the opportunity to share what once was, without fear of reprisal. It has been 12 years since I was let go from Verio, almost as much time as I worked for WebCom/Verio/NTT. I feel there is enough distance between then and now to share some secrets without fear of reprisal.

WebCom did things differently, we pioneered name-based virtual hosting and we learned how to do more with less. Back when WebCom was starting to do name-based hosting it was common for many providers to put 2,000 IP addresses on an SGI machine running IRIX. I assume that the allure of SGI had to do with decent horsepower and a BSD derived OS that could host a lot of IP addresses per NIC. Back then the BSD network stack was considered to be one of the best.

When I started we had HP PA-RISC machines, a Sun 4/330, and a Windows NT 3.51 486 running MS SQL Server (Sybase). By the end of the year we’d signed a lease on a Sun Enterprise 1000 server, a piece of “big iron” at the time. I think we had 4 SuperSPARC processors and 512MB of RAM. We looked at offering IP based hosting on Sun, but their OS only allowed up to 255 IPs per NIC. We briefly considered an inexpensive array of SCO Unix boxes, but Linux was never in the running because Chris considered it an immature OS. I spent my entire career there championing Linux, and winning.

We decided to go the Big Ole Server route with Sun, first with the S1000E, then an Enterprise 4000 in 1997. Early on we ran Netscape Enterprise Server, a commercial web server product from Netscape, written by the same people who wrote NCSA httpd. This was a modular web server with a plugin architecture and it could be expanded by writing NSAPI modules to perform actions in the chain of operations. Apache wasn’t really on the radar at this point. Chris wrote the first name-based hosting plugin for Netscape, this solution lasted us until around 20,000 domains, then the underlying architecture of Netscape became a bottleneck.

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The Sale of WebCom

The sale of WebCom was both bitter and sweet. The sale represented independence and success for many involved, but it also was the beginning of the end. WebCom was bootstrapped from what money Chris had and some surplus equipment that we got from a customer in exchange for free hosting. That equipment lasted us until late 1995 when we needed to transition from a 486 running Windows NT 3.51 and Microsoft SQL Server, to a Sun Enterprise 1000e running Sybase SQL Server.

I mentioned before that Chris and Thomas organized the company with a 67%/33% split, eventually I would have 1%, taken from Chris’ portion, and Neal [the CFO] got 10% IIRC, of which I think Chris and Thomas gave up 5% each. After we moved to 2880 Soquel Ave, Thomas started working on his exit from the company. That exit would precipitate one of the biggest threats we ever had as a company.

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WebCom: New Locations, New Logos, Questionable OpSec

The only constant in a startup is growth, and WebCom grew exponentially during the 4 years it was WebCom. Recapping a little bit, when I joined WebCom it was just Chris and Thomas, shortly after came Rick. There were 3 people in the A suite and Rick was in the B suite, more employees wouldn’t fit! In late 1995 we moved from 903 Pacific to 125 Water St, the new location was a lot bigger but shared the same pains: parking. Working in downtown Santa Cruz is an exercise in patience, strategy, and luck. Sometimes all 3 are on your side and sometimes all 3 are against you!

The new location was a welcomed change from the office full of hand-me-down furniture, we got cubicles! Yes, it seems strange to be excited by cubicles, but it meant that Rick and I got nearly double the space we had before. The A suite had 2 offices, one that was a nice professional office and one that had the telephone lines and other miscellany — the latter became the break room and server room, with a cubicle partition in the middle. Thomas was the proud tenant of an 8×12 cubicle office that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. I think we had about 13 cubicle desks at that location, which lasted us until late 1997, when we were bursting at the seams.

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Web Communications

Web Communications [WebCom] was a web hosting provider that started in Santa Cruz California in late 1994, opening to the public in 1995. WebCom was the brainchild of Chris Schefler, a Cal State graduate who believed in freedom, communication, and ecology.

Chris started WebCom with co-founder Thomas Leavitt in a small windowless office at 903 Pacific Ave, Suite 306 A. This building was informally named Geek Hall because it was the nexus of every internet connected Santa Cruz startup.

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