Website hosting on Raspberry Pi 4 with Mythic Beasts

Here’s Mythic Beast’s Pete Stevens to talk about how we run the Raspberry Pi website on Raspberry Pis, and how Mythic Beasts can run your site on Raspberry Pis too!

Rent a Raspberry Pi

In late 2016, Mythic Beasts launched a Raspberry Pi cloud, allowing you to rent a Raspberry Pi 3 as a service.

Raspberry Pi 4 is a much more capable computer, with more than twice the performance and, crucially, four times the memory. We were so excited by it, we bet Eben Upton a beer that we could host the launch site for Raspberry Pi 4 on Raspberry Pi 4. We’d demonstrated that it was just about possible to run a normal day on a cluster of eight Raspberry Pi 3s, but launch day is a bit more exciting — tens of millions rather than a million visitors.

Eben, being a fool supremely confident in the work that his team had done, took the bet and let us. On Thursday 20 June 2019, he dropped off eighteen 4GB RAM Raspberry Pi 4 computers that had previously been used in testing. We set about configuring them to replace all the web servers that run the Raspberry Pi blog.

  • 14× Dynamic Web server (PHP/Apache)
  • 2× Static webserver (Apache, flat files)
  • 2× Memcache (in memory store to accelerate web serving)

We started the build on Friday 21 June. We immediately ran into our first ‘chicken and egg’ problem. The Raspberry Pi web servers are built from Puppet, based (at the time) on Debian Jessie. Raspberry Pi 4’s release OS was a not-yet-released version of Debian Buster, which at the time wasn’t supported by Puppet. In conjunction with Greg Annandale at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we created a Puppet build that would run on Raspberry Pi 4, updated the configuration from Jessie to Buster (newer Apache/PHP), and did some testing.

A rack of Raspberry Pis and a mess of wires connecting them
The enclosures were built to accommodate a larger PoE HAT, which is why this doesn’t stand up beautifully neatly.

We have pre-built enclosures from our Raspberry Pi 3 cloud. We followed the same approach using Power over Ethernet to provide power and data to each Raspberry Pi 4. This dramatically reduces the cabling and complexity of the setup. Late on Friday 21, just over 24 hours after we started, we moved the hastily constructed Raspberry Pi 4 setup to Sovereign House, a key Mythic Beasts data centre and one of the best-connected buildings in Europe.

Over the course of a few hours, we gradually moved the entire production load from the existing virtual servers to the Raspberry Pi 4 cloud and every page from the blog was being served directly off Raspberry Pi 4. We left it for two days to bed in before the real test: launch day.

The launch was almost perfectly smooth. The Raspberry Pi cluster coped fine with the tens of millions of users. However, the Raspberry Pi cluster and website is fronted by Cloudflare, which provides acceleration for static resources and protects the site from denial of service. Unfortunately, they had a two-hour outage in the middle of the launch thanks to a misconfigured internet optimiser run by a customer of Verizon. So the Raspberry Pi 4 cluster had a long lunch break wondering where all the users had gone.

We ran the website on the Raspberry Pi 4 cluster for over a month before reverting back to the usual virtual server-based environment. We’d proved that RaspberryPi 4 would make an awesome hosting platform.

Commercialising Raspberry Pi 4 as a service

We were already running Raspberry Pi 3 as a service for many customers (e.g. PiWheels, which builds Python packages for Raspberry Pi), and being able spin up Raspberry Pi 3 on demand is incredibly useful.

At launch, Raspberry Pi 4 wasn’t suitable. We rely on network boot in order to be able to remotely re-image Raspberry Pi. SD cards just aren’t very reliable; visiting the data centre for manual intervention on every SD card failure is not only expensive in time, but also means we’d have to maintain physical access to every Raspberry Pi 4 in our cloud. Netboot means that we just build large enclosures of 108 Raspberry Pis and seal them in, as they will never require physical attention. If one fails — and we’ve not yet seen one fail — we can shut it down and take it out of our database.

For Raspberry Pi 4 we had to wait for network booting to be a reality. We had access to beta firmware in November 2019 and built a sample Raspberry Pi 4 network boot setup. We then had to integrate it into our management code, build Raspberry Pi 4–compatible operating system images, and enhance our billing to cope with multiple models and by-the-hour billing. Then we had to do a file server and network upgrade: serving lots of machines with true gigabit needs more ‘oomph’ than the 100Mbps of Raspberry Pi 3. This also all needed to be backward-compatible so as not to break the existing Raspberry Pi 3 users. On 17 June 2020 we launched, and Raspberry Pi 4 is now ready to order in our cloud.

Is it any good?

Yes. Raspberry Pi is twice as fast as the same-sized instances in AWS, for a quarter of the price. Just see for yourself:

Raspberry Pi 4 a1.large mg6.medium
Spec 4 cores @ 1.5GHz
4GB RAM
2 cores
4GB RAM
1 core
4GB RAM
Monthly price £8.63 $45.35
(~£36.09)
$34.69
(~ £27.61)
Requests per second 107 52 57
Mean requests per second 457ms 978ms 868ms
99th percentile request time 791ms 1247ms 1056ms

But what about 8GB and 64-bit Raspberry Pi OS?

That sounds like a jolly nice idea. Keep watching the Mythic Beasts blog for updates.

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