EC2 as a build server

I've been using for the past year or so a Slicehost virtual private server running Ubuntu Linux to run a build server.

Due to the inherent IO-bound nature of some of my builds and the RAM starved nature of the servers sold, I've been forced to upgrade from the 256MB to the 512MB and then to the 768MB slice. Not sure if it's a marketing ploy but you cannot use the server otherwise.

Starting last week, I'm running experiments on migrating the builds on top of EC2 (and S3 for storage). Using EC2 for a build server, especially for a small company is a perfect fit:

EC2 machines are way more powerful

The smallest EC2 machine has 1.7GB of RAM and the next one 7GB. These are serios machines.

Builds are finite

This might not apply for your projects or your company, but I generally do a few operations per day that would trigger a build.

This means that I actually only need the server for, let's say, 5 builds per day or less. Over 20 work days, I would actually use the build server for 100 builds per month.

So I am actually paying for a server to be live all the time when I only need it for 100 builds. Assuming a build takes about 1 hour (which is does for the longest project I have), I only need the server for 100 hours per month.

It's cheaper

Considering the previous paragraph where I noticed I only need the server for 100 hours, it's cheaper to pay for the EC2 hourly usage. Of course, running the EC2 server full-time would be a lot more expensive compared to Slicehost, but I don't need it full-time.

Thus, it's cheaper either to give up Slicehost altogether or to have some mixed scenario perhaps, with a much cheaper Slicehost server combined to an EC2 slave running on demand when needed. I'm slowly migrating to the mixed scenario first.

But there are also some clear advantages to using EC2:

You really do a clean build

While with a normal build server that's configured properly this problem doesn't show up, it is possible to be there: tainted builds. A tainted build is one that's using some form of unexpected binaries for various reasons.

When you build on a fresh machine there is nothing there to influence your build. Just the operating system, your tools and your code.

It forces you to take out to magic out of the build

When you start with a bare-bone machine you cannot make any assumptions you would unknowingly do on the build server.

On an always-live build server you can easily ssh and do some manual tweak which will remain there forever but never be actually documented.

This style of whole world building will force you to document and produce all the build dependencies.

Some first results for my most IO bound build

It finishes:

After 30 minutes with the 512MB slice, (but that started slipping for some reason, hence the upgrade)
After 20 minutes with the 768MB slice.
After 25 minutes of uptime with the EC2 m1.small
After 11 minutes of uptime with the EC2 m1.large
After 15 minutes of uptime with the EC2 m1.large, building everything over a RAM-disk.

The surprising thing here is that on EC2 m1.large, where I have over 7GB of RAM, a RAM-disk is slower. I assume the reason is that Linux uses the RAM for disk-cache anyhow and it's smarter about that (ie. by only caching the JARs not the whole source and build folder like I did).

The build over EC2 m1.small seems to be a bit slower but this total time is uptime. Meaning in the 25 minutes I install all the tools and download and unzip more than 1GB of dependencies and do the build.

Fremen gear

Ever since I've been working for my own company, I've discovered that working from a single place gets pretty boring after a while. Actually, there are a few phases you go through, but suffice to say at some point you'll want to also work in coffee shops at least for the change of scenery.

Let's talk now about the gear I happen to use:

Then, a whole lot of other items I was a bit surprised to find when I unloaded the backpack yesterday to wash it:

Let's see (right to left):

  • My Orange 3G modem. I rarely need it while in Timisoara. While visiting my parent though it's almost useless since it goes over EDGE, meaning it's slower than dialup.  Handy as a last resort but I won't renew the subscription with Orange when it expires.
  • My 8G iPod Touch, USB cable and iPhone headset (I use this headset since it also has the microphone, unlike the original iPod headset). I almost never listen to music though, it's just for testing if we have an iPhone project to develop.
  • Nokia E71 USB charger (you can barely see it since it's black -- right next to the iPod cables)
  • My 2010 diary
  • A fountain pen -- I like writing with a fountain pen, a ballpoint pen ruins your handwriting.
  • A ballpoint pen
  • Lots of wet tissues (including one from KFC apparently).
  • Matches
  • Some pills
  • A key I forgot about
  • A Wenger Swiss Army knife (thanks dad)
  • Company stamp. I don't carry this always, but you need it for almost everything company-related here.
  • Bureaucratic papers.
  • A small yellow note book for quick note-taking
  • Some leftover sugar from some coffee I bought probably. Forgot about these -- it's very easy to lose stuff in the backpack.
Besides these items, sometimes I have in the external pockets a small umbrella, tissues and perhaps a 500ml bottle of water.

There you are: the gear of a modern day fremen. Stillsuit not included.

iPhone OS notes

Apple news flooded the Internet during Easter. After having watched the iPhone OS 4 keynote I have a few remarks and questions. Feel free to comment if you have anything to clear up for me.


Jobs sells the penalty of clicking ads since that closes the app and launches Safari. But since he just introduced multitasking, this penalty is greatly reduced or non-existent. After all, if the user doesn't know how to return to the app after clicking an ad there is something really wrong with the multitasking user interface.

Push services

Things that make you go hmm: apparently Apple has a direct link to each iPhone via push services. I never used this API but I can't but wonder how does this thing really work (expecially via 3G-only).

Also, I assume that notifications aren't encrypted. That should be another data-mining opportunity for  Apple for iAd.

Wireless sync ?

iBooks bookmarks sync wirelessly. What does that mean ? Is there some Apple server that gets this data no matter what ?

That's about it. I won't comment on the new programming language restriction they apparently introduced since it's been said enough already.