Gandi.net Xen VPS Review

Gandi.net Well. Here is a review that was supposed to be done 9 months ago. Back in February, Nicolas from Gandi.net contacted me about reviewing their Xen VPS hosting product, which was under beta testing back then. I had a review VPS from them for two weeks, did a few tests, but was not able to write a review due to my circumstances back then (I have been very busy this year). Then last week Wendy from Gandi independently contacted me again asking whether I would like to review their VPS product. I logged back into Gandi’s control panel — and surprise!! — the VPS is still there (the expiry was at the end of this year)! So here it is, a Gandi.net Xen VPS review that’s 9 months overdue.

Hosting Servers @ Gandi

VPS Plans and Pricing

You can find out more about the pricing of Gandi.net Xen VPS on their server pricing page. For each share, it’s currently at $14/month (launch price until Dec 31 2008, and I have completely no idea what the price will be afterwards). You can buy “shares” on daily basis, so you can scale up or down without paying for the capacity for the whole month.

Now, what is a “share”? It defines a fixed amount of server resource, and according to Gandi, it’s:

  • 1/64th of a Quad Quad-Core AMD.
  • 256 MB guaranteed memory + 512 MB of Swap
  • 5 GB hard disk storage
  • 5Mbps bandwidth + unmetred traffic.

So a 256MB Xen VPS for $14/month is actually not bad (I am currently paying SliceHost $20/month for 256MB). However there is no discount when you scale up. Therefore a 512MB VPS costs $28. A 1GB VPS costs $56. A 2GB VPS costs $112 — the cost starts to become less favourable when you scale up the number of shares.

It does have very generous bandwidth though — unmetred 5Mbps per share. That means your 1GB VPS will have 20Mbps bandwidth, enough to run a small video sharing websites.

Control Panel

Gandi’s server control panel is probably the highlight of their service. There are multiple ways to configure your new Xen VPS at Gandi.net, and they all starts with dragging a slide on the number of shares.

Create Server

Then you are presented with three ways to create your new server:

  1. Use Gandi MI (manual install) — just like other providers’ control panels, where you get to choose a Linux distribution and that’s it! Currently Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, Mandria, OpenSUSE and CentOS are offered.

  2. Use Gandi AI (custom mode) — where the real gem of the Gandi control panel is. You start with a Gandi-customised Ubuntu 8.04 install, and then you get options to add and configure various software. For example, configurations for FTP server, HTTP server, mail server and database server.

  3. Use Gandi AI (easy mode) — like Gandi AI above, but you choose the functionality of this VPS instead of customising various software packages. Currently there’s only one predefined configuration, which is “A PHP/MySQL web server”. Gandi AI will then install Apache, PHP, MySQL, phpMyAdmin and a FTP server onto VPS.

The list of servers that can currently be installed by Gandi AI are:

  • Apache 2.0 (plus options such as Awstats, mod_php, mod_perl, mod_python, mod_rail, Django, RoR, etc)
  • Subversion
  • ProFTPd
  • TeamSpeak
  • Postfix
  • MySQL 5.0 (plus optional phpMyAdmin)
  • Dotclear 2.0 (with debatable description “Dotclear 2.0 is probably the best blog application on the web”)

DotClear part of Gandi AI install

After you picked the software you wish to install, you get to choose the configuration on the next page (MySQL password, Apache virtual hosts, system users/groups, etc). Then you can submit the server-creation request, and wait a few minutes before a new system is set up and deployed.

Gandi AI is pretty much useless to me personally because I prefer the server to be set up the way I want it. While it is great that you can quickly set up a LAMP server or a TeamSpeak server with a few button clicks for those who cannot work around “apt-get”, there are a few issues that really put me off.

  • Speed. Or lack of. Maybe Sydney to France might not have the best route, but operations on Gandi’s control panel just feels so slow. I am not talking about just in terms of responsiveness, but any queued task will take a few minutes to sort out. Actually, creating a Gandi AI customised VPS took almost 1 hour for me. Linode also uses a queue interface, but tasks get cleared out much faster that you don’t even notice a queue is there.

  • Complexity. Yes it feels like it’s built by engineers for engineers. In the “customise” mode there are just so many parameters that you need to fill out before a server can be created.

I have still not yet fathomed why you want to pre-configured software on a VPS with a web interface, especially complicated set ups like Apache virtual hosts. I understand that it’s not targeting those who are “in the know”, but wouldn’t an option to install “webmin” and let it take over from there make more sense?

Gandi Flex – Real Time Scalability

Another unique selling point of Gandi VPS is Gandi Flex that you are allowed to pre-schedule the number of shares your VPS is going to have, i.e. to allow you to have “burstable” resources on a Xen VPS. Moreover, the extra shares are charged by the hours you have them so if you are expecting the once off spikes, it can be quite economical.

Gandi Flex configuration

For example if you are going to be posting the latest Apple rumour on your blog, you can allocate extra shares for your VPS for the next 24 hours to handle the extra load. Your VPS actually does not go offline — the memory size just magically increases and you suddenly get more CPU power when the schedule kicks in. Or you know your peak traffic is always the same time every single day (like those 1 deal a day sites), you can then schedule a daily power boost for 2 hours, rather than permanently paying for a high-end VPS.

Of course that in practise, you never know at what exact time your site will be slashdotted. You still need constant performance monitoring, but this kind of flexibility provided by Gandi should hopefully provide some automation to many use cases.

Performance

Finally, let me talk about the performance. It is something that someone would put #1 priority in choosing a service provider, and I am afraid to say that with my experience so far, Gandi’s VPS has been disappointing.

Network performance is great. Sydney is around 330ms away from France so doing SSH can be a bit laggy. However network is really fast thanks to the dedicated 10mbps pipe. As I have said before, it would make ideal home for a low CPU usage video streaming site.

The rest of VPS, however, does not look that good. This is the UnixBench score for a 1 share 256MB VPS:

TEST                                        BASELINE     RESULT      INDEX

Dhrystone 2 using register variables        376783.7   571267.5       15.2
Double-Precision Whetstone                      83.1     1185.4      142.6
Execl Throughput                               188.3      274.2       14.6
File Copy 1024 bufsize 2000 maxblocks         2672.0    10814.0       40.5
File Copy 256 bufsize 500 maxblocks           1077.0     4200.0       39.0
File Read 4096 bufsize 8000 maxblocks        15382.0    43346.0       28.2
Pipe Throughput                             111814.6   110113.0        9.8
Pipe-based Context Switching                 15448.6    15650.0       10.1
Process Creation                               569.3      479.3        8.4
Shell Scripts (8 concurrent)                    44.8       59.9       13.4
System Call Overhead                        114433.5   183354.8       16.0
                                                                 =========
     FINAL SCORE                                                      20.4

Check the relevant WHT thread for comparison. When I increase the shares to 2 (512MB), the performance is roughly doubled, which shows that they have put some CPU limits on the VPS, correlates to the number of shares it has. Yes it feels so slow that my testing WordPress blog with only 3 posts cannot do more than 1 requests per second.

Therefore you basically need to look at having multiple shares to host any dynamic website with sub 0.1 second page generation time, which can make it more costly.

Conclusion

Thanks again for Nicolas and Wendy from Gandi for providing me a testing account to try out Gandi servers. However the result is mixed…

  • Pros

    • $14/share/month is good from a named brand and well-known provider.
    • Great network performance. Very cheap unmetred bandwidth.
    • Gandi AI is interesting, and might be useful for those who are not sure how to set up a server.
    • Gandi Flex can be a powerful tool when the time of traffic burst is known.
  • Cons

    • Gandi AI and control panel in general feels a bit sluggish (hopefully you don’t have to use it too often).
    • The general usefulness of Gandi AI is questionable, as it might not be as up-to-date as many free control panels sitting inside the VPS.
    • Slow disk IO. Very slow CPU (or rather, you can’t get any burst on CPU).