Sandstorm Blog

Results of discontinuing the free plan

By Kenton Varda - 28 Oct 2018

Recently we made the tough decision to end Sandstorm Oasis’s free plan. This change has now been made and the dust is settled. (If you’re affected and are unsure how to export your data, see my previous blog post.)

Today, for the purpose of transparency, I wanted to show you the results of this change.

First, I’m happy to report that revenue increased more than I expected:

Graph of revenue showing when change was announced and implemented.

Timeline:

Second, server resources were reduced. In particular, utilization of Oasis’s “worker” machines (where users’ apps actually run) dropped in half:

Graph of CPU usage showing when change was implemented.

We previously had four worker VMs, each of which was a GCE “n1-highmem-2” machine costing $60.50 per month. We were able to cut two of those machines for a savings of $121.

Sandstorm currently runs 13 other VMs – six others to operate Oasis itself, three to run our web site and app market, two for Sandcats.io DNS, one for monitoring and one for metrics aggregation. It’s likely that we could further consolidate some of these, although these machines run smaller-sized instances with bespoke purposes meaning it will take a lot more work for comparatively smaller savings.

In August I estimated that the cost to continue operating Sandstorm (including servers and corporate maintenance) at about $1560 per month. With the server reduction, we’re now at $1439 per month – just barely above the $1428 in revenue. So, we went from a $700/month deficit ($8400/year) to break-even by making this change.

How to download your Oasis data

By Kenton Varda - 18 Oct 2018

We announced in August that Oasis’s free plan would be discontinued on October 14. As I explained then, we were forced to do this as Oasis costs $1500 per month to run, but was only earning $828 per month in revenue. I have been personally paying the remaining $700 every month to subsidize free users of the service, and I am unable to continue doing so. By limiting the service to only paying users, Oasis will be able to break even.

For the past month or so, the Sandstorm UI has featured a prominent message warning that the free plan was going away:

screenshot

Unfortunately, we were unable to send an e-mail warning, as there are well over 100,000 free accounts on Oasis, the vast majority of which are abandoned. A mass e-mail would likely have landed us on spam blocklists (and rightly so, as we’d be annoying a lot of people).

I had hoped that the message in the UI was prominent enough that all active users would notice it. However, it appears that some people did not see the message, and now find themselves unexpectedly unable to open their apps. I’m very sorry for this!

Your data is still there

You can still download your data. To do so, open a grain and click the “download backup” button in the top bar, which looks like a down-arrow:

screenshot of download backup button

This will give you a ZIP file that contains all the data from the grain.

In some cases, you will be able to open this data easily. However, many apps store their data in custom formats that you may have difficulty opening. In these cases, it’s best to use the app itself to access the data, which means you need Sandstorm. One option is to install Sandstorm on your own server, but not everyone has a server available for this.

As a hack, another option is to use the Sandstorm Demo itself to get temporary access to your grains. The Sandstorm Demo gives you a temporary account which you can use to run any app on the Sandstorm app market, for free. The only catch is that your demo account will be deleted after one hour – but this should be enough time to upload your grain, open it, and copy out data. In the worst case, after your demo expires, you can always start another demo to extract more data.

To start a demo, open an incognito window or log out of Oasis, so that Oasis doesn’t know you have an account already. Then, visit demo.sandstorm.io or click the button on the Sandstorm.io home page:

screenshot of demo button

Once the demo has started, make sure to install the app that your grain was created with. Then, visit the “Grains” tab, click “Restore backup…”, and choose the backup zip that you downloaded before.

screenshot of restore backup button

You now have a (temporary) functioning version of your grain.

Oasis free plan will be discontinued October 14

By Kenton Varda - 27 Aug 2018

Update: This change has now taken effect. Looking for help downloading your data from Oasis? See our latest blog post »

Starting October 14, 2018, Sandstorm Oasis’s “free” plan will be discontinued. Users will still be able to log in for free to access apps and grains owned by other, paying users, but free users will not be able to install their own apps nor create grains. Existing grains owned by free users will remain available for download via the “download backup” function, allowing you to transfer the data to a self-hosted Sandstorm server or manually extract it. However, the grains will no longer be able to start on Oasis unless you upgrade to a paid account.

Why do this?

Unfortunately, Oasis does not make enough money to support itself.

As of this writing, Oasis hosts 2642 monthly active users. This number is actually up in the last few months, despite Sandstorm having put no effort at all into user growth since we changed gears in early 2017.

However, only 88 of those users have a paid subscription, generating a total of $828 in monthly revenue. Unfortunately, the bare cost of operating Oasis currently comes to about $960 per month, mostly to pay for servers. Additionally, to keep Sandstorm the corporation in existence as a vehicle to operate Oasis costs around an additional $600 per month (for things like taxes, tax preparation, banking fees, etc.). Although these fees don’t technically go to keeping the service running, dissolving Sandstorm the company would almost certainly require shutting down Oasis, and so to keep Oasis running we must pay these fees.

All told, this means Oasis is running a deficit of $700 per month, which I personally pay out-of-pocket.

I do not want to shut down Oasis, because I know a lot of people depend on it and use it every day. But, it doesn’t make sense for me personally to pay for compute for every person who signs up. I need each user to pay their share.

What are the options for existing users?

If you currently have a free account with data on Sandstorm Oasis, you will need to do one of the following:

FAQ

Have you considered a crowdfunding campaign?

Crowdfunding campaigns are harder than they look. Sandstorm ran one early in its life, successfully raising about $60,000. During that time, I had to spend every day for a month and a half going out and selling people on it. We lined up press articles. We had two paid employees pumping out apps. We got on Hacker News several times.

These days, I have a day job leading development of Cloudflare Workers and related projects. Workers is taking off quickly and there’s tons to do to make it better. Alas, I just don’t have time to coordinate another crowdfunding campaign for Sandstorm on the side.

Can I donate to Sandstorm via Patreon or something?

The best way to “donate” to Sandstorm is to sign up for a paid Oasis account. This is already set up, and the payment processing fees we pay to Stripe are much lower than what Patreon and the like would charge. All revenue from Oasis goes directly to paying for operation costs.

Will Oasis shut down eventually?

If Oasis remains non-profitable after this change, we’ll eventually have to shut it down. If it pays for itself, I’d like to keep it running, but I cannot make any guarantees. I will, of course, provide plenty of advance warning before shutting it down entirely.

HTTP proxy rewrite and other updates

By Kenton Varda - 19 Feb 2018

Development of Sandstorm continues! Despite now having a day job, I still spent a lot of my free time working on Sandstorm.

This past weekend, I deleted some of the oldest code in Sandstorm. This is the culmination of a few months of work: ever since early September, I have been working to transition the Sandstorm HTTP proxy from JavaScript to C++. This is the code which receives incoming HTTP requests, authenticates them, and forwards them to the appropriate grain (application instance). This low-level, performance-critical systems code.

Historically, HTTP proxying was a duty of Sandstorm’s “Shell” server. The Sandstorm Shell is Sandstorm’s user interface, an application written on Meteor and Node, and is responsible for most of Sandstorm’s business logic. Historically, the other major component of Sandstorm has been the “back end”, written in C++, responsible for running application containers and managing storage. HTTP proxying was done in the shell mostly because this was the most convenient place, building on Node.js’s HTTP library. However, performance (both CPU and memory usage) has been disappointing at best, and a debugging nightmare at worst.

Sandstorm now has a third component: the “Gateway”. This component receives all incoming HTTP traffic and forwards it to the appropriate destination. Requests related to Sandstorm’s UI are forwarded on as HTTP to the Shell over an internal Unix domain socket. Requests intended for apps are converted by the Gateway into Cap’n Proto requests and routed to the appropriate app. The Gateway also performs TLS termination (e.g. for users of our free TLS certificates under sandcats.io).

The Gateway is written in C++, using the KJ HTTP Library. KJ is the C++ toolkit library originally built as part of the Cap’n Proto project (itself a sub-project of Sandstorm), but which is beginning to take on a life of its own. KJ HTTP is a low-level yet easy-to-use HTTP client and server library, built on top of the KJ asynchronous framework (think Promises but in C++), all authored by yours truly. KJ HTTP is also used in the implementation of Cloudflare Workers (the project I lead in my day job), where it has already handled billions of requests.

We can see the performance improvement for Sandstorm Oasis, our hosting service which runs a special cluster-scalable version of Sandstorm. Oasis runs instances of the Sandstorm Shell on dedicated machines, with the ability to add more replicas as needed to handle traffic. Here’s the recent CPU usage history of one such replica:

Graph of shell CPU usage across Gateway deployment.

As you can see, introducing the gateway more than halved the CPU usage of the Sandstorm shell. Rather than reduce the number of replicas, I decided to cut the instance size in half. Either way, switching to the C++ Gateway saved money.

What about the Gateway itself? Where does it run, and how much CPU does it add? Well, historically, Oasis used an nginx instance for ingress, to provide TLS termination and load balancing. With the Gateway introduced, we were able to eliminate nginx from our stack: the Gateway is perfectly capable of handling TLS termination itself, and is able to implement session-affinity load-balancing much more effectively than nginx could due to the Gateway’s intimate knowledge of Sansdtorm internals. Thus, introducing the Gateway did not add any new VM instances to our system: it simply replaced the existing nginx instance. The Gateway’s CPU usage is negligible, using only a few percent of a CPU core. It appears to be on par with nginx, although when the numbers are this low it’s hard to really tell. I did ultimately decide to reduce the Gateway instance from a full CPU core to a half core to save some more cash.

These changes will roll out in full to self-hosted Sandstorm users on March 11 (the code is in git now, but I won’t have time to roll a release until then). Adventurous users can set EXPERIMENTAL_GATEWAY=true in their /opt/sandstorm/sandstorm.conf today, although note that this will give you the implementation as of the previous release two weeks ago, which still uses the old proxy for some things.

Other updates

Lauri Ojansivu has translated the Sandstorm UI to Finnish, and Benoit Renault and Thierry Pasquier have translated the Sandstorm UI to French. This means, along with English, Chinese, and Dutch, Sandstorm now supports five languages. Learn how to help translate Sandstorm here.

Next up

Here’s some things I want to work on next:

Want to get involved? Join the sandstorm-dev mailing list. and check out ways to contribute.

Sandstorm UI now available in Chinese, Dutch

By Kenton Varda - 28 Oct 2017

As of last week’s Sandstorm release (version 0.216), the Sandstorm UI is (mostly) now internationalized, meaning text has been moved out of the interface into separate translation tables.

This work was mostly done by Romulus Urakagi Tsai and Caasi Huang, supported by g0v.tw. Additionally, they contributed translation tables for Traditional Chinese, as well as a partial translation to Simplified Chinese (though the latter is still incomplete).

With i18n in place, other Sandstorm users immediately began work on other translations. In this week’s release (0.218), we’ve merged a Dutch translation by Michel van der Burg.

Would you like to contribute a Sandstorm translation? It’s easy – no programming required. Check out the contributing guide for instructions, and talk to us on the sandstorm-dev mailing list.