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Stackoverflow's WISC (Windows, IIS, SQL Server, C#) Architecture (artificialignorance.net)
67 points by wh-uws on Feb 1, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 48 comments

MS is not a horrible stack to develop on. It performs great and for the most part you can avoid a lot of the licensing costs anyway - on dedicated servers the difference is like $10 or $20 if you're leasing, and if you're rolling your own hardware there's BizSpark.

SQL Server starts free and it was actually only halfway through last year that I stopped using the free version at Playtomic. It's also the only significantly expensive part - and very easy to not use in favor of something that is free/open source/cheaper/whatever.

I'm glad I went with .NET for my startup - a few days ago I calculated some current numbers: 29 million unique people logged over 3 billion events during a 10 day period. It's holding up well enough for me and my very lean, mostly Microsoft-flavored startup.

Yesterday I came across this writeup on what Quora is built on too:


The writeup on what Quora is built on say that, "Quora uses Ubuntu Linux as it’s OS of choice," and does not mention any Microsoft technologies at all.

The Quora link is just a look at how another Q&A site is built, not related other than their overlap in purpose.

Since the link is in a comment that begins, "MS is not a horrible stack to develop on," and ends, "I'm glad I went with .NET for my startup," a reader could get the impression that the link somehow provides support for your pro-MS position.

Good point, I moved it above the Quora link.

on dedicated servers the difference is like $10 or $20 if you're leasing, and if you're rolling your own hardware there's BizSpark.

How much does BizSpark cost after the initial pricing period lapses?


Startups may take advantage of the BizSpark Graduation offer that allows startups to keep the software they have with the option to purchase subscriptions and maintenance if they want to keep it up to date. This also allows them to continue using their Microsoft software at no cost in perpetuity and allows them to renew subscriptions to this software without paying any initial license fees. Startups can:

•Keep their MSDN Ultimate software and optionally renew their MSDN subscriptions at any level

•Keep all their Windows and SQL Servers they are using in production and optionally purchase the first two years of Software Assurance (updates and ongoing maintenance) at a 50% discount


It's remarkably friendly although you could paint yourself into a corner if you went crazy with SQL Server, but there are a lot of options these days for dealing with large volumes of data.

At the end of 3 years the costs are hopefully going to be incidental.

I hate to be "that guy" but

"(...)When I compare our performance to similar sites that are running on the open source stack, we are using about 1/10th of the hardware that they are, unfortunately, and maybe that’s because they are not good programmers. But just in terms of the types of queries we are doing and stuff, the Microsoft stack is actually, appears to be paying for itself – in terms of reduced hardware”

Doesn't really provide any real justifications. I have indeed anecdotally heard good things about mssql, but apart from that I have a hard time believing you couldn't get more or less identical performance from jvm/linux/etc (and maybe mysql/postgres really can give mssql a run for its money, but I admittedly know little about relative database performance)

On the other hand, it seems like Jeff/Joel had lots of experience with the MS stack before, so its not an illogical choice. You want to spend your time building a product, not wasting it figuring a new stack you aren't very familiar with.

The statement about the "open source stack" is especially ironic considering that StackOverflow just switched over from using MSSQL full-text indexing to using Lucene for search: http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/01/stack-overflow-search-...

And they've used jQuery since the beginning. Not sure how that is relevant to their core tech choices.

I've been through the gambit of making heavily used applications under ASP, ASP.NET, CakePHP, and Django. Part of what comes up in these kinds of discussions has to do with how a .NET website works vs how a "Linux" website works.

The difference in performance per hardware dollar for a .NET setup and a Linux type setup can be quite large. Especially if you compare an ASP.NET site to a PHP site. The .NET stuff is going to be compiled, or at least pre-parsed, and likely jitted. To get comparable performance out of PHP, you'd need to use APC or Zend or something similar. For small sites the difference may not be all that large. But if you're using something like CakePHP, there can be a good amount of stuff for the server to parse on every single request.

Also a dead simple dumb LAMP setup is going to use Apache prefork, and won't have nearly as good scalability for the same amount of memory as an ASP.NET setup would. A naive Linux PHP setup is actually more like what the ancient, pre-.NET world of ASP looked like.

So in short, ASP.NET is going to blow the doors off of a dead simple LAMP setup if you have a huge amount of code and don't use Zend or APC. A more modern setup under Linux would do much better of course, say Python and WSGI use Apache-worker. This setup is going to give much better performance (due to not having to precompilation) and make better use of memory (through threads in apache-worker vs what you get with apache-prefork).

Microsoft's technologies come out of the box building higher performance apps in the default configuration than some of the more naive pure-Linux approaches.

Sure, compiled code is faster than interpreted code. However, is that the typical bottleneck for web apps?

Hitting the database bottleneck seems to be the most painful scaling challenge, and compiled code doesn't really help you there.

I'd be curious to see how a limited number of IIS servers running compiled code compares in price to simply upping the number of dynos on Heroku.

Come back with figures please, not conjecture.

I've personally observed huge boosts in the number of concurrent connections a machine can handle with Apache-worker vs Apache-prefork. I've personally observed PHP applications going into fairly high CPU use, and then settling down a lot once I installed APC (which prevents the machine from having the parse the PHP on every request). It's not conjecture, it's observation. I also know that due to the nature of how .NET apps work, they never have that kind of problem. Neither do most other modern web frameworks. Sorry I don't have the graphs-- I don't use Microsoft apps any more. Good day!

Although we use MS for our core we do use Linux and open source projects as part of our stack. The routers/firewalls, redis for caching, and haproxy for load balancing are all run on Linux. In addition we use Linux for a lot of the management such as Bacula for backups and Nagios for monitoring. We try to be open about our infrastructure and both George and I blog about the changes we make at http://blog.serverfault.com

Sorry, but with all the respect I have for Joel and Jeff, almost every-time one tells about "why I prefer using windows for my scalable website rather than open source solutions", it reminds me the quote from the Woodie Allen's movie

   "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken."
    And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?"
    The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs."
It is all about an imaginary benefit, as an outcome of a silly process (eggs from that imaginary chicken, saving $$ by choosing MS).

Even if you tend to believe MS-SQL is the best database out there, there is no way, coding/testing/distributing your layers (and trust me, there are plenty of them at SO) in C#/Windows is better than {Python||Ruby}/Posix.

This is my opinion, based on my experience from smaller scale web apps, if at small scale the gap is huge, when things grows to millions of page-views a day, the gap is far larger.

Just try to imagine friend-feed, reddit, facebook, justin-tv or any other large website, you name it, scaling and pushing versions on top of MS platform.

The best platform to build on is the one you know inside and out. Spolsky and Atwood are long-time Microsoft developers. I would call them stupid if they hadn't used Microsoft to develop their product with.

Personally, I can't imagine doing the scaling, but I don't know the platform at all. SO has obviously figured out how to scale well, though.

MySpace is WISC and bigger than many of the sites you named.

apparently, myspace is powered by pimpled faced geeks (see output below [X-PoweredBy]).

But that was said as a joke, talking seriously, there is no doubt, the web is powered by the open source software.

Most of the major sites, are using the tools which are not made at Redmond. There are however, some large sites which are exceptionally using the WISC stack, but amongst the largest sites, take the top 100, top 1000, you name it, they are the minority.

    root@clonezilla-srv:~# wget -O- --server-response --spider http://www.myspace.com/
    Spider mode enabled. Check if remote file exists.
    --2011-02-02 13:25:18--  http://www.myspace.com/
    Resolving www.myspace.com...
    Connecting to www.myspace.com||:80... connected.
    HTTP request sent, awaiting response... 
      HTTP/1.1 200 OK
      Cache-Control: no-cache, must-revalidate, proxy-revalidate
      Pragma: no-cache
      Content-Length: 74124
      Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8
      Expires: -1
      Server: Microsoft-IIS/7.5
      X-Server: 896c6f7da640823d4508c54f3b48fc12058736fbc4e59bcf
      Set-Cookie: MSCulture=IP=; domain=.myspace.com; expires=Wed, 09-Feb-2011 11:25:19 GMT; path=/
      Set-Cookie: SessionDDF2=8Q/cYHD2nDXwG4IfpqngrVTCZxMtlFsPs8sS2KKXpeayPKeoIq6z3xJLZvQ7dssRE48xuBfthlzlt6O7FCHJxQ==; domain=.myspace.com; expires=Sun, 02-Feb-2031 11:25:19 GMT; path=/
      Set-Cookie: MYUSERINFO=; domain=.myspace.com; expires=Wed, 19-Jan-2005 08:28:17 GMT; path=/
      Set-Cookie: MYUSERINFO=; domain=myspace.com; expires=Wed, 19-Jan-2005 08:28:17 GMT; path=/
      Set-Cookie: USER=; domain=.myspace.com; expires=Wed, 19-Jan-2005 08:28:17 GMT; path=/
      Set-Cookie: USER=; domain=myspace.com; expires=Wed, 19-Jan-2005 08:28:17 GMT; path=/
      Set-Cookie: SECUREUSERAUTH=; domain=.myspace.com; expires=Wed, 19-Jan-2005 08:28:17 GMT; path=/; secure
      Set-Cookie: SECUREUSERAUTH=; domain=myspace.com; expires=Wed, 19-Jan-2005 08:28:17 GMT; path=/; secure
      X-AspNet-Version: 4.0.30319
      X-PoweredBy: Pimple Faced Geeks
      Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2011 11:25:18 GMT
      Connection: keep-alive
      X-Vertical: globalsites
    Length: 74124 (72K) [text/html]
    Remote file exists and could contain further links,
    but recursion is disabled -- not retrieving.

It's funny because Microsoft is known for selling their solutions but in my experience their main problem is they don't know how to sell solutions. A lot of the white papers they put out are just laughable.

If what is being said in this post is correct (and my personal anecdotal evidence suggests it is) than Microsoft needs to hire the best Ruby and Python developers they can find. Have a program written in both languages on a Linux stack and then write the same program on a Windows stack. Then open source it all so anyone who knows ruby or python can point to code mistakes that might inhibit performance.

Once that's all done MS should stress test all the solutions and publish the results.

The Razor engine is the most credible thing MS has given the development community in a while so there's no time like the present.

Once that's all done MS should stress test all the solutions and publish the results.

This is lose-lose for MS. If it turns out they do worse or the same then they lose. If they do better, even much better, people just say its MS funded, please ignore.

And for any non-trivial app there are 1000! different ways to build it. Even if they happened to find the optimal non-MS implementation, someone will say it isn't. And unless you implement all 1000! of them you'll simply have people saying, "No one would do it that way".

By that logic Microsoft might as well pack it up and close shop. Because any act they would take would be an act funded by Microsoft. So if they can't do anything because people will say it was funded by Microsoft than they can't do anything at all.

But you did get me thinking and I wouldn't see anything wrong with them having someone else do the actual tests. Hand it off to CNet, ZDNet, AOL or whoever. Provide them the funding and let them run the tests. I don't think any big media company would say no.

>By that logic Microsoft might as well pack it up and close shop.

Jan 31, 2011 Microsoft Corp.'s net income for the latest quarter fell slightly from a year ago but the software giant still beat Wall Street's expectations despite the weak personal computer market. Net income was $6.63 billion, compared with $6.66 billion in the same period last year.

I don't think MS is losing to much sleep over the never-ending discussion between programmers whether the MS stack is as scalable as open source alternatives.

There are several live sites that prove it can scale. Most sites chose the alternative. At the end of the day its an interesting conversation, but why do people care so much? If I choose to give a couple grand of MY money to MS, why does that bother some people so much?

I would rather see it be done w/o MS funding at all otherwise you will have the skeptics come out.

I think its doable, but it can't be done by MS, Google, IBM, etc...

They are known for selling to larger orgs, because MS partners can pull in local MS heavy hitters when necessary to convince targets to pull the trigger. I wouldn't say their whitepapers get them much in the way of sales.

In my view, the more status-conscious the sales target is, the more easily MS can sell to them. It's not really the tech that seals the deal.

I've been wanting to do something like that for a while, this post just bumped that project up a little higher on my "TODO" list.

I think the open source stack alternative is getting a bad rap here mostly because of MySQL, which has historically not scaled well on multi-CPU systems.

C# is certainly faster than a Python or Ruby but you pay a price in development speed (or perhaps Joel would argue not - if you're a C# expert but Ruby newb you'll probably go faster with what you know).

But you could use Clojure or Java if that's a concern.

Writing C# is pretty darned pleasant. In fact, some things - like sequence filtering and aggregations (which a lot of plumbing code boils down to) - are much more pleasant in C# than they are in Python. Lots of sugar in C# keep you from missing things like language integrated dicts and lists, too. C# brings home a lot of concepts from the world of static functional languages that give me the warm fuzzies, and drops a lot of concepts from the world of Java that made me feel icky and gross.

Due to the easy, abundant libs, I would still go to Python for hacking something together. I would probably seriously consider C#, though, for something more substantial.

C# is faster than Python, no question, however how much time do you really spend in your Python code? I don't think I've ever written a view that took more than a few ms to execute, with database queries being the slowest part by far.

If you're executing jobs that calculate things or other batch processes, you can compile them to C/C++ pretty trivially and have a 50x speedup, depending on your loads. Plus, PyPy is getting really, really good.

However, I am as biased as it gets, so take this with a grain of salt.

C# is a crazy good language, and with Visual Studio (and Resharper) productivity easily matches Python or Ruby.

It'd be great if someone could explain to me why python with WSGI is "slower" than C# - I know C# is compiled to bytecode, but from what I've seen, websites are slow because of their I/O and database access, as opposed to the actual language processing things. Especially when some WSGI servers have insane performance in raw request handling (and can be proxied to via nginx). Where is it that C# can actually draw the advantages?

Python and Ruby code would likely win more beauty contest (which is actually kind of important to me) but, with the advent of C# 3 and 4, I don't think that there is much difference in expressive power. Not having a REPL still sucks though.

LinqPad[1] seems like a decent alternative to having a REPL. It can run anything from a C# expression to a full program. This is in addition to it's better-advertised use in debugging LINQ queries.

[1]: http://www.linqpad.net/

You get a poor man's REPL with the Immediate Window in the debugger. You can't create classes (or statements in general). but you can evaluate expressions.

But it does appear C# REPL is coming in C# 5.0.

The compiler rewrite that's meant to enable REPL (along with some cool metaprogramming features, I hope) isn't targeted at 5.0, but a still later release. Though you can get a C# REPL in Mono today.

Really? That sucks. (The post 5.0 thing sucks, not Mono). With REPL and Async (and the other metaprogramming stuff) I was thinking 5.0 was going to be their biggest release yet.

Mono also has a REPL (http://www.mono-project.com/CsharpRepl).

F# does have a full REPL - and its imperative/OO behavior is fairly close to C#.

More people(on .NET & otherwise) should look at F#.

I'd use it if it had better tools support. Great language though.

I will also be "that guy"---as another commenter said---mainly due to the author's title and finishing rhetoric, even though he is not even attempting to make any convincing arguments in the body but merely pointing out SO's technology stack which has been known since quite some time.

Yes, StackOverflow is a nice success story for a .NET stack, but I think an important piece here is actually mentioned by Joel:

"We are using about 1/10th of the hardware that they are, unfortunately, and maybe that’s because they are not good programmers"

StackOverflow says little about "the power of WISC" and more about Attwood and Spolsky being good, experienced Microsoft-tech developers. We cannot compare the power of WISC vs the power of LAMP (for example) when performance and productivity are metrics. It's hard enough to compare each one on its own, but even harder to mix the two. The purported value is thus a red herring. Compare SQL Server to MySQL or C# to PHP, and then we'll have a discussion.

"Can you beat phenomenal performance, reduced CPU usage and great productivity which now comes at no cost up-front?" I can copy and paste that into any flamewar thread on any side of the argument and it will still make sense and you will still want to agree. The reader here agrees with the question, and never with the thesis---as much of a thesis there can be in this post, which is only implied. An unbiased question to be asked should be, free licenses or not, is WISC worth it? Well, no:

* Windows -- Yuck. The only reason to ever want to develop on Windows is if you are using the AllegroCL IDE[1]. Windows as a server? Is there ever any argument there, or is just acquiescence due to the rest of the stack?

* IIS -- Seriously? Have you ever had to manage a farm of servers all running IIS? There may be tools out there to automate IIS maintenance across servers, but do they beat good ol' text config files?

* SQL Server -- Fine, it may have its merits without needing 10 years of experience, so again, where's the SQL Server vs MySQL practical comparison?

* C# -- Mixed feelings. If you're stuck with the above three, not too terrible of a choice if you know the language well and are in a hurry. Else, learn Boo.

Pardon my sarcasm, but there really is no point in belaboring the merits of WISC in terms of performance or productivity. It has its place, and its values, but this leads to a different discussion.

But here's kind of what I felt[2] when I was developing on the MS stack at my previous job:

"I once saw a nature special in which some insect or other dragged some other dead insect somewhere then turned around and dug a whole for it to bury it but the researchers moved the dead insect a bit while it was digging so it had to drag it back but while it did they filled in the hole and back and forth this insect went indefinitely until a PETA sniper took out the researchers."[3]

[1] The AllegroCL IDE is only "full-fledged" on Windows.

[2] After taking the red pill, of course.

[3] Kenny Tilton on comp.lang.lisp

>> where's the SQL Server vs MySQL practical comparison?

Here is one: http://angryhacker.com/blog/archive/0001/01/01/mysql-eye-for...

This one isn't half bad, but it is lacking. MSSQL has a much better query engine when your queries get complex and it uses indexes in a more sophisticated and efficient way. Also on larger databases where the DB-size exceeds the available memory by a factor of 100, you can really forget about MySQL all together while MSSQL will just keep rolling.

Also point 3 about MSSQL defaults has been moot at least since SQL Server 2000. While it does create a named constraint in the background, it supports a as minimalistic syntax as MySQL for setting defaults.

In fact, this is such a widely used syntax that you almost have to look up the overly declarative one he uses in his example to know that it even exists.

Besides that your link does give at least a light overview of the differences when it comes to programming them, so have an upvote.

While I agree that actual and direct comparisons would be very nice and useful, I feel the need to provide some constructive criticism of your post.

Windows -- Yuck

Some people like Windows. They develop on Windows. When they want things deployed, they might prefer a server-architecture which they already have intimate knowledge of, rather than some Linuxy thing which does have its different set of rough edges.

IIS -- Seriously? ... IIS maintenance across servers, but do they beat good ol' text config files?

IIS has since IIS7 had all its configuration in text/XML-files. While .NET on IIS5-6 only allowed you to move some settings from IIS metabase to an actual config-file in the site-root, IIS7 and newer allow pretty much complete configuration of any relevant setting, either trough this file or trough applicationHost.config.

Both are text-files. I'm forced to question how long it has been since you messed around with IIS.

C# -- Mixed feelings

C# as a language, while (IMO) not complete is still a very powerful, rich and expressive language. It does have its lackings, but you are writing your Windows/IIS hosted websites in .NET code and may as you please use any other .NET language.

Personally I'm getting more and more fond of F#, although I admit I haven't used it for web-development yet.

While your criticism about lack of direct comparisons is valid, the rest of your post reeks of a anti-Windows sentiment which has little basis in merit and entirely in preference. I'm surprised your comment is so highly upvoted.

I appreciate the constructive criticism, and I was expecting it. That portion of my post was just a rant, as I was going to take each point seriously but felt that would take too long. This does deter the quality of conversation on HN, so I should have refrained from posting that portion here and left it on Tumblr/Posterous. The upvotes may be due to the serious part of my post, or the the somewhat humorous tone of the rest which is sometimes the case on HN (eg: witty one-liners get easily upvoted all the time).

Regarding IIS, though, maybe it was just bad experience with a poor IT department. They would go into each server and manually reboot IIS, instead of writing a batch file or something to iisreset xx.xx.xx.xx for every server. Not to mention the fact SourceSafe was used for deployment. (And yes, my experience was before IIS7 which I only used briefly.)

I give C# credit and don't hate it entirely---it's probably more the paradigm (statically typed, class-driven OOP) which I have an issue with.

Am I the only one who noticed this?

"This entire site is serving 16million pages a month and we’re doing it off of 2 servers, which are almost completely unloaded. So we’ve got a ton of headroom on those 2 servers – one server is a webserver, the other server is running Microsoft SQL Server 2008 and they’re both 8 core Xeons."

They have only one web server and one database server? Does Joel not understand the concept of "single point of failure"?

To be fair this was from April 2009; I am sure after their expansion and funding since then this has changed.

However Jeff/Joel (from listening to their podcast when they did it) seemed to have a massive black spot when it comes to some areas of web scaling that I would have thought were trivial. e.g. saying it was extremely hard to scale beyond a single webserver as it held session state (they seemed to have not heard of memcache)

WISC? I have a vewwy gweat fwiend in Wome called WISC.

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