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February 19
Antsle and home-labbing and self-hosting

Meta: As per always, I wrote some of this this a few months ago but it got delayed for motivation reasons. Some of the details I put in here are based on some configurations that were available in around August of last year, and it appears some new configurations have been added.

A month or two (read: sometime last year), I discovered the Antsle via an ad on the /r/homelab subreddit, which I read sometimes, but don't post to. I thought it was an interesting idea, and the ad they aim specifically at the homelab subreddit is particularly interesting, because it basically claims to compete with VPS services from cloud providers.

In this article, I will not address privacy concerns: I think you either believe a cloud product is "fine" and it sufficiently addresses privacy and data safety concerns, or you do not, and you likely wouldn't use one anyway.

Antsle is a small virtualization appliance running a Gentoo-based distribution and some customized management tools. The hardware is mediocre: there are 4- and 8-core versions based on a now-old Intel Atom processor, and it can be equipped with up to four 2.5-inch disks and 64 gigabytes of memory. Antsle does you a solid by starting the configurations with SSDs, although there are HDD expansion options, and if the need arose, you could install an HDD later. (Although they say this voids any remaining warranty.)

The machines are extremely costly for what you get. The top end configuration with an 8-core CPU, 16TB of SSD storage, and 64 gigabytes of RAM is over $12,000. The base Antsle unit with a quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM and two 128GB SSDs (a nice touch) is $760. It bears mentioning again the CPUs they've used are a high-end Atom. They should do most things fine, but they are by no means speed demons. (EDIT: the new upper ceiling is $15,600, although that machine has a better processor, a Xeon D with more cores and a higher RAM ceiling, plus room for more storage devices.)

The site claims the Antsle is for developers and geeks who want to use VPS services and get advantages of cloud computing, but don't want to, you know, actually use cloud computing.

The other issue I have with this marketing is that it seems odd to market an appliance to the developer and geek market. The Antsle is normal x86 computer onto which you could install another OS, but a huge part of their marketing is about using their mix on the ideas of virtualization and containerization. These customers are the ones most likely to want to run their own software stack or are willing to do the installation on the appliance operating system of their choice.

The Product page talks about easy access to your Antsle from anywhere and use cases such as hosting web sites, but it doesn't talk about how. They don't address the potential costs or inconvenience of using a home or small office Internet connection to run one of these devices.

The way this must happen is either your Antsle phones home (or another service) and your data flows through a remote datacenter when you access it from out of your home or office, or you must purchase an Internet connection with one or more static IPs that allows in its terms of service running servers, and a domain name (usually needed on cloud services as well.) This translates into a business class Internet connection, which I have covered before as being kind of a scam, but just for an idea, I have such a connection and five public static IP addresses, and I pay $180/month for it. That's nearly a $140 upcharge from what this speed would cost on my provider's residential. The other ISP in my area charges even more for lower speeds.

An Antsle is favorably priced if you do not count the cost of an Internet connection. The baseline Antsle would cost around $64 monthly over the course of a year. An average EC2 instance that's competitive with a low end Antsle costs around $52/month, in perpetuity, which includes a public static IP address. If you need to pay $100 over your current Internet costs to get a public static IP address, then you're looking at double what EC2 costs, every month in perpetuity, before you get any hardware.

At the lowest performance level, if you always have to pay for your Internet connection, and your Internet connection costs around $100 more for more speed, the removal of a quota, and the addition of a static IP address (this is just a guess, but) then the cost of an EC2 instance will never cross over the cost of running an Antsle.

That's only one situation, but it's worth noting that Antsle materials rely extremely heavily on advertising it as something on which you can run public-facing services. So, we have to presume that you're buying up to the highest possible Internet connection speed and purchasing one or more static IPs to use for service. The cost of DNS services and any software you might be licensing on the device will be the same for both EC2 and an Antsle.

It's worth mentioning here that regular tower servers are a lot less expensive than Antsle for configurations that are much faster. Dell has a configuration of the PowerEdge T30 with a much faster quad-core Xeon E3 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard disk for $550 (down from the $760 base price on the lowest end Antsle.) The T30 is easier to maintain and upgrade, so putting in a second hard disk and configuring mirroring should be easy and inexpensive. If you step up one level in Dell's product line, you can configure the machine from the factory with solid state disks and multiple drives.

Part of the advantage of buying such a system from Dell or building your own (compared to the Antsle, specifically) is that you can balance the system to your needs. For example, the PowerEdge T130 lets you choose a dual-core Celeron CPU (which will still be faster than the Atom in the Antsle), 8GB of RAM and a mirrored pair of 1TB hard disks for around $740.

The trade-offs here are that the machine won't be completely silent and you are trading solid state storage for two slower hard disks, which should be fine for passive server workloads, even with several virtual machines. I personally tend to believe that silence is a little overrated anyway, but if you need silence, the best thing about servers is that you can generally locate them away from your primary work or living area. A small server based on a Xeon E3 processor will run fine in a closet or a big enough cabinet, even.

Buying a regular server has the same trade-offs against Amazon EC2, which is that you are using your own electricity and network connectivity to run the server. The reason I insist on including connectivity in this is because Antsle's web site shows a lot of usage of it to host client web sites. I'm presuming the goings on here are that a web designer or programmer would use it to host a client site. Web sites, even interactives ones, don't take an awful lot to host these days in terms of hardware, so you can either run one web server that listens on multiple names or a VM for each site, depending.

The other thing that needs to be considered is that residential Internet connections usually aren't good enough to host web sites. I have a connection with 20 megabits upload speed. It works fine for my personal needs, but it would be bad for paying customers. Service providers running cloud or even machine colocation services put a lot of effort into making sure that machines under their control stay running. An Antsle is still susceptible to power interruptions in your home or office, as well as network connectivity issues.

Another option that the hobbyist market (especially, say, /r/homelab, which is where I saw the device) usually pursues is used hardware. Even a machine such as a years-old business desktop that has been cleaned up a little bit and given some more RAM and storage will be much faster and much less expensive than the Antsle. The money could be used on purchasing more capacity or something like backup hardware or tools.

For developers with desktops, I can't help but imagine a better option is to buy a second storage device, some more RAM, and run virtualization software like VMWare Workstation or Virtualbox. If you don't need an entirely new computer (or a graphics card) RAM is… less expensive than an entirely new server, and an SSD or hard disk is inexpensive. The Antsle is pictured next to an iMac on their web site. If you are using an iMac and it is anywhere near replacement, a good enough Antsle to be worth not running your development environment directly on the iMac costs enough to offset the costs of just buying an iMac pro and removing that benefit.

One of the disadvantages of the Antsle is the funding model for the hardware, which exists for any on-premise service. Antsle is offered as a product that you buy, straight-up. If you could lease an Antsle or if it was available on a payment plan outside of funding you can get personally, especially if coupled with a VPN service to defray the cost of having a public IP address (which some devices such as the HPE EC200 are).

It looks like Antsle isn't offering this kind of funding, leasing, or payment plans directly, however. Dell does, but there's no indication that Dell's funding is any different from buying the machine on a credit card you already have, or using funds from something like a short term personal or business loan. Depending on the financing used, there may be different terms and the actual amount paid will differ based on taxes and interest.

Antsle is interesting, I understand that it's not for me, so it may look better to other people with different needs, but I struggle to think of the use case it is for. Perhaps the only situation I can think of is if you are a developer who needs a low-power server on which to do development, and you literally only own laptops, and also you live in an extremely small studio apartment or use an extremely small office space.


Re: Antsle and home-labbing and self-hosting

One of the IRC friends in #Stenoweb posted this to reddit a few months ago, the discussion is here:
Cory WiegersmaNo presence information on 4/18/2018 8:40 PM

Re: Antsle and home-labbing and self-hosting

I mentioned this on the reddit post, but the anstle as it existed when I wrote this piece (I haven't looked to see if specs are updated) essentially fit within the performance profile of a years-old business laptop. I have piles of old ThinkPads I got for free I could put an SSD and more RAM into and do a clean-up on for a lot less than what an Anstle would cost. Some of them would have functioning built-in UPSes as well, and there are models with two 2.5-inch disk bays to do disk mirroring or in which you can install two drives, depending on what you need.

I suspect the real target market is essentially people who want to have a certain amount of development capacity off of their laptops or desktops, especially given the current state of "running VMs on your desktop" which isn't generally amazing unless you're pretty specifically babying the VMs. (It's worse on Windows 10 than anywhere else, but.)
Cory WiegersmaNo presence information on 4/19/2018 1:54 PM