Bitnami: How a pet project evolved into cloud hosting and server management

It's amazing how what was once a pet project that provided simple installers to fellow developers turned into a profitable business on the leading edge of cloud hosting and managed virtual servers. Here we take a look at the Bitnami story.

Last November, walking through the exhibit hall of the Amazon Insight conference in Las Vegas, their hexagonal trademark caught my eye as I passed by the Bitnami cloud-hosting booth. When visiting a typical vendor booth at a conference, an attendee is usually interested in learning more about a given product, or finding out about future releases of the product that might be in the pipeline. But for me, when I saw the Bitnami logo, all I wanted to do was shake the hands of the guys and gals who were working behind the scenes.

We are making it easier to host our applications. You can have backups. You can have monitoring. You can easily resize your instances. You can clone it if you need to perform upgrades, and so on.

Daniel Lopez Ridruejoy, Bitnami CEO

For those who are unfamiliar, Bitnami provides installers, pre-configured virtual machines and operating system images, each one having a pre-configured software stack, be it Droopal, Wordpress, Joomla, Alfresco, and just about any other set of products available with a flexible, open access license. So as a developer, a software architect or even a potential product user, you can head over to Bitnami, download something like a Jenkins or a Liferay offering, run the VM and start working with the software right away.

Before Bitnami, if a programmer wanted to play around with something new without compromising the software on their existing laptop or risk doing irreparable harm to their development system, they'd have to set up a separate machine, reinstall a new operating system to make sure they were starting at a baseline of zero, and then start downloading a whack of new products and prerequisites with which the weren't familiar. That would then turn into a wasted afternoon spent downloading, configuring, reinstalling, and just generally fighting to get a bunch of different software products to play nicely together.

The joy of installation and configuration

Take a developer who wants to learn the ORM framework Hibernate for example. That developer would have to first spend an afternoon downloading and installing a JVM, installing the JBoss server, figuring out which version of MySQL to run, looking for the appropriate JDBC driver for the database, and then spending a few frustrating hours trying to figure out which system variable is missing, or uninstalling and reinstalling a particular product because somehow the 32-bit version of the JVM was inadvertently installed when in fact, one of the other products in the mix requires a 64 bit version. The frustration of wasting a Saturday setting up a given development environment, especially when the goal is to simply spend some time off from the daily grind trying to learn something new, can often be enough to make a prospective developer throw in the towel and just spend Sunday watching football instead.

But Bitnami changed all of that. Do you want to learn Jenkins? Do you want to evaluate whether Subversion is a simpler version control system than the one you're currently using? Just head over to Bitnami, download the installer for the given package you're interested in,  fire off the installer and all of the required products will be automatically configured and ready to use. And if you don't want to do a local install of the products, you can just download the Bitnami virtual image instead. Either way, you're ready start using a modern, and inevitably complex, software stack, all at the click of a button. You can jump right into your software project without losing a single speck of enthusiasm.

Evolving in lock-step with the cloud

Of course, what has just been described is the way someone would play around with software back in 2007 or something. But back in 2008, right about the time Bitnami was becoming popular, Amazon starting to promote their EC2 cloud service, a service that provisioned cloud based operating systems. But of course, who wants just an operating system? What's really desired is an operating system with a pre-configured software stack so people and organizations cloud just point and click and have a full Wordpress or Joomla backed site hosted in the cloud. “We started in 2008 with installers, but in parallel, Amazon released EC2,” said Bitnami CEO Daniel Lopez Ridruejo. "We started with installers. Then we added virtual machines. Then the next logical step was providing Amazon machine images."

And that is where Bitnami really took off, becoming a familiar name to all of those who were leveraging AWS EC2 services. With EC2, you don't even need a spare laptop, or a virtual machine player installed on your local machine in order to play around with a complex, yet pre-configured enterprise software stack. All you need is access to the Amazon or Azure cloud, and a wide range of Bitnami offerings are right there at your fingertips.

Doing it all just for fun

The most endearing part of the Bitnami story is the fact that all of these installers, virtual machine images and even the EC2 systems were just given away for free. The whole thing was just a pet project, with no real intention of turning it into a money making venture. "When we started, we registered a  dot org domain name to make it clear that we weren't trying to be a business," said Ridruejo. "We were just doing the projects for fun." But that fun little Bitnami project is now seeing over one million new deployments a month, and that type of attention changes a person's focus. "We are still giving away all the images for free. But a fraction of the people using Bitnami want to go into production, and those people look to us for hosting." And in the spirit of responding to the demands of their loyal customer base, Bitnami is now providing cloud hosting services. "We are making it easier to host our applications. You can have backups. You can have monitoring. You can easily resize your instances. You can clone it if you need to perform upgrades, and so on."

If you're doing software development and you're looking for some pre-configured images, or if you're an organization who is looking at hosting some of the software that is packaged as one of their preconfigured VMs or EC2 images, you should head over to Bitnami.com and check out what it is that they have to offer. And if you're like every other Ruby or Liferay developer I know, you'll download one of their images, you'll marvel at the amount of time they've saved you, and you too will owe the folks at Bitnami a debt of gratitude.

You can follow Cameron McKenzie on Twitter: @potemcam

Have you used Bitnami cloud hosting or EC2 images? Let us know about your experience.

This was last published in November 2014

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