This article was written by our President, Bill VanVorst in response to customers wanting to know more about the history of NationalNet.
The History of NationalNet
Once again, my websites are down – for the third time in a week. It’s 1996 and I have a few small brochure based websites for my company hosted at a web host that seemed to be a good choice when I selected them. I call customer service and no one answers the phone so I make the decision to move my sites to another hosting company. Two months into this new hosting company, my sites are so slow I can barely load them. Their support tries to convince me that it must be a server issue and that I’ll have to figure it out on my own. Of course, I know better. Hosting websites can’t be that hard, I think to myself – why so many issues?
It was about this time that I met Tony Morgan. Tony posted on a forum looking for someone to write a small stats program and I offered to do for him. We agreed on a price and I completed the program for him. Because he had sites similar to mine, we started trading traffic and soon became friends. Tony had a web development and design company but was also having similar issues where his sites were hosted.
It was shortly after this in 1998 that Tony had the opportunity to purchase National Internet, as it was called at the time (national-net.com). I received a call from Tony asking that if he bought it, could I manage it. It was only eight servers and I knew I could manage them without any problems at all in my spare time. At the time, we had no intentions of being in the hosting business, but at least now we had full control of our hosting and no one to blame but ourselves if the sites were down. Plus, the revenue from the existing customer base would allow us to have free hosting of our own sites. That is the day that we began to call it NationalNet.
Because Tony was based in Atlanta and the servers were in Florida, he leased a couple of racks in a small data center in downtown Atlanta and we moved the eight tower servers to these racks and set up a nice little network. That night, Tony confided in me that until that day he had never even seen a web server live and in person. That, however, was quite OK because that is why he had me. I lived in Tucson at that time and did all the management remotely. We set up a small phone system in Atlanta that would forward support calls to my phone in Tucson but most support was done via email. Any time a customer would email support, I would drop whatever I was doing and deal with the issue. I knew how it felt to wait for support so I was determined to not let that happen to our fully managed hosting customers.
In 1998, the web hosting community was a fairly small and close-knit community and it didn’t take long for the word to get out that NationalNet had great support and very good uptime, so we started to get requests for hosting. Our standard response was “no – we’re not really in the hosting business”. Finally, a mutual friend of ours told us, “I don’t care what it costs, your fully managed hosting seems good and I want you to host me”. We decided to throw out a big number thinking that they would say “no way!” and quit bothering us about it. The price at that time was $1500/server set up, $1500/month/server, and $1500/mpbs of bandwidth. Amazingly, the future customer replied, “Sign me up, now” and that, friends, is how NationalNet got the early reputation of the most expensive hosting money could buy…and we made sure it was darn well worth it.
From there, customers continued to sign up and NationalNet started to grow to the point where I had a decision to make. I could choose to stay in Tucson and continue to try to make a living with my sites, or sell them and move to Atlanta and run NationalNet as a full time employee. Obviously, I made the latter decision.
Over the next decade revenues went up, prices came down, but we kept growing in all verticals. Not only did our finances grow but so did our family. Heck, our first offices were in a three-bedroom apartment where we turned each bedroom into an office. Of course, just to keep up with the growth we had to hire more people and that meant we needed more room. So, about a year later we moved from that three-bedroom apartment to our very first “big boy” office.
It was a tiny office in a small strip mall, somewhere between an insurance company and a dry cleaner. The office was so tiny I worked out of the Conference Room most of the time just so I would have enough room to work. Just a short while later the office next door came open and we leased it, knocked out a wall, and I got my very own office with a window and room for the entire tech staff to be close enough to me to hear me holler down the hall.
During this time of rocket growth not only did we add more employees we added more servers…lots and lots of servers. It seemed like I blinked and our 8 servers became 80 and I remember when we found out that we had basically outgrown our data center provider. They simply could not keep up with our growth. At that time, we moved to our very own larger 2000 square foot data center and I really thought that would be enough to carry us for some time. Then, I blinked again…
Our 8 servers had gone to 80 and then to 800 (and remember that in these days 4u servers were mostly what we used). Our 2,000 square feet that should have held us for another 5+ years was already consumed in less than three years.
That is when I decided that we needed to take a big leap if we were going to continue to grow at the pace we had been in our short years as a host. At the time, it was the largest under-taking that we had taken in our short lives and, needless to say, it took some coaxing to convince Tony to spend the millions of dollars it would take to complete this leap. Not only did my plan involve taking over a 9,000 square foot, brand new Data Center that had been shed by the bankruptcy of GTE, it also included taking another 20,000 square foot of almost dilapidated office space across the street and building out 10,000 square foot of it into a Class-A office and Network Operations Center on our own dime. Just the build-out of the office space alone was over $500,000 and we did not own the building, so we knew we had to stay there a long time for it to pay off. For those of you that remember when the Tech Support staff would say, “let me run over to the Data Center to reboot your server” they were actually taking an elevator down 10 floors, running across the street, taking another elevator up 9 floors to get to your server. Amazing, when I look back on it, that we could still reboot a server in about five minutes.
We grew into this solution with a little more grace than we had before. Yes, we continued to grow, but we developed tools to make our solution much more streamlined, System Administrators got better, we became more pro-active with our monitoring and such so there was less fires to put out on a daily basis. In a word, we became more “efficient”. While we were busy becoming more efficient, servers were getting smaller, yet more powerful. Their footprints were getting smaller but their more powerful processors were demanding more and more energy. About 5 years later we got the news…”yes, you have more space in your 9,000 square foot data center, but we cannot provide you with any more power service to your floor”. Friends, let me tell you from experience that a data center with floor space and no power is about as useless as the right shift button. So we did it again…
Now, over 15 years from when it all began, we are in a beautiful, state-of-the-art, 73,000 square foot multi-tenant data center. The 35,000 square foot section that contains NationalNet’s core hosting and colocation business was “purpose built” from scratch just over two years ago exactly the way we wanted it. In addition, there is another 35,000+ square feet that we have available for larger, build-to-suit clients, or for NationalNet growth as needed for our future. As for power, we are only 2.5MW into 8MW available that is expandable to 20MW when needed. Needless to say, I am quite confident that this will be a large enough facility to last us for many, many years… but…I have said that before.
We have come a long way in over 15 years but there are still times when I miss that little apartment!