Jan Löffler is the CTO of Plesk, which is fantastic server management software. They’re rapidly growing set of sophisticated tools is inspiring., In this episode we’ll talk all about the history of Plesk, as well as what it’s like to manage software that powers hundreds of thousands of websites.
Intro: Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 125 of How I Built It. Today my guest is Jan Loffler, who is the CTO of Plesk. Plesk has been a season-long sponsor, and I’m excited to talk to Jan today about all sorts of stuff. Plesk is a very interesting platform that is not just a single hosting platform, and it’s a management platform. It runs on all sorts of hosts, and he gives us a lot of insight into running software that is virtually everywhere. So I’m excited to talk to Jan today about a whole host, no pun intended, of things. We talk specifically about not just building Plesk in the history of Plesk, but we also talk about the WordPress Toolkit that they launched, which is super cool and a whole bunch of other things. So, why don’t we get right to it? Let’s get to the interview with Jan Loffler, of course, after a word from our sponsors.
Break: This episode is brought to you by Plesk. Do you spend too much time doing server admin work, and not enough time building websites? Plesk helps you manage servers, websites, and customers in one dashboard. Helping you do those tasks up to 10 times faster than manually coding everything. Let me tell you, I recently checked out their new and improved WordPress Toolkit, and I was super impressed by how easy it was to Spin Up new WordPress sites, clone sites, and even manage multiple updates to themes and plugins. With the click of one button, I was able to update all of my WordPress sites. I was incredibly impressed by how great their WordPress Toolkit is. You can learn more and try Plesk for free today at Plesk.com/build.
Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is Jan Loffler, CTO of Plesk. Jan, how are you today?
Jan Loffler: I’m fine. Perfect. Sun is shining. Happy to be here in your podcast finally, and looking forward to your good show.
Joe: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here. As we record this, it is unseasonably warm here in the northeast of the United States, and after negative temperatures last week I will happily take that. So, today we are going to talk about the history and then future direction of Plesk, which has been around for a while. I remember using it on one of my first– Hosting my first real servers, my first real hosting companies. But why don’t we start out with who you are and what you do?
Jan: Yeah, sure. Hi, I’m Jan. I’m the CTO of Plesk, and I love WordPress and web development, and my professional career started by running my own web agency, building websites for others and for my clients. During my studies and afterwards, like 15 years ago, I joined one of the largest hosting companies in the world. Building their infrastructure, I quickly noticed that building the backbone of the web and being responsible for millions of websites makes me somewhat excited. Since then, I had the pleasure to build some of the most exciting hosting platforms in the world.
Joe: That’s great. So, you so you worked for a big hosting company before starting Plesk?
Jan: Absolutely. I was responsible for their whole hosting portfolio for ten years.
Joe: Wow, that’s great. What made you think, “I can improve this?” Like, what was the spark that started the idea of Plesk for you?
Jan: It was a whole journey. After building the hosting platform for this hoster, I joined one of the fastest growing e-commerce companies in Europe. That was super exciting because it was a company– Or, it is still a company off of records, I have to say. The largest numbers, and that’s very impressive to build such a platform and being responsible for it. But when I was asked then to join Plesk and be the CTO, that was from friends. There is nothing better than working with friends and having a great team spirit and knowing each other very well. It’s like playing football and passing the ball blindly to your colleague because he exactly knows how to take it and score. That’s the feeling that we have at Plesk, so it’s an amazing team, and there you can only rock.
Joe: That’s great. So, let me clarify then. Plesk had already started before you joined, or were you on the core team that built up Plesk?
Jan: Good question. Plesk is actually, it was founded a long time ago. Maybe I’d tell a bit about what Plesk is?
Jan: It’s a website management solution that has quite some history behind it, and it has been on the market since 1999. Back then it was invented originally by a Russian guy who also owned a web agency that was around that time when I had my own. So I can absolutely feel with him how he might have felt. He was upset, or getting upset, setting up all the service [inaudible], over and over manually. Again, at that time, you had to do everything from the command line, and there was no automation available. He started automating all server management tasks and immediately noticed that there’s a market for such a solution. In 1999 Rackspace was one of our first customers to use our product, and today almost 20 years later Plesk is used or offered by more than 50% of all major hosting companies. So, it’s quite some past.
Joe: Wow, that’s incredible. Wow. Used by over 50% of all major hosting companies? That’s great, and I could see why. Full disclosure, for people who are listening, you know that Plesk is a sponsor of the podcast. But beyond that, just using your tool from the very first time I used it to most recently when I used the WordPress Toolkit, it’s always been very impressive and very powerful but still easy to use. Which I think is important, especially for those of us who aren’t– I don’t consider myself a server admin by any stretch.
Jan: Thanks a lot for this feedback. When I joined, I said– I knew Plesk for many years because at my hosting company I was reselling Plesk, so I knew it since very long already as being a customer. But when I joined, I said, “The user experience that needs to change, it needs to be more modern. It needs to be like people expect from Facebook or Google, and tools like this.” We made major changes in the last three years, and the best things are just coming up, especially this year. In the past, our passion and our mission was to simplify the lives of sysadmins, so it was more focusing on those guys who were very technical and know how to manage a server. We were helping them to automate building server tasks. But meanwhile, we have changed that. Our mission now is to simplify the lives of web professionals, which includes those people who are less technical, and they probably know how to build a website. They probably know how to either code HTML or PHP or even write WordPress plugins, but have no clue about how to configure fail to ban and firewalls, and keep their kernel maintained and stuff like this. This is something that we want to take away from them. It’s like a ton of mis-driving cars, where you don’t have to know how they work internally, you sit in and tell to the car where to drive you to. That’s why we are speaking more about the state of driving server now, where we develop Plesk in a path where it managed everything itself, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Joe: That’s great. I love that, the self-driving server. It makes perfect sense. This is the March of technology before WordPress. People had to build their own login systems or content management systems, and now somebody said today, “Every website I do I build a CMS from scratch,” like that’s insane. That’s just a lot of, seemingly, wasted time. Then the same thing goes for– If you’re not using the tools that exist to help you manage a server, like I have a simple [linode] server, so I can do development on my iPad, and that is nothing like when you get a [linode] server, there’s barely even an operating system on it. You need to choose the operating system, and then install Apache, and then install everything else. That’s a little bit fun for me, but if I was doing this for paid work it would be– It would add so much to the budget, so much unnecessary time and money. Tools like Plesk definitely help people do their job more efficiently, and help bring websites to more people that way. That ‘s– The self-driving server, I think, is great. As we move on from when you started at Plesk, what was a project that maybe you worked on in the past or you’re working on now that you are excited about?
Jan: Plenty of things. My most loved topic is WordPress management, because I was using WordPress since– Very long. I can’t even remember when I started with it, and it was always complicated to make a website secure. Especially if you keep in mind that for every day there is between 60,000 and 100,000 servers hacked every day. A lot of them are WordPress sites. That’s not because WordPress wouldn’t be secure, WordPress is super secure if you know how to secure it well, and this is something that a lot of people don’t know. A lot of hosters, I speak with most of them, they have a severe issue that websites of their customers get hacked because the customers don’t know how to secure it. The hoster doesn’t do it properly, and that’s something that we want to solve. We don’t want to have people with hacked websites. We want to prevent them from that situation, and there we invest the most in. That’s one thing, keeping them safe, and on the other side keeping them productive. You just said you don’t want to waste your time with managing the infrastructure, and you want to work with your clients and help them to get online. That’s where you want to put your energy, not managing the infrastructure and running the updates, so you need a tool that does that reliably. In the end, the product that we build is the WordPress Toolkit where we put our main focus in to make sure that it covers the domain workflows of web agencies and WordPress users. It helps them to bring their site online fast and secure, and to also increase the site’s performance as well as help with search engine visibility so that your site ranks on the first page of Google, Baidu, Yahoo, Bing and so on.
Joe: Yeah. That’s great. Like I said earlier, I was playing with the WordPress Toolkit recently, and it does a good job of covering those things that I would want to do managing websites. How did you– Did you do any research to figure out, “These are the things that people need?”
Jan: Very good question. We do a lot of research, but let’s start early. So if you compare in 1999 when it all started, the hosting industry was completely different, it was small and just starting. There was not even WordPress, of course. Today as a comparison, the market is completely different. It’s super competitive, and technology is quickly evolving, whereas, on the growth path, we see cloud services everywhere. Now we’re talking about managed WordPress hosters that hadn’t been done ten years ago. The question is, “What kind of market research do we do, and how do we make sure that we stay relevant?” On the one side, having such a big market share which we obviously have allows us on the one side to gain precise insights into the market ourselves. For example, “Which web technologies are used and demanded? Which content management systems? Which web servers? Which operating systems? Which virtualization tools, coding languages, and so on?” On the other hand, we always strive to understand the big picture, and that’s why we also crawl the whole web, whether it’s 220 million registered domains, to follow the global trends and understand what is happening outside there. “What do developers around the globe do in their day to day business? Which tools do they use, how do they work?” To make sure that we always have the right solution for them. Our web crawler scans all the websites worldwide, like search engines like Google and Bing do as well. With that, we understand how those websites are built and what the most popular ones are, and how this changes over time. Additionally, we received feedback from more than 250– Sorry, 2,500 hosting partners and millions of Plesk users. But also closely following our competition belongs to our daily tasks, from other server management solutions over specialized WordPress hosters to full cloud platforms like AWS and Azure. That altogether gives us a very good insight into what we have to do.
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Joe: On top of having a big market share, which is always good, you have the data to help you back up your decisions. But crawling the web, getting feedback from your partners and your users, and then following your competitors. That checks all the boxes. You are here doing everything you need to know to understand the landscape, and I know that you’ve been involved in WordCamps a lot, at least recently over the past couple of years. So I’m sure connecting with people at those events has been incredibly valuable as well.
Jan: Absolutely. Since we especially provide solutions for WordPress developers and web agencies, we are closely connected with the WordPress community. We contribute there, and we continuously do interviews at every WordCamp with developers, designers, and agencies to understand their needs and requirements. We invite them to our internal [inaudible] lab, to beta test versions as well as let them participate in the development of VR. Our preview program, and additionally, we often contribute to open source projects at several hackathons. The next one would be, for example, the Cloud Fest hackathon. There we code with many developers together and create cool open source projects that make the web easier and more secure. This knowledge exchange with other teams allows us to test our hypothesis and generate better ideas in the end, and to give you an example last March, we wrote a domain connect integration. [Inaudible] together with colleagues from GoDaddy, from [inaudible], White House Europe, and Microsoft. That allows best users to add their domain names without having to configure a DNS at all. That is exactly what I meant with self-driving servers. It’s one of those parts, in the past, you had to change your record or define your CE name in a setting and your DNS server. Now, this is gone. If you have a domain at GoDaddy or [inaudible], then you don’t have to configure DNS anymore. Your server does that for you automatically. This fully automated, this whole process via the domain connect standard. It’s already supported by several large hosting companies. Plesk, of course.
Joe: That’s fantastic.
Jan: One other thing besides that, we speak with a lot of hosting companies and research companies and also end users to learn from their insides and their feedback. This helps us to continuously improve and build a great and highly demanded product in the end. One thing that I’m proud about is we measure also our success with the popular net promoter score. So, NPS. We see it growing quickly, despite already being pretty good with a score of 68 compared to the industry average of 31 plus off down apps in the US. So, it’s a cool thing. What we see there is that every press release that we bring out has a higher NPS. So, that also proves that our direction is the one and that our customers appreciate it.
Joe: That’s great to hear. Let me tell you, I have a free course on how to manage– Or, how the DNS works. That was sponsored by hover, and it was a little difficult trying to explain in plain terms all of the facets of the DNS. It’s a seemingly popular course, so I think people are getting a lot out of it, but it took an hour or so for me to explain how the DNS works. If you could eliminate just that it makes people’s lives a lot easier, which is cool.
Joe: Let’s get to the title question here, how did you build it? Where “it” can be Plesk from the time you joined, or it could be the WordPress Toolkit. Whatever you are most comfortable with as far as answering this question goes.
Joe: You try to make it so that one crew doesn’t say “I can’t ship my feature until this crew ships their feature.”
Jan: Exactly. Then Plesk itself became more of a platform for those tools. We call those tools “Plesk extensions,” usually. That’s a bit comparable to WordPress and its Plugins, where you have the WordPress core, but everybody can build plugins to change the whole UI and add functionality, and so on. It’s just that here it’s a bit more extreme because Plesk represents the whole hosting stack from kernel and maintenance, up to application layer security, to professional WordPress management for our agencies and hosting companies. So, a bit more complex. On the tooling side, maybe somewhere internally we use tools like Confluence, Jaira, Bitbucket, Test rail, Jenkins and many more. As well as a huge farm of computer clusters to run hundreds of thousands of test runs per day on thousands of fortune machines. The biggest challenge for us is to test software that runs on 380,000 production servers hosting millions of customers websites. This is a completely different thing than in the pure SaaS world, where I have been before, where you can easily fix a bug on the go. Here you don’t have this luxury. A SaaS company, if they identified a bug, they fix it up in minutes, and then the customers won’t even notice. We at Plesk, we ship software to all these hosting providers in the world, and that powers thousands of hosting companies and web agencies. That means that we need to test as much as possible before actually shipping the software, and testing means on all different operating systems and hardware sizes, virtualization technologies, screen resolutions, browsers, [devisers] and so on. However, what absolutely excites me is that we are currently developing our next Plesk major release that’s coming later this year. Surprise, surprise. Joe, this is the first time I’ve mentioned this new release in public. So you are the first to hear it.
Jan: The exciting thing is that we have already now thousands of beta testers that don’t even know yet that it will be the new major update. But to test our latest preview releases as we speak, and this gives us impressive feedback to continuously improve the product because they tell us exactly if we are on the right path. What’s good, what’s not, and so on. This is amazing for us and a great help. So, a big thank you to all beta testers of previous preview releases.
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Joe: I love a lot of what you said here, and what you said about doing hundreds of thousands of test runs is incredibly interesting. Because even to some extent, as a web developer, you got a browser test and as an iOS developer, you need to device test. But it’s still a pretty controlled environment. You mentioned that you need to make sure Plesk is compatible with 14 Linux distributions plus Windows, that you want to have feature parity. It is running above the actual server level, and the lower you get down the stack, the more stuff your software affects. I think that was just incredibly interesting to hear. You must have lots of automated tests, and then the beta testers, and all sorts of other stuff. Right?
Jan: Yeah, absolutely. I could talk now for hours about things that I saw in the past 15 years from my hosting experience, like people winning the– How is it called in America? American Pop Idol or something like this–? Overnight becoming famous?
Joe: Yeah, American Idol. Yeah.
Jan: Their website is crashing and needing to scale, or customers getting hacked, users that had a bug in their PHP script, generating millions of supporters recursively, stuff like this. You can’t as a developer, and you can’t even think of things that happen in white life. You need that experience, and you need that testing and that understanding for, let’s say, customer’s creativity.
Joe: Yeah. That’s incredible. That reminded me of a story of when I was in college I majored in computer science and have a master’s in software engineering, and when we were first introduced to threads– For those who aren’t familiar, threads are basically a way to write a program that can do multiple things at once. When we were first introduced to them, we were encouraged to just run them on the computer science server. But what we weren’t told was that server was also running a bunch of websites and other external resources, so if our threads got out of hand, we crashed an actual live server. I’m like, “Maybe we should have this on a sandbox, where it’s OK to crash this server.” I just thought that was interesting, and I was a junior in college crashing a production server because I had an infinite loop creating threads or something like that.
Jan: But isn’t that the coolest thing? Invite every new startup to crash a production system and learn from it?
Joe: Yeah. It’s a trial by fire because you need to figure out quickly what is wrong because other people are being affected by it.
Jan: Yeah, and how to build a system that is reliable and resilient from the start, and can’t be crashed too easy.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. That was like 15 years ago or so, Or maybe 14 years ago now. Things have changed quite a bit since I was in college. But we are coming up on the end of our interview here, and I know that you mentioned the next major release of Plesk is being tested. But what are your other plans for the future of Plesk?
Jan: As I said before, at Plesk, we have the mission to simplify the lives of web professionals. To accomplish that we build services that help our customers to stay secure, run faster websites, get better search engine rankings, detect issues quickly with pre-warnings or even guarantee that their websites or WordPress updates never break their production sites. Many of those services run on large clusters, meanwhile on cloud infrastructure and are consumed by Plesk servers for best possible user experience. For example, we use in the background, and we use deep learning systems that benefit from checking thousands of websites in parallel. Here is the comparison, if you run a server and you have maybe 20 websites on it, then, of course, you can learn about updates that might crash your site. But this doesn’t scale, and it’s not– It will never be good and will never warn you from things that you haven’t seen before. This is different if we use both cloud services that do that in mass scale and given our size, it allows us to do that in mass scale. If we, for example, help with WordPress updates to our whole customer base and make sure we learn from what can go wrong in wildlife and transfer this knowledge into every single WordPress Toolkit for every single website, then this helps you to never break your site. There’s one example, the other one is our web crawler that scans the whole web and all search engines on a huge farm of servers, to have two examples, now. This means, as a result, it means Plesk is an on-premise software that merges more and more with cloud services to provide more user value in a seamless and very convenient way. That’s similar to what we’ve seen maybe with Microsoft or so, with their office products. Meanwhile, I get more and more power and convenience thanks to the integrated cloud services, but still trying to solve the very same thing. For Plesk, it’s still building websites, still getting online and building your online business. But with the help of your local environment of your server, with a maximum performance, combined with cloud services like a CDN like Web Application Firewalls or smart updates for WordPress updates. Like the CO2 kit for search engine ranking improvements, and stuff like this.
Joe: That is a lot of stuff to think about. I’m really glad that people much smarter than me are working on it. So, as we wrap up time here, I do want to ask you my favorite question, which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?
Jan: Of course I do. Our developers are passionate about their product, and we all use it ourselves for building and hosting our own websites. It’s a natural thing that passionate developers, and they always put some Easter eggs into the product. Tell me one company where people don’t do that. The question is, how do you find them? It’s like finding the cheat code in some ego shooter in the past. We have quite a few of them, those Easter eggs, and I might tell you one. So if you double click the Plesk logo in the “About” dialogue in tools and settings, then you will see a greeting from our dev team. Or another one would be, it can be found actually by using the WordPress Toolkit, if you dare type in a certain keyword– Which stays a secret for now, then you see also some cool things. But I’m sure people will notice it once becoming a power user. So, it’s just a matter of time until you see it.
Joe: That might be my favorite trade secret. So if you are a Plesk user or are thinking about becoming a Plesk user, know that there are a few Easter eggs and Jan just gave us the drop on some of them. That’s fantastic. Jan, thanks so much for joining me today. Where can people find you?
Jan: You can find me on Twitter. I’m @jlsoft2, @jlsoft was already taken at that time. Or, write me an email to Jan@Plesk.com. I’m always happy to receive valuable feedback from users or learn how to make their lives easier and make them happier. If you found a new stack and want to share it with me, then please do so. Write me an email, and I’m happy to hear from you.
Joe: That is fantastic. I will include all of that, and everything we talked about in the show notes today, which you can find over at HowIBuilt.it. Jan, thanks so much for joining me today. I appreciate it.
Jan: Thanks, Joe. It was absolutely my pleasure.
Outro: Thanks so much to Jan for joining me today. I enjoyed this conversation. We got to geek out about development stuff, and we heard a bit about their plans for the future, and testing, and all sorts of stuff. Then his trade secret is fantastic, and developers find developers that are passionate. He mentioned a few Easter eggs in and around the Plesk website and platform, so my question for you this week is, “Have you ever added an Easter egg to any of your products?” Let me know, or at least let me know where I can find– Or, I can attempt to find the Easter egg by emailing me Joe@HowIBuilt.it or @jcasabona. Thanks again to our sponsors, Plesk, Pantheon and Weglot. Their support makes the show possible. If you liked this episode, do me a favor and share it with somebody who you think will also like this episode. Sharing is caring, of course, and I love introducing new content to people. I hope you do too. So, that’s it for this episode. Until next time– Before I sign off, I should tell you that you could find all of the show notes and all of the links that we talked about over at HowIBuilt.it/125. Now I’m done. So, until next time, get out there and build something.