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What is the (technical) cost of running a photo site/service?

Take a quick guess: What do you think it costs to host one of the largest photography sites in the world for a month?




Before starting Unsplash, I would have had no idea.

No one talks about this stuff and I’m not really sure why.

Let’s change that.


Unsplash runs on Heroku—a hosting service that abstracts the complexities of managing scalable servers and encourages rapid development. Which basically means that it keeps us running without us having to manage our own servers, and is always prepared for when the site gets large spikes in traffic. 

While Heroku charges a small premium over other hosting services, our small team size and high traffic makes the tradeoff really beneficial since we save big on DevOps costs (a topic we’ll save for another post).

In February we spent $2,731.23 USD on Heroku and Heroku add-ons (essentially 3rd party services linked through Heroku, like databases, error reporting, and server analytics).

Heroku bill of $2,731.23 USD
Heroku Invoice for February 2016

With the way Unsplash is built, the majority of the costs come from the main application production-unsplash which powers and the API.

About two thirds of the costs for production-unsplash come from the server dynos — essentially the computers that run the application logic for the site. In February they served over 30M pages, 140M API requests, and ran 2.2M background jobs.

Of the $2,731.23 paid to Heroku, over $1,200 is spent directly on these server dynos for the main application.

The rest of the ~$1,500 is split between smaller supporting websites like Unsplash Source and Made with Unsplash, review apps, and databases like Postgres, Redis, and Memcached.

Supporting services

The two costly supporting services Unsplash uses are logging and data. Both were something I personally had never thought about until starting Unsplash, but as it turns out, they can cost a lot.

In February we spent $1000 USD on Keen, which is our main data service that we use to store and query event data. We’ve had mixed results with Keen, but it’s safe to say that we’d be spending a lot more money (probably 4-5x as much) if we were to run a more elaborate setup like a lot of companies do.

Keen bill of $1000 USD
Keen invoice for February 2016

For logging we use Logentries and paid $630 USD in February to analyze and store the logs from production-unsplash. For the amount of log data that we stored, that’s actually quite cheap, but it’s still surprising (at least to me) what it costs to store a couple hundred gigabytes of log files.

Logentries invoice for $630 USD
Logentries invoice for February 2016

Image hosting

Now for the big one.

Without a doubt, the most expensive part of hosting Unsplash comes from serving and storing the incredible collection of photos.

Each month over a billion images are viewed and 5.5M photos downloaded.

Most of these images are handled by the image service Imgix, which is a service that essentially abstracts image hosting and delivery into a very simple, worry-free API. (If you’re unfamiliar with Imgix, definitely check them out — we <3 imgix="" a="">.)

In February alone, that cost $11,170 USD.

Imgix bill of $11,170 USD
Imgix invoice for February 2016

On top of that, we paid a bill of $1,713.58 USD for our legacy Cloudfront CDN (from the old Tumblr days) and $413.81 USD for storage of images on S3.

AWS bill of $2,127.39 USD
AWS invoice for February 2016

Adding it all up we get:

  • Servers: $2,731.23
  • Logging: $630.00
  • Data: $1,000.00
  • Image hosting: $11,170.00
  • Image storage: $2,127.39

Total (USD): $17,658.62

When I’ve shared this number in the past, most people’s reactions fall into one of three responses:

  1. “Wow, thats a lot of money for a website!”
  2. “I could save you X thousands of dollars by using {insert technology}”
  3. “That’s not that much—we spend X!”

I bet you’re probably thinking one of these yourself right now.

For those of you having reaction #1, it’s true, $18k is a lot of money to spend each month. Understanding the scale of Unsplash though can help explain the costs.

For every second of every day, Unsplash serves 360 high-res images and 120 API and web requests. More photos are viewed every week than over the entire first year of Unsplash.

For what Unsplash does, $18k is actually a reasonable amount of money.

If you had reaction #2, before you tell us how inept we are, let me try to appeal to your logical side. I admit there are definitely technologies and services that could cost less on a monthly invoice than our current choices. However, trust me when I say that our team has spent a lot of time considering the pros and cons of each service.

For example, could we switch to AWS for hosting and save 50+% on our server bills? Absolutely.

But doing so would require a number of tradeoffs that we simply shouldn’t be making at this stage in our company’s life. I have another post coming out soon which talks about how we choose our priorities and why we don’t just focus on reducing costs and small optimizations, but the gist of it is that we’ve thought a lot about these things and we’re confident in the choices we’ve made based on our current priorities.

If you had reaction #3, great, then let’s talk!

If you’re in a position to share, then I challenge you to share: What are your hosting costs?

As a company, we try as hard as possible to be transparent in everything we do, whether it’s the good, the bad, or the ugly. But as a community it seems to be taboo to talk about costs, while bragging about profits and revenues is the norm.

Hopefully getting a behind-the-scenes look at what it costs to run a site like Unsplash will help you with your own business, or at least give you a better understanding of what’s involved.


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