What I Learned From Hitting The Front Page Of Hacker News

Cool story, broMy recent post about Firefox problems on Linux ended up breaking a bit bigger than I expected — it got the attention of Hacker News, the popular Web nerd discussion board, got voted up enough by HN readers to hit the #3 spot on the site’s front page, and ended up garnering 203 comments there along with 53 more here.

I’ve never written anything that got that level of popularity on HN before, and the process taught me a few things. Specifically:

  • Within 2 hours of the post hitting the HN front page, I had several people at Mozilla reach out to me to tell me that they were aware of the issues and to suggest possible fixes (which I am testing now, and will share with you if they work out). So if you want to get annoyances in the software you use fixed, getting your complaints featured on HN would seem to be an excellent way to do it.
  • Many, many of the comments left both here and at HN were complaints about Firefox’s memory consumption, which is kind of amazing, because nowhere in my post did I ever mention that. My post was all about slowness in Firefox’s internal SQLite database, not about excessive memory usage or the browser slowing down with too many tabs open. In my experience Firefox used to have memory issues, but those are pretty much gone in current versions. I can only assume that lots of people just saw the words “Firefox” and “slow” in my post and started dragging out their memory-related complaints from 2008 without bothering to read any of the other words.
  • Many, many other comments were along the lines of “doesn’t happen here, you must be stupid or something.” Which, you know, thanks for the productive contribution!
  • One (1) comment contained an intriguingly plausible technical explanation involving low-level behavior of Linux filesystems for the problems I was experiencing. Oh, for a world where comments like this were the rule rather than the exception.
  • No matter how aggressively you cache the content on a WordPress-backed site, it will fall down under load if Apache & PHP only have 1GB of RAM to play with. Give them two and they are much happier. (Note: it may be possible to get more performance out of the same hardware by moving from mod_php to FastCGI, or moving from Apache to nginx, or moving from Earth to Mars, or whatever. I will leave that question as an exercise for the reader.)

So, to summarize: 300+ comments, out of which maybe 10 productively addressed my concerns.

Go Internet!


Nick B

October 20, 2011
3:40 pm

lol ur dum haha jk but srsly ff eats like so much ram


October 20, 2011
3:55 pm

Could you put Varnish in front of WordPress? It should be better able to handle a stampede of traffic versus apache’s pre-fork worker, which it sounds like you are using.

Jason Lefkowitz

October 20, 2011
4:04 pm

@Oscar: Yeah, I’m using the prefork MPM, because threaded is supposed to be janky when used with mod_php and I’m too dumb lazy conservative to move everything to FastCGI. Haven’t tried putting Varnish in front yet, if I get that kind of traffic more than the current once or twice a year I’ll definitely be looking into it though…


October 20, 2011
4:21 pm

I setup FastCGI with nginx a while ago and it wasn’t noticeable better compared to prefork, and it was a big hassle. There are enough subtle differences too, like in what $_SERVER variables are available, that it didn’t seem worth it to me.

It’ll be quicker to use Varnish (like 1-2 hours max) in front of Apache than moving over to a diff apache worker.