Pantheon is a website development, deployment, and hosting platform. But they aren't just any host. They like to think of their product as a hosting killer, because in their mind, they do much more than just hosting.
I heard about Pantheon for the first time last year, when it was a Drupal-only platform. When Pantheon announced last week that their platform would now support WordPress, I knew I had to check it out.
I spoke with Josh Koenig, one of the co-founders of Pantheon, and the Head of Developer Experience for the company. You can listen to our entire half hour conversation here:
How Pantheon works
Pantheon markets itself differently than most hosts. For one, they target developers. They think about developers all the way down to the way to pay for services; they have a feature for developers to invite a client to pay for a service they're managing, versus a client needing to share access with their developer.
The way Josh describes Pantheon, it's more like Heroku than a traditional host in terms of how it runs. A Pantheon customer, like a Heroku customer, is on the exact same platform as every other customer. For scaling, Pantheon simply adjusts the number of containers that are running, similar to Heroku's Dynos.
The containerization is much more nimble and much more efficient than virtual machines are. … If you have a bunch of virtual machines that are all running websites, they're probably all running the same server software, using the same libraries, but they're doing many copies of that for every virtual machine, whereas we have one host endpoint and that can share all the common binaries, all the common libraries, for all the containers that are located there.
Containers can spin up in ten or fifteen seconds, much faster than scaling your website from one type of hosting (like a shared environment) to another (like a VPS) with a traditional host.
Every new user gets two development environments with Pantheon for free. To begin, it asks you to start a new project or import a site. I was able to easily download my files and database into one zip file from WP Remote, and I purposefully did nothing special to make it easier on Pantheon.
When I uploaded my backup, I was amazed that in around one minute, it had perfectly imported my site, extracted and connected the database, edited my config file for the Pantheon setup, and my development website was ready to go.
There were some UX things with the dashboard that were a little weird to me. It took me a few minutes of digging around and figuring how where and how to do things. But once I got the hang of it, I could see how I could easily get used to a system like this.
As far as developing with Pantheon, you can work locally very easily, as their dev sites come setup as a Git repository and the Git clone URL is ready and waiting from the start. Or a developer can quickly grab SFTP connection details from the dashboard and edit their site straight in the development environment.
Once you are happy with your website, Pantheon makes pushing to testing and live servers easy, right from the dashboard.
Pantheon also has a paid feature called MultiDev, which allows for Git branching through the dashboard to quickly create entirely new installs for testing, training, feature building, etc. From a branch, users can then merge the code back to the main site through the dashboard.
Is Pantheon different from other Managed WordPress hosts?
I was curious how Pantheon is really different from a WordPress managed host like WP Engine, Pressable, or Pagely. They certainly aren't marketing themselves as a managed host. They are trying to expand their marketability beyond that.
The way Josh describes it, what makes Pantheon different is the smoothness of the development workflow, with automatic and simple management of development, testing, and live environments.
Another item Josh highlights is that Pantheon allows for more than just WordPress websites. This is something I'd never really considered, because I've never had a need beyond a WordPress website, but I can totally understand why a development shop that does both Drupal and WordPress work would really enjoy this.
Finally, Josh says that the smoothness of their scaling experience with their containers sets them apart.
Pantheon is one platform. Our biggest sites and our free sites all run on one coherent platform. So we really can say, ‘If you can make it work on your free dev site and you like the performance you got there, we can scale that to millions of users and you won't have to, like, go through a migration.'
Josh said that they are pushing billions of pageviews per month on the platform right now, most of which are currently Drupal sites since the WordPress setup is so new.
While his statement about a single platform makes sense, I do think it's more complicated than that. For one, it assumes the code quality is good. This is exactly why WordPress.com VIP reviews code before deploying to their system, even though it can also easily scale for large websites — any large website needs quality code running. So I hope that Pantheon has a way to determine that, or plans to police plugins and code a bit, as other managed hosts have done.
Whether Pantheon is truly different from managed hosts like Pressable, WP Engine, and Pagely, I don't know. I think that they are after a more developer-centered audience means their tools may evolve further beyond what other options offer.
However, they are an opinionated platform, just like other managed hosts. You won't have cPanel and the things that come with it. Multisite could be a pain (or maybe not available, I'm not sure). You'll need a different solution for email. These things are fine, and they are what we've come to understand as part of working with a managed host.
Pricing for Pantheon
Pantheon isn't cheap, but it's comparable to other managed hosts. They bill mostly on pageviews, though Josh notes it's not a hard barrier (also consistent with how I know others work). The personal plan is $25 per month. Professional plans are $100 per month, with a $30 add-on for SSL. Their business plans scale to 1 million pageviews per month and dedicated phone support, for $400 per month.
In our conversation, we used my own site as an example. I have one site I really care about and am willing to pay a decent amount for hosting — this one. Other than that, I manage a few small websites for friends and family.
In a situation like mine, Pantheon would probably not be my only host. With other managed hosts, I can easily tack on domains for lower priority sites, mixed in with my main website account. Though Josh did throw out some interesting ideas about how they might actually want to offer “hobby” site hosting in the future, perhaps even for free — further evidence for their developer target.
Additionally, as I noted earlier in the post, it's easy to invite a client to pay for a new site, without having to use different credentials. Pressable has a similar setup for this, which I really enjoy.
Is Pantheon a game-changer in WordPress website management?
I think Pantheon is going to raise the bar for WordPress hosting. I don't think they'll suddenly convert the tens of thousands of customers currently using various WordPress managed hosts, but I do think others will integrate some of the features (and marketing tactics) from Pantheon.
Also, Pantheon isn't new to this. They have a team of 30, appear well funded, and have a couple of years of experience doing this with Drupal already under their belt.
I know it's a bit lame to do so, but I think Andrew Nacin, a lead developer for WordPress, really nicely highlighted how Pantheon has targeted features that could help them gain serious traction in the WordPress development community.
.@getpantheon has all the stuff I’d be looking for in a host: awareness of the application stack, focus on scaling, CLI access, rsync, etc.
— Andrew Nacin (@nacin) March 20, 2014
This is for professional web developers doing professional web projects.
Josh said this toward the end of our interview. I think if they stick to this tactic and this marketing, Pantheon could really do great.