Everything

Personal Website Hosting

For the third time in one month, someone asked me how they should host their low-traffic, personal site.  I’ve come up with a pretty good analogy that hopefully will help other people.

In this world, there are three basic types of hosting: Single application, Shared and Dedicated.  VPS, “Cloud,” EC2 and others are just variations of these three varieties.

Think of hosting like the place that you live. It can be a high density apartment building or a single family house on a sprawling plot of land.  Hosting is like this too.

When someone asks me to setup a blog for them on their own domain, the number once place I point people to is WordPress.com.  To use the housing analogy, you’re moving in to an apartment building, but it is pre-furnished and the maintenance people are great and take care of everything.  You still have to write your posts and upload your photos, but they maintain the WordPress software, the underlying server and operating system.  They perform backups, keep the site online, and defend against intrusions.  Don’t gripe about the cost; for the amount of services they provide, this is a great price.

Shared hosts, like Media Temple’s (GS), PowWeb, Blue Host, etc., are like high density apartment buildings.  They don’t come with any furniture, but all of the plumbing, electrical and structural support you need is there.  All you have to do is move your personal items, like WordPress or Joomla! and you’re ready to go.  It is your job to keep WordPress up to date and to perform off site backups.  They maintain the server, make sure it stays online and enforce basic rules.  For you, the majority of the hard work is done.  If your server goes offline, they reboot it.  However, the trade off is that you can’t have wild parties or install certain types of custom software (think bittorrent trackers..)  Additionally, since it is an apartment building, you can have lots (1000’s) of neighboring websites on your machine.  This can, at times, slow your site down even if no one else is using your site.  So, like any apartment, choose your building carefully.

Dedicated servers are pretty much just an empty plot of land.  It is up to you if you want to build a CentOS house, Fedora, Ubuntu or something else entirely.  Your dedicated server will come with your choice of operating system (options depend on your hosting company.)  However, they are generally a bare-minimum install.  For example, you will need to install and configure: Apache, MySQL, PHP, related modules, and a few other things for even a basic WordPress blog to work correctly.

The biggest benefit of a dedicated server is that you don’t have any neighbors and you can install any software you want.  Bittorrent tracker?  No problem.  Game server?  Sure!  How you pull that off is up to you but generally it can be done.  The other benefit is that you get a larger percentage of the machine’s resources (up to 100%) so you won’t suffer the same outages or slowdowns associated with shared servers.

Dedicated vs. Dedicated Virtual:  A dedicated server is one which you control 100% of the “bare metal” resources.  A Dedicated Virtual uses something like Xen, Parallels or other VM Hypervisor to partition one beefy machine in to several smaller machines.  Each virtual machine acts independent of the others so if one goes down, the others keep working.  You still have complete, a.k.a. ROOT, control of the server, even in a Dedicated Virtual machine.  Examples of these servers are Media Temple’s DV and VE Servers, Amazon EC2, Linode, and Slicehost.

Why does hosting cost so much?

Well, setting up a server, installing the software and making everything work right is a specific skill set.  Lot of people, myself included, have spent years learning how to do this.  Second, if your server goes offline in the middle of the night, who has to deal with it?  Who performs backups of your data?  Bad things happen to good websites.  What differentiates one host from another is how they deal with it.  In the end, you get what you pay for.

For a personal website, spending $200/year is not an unreasonable amount given the hardware, software, and skill required to make it happen.

But I want my own domain name!

Great! Most services enable you to set a custom domain name.  For example, WordPress.com allows you, for a small fee, to set your own custom domain name.  Tublr, allows you to even set sub domains of existing websites to your custom URL.  For example, see tumblr.ineedcaffeine.com.

Why do some hosts cost $20/year and some hosts costs $20/month?

The economics of shared hosting work because the vast majority of websites on their machines will not even get one visitor per day.  These users pay for services that they never use and are a net gain for the company.  So, in response, many hosting companies, especially cheap ones, oversell their server capacity.  If you’re paying $20 per year, your machine will have lot of neighbors.  While they may not be using a lot of resources individually, any single customer who experiences a flood of traffic or a horribly mis-configured site can take you and thousands of other people offline.

Warning signs to watch out for:

  • Anything that is “unlimited” – storage, transfer, visitors, etc.
  • Anything that is functionally unlimited (e.g., 100,000GB per month transfer)
  • Anything that is FREE
  • Any hosting company that spends lots of money on advertising
  • Any hosting company that does not explicitly state your limits

How can you tell if a site is oversold?

I can’t find any foolproof rules, but I do have a good indicator:  Whois.sc.  Look up the domain name there and see how many other sites are hosted on that server.  For example:

  • Rovrr.com – 1 site
  • Ineedcaffeine.com – 2 sites
  • (PowWeb hosted site / 65.254.250.105) – 11,607 websites!

See the difference?  Rovrr is on a Media Temple DV server.  This site is on a Media Temple VE server.  The bottom one is on a PowWeb shared server.  You get what you pay for.

What makes you qualified?

I’ve build, maintained and hosted well over 100 different websites.  I’ve worked with the following hosting companies:

  • PowWeb
  • BlueHost
  • 1&1
  • GoDaddy
  • Rackspace Cloud
  • Amazon EC2
  • Media Temple
  • HostGator
  • SpyMac (defunct)
  • Berbee
  • Qwest
  • And a few others that I can’t recall…

So yes, I am qualified to make these statements.

What do YOU use?

For most people, I put them on a Media Temple GS server.  It is a shared machine but I’ve been happier with them than any other shared host that I’ve used.  Personally, I use Media Temple’s VE server – largely because I like to tinker and because of the performance it offers.  For my company, Rovrr, I use several Media Temple DV servers as well as EC2 instances at Amazon.com

As far as what is right for you – I strongly suggest going with something like WordPress.com or MobileMe.  They do all of the un-fun server work and you can focus on the content.

Handy Little Decision Chart:

Hosting Flow Chart

Any other rants?

Yes; I’m glad you asked.  Low end personal website hosting is a slimy business.  Nearly every company offers an affiliate program and so there are thousands of websites that “review” hosting companies.  I suggest that the people who setup these hosting review sites have motivations that are influenced by the commissions paid.  This comes at the expense of the integrity of the review.  Some companies are worse than others – but they aren’t hard to spot.

Photo Credits:

  • Top : Flickr / kindofindie / CC license
  • Middle : Flickr / sweetknez23 / CC license
  • Bottom : Flickr / stevensnodgrass / CC license

I’m not making a cent off of this website so I don’t really care who you use for hosting.

3 Comments

  1. It’s really a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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