A dedicated server is the next step up from a shared hosting environment. By moving to your own server you don’t have to worry about other sites slowing you down or crashing your server. Dedicated servers also give you total control over what software is installed your site, opening the door for additional performance gains.
The Virtues of Sharing
Hosting multiple sites on the same server is common practice in the website hosting world. Tens or hundreds of sites are typically hosted on one web server. Economies of scale kick in to make shared hosting a cost-effective way to host smaller sites with lower bandwidth requirements for low monthly rates (under $10 per month in some cases). However, shared hosting has some limitations.
The problem with sharing a server with other sites is just that, you are sharing your server’s resources (CPU, bandwidth, processes, memory, etc). As the number of sites on your server rises, the load on the server increases. Also, some of the sites sharing your digital home may suddenly become popular or use insecure code. Unless your hosting company limits the number of sites and server load you may find your site’s performance gradually decreasing. The solution is to get your own dedicated server.
Dedicated Server: A Selfish Consistency
Having your own server gives you the peace of mind of not sharing your resources with others, not to mention unfettered root access. Your site’s performance will become more consistent and reliable, and you can install software (and in some cases hardware) that shared hosting providers often restrict in the name of security and cost, including:
- Compression software (mod_gzip, etc.)
- Apache modules (mod_perl, mod_rewrite, etc.)
- Configuration file changes (httpd.conf etc.)
- Cache settings
- XSSI (executable server-side includes)
- Multiple hard drives, with one for web logging
- Memory (the more the better)
These performance features are often not allowed (or limited) in a shared hosting environment.
Melting the Server
Business 2.0 points out that every web success story seems to have a point where “the server always crashes.” Invariably, when a successful website becomes popular even optimistic capacity planning doesn’t foresee the server loads that ensue. Sites can bog down with the increased load due to any number of reasons:
- Disk swapping due to memory limitations
- CPU overloaded due to numerous calculations
- Too many processes, due to numerous spawned scripts
- Bandwidth bottlenecks
- Inefficient SQL queries
Server Load Diagnostics
How do you tell that your server is due for an upgrade? Apart from the obvious slow website response rate, there are some diagnostic commands that you can run if you have telnet or SSH access.
ps are some of the UNIX-based commands you can try to determine if your server’s CPU is overloaded, is paging due to insufficient memory, using too many processes, and more. To find out more about these diagnostic tests, the best resources are Patrick Killelea’s Web Performance Tuning, 2d ed. from O’Reilly, and Aeleen Frishch’s Essential System Administration, 3d ed. from O’Reilly. See the recommended books section for some reviews.
Recently our own server for WebSiteOptimization.com was becoming logy due mainly to folks using our Web Page Analyzer, with slow response times becoming more frequent. While our server didn’t melt, it was certainly becoming warm. A friendly email from our current host, CWI Hosting revealed the problem and urged me to upgrade to a dedicated server.
I am writing you regarding your domain websiteoptimization.com. We have been noticing over the past few weeks a somewhat constant increase by your site in its resource usage on this server. Today it was found to be consuming a large amount of the server resources making the load on the server very high and causing slow and sluggish performance….
Reviewing the resources your site uses, it appears that it would be better suited for a dedicated server of its own where it does not negatively impact our other customers’ performance on this server…. You should look into considering a dedicated solution for your site and its high resource overhead soon. We have several competitive solutions which may accommodate your site’s growing needs.”
CTO – CWI Hosting
Naturally I immediately replied asking what my options were for my own server. Within two days after I gave the go-ahead, CWI had set up a new server of my own.
The new server is more responsive, and now features HTTP compression with mod_gzip. We’ll be trying some other performance enhancements in the future, now that we’ve got the freedom to experiment. Here’s what happens to HTML files when you add compression to a web server.
|Home page||HTML Page Size (uncompressed)/Packets||HTML Page Size (compressed)/Packets||Percentage savings|
Note that HTTP headers added anywhere from 300 to 727 bytes per request.
You can see that HTTP compression is quite effective at compressing redundant text like HTML. The larger the file, the more chance there is to find redundancy. The HTML file size of these home pages was reduced from 54% to 73.5%. The reduction in the number of TCP/IP packets necessary to transmit these HTML pages followed a similar pattern. The packets required to transmit our home page HTML was cut from 9 to 4 (assuming a 1460-byte packet size). Slashdot.org’s HTML went from 30 to 9 packets after compression. Only Google’s HTTP headers prevented their home page from fitting within one packet.
Dedicated Server Checklist
When you are looking for a dedicated server, reliability and performance are paramount. Look for the following features from prospective hosting companies.
- Multi-homed (i.e., redundant pipes in case one provider goes down)
- Uptime guarantee
- Storage backup systems
- UPS & backup generators
- Control panel interface
- Managed versus unmanaged option
- Adequate bandwidth
- Adequate memory (1GB or more)
- Fast hard drive(s) / RAID
A dedicated server gives you consistent performance and total control over your web server’s configuration. Whether you self-administrate or go for managed hosting, a dedicated server gives you the ability to try practically anything including server-side performance enhancements through software and hardware upgrades. While dedicated servers cost more than shared hosting, the added performance, capacity, and ability to host other company sites help defray the monthly cost.
About the Author
Andy King is the founder of five developer-related sites, and the author of Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization (http://www.speedupyoursite.com) from New Riders Publishing. He publishes the monthly Bandwidth Report, the weekly Optimization Week, and the weekly Speed Tweak of the Week.
- Compressing the Web
- Chapter 18 of Speed Up Your Site shows how to set up HTTP compression on Apache and IIS servers and evaluates the available compression software. Lists software and hardware compression tools for web compression.
- Gets HTML pages with cURL to determine size and download speed emulating different browsers and compression settings. From Stephen Pierzchala.
- Use HTTP Compression
- Performance Improvement From Compression
- Stephen Pierzchala tests how HTTP compression can improve web performance. Concludes that data compression works best with files over 5,000 bytes. April 2003.
- Server-Side Techniques
- The New Road to Riches
- Om Malik, Business 2.0 October 2004:84-94. An article about dot com companies designed to flip within two years, like Oddpost, a web-based email company. “Oddpost’s story features many of the standard plot devices of tech startup triumph: the clever spotting of an overlooked opportunity, the crashing server – the server always crashes – the plucky victory in the end.”
- Web Page Analyzer
- This free web page analysis tool calculates download times at various bandwidths and offers advice based on HCI research. The server load due to the Web Page Analyzer caused in large part our upgrade to a dedicated server.