More Cheap Dedicated Servers

I’ve said in the past that cheapest isn’t always best. I certainly haven’t changed my stance on that but there are always some cheap options with some of the tier 1 hosting companies. What do I mean by tier 1 hosting companies? Those are the hosts who operate their own data centers. They aren’t ‘middle men’ or re-sellers so they have their own support and technical staff.

I was poking around the Layered Tech site yesterday, looking for a cheap dedicated server in their ‘Server Specials‘ area and the cheapest dedicated server was $99/mth. A bit pricey as all I was after was a server to set up a low activity test site. For whatever reason, I clicked on the ‘Layered Now‘ link and found a range of servers there priced from $59/mth. Now that’s more like it. If you are after a cheap dedicated server for backups, testing or development these ones are great .. and the whole ‘Layered Now’ selling point is that they will be set up within 2 hours of your payment being verified! If they take any longer than that, you get the first month free.

Ok..so, not being one to put all my eggs in one basket, I checked some prices at APlus.net. They have a good range of cheap dedicated servers as well. The APlus.net ‘Value Servers‘ start at $49/mth. Keep in mind though that all except the $49 server have an additional setup fee. One of the nice things about APlus is that there’s always someone there at their live chat desk. That’s handy if you’re not sure what you want or you need to check on some of their specs and/or prices. You may even find that you can get a discount or free setup if you talk to the right person and haggle a little ;).

If you’re wondering which host I went with this time…Layered Tech. I was going to get the APlus server but they don’t take PayPal.


Moving A Server – Things You Need To Know

Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of server moves and I’ve been asked to ‘fix’ a few that have gone awry. By far the biggest problem has always been lack of planning. If you plan your server move carefully then you have every reason to believe it will go fairly smoothly. If you don’t plan at all then there’s a very good chance that you’re going to strike some problems. Here’s a summary in point form of the procedure I follow when moving a server.

Firstly, I should say that moving a server is not necessarily a trivial thing. Moving files and importing/exporting databases is fairly easy but you need to consider everything including whether your new site provides the same environment that your old site had. Does it run the same version of PHP? Will your site run okay with MySQL 4 or does it use some of the features that are only available in MySQL 5? If it’s a very basic site then you should have no issues at all and the move will be quite easy. If you have scripts that use PHP, MySQL or Perl though you might find that there are some things missing or different at the new site that will need to be addressed before you finalise the move.

* The easy way is to do a complete backup if you are using CPanel and then restore that backup on the new server. If you can’t do that, then you need to follow the steps I’ve outlined below.

* Take a backup of the old server and check it. One of the problems you may have is with large databases. Online database programs such as phpMyAdmin can only back up a certain amount of data before your browser or the web server times out. If this happens then you need to either login with SSH and do a ‘mysqldump’ at the commandline or ask your web host to do it for you. Keep in mind that if the web host does it for you, your data will only be current to the time the web host exported it for you – so if it’s a fairly dynamic site or you have active forums you should be (a) warning your members that some posts may be lost and (b) arranging to get this export done as one of the final steps before you actually move the site.

* If you are using PHP and/or MySQL, check the versions of both of those and also the PHP configuration. With a phpinfo() command you can get a full list of all of the features and extensions that are compiled into PHP. This is another common problem … where one server runs PHP4 and the other has PHP 5, or some of the extensions on the old server aren’t compiled into PHP on the new server.

* If you have any Perl scripts then you need to check that all the Perl modules your site uses are installed at the new site. Perl has a very large range of modules, so there’s a chance that some may need to be installed at the new site.

* The next hurdle to get over is the fact that you need to set up the new server using an internet address that points at the wrong place. What I mean is that if you have www.yourserver.com (the old server) and the new server is going to use the new address, you need to be able to set the new server up as www.yourserver.com even though that address is pointed at the old server. What I generally do is use the Windows hosts file. It is located in your system32 directory in drivers/etc. You can add the web address and the IP of the new server, then flush your Windows DNS by going to a Windows commandline and entering the command ‘ipconfig /flushdns’. Then, close and re-open yourweb browser and it should bring up the new server when you enter the web address. If you need to look at the old site again you can simply remove the entry in the hosts file, flush the DNS again etc. The idea though is that once you have the backup you shouldn’t need to look at the old site again until you’re ready to put up a ‘we have moved’ page.

* Next up, we copy all the files up to the new server, import the database and see if it is all working. You may find some problems or glitches – give it a good test and if you have any forms or scripts that do file uploads, image creation etc, make sure you check those as well.

* Once you’re satisfied that everything looks to be working, you can change the main page of the old site to read something like “We have moved. It may take up to 72 hours for the change of DNS address to reach you so please be patient. Once the new DNS details reach you, you will be able to see the site again”.

* The final step is to change the nameserver addresses at your domain registrar (the place where you registered your domain). That will tell the DNS that your server has moved to a new location.

So, there you have it. I haven’t written this in ‘laymans’ terms because I honestly think that anything but the most basic server moves should be left to the ‘professionals’. If you understand everything I’ve said in this post then by all means, do your server move. But if it all looks a bit too hard then there’s a good chance that it will be too hard for you, in which case you should have an experienced IT pro do the server move.


When Do I Need A Dedicated Server?

I see this question asked quite often in forums and to be honest, it’s a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’.

Lets look at a couple of the most common reasons you might want/need to move to a dedicated server:

Your web host is blocking your outgoing emails because you are exceeding their hourly or daily limit – As sites grow, so does the member base and if you are emailing your members from your site then sooner or later you are going to find that your host is either blocking outgoing emails or notifying you that your email volume is too high and asking you to do something about it. Is this a reason to switch to a dedicated server? On its own I would say no … you would be better off seeking the services of a dedicated mailing list and/or auto responder service such as aweber (www.aweber.com) or GetResponse (www.getresponse.com). Those types of services are set up specifically to handle large mailing lists and they also spend a lot of time on ensuring deliverability. As you probably know, many ISPs and large organisations have fairly aggressive anti-spam measures in place. A professional mailing/autoresponder service should provide a very good delivery rate (assuming you aren’t a spammer of course 🙂 ).

Visitors and/or members are complaining that your site is slow – The first thing to try to work out is whether the slowness is network related or server related. Your site can be slow because there is a large volume of traffic OR because the web server or database server is actually overloaded and struggling to keep up with the amount of traffic. This is also going to vary depending on the number of other sites that are sharing the server resources that your site is using. Shared hosting means shared bandwidth, shared CPU and shared server applications. Some hosts limit the number of sites so that performance is generally quite good. Some hosts are less concerned about performance and tend to overload their servers. Assuming that your host is not overloading their servers you then need to look at what sort of content you are providing and how that would effect the stress level on the server. If you are providing videos and/or online applications then as your membership/visitor numbers grow then it is only logical that your server will slow down. So, are you charging your members? If so, then it’s probably well within your budget to splash out $150 or so per month on a dedicated server and your members will love you for it :). As I mentioned earlier… it is like the ‘piece of string’ question but if you are making a reasonable monthly income from your site(s) then it’s a fairly easy decision to move to a dedicated server.

Other questions you need to ask yourself include:

Is your site monetized? If you aren’t making money then a dedicated server is just an expense. It might be time to start charging and/or looking at other income streams such as affiliate programs or context sensitive advertising (e.g. adsense).

Is your site growing? If you site or site membership is growing then by switching to a dedicated server you are not only improving the service for your members and visitors but also being pro-active by moving to a server that is going to handle not only your current requirements but also your future growth.

This is far from the be all and end all of why you might want to move to a dedicated server but hopefully it has provided you with some useful information that will assist you when you do make your decision to get your first dedicated server.


Dedicated Server Control Panels

When choosing a dedicated server package it is well worth your time to look at the type of control panel that comes with your server.

I should say right now that I am very biased. I have several dedicated servers and also recommend to my own clients  that they look for a server package that includes WHM (Web Host Manager). WHM is the control panel that is used with hosting accounts that have the CPanel control panel. WHM is like the ‘master control’. I have used the Plesk and Ensim control panels and they really don’t come anywhere near WHM/CPanel in terms of functionality, control and user friendliness.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a learning curve involved. With any application or script that provides many functions there is always going to be some learning involved. Here are my top 5 reasons I choose WHM / CPanel over other control panels:

Total Control – With WHM you have control over many more system parameters and constraints than with any of the other control panels.

Security – WHM provides a security center that allows you to easily allow and deny IPs, set the security level of your firewall and carry out basic system scans for trojans, rootkits and viruses.

Versatility – You can use a WHM/CPanel server to operate hundreds of your own domains and sites or you can provide reseller style accounts, giving control to others.

Utilities – Most WHM/CPanel installations include Fantastico which provides you with a large range of scripts and tools which can be installed with just a few clicks.

Support – CPanel provide excellent support and there is also a very active community forum and WHM/CPanel related training available from third parties.


Finding A Cheap Dedicated Server

You know the old story … cheapest isn’t always best. However, with a little bit of research and some due diligence you can usually find a good deal on a dedicated server.

Firstly, it’s important that we define ‘cheap’. The price range for a fairly fast dedicated unix server (i.e. Linux/Fedora/RedHat etc with single high end pentium 4 processor, at least 80GB hard drive, 1GB of ram and WHM installed) varies from around $US120.00/mth to $US180.00/mth. That price range is based on my own experience and research so there will obviously be some that are a little higher or a little lower but you will find that most of the larger hosting providers fall somewhere in that range and then go considerably higher for multi-processor servers, extra RAM etc. If you are just looking to host a fairly busy site or a bunch of smaller sites then this type of server should be more than enough. There are quite a few servers available in lower price brackets. These are generally referred to as ‘budget priced’ dedicated servers and they are also quite suitable for many applications but keep in mind that it is BUDGET hosting and as such may not have the same service guarantees or customer support level as the higher price brackets.

Many people get confused about the terms ‘Virtual Private Server’ or ‘Virtual Dedicated Server’ and how they compare to a genuine dedicated server. The only difference between ‘Virtual’ dedicated and standard shared hosting are that there are less people using the server and you have more control over the server resources. It’s still a bit of a gamble though and performance will vary depending on who is in the ‘neighbourhood’. Being a shared server, whilst there may only be 3 or 4 others sharing the server, you only have to have one of those people giving the server a real hammering and it will affect you. If you are serious about having a dedicated server then you need to be looking for a real dedicated server that you don’t have to share with others.

As usual, I’ll only list hosts that I have had personal and positive experience with. Some of them are affiliate links and some aren’t. I’m not big on affiliate programs but they help pay for the pizza, so they can’t be all bad!

First though, here are some links to a few of the better web hosting directories and forums:

Website Host Directory

Web Host Directory

Web Hosting Talk

APlus.net is probably the fastest host I’ve worked on (other than Rackspace). I had a contract to set up an online job finder script and most of the time it was like the server was in the room next to me rather than on another continent! The couple of times I contacted technical support their responses came in less than an hour and my client also had several pre-sales discussions using their live chat service. All in all it was a very pleasant experience.The only negative comment I would have is that they use a Plesk control panel. I’m CPanel/WHM through and through, so take that as a personal opinion rather than an objective analysis :).Now…here’s how to find the best deals. At the time I added this link there was a big special on their homepage as soon as you clicked through. If they aren’t running that special, then look at the menu on the left and click on ‘Value Servers’. They are running a $49 special with no setup fee. The $49 server doesn’t have a high end CPU but it still should give you much better overall performance than a Virtual Private Server. It’s also great for techies who want a server to do some development on or any business that wants a secondary DNS and MX server.

Another place to look for good, cheap dedicated server deals is at Layered Technology. They often have a range of cheaper servers available on their Server Specials page.

I’ll add to this list as I find more places for good deals, but if you know of any others, please leave a comment or submit a ticket to our helpdesk with the details so we can add it in.