Thursday, January 13, 2011

Confusion about virtual servers could undermine your decisions

There is misconception and confusion regarding shared servers vs virtual servers. Having a basic understanding of the difference will help you quickly make good decisions about your website or web application hosting.  Virtual servers provide the most robust, dependable solution available at this time while shared servers (if not set up 100% correctly) have the potential to open your website up to poor performance or at worst, to hackers.

Shared Servers
Shared servers are an older technology where many websites/companies shared a server and even a database. The software running on the server portions up the server and shares slices of it to the multiple users. When the server fills up you need to setup an additional server or add more resources in a tricky process that can involve periods of down-time. Its a bit like cutting up a cake, there is only so much to go round and when its all gone you have you have to make another one if you want more cake.

For startup companies, a shared server keeps the initial capital outlay down - we started like this. As soon as we were able we purchased our own dedicated server and moved all our websites, databases and applications onto our new dedicated server.

Dedicated Servers
Dedicated servers are owned by one company. They are dedicated to running just that companies applications/websites or they could be dedicated to running a single website/application. When we setup our dedicated server, we called it Kauri for strength and growth. Kauri is still running and many of our customers still have websites hosted there. It's working well - even better since we moved all our databases and some of our bigger websites onto the virtual server we commissioned earlier in 2010.

Virtual Servers
Virtual servers look like a dedicated server from a software view. They are totally autonomous, like Kauri. The key difference is in the hardware. Instead of the server software sitting on just one hard (physical) server, it sits across a bank of servers which can be added, changed or removed without impacting on any of the individual virtual servers. The changes are managed by the server software, in our case, the world leader VMWare.

Large organisations have been using virtual server technology for years so it was exciting to find a similar offering in the SMB market. We commissioned our new server, called Pounamu, in early 2010 and experienced an increase in dependability measured by less call-outs for our team. The benefits of a virtual server, and why we have one are:

  1. Dependability. If any one of the physical servers in the array has a problem the software switches the work-load off that server and spreads it across the rest of the servers. Then the problematic hardware can be replaced or fixed without affecting the performance of your website in any way.
  2. Scaleability. Many websites start of with a small amount of traffic. Later, some experience significant growth and may need more disk space or processing power. With a virtual server additional CPU, RAM or storage can be commissioned and operational in as little as 2 hours! A process that used to take days.

With the virtual server technology, we can have a new dedicated server setup and running an application in a couple of days or changes made to cope with a sudden increase in web traffic in just 2 hours - it's  phenomenal!

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