In “Don’t Self-host an Ecommerce Store,” my previous article, I explained how owning and maintaining web servers are poor options for most stores.
In this article I’ll address a better alternative: renting servers from a professional hosting company. When you rent a server, you pay a company to use a computer in its data center that’s connected to the Internet.
The company owns and maintains the hardware. You own and maintain the software. You pay for using the hardware and for the network bandwidth.
Usually a server will come with the operating system installed and a method to remotely access it, to avoid having to physically see or touch the server. Thus you can rent servers from anywhere in the world. They don’t have to be at or near your office.
Typically there are two configurations to choose from: dedicated servers and virtual private servers. With dedicated servers, you rent the entire computer. With virtual private servers, you rent only part of it.
Dedicated servers are powerful. Companies that rent dedicated servers usually offer the latest high-performance computers and software. These are fast machines that have been optimized for the Internet.
Some hosting companies offer more modest computers or prior generation models. These can work well if you don’t need a lot of power or if you’re on a budget. Prior generation machines may need more maintenance, however.
There are not many hardware differences among providers, usually. Compare the specifications below to help select one.
- CPU speed
- Number of processors
- RAM size
- Types of hard drives
- Number of hard drives
- Network cards: speed and number
When you rent a dedicated server, you can typically use any type of code and software on it.
If a dedicated server fails, most providers will try to repair it before it impacts your website. Still, interruptions can occur. Having a solid hosting provider is important, therefore.
One way to avoid downtime is to order multiple servers and set them up so that if one has problems the others can take over. This is called a server cluster.
Since you’ll be in charge of the software, you’ll still need technical staff to set up and maintain it. The required talents and staff levels depend on how your ecommerce software functions and the traffic your site receives.
The process of scaling dedicated servers to accommodate more web visitors is similar to self-hosting. Make sure to have extra server capacity to handle spikes — weighing capacity against the cost.
It can be difficult to upgrade servers. With a dedicated server, it’s typically easier to rent a newer, more powerful model and move your store software to it. Replacing components on an existing server is usually error-prone. Adding performance — such as more RAM or an extra hard drive — is typically straightforward.
Virtual Private Servers
Virtual private servers are a slice of a single computer. They differ from shared hosting because you’re getting a fixed percentage a server’s total resources, such as 25 percent of the CPU power, 25 percent of the RAM, and 25 percent of the storage. Most providers allow you to use a bit more of the CPU if no one else is using it. Thus you could actually get a larger share as long as it doesn’t affect anyone else.
Virtual private servers differ from dedicated servers in only a few ways.
- Smaller sizes. Since VPSs are only a part of a computer, they can be purchased in much smaller sizes than a dedicated server. This is often helpful for new or smaller ecommerce sites.
- Easier to scale. The software to configure a VPS can be deployed quickly, sometimes in under 30 seconds. This means you can scale up and down much easier than dedicated servers, which usually require a person to set up the physical machine.
- Easier to move. VPSs can be easily moved from one computer to another. I’ve used one VPS for several years. It’s been transferred through at least four physical servers. Sometimes this was to avoid hardware problems. Other times it was to improve performance. Each time it was easy. I didn’t have to do anything other than verify that the transfer was successful and turn off the old server.
- A bit slower. In general, a VPS will run slower than a similarly configured dedicated machine. This is due to the VPS software that splits up the server. If raw performance is needed, a dedicated server will likely perform better.
- More expensive. A VPS typically costs more than a similarly equipped dedicated server. But, conversely, VPSs can be closer fit to your actual traffic levels, to avoid renting unnecessary power
Better than Self-hosting
For ecommerce stores that use licensed software, renting a physical server or slice of one with a VPS is a much better option than self-hosting. I’ve used both dedicated and VPS servers since 2005 and still use them today, when needed, due to their flexibility and affordability.
The biggest issue is maintaining the software, to keep the servers running. But it’s doable with the right team.