VPS Hosting: The Ins and Outs

Is Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting right for your needs? Julie Knudson explores the pros, cons, and use cases.

By Julie Knudson | Posted Jul 14, 2014
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Most enterprise administrators are familiar with the cloud, but another flavor of service—virtual private servers (VPSs)—may be less known. Fitting a need that's distinct from many cloud offerings, VPS hosting gives companies additional options.

What is VPS hosting?

VPS hosting is a more container-based approach than its cloud brethren. It offers many of the features of cloud but without full hardware virtualization. There are also notable differences from most shared hosting solutions. "Instead of sharing a server, one customer is on one server and they can access and use it like a regular, dedicated server," said Dallas Kashuba, co-founder and vice president of hosting at DreamHost. VPS provides "a nice price point and feature point in between" shared and dedicated hosting.

Will Miles, data center supervisor at InMotion Hosting, compared a typical VPS hosting solution to living in an apartment, where the user has their space they can call theirs but still share the building with other people. "You have your own dedicated resources that you're allotted on a larger server, that is then shared by other people who also have their dedicated storage and dedicated resources," he explained. Shared hosting, by contrast, is something like a dormitory where even the bedrooms are shared. A dedicated server, on the other hand, would be more akin to a house, which is yours and yours alone.

How does VPS differ from other cloud offerings?

It's the dedicated resources that set VPS hosting apart from the majority of cloud solutions. "VPS is different in that you usually have the entirety of resources allotted to you, so whatever you're paying for is actually there," explained Ben Welch-Bolen, CEO of Site5.com. Rather than bumping up or down as needs present themselves, administrators know they have specific and finite resources available for their project.

Another difference is that cloud-based virtualized servers usually have an API customers can use "to programmatically spin up VPSs or do configuration," Kashuba said. For enterprises with servers that are typically fixed and busy doing specific jobs, the API issue is less important. "Writing any sort of programmer script to automate it is not necessarily of immediate value."

Many VPS offerings target users with needs or desires that are less sophisticated from a programming perspective. Rather than choosing from a variety of server images—some of which may be base Linux, so customers are essentially starting from scratch—VPS removes some of the complexity. "They start with a web interface and you click a button, 'Give me a new server,' and then it gives you credentials," Kashuba explained. Some vendors have the ability to drop customers into a server they can configure while others have an entire management layer that makes the solution as simple as point and click.

VPS use cases

There are several common use cases for VPS hosting, dominant among them being websites, blogs and artists' portfolios. Welch-Bolen said another use is also quite common: development. "You can have a dev box and a live box. You can have a lot less powerful box to do your development work on, and then push it to the other one." This is useful for making and testing changes without the interruption of site users gumming up the process.

Redundancy is also a routine use for VPS hosting. Smaller enterprises in particular may find it quite convenient. "They might look at possibly having their website on two different VPSs, perhaps in two different geographical locations," Miles said. A load balancer can split requests between the two while also offering the customer a measure of resilience. "If something goes down, they know they don't lose all of their information because it isn't all in one place."

VPS hosting: Get the features you need

Before an enterprise jumps into VPS hosting, it's prudent to drill down into what will be needed. Specific requirements should be vetted early in the process. "Certain organizations might need Windows support, which a lot of the services out there don't do just because web applications often don't need that," Kashuba explained. If you plan to remotely host an Exchange server, on the other hand, this would be a critical need. The desire to have (or not have) managed security could also point you to one provider over another. By understanding your organization's needs, Kashuba said, "It will probably whittle down which [vendors] are better or worse for your own specific tasks or jobs."

Support is a crucial component for many enterprises, and one Miles said administrators will want to discuss in detail with potential providers. Service level agreements (SLAs) should address timing (24/7, or only on weekdays?) as well as response time (30 minutes? 8 hours?). "You definitely want to be able to get a hold of people when you need them," he said. "If you're working on a major update overnight or on Christmas Eve, you want to be able to reach somebody at three o'clock in the morning if that's when you're working on it or if that's when something breaks on your website." Consider, too, how support can be contacted. By phone only? Through e-mail? With web-generated tickets? Some providers don't support every method.

Avoid the pitfalls of VPS hosting

There are some challenges lurking in the VPS hosting space, but administrators can sidestep many of them with careful preparation. One is the propensity for each vendor to run their servers a little differently, potentially making existing code problematic. Miles said that, unless your organization has an in-house code development team, you'll probably need some outside help. "It will involve some sort of third-party developer who can figure out where the bug is and get the code issue resolved," he explained. Most hosting companies don't deal with code, so expect to add that to your implementation list.

Upgrading can also cause issues for customers. "Upgrading depends on if there's room on the current node," Welch-Bolen said. In some cases, enterprises may need to migrate upgrading customers, but the IP isn't always guaranteed to move with them. Most instances will likely go well with a portion requiring some adjustment. "This is all variable depending on the provider," Welch-Bolen cautioned. If upward flexibility is a concern for your organization, it's a question worth asking before committing to a vendor.

For enterprises interested in retaining some management control, VPS may bring additional problem areas. "You're either going to need to manage the whole thing or let the provider manage it for you," Kashuba said. Things like maintenance—timing, duration, etc.—are likely to be out of your control, but that's true of many public services. Trying to exist in the middle of the who-manages-this tussle is almost certain to trigger issues. If nothing else, your attempts at management are likely to clash with something the provider is doing and cause further problems.

Even if the feature set of a VPS solution isn't a match for all your enterprise's needs, there are still areas where the price point and ease of use make a strong business case.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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