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Hosting Types

Shared? Dedicated? Cloud?  What do they all offer?

Shared Server

The least expensive hosting is shared space on a server. This means having part of a larger server available for your use, whilst other parts of it are sold to other people. You typically get no control over the resources (for example, the processor's power, the amount of memory) that you get versus those that are used by others. If your site gets busy at the same time as somebody else's you're going to slow down. Your hosting company won't want your service to get too busy either, otherwise they face complains from other customers. Because of the need to protect multiple customers information from one another you'll likely get no control over the configuration of the server and access will be only as far as uploading web site files to it, which makes installing your own software or adding custom modules to your system impossible. For all these reasons this option is usually not suitable for any commercial venture, though it might workable for a light traffic, non business critical static website, such as a personal site or that of a local club. Shared hosting is very inexpensive - many ISPs offer it for free or make it available at just a few Pounds (or Dollars) per month.

Virtual Private Server

Next up the scale is the kind of server usually considered first by small business: the virtual private server (VPS). This is a shared server as mentioned above, but the server is configured in such a way as for it to feel and behave like you have your own server. Sophisticated operating system software creates a number of "virtual" servers, each of which can be controlled at a level approaching that of a genuine physical server. Depending on the system there might be typically between two and 200 such servers on one machine. This alleviates one of the problems of shared space, namely that you usually are granted direct access to your server and can configure it as you need, install software and modules, create user accounts and so on. It also offers a greater level of protection from other customers in terms of access to your private information. Whilst most servers will prevent one virtual server from consuming more than a fair share of the overall resources, what happens in other virtual servers will impact the performance of what happens in yours. So once again, this kind of server is generally only an option for medium traffic static sites or very light traffic dynamic sites. Prices for VPS's start at around £10 per month and go to around £200. The price is determined by the resources that are allocated to your virtual server. Comparing offerings from different vendors is hard, because you don't know how many other virtual servers will be on the machine which runs yours, so you don't know in advance the extent you'll get the resources you expect.

Dedicated Servers

Dedicated servers are the next step up and it's quite a big step. A dedicated server is a whole physical machine dedicated to you. It gives you a good level of isolation in terms of security and usually allows you to have complete control over the server, configuring it to your exact needs. Someone else's site getting busy won't slow yours down (assuming you're using a good quality provider who has sufficient network capabilities). The costs for this kind of server are significantly higher, starting at around £400 per month and going to over £1,000, for even a fairly modest sized server. One dedicated server can run a very heavy traffic static site or something between a medium and a high traffic dynamic site.  Lots of lower end server hosting companies offer heavily discounted rates for an initial period, so if you only need a server for a short period these are worth considering.  

Multiple Dedicated Servers

Beyond the dedicated server are multiple dedicated servers.  There are two main reasons to have more than one server.  Firstly, assuming your application can work when it's split in to parts, it allows you to have more server power which you'll need when your site gets more traffic; approaching a large dynamic site and beyond.  Websites based on forum software typically use a web server program and a database server program, so that's a very common split when you outgrow the abilities of a single server.  The second reason is to increase resilience.  When suitably configured, a second server can take over the role of a first if the first were to fail.  This can sometimes be fully automated, even to the extent that a visitor to your website isn't even aware of it.  This is a fairly complex arrangement however and with increased complexity comes increased possibility of other problems.  Sometimes one server can act as a standby for several others, which is more cost effective than doubling every one.  If your service can be run on a single server but can also run on two it is possible to use the secondary server to share the load, giving your users higher performance, and in the event one fails the remaining one can do the job of both.  This avoids having a server which spends most of its time doing nothing.  Multiple dedicated servers are usually priced as multiples of single servers.  However, with them they bring additional complexity and might require additional networking equipment, such as a load balancer which is responsible for sharing the workload between the multiple machines.  A multiple server hosting system is likely to start at around £1,000 a month and with managed servers, clustered and a good quality firewall is likely to cost around £2,000.

Co-Location (colo)

A final arrangement which we will not consider in detail here is co-location, where you buy your own server and take it to a data centre, install it and run it yourself.  There are plenty of variations here too - some providers offer this facility for as little as a single server, others offer only a full rack (capable of housing tens of servers), etc.  

Cloud Hosting

Cloud hosting is a hot topic and if you believe the hype it would deliver everything you dream of!  The reality is quite different and whilst cloud offers lots of advantages there are some downsides too.  Read more about cloud hosting. 

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