Picking a Web Host, Part II

This is the second blog post in a two part series describing my journey through the myriads of web-hosting options to find the one that is right for me. The first part described how the software stack I had in mind influenced the hosting choices I was considering. With a little bias toward a solution that is fun, I ended up with a VPS (virtual private server) as my choice of hosting platform. Go check out part one for more detail, or continue to read if you want to know what lead me to sign up with RamNode as my VPS provider of choice.

VPS: A Commodity Product!

Shortly after I started my research I noticed that there are many companies selling virtual private servers. And by “many” I mean so many that even reading through reviews —where you hope someone already identified the good providers— did not help cutting down the numbers.

Looking a little closer, it appeared that most of the VPS providers didn’t differentiate their offering much.[1] The majority sold their virtual servers running on top of the line Intel based servers, located in data centers with fast network connections. The virtualization environment options are OpenVZ, KVM or Xen, each a solid technology that is well understood and easy to set up.

The low bar to entry —a dedicated server plus readily available VPS management and billing software— explains why there are so many people starting a VPS business. Unfortunately, from scouring through complaints I found online, it appears many of them should not be in that business. Seemed like I had to dig a little deeper.

Pairing Down the Contenders

I started with the VPS offerings of the big boys in the hosting business. DreamHost, GoDaddy and HostGator are examples of well known and established web hosting companies. Based on that alone one would hope they know what they are doing. But good luck figuring out what exactly you get from them. I was unable to find what type of virtualization technology they use. ServerPilot, my web hosting control panel of choice requires KVM, so this was a bad start. Further, all of the VPS hosting plans start at price levels higher than what I wanted to pay; a big chunk of that money presumably going to pay their respective advertisement campaigns. Moving on.

The next set of companies I looked at are those that specialize in VPS hosting. Linode and DigitalOcean are two that seemed to be the yardstick everyone else was measured against; their names showed up in almost every review I found. But there are many more with a similar business model, some venture funded, others privately owned.

At this point I had a good idea about what was available at what price. I had also decided to go with one of the smaller, preferably privately owned[2] companies. But I still wasn’t sure which one specifically.

Web Forums to the Rescue

Two forum posts guided me to the final three contestants. The Top Providers of 2014 on the vpsBoard and the Quarterly Top Provider Winners on the LowEndTalk forum listed companies favored by forum members. Advice given by a group of people who like web hosting services enough to spend their time online discussing it seems like good advice as far as I’m concerned.

Three companies were on both lists —RamNode, BuyVm and Prometeus— and I decided to limit my evaluation to those three.

Prometeus was located in Italy, and it wasn’t clear to me where the server was going to be. To reduce latency when logged in, I wanted something closer to me. Both BuyVM and RamNode had server locations that were acceptable (New Jersey and New York). Time for a side by side comparison on the basic specs.

Category   RamNode     BuyVM 
Memory 512MByte 256MByte
CPU 1 Core 1 Core
Hard drive 10 GB SSD 30 GB SATA
Bandwidth 1 TB 1TB

Both companies offer a variety of VPS configurations to choose from. The specific virtual machines listed in the table were chosen as they are both powerful enough to host my website, and equally prized at $5 per month.

Given the specs,the decision was fairly easy to make. I didn’t need the additional hard drive space that BuyVM offered compared to RamNode. On the other hand, 256 MByte of main memory is bit tight, even for a minimal linux web server installation. The additional memory plus speedy SSDs offered by RamNode should make for a responsive site. So, I signed up.

My Initial Experience with RamNode

So far I have been a very happy customer. There is a community IRC channel available for questions that can be answered by the community. Questions related to an individual account are supposed to go through their ticket system. The one question I submitted was answered within minutes by someone that was knowledgable. Customer service certainly appears to be top notch and in line with their standing in the rankings.

To monitor the uptime of my VPS I use an external service. It pings the machine in 5 minute intervals and queries the webserver to make sure it is responding to requests. So far everything is rock solid.[3]

Other Things to Consider

As it should be, my choice was driven strictly by my requirements. If you are reading this to gather information to make your own decision, here is a list of items to consider that I collected during my early research phase (in no particular order):

  • Are additional IPv4 Addresses available? At what cost?
  • Is a backup or snapshot mechanism part of the offering?
  • What does the provider do in case of a DDoS attack?
  • Is DDoS protection offered for individuals?
  • What hard drive configuration is offered? SSD, or standard spinning hard drive?
  • Is there more than one data center? Where are they located?
  • What operating systems are supported?
  • Is a custom ISO accepted if my operating system of choice is not available?
  • Are preconfigured installations of common server configurations available (LAMPS, etc.)?
  • What type of control panel software is offered (cPanel , SolusVM, custom)?
  • Can I add custom add-ons outside of offered packages, e.g., increase just bandwidth or hard drive space?
  • Are any services restricted from being hosted on the VPS?[4]
  • Does the provider offer server uptime monitoring services?
  • How forthcoming is the provider with details about their setup?
  • Is documentation available? How well is it written?

Picture Credits:

  1. I’m referring to a low end VPS addressing the hobby/small developer market. At the higher end, where features like redundancy at hardware and software level, quick disaster recovery, DDoS attack prevention etc. are important the capabilities of various VPS providers do vary. However, one could argue that we are now talking about a cloud hosted solution, not an unmanaged VPS.

  2. Just a personal preference.

  3. Take this with a grain of salt given the short time —a little less than one and a half month— I have been a customer.

  4. A VPS is by definition a shared resource. A Tor exit node or BitTorrent client could use up all the bandwidth of the VPS host. Tight restrictions on what is allowed to be hosted on the VPS are a good thing!