A Complete Guide to VPS Hosting

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A Complete Guide to VPS Hosting

Web hosting is a tricky business – there are a wide variety of options out there designed to fit a wide range of needs, but like with most things, there are trade-offs.
Shared hosting is usually cheap and easy, but the resources are limited.
Dedicated servers are powerful and customizable, but a certain level of technical knowledge […]


A Comprehensive Guide to VPS Hosting

Web hosting is a tricky business – there are a wide variety of options out there designed to fit a wide range of needs, but like with most things, there are trade-offs.

Shared hosting is usually cheap and easy, but the resources are limited.

Dedicated servers are powerful and customizable, but a certain level of technical knowledge can be required to run them, depending on the hosting company you choose.

What happens, then, when your site is too big and gets too much traffic for a shared hosting plan, but doesn’t require the resources (or expenditure) of a dedicated server?

If you find yourself asking these questions, then you should look into VPS hosting.

Virtual private server (VPS) hosting is a flexible, scalable, and economical hosting solution that can fit the needs of almost any kind of website. It’s a perfect solution for those who have outgrown their shared hosting plans but don’t really need to move to a dedicated server.

One thing to note before we dive in to examining the features and benefits of a VPS –  the specs on a VPS vary widely from host to host. To see if a certain host offers a certain feature, make sure to ask the provider.

So What IS VPS, Anyway?

In answering this question, maybe it’s better to examine how VPS hosting fits in to the overall offerings of most hosting companies. Shared hosting is just that – your site is hosted on a machine with a bunch of other sites, and each of you share the same resources, including RAM, disk space, and CPU.  Your site uses what it needs if it’s available, and if it’s not – well, that’s the limitation of shared hosting. Likewise, a dedicated server is also self-explanatory –  your site is the only one hosted on server, and you have all the aforementioned resources available at your beck and call. Dedicated hosting is therefore  for those large sites with big databases and lots of traffic, whereas the limitations of shared hosting’s usually prevent it from housing that kind of site. Dedicated servers are also relatively expensive, while one can get a shared hosting plan for under $10 per month.

A Look at VPS Resources

So that’s it, then – a VPS is for everything in between, right? Well, yes…and no. A VPS (Virtual Private Server) is a flexible solution that falls in between shared and dedicated hosting, not only in price but also in the way it functions. Like a dedicated server, a site hosted on a VPS gets its own RAM and disk space; however, like a shared server, it uses the same processing capacity (CPU) as a certain number of other sites. So, while your site’s performance isn’t reliant on shared RAM and disk space, it is dependent on a shared processor. Moreover, the distribution of processor share varies from provider to provider.  The table below shows how most hosting companies break down the differences between shared, VPS, and dedicated hosting plans:

Differences by Hosting Plan

Shared VPS Dedicated
Shared RAM, Disk Space, and CPU Dedicated RAM and Disk Space, Shared CPU Dedicated RAM, Disk Space and CPU
NO Server Level Customization Server Level Customization Allowed Server level Customization Allowed
All Server level Software Pre-Installed Server Level Software (OS, cPanel, LAMP) pre-installation varies by provider Server Level Software (OS, cPanel, LAMP) pre-installation varies by provider
Full Customer Support Typically Provided Support Levels Vary By Provider Support Levels Vary By Provider
$ $$ $$$

Burstable RAM

A VPS doesn’t just have more RAM, disk space, and a  proprietary share of CPU than a shared account. Depending on the provider, some VPS plans offer burstable memory, which is a pool of RAM set aside for extraordinary events. This is the stuff that can help counter the so-called “Digg-effect,” that much-whispered about occurrence that’s the simultaneous hope and fear of everyone who runs a web site. When you have an unexpected high traffic event, burstable memory will call on a pool of reserved, shared memory to satisfy the needs of temporary high traffic. This is not available on shared servers and, while the necessary memory is available on a dedicated server, your site might not get the kind of traffic on a daily basis to justify the expense of a dedicated server. Again, not all VPS plans have burstable memory, so ask your provider if their VPS plans do.

All Support Aren’t Created Equal

Much like the differences between shared, VPS, and dedicated hosting plans, there are differences in the levels and types of support offered to VPS platforms. For example, some companies offer semi-managed VPS solutions, while other companies take a completely hands-off approach – but generally, the different kinds of support are as shown below:

Levels of Support

Un-managed Semi-Managed Fully Managed
Hosting Company handles hardware and network support Hosting Company handles hardware, network, and standard software Host handles all hardware, network, and software issues.
User responsible for ALL software, performance issues User handles all custom software Host handles installation of custom software.

As you can see, a VPS can be the perfect middle ground for many – enough flexibility and resources for those who need more access or control than on a shared server but without the cost of a dedicated server. If you need root access, you can’t get that on a shared server, but you can get it on a VPS. If your site experiences unpredictable swings memory usage, and your host provides it, then the presence of burstable memory will be attractive. And, if you’re a fan of customization, then the fact that you can customize server-level software such as PHP, MySQL, and Apache will perk your interest.  In short, choosing a VPS will allow you to have many of the same characteristics of a dedicated server but in a more affordable and manageable package.

Do I Need a VPS?

The answer to this question is a definitive “maybe.” Since you’re looking at this site, you might be a Web designer who has a few sites, an online portfolio, and a couple of long-standing clients whose sites you manage. Is a VPS for you? Well, you’ve most likely outgrown a shared platform, and as a professional, it won’t do to have your site run poorly because another site that you share a server with is using more than its fair share of resources. A dedicated server could be overkill – if you don’t need all the resources on a consistent basis, you may not be able to justify the expense.

Essentially, here’s the criteria I would use to judge things – if your site is made up of primarily static, HTML-based content, then you probably don’t need a VPS package.  However, if you have a large amount of files stored, multiple sites, dynamic content, and the possibility of major traffic from time to time, then you might consider upgrading to a VPS. It’s a powerful package that allows you to do more than you could with a shared hosting plan, but requires less investment than a dedicated server.

What is your hosting set-up, and why? Have you considered using a VPS?

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About the Author

Blue Derkin is a project and social media lead at InMotion Hosting in Marina del Rey, California. He also writes as Web Hosting Help Guy, InMotion Hosting’s blog dedicated to all things design, development, and web hosting. You can follow him on Twitter @WHHG_InMotion and @BlueDerkin.

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