The VPS Search

After using shared hosting services on Linux servers for the past few years, I was thinking about experimenting with a VPS (virtual private servers). Currently shared hosting services are highly competitive. If you shop around you can find great deals to host a simple website most with a comprehensive feature set. However these are all very limited. My basis for a VPS was to acquire a server that had room to grow but yet more manageable and more affordable than a dedicated server. These were some of my considerations.

There are VPS solutions as cheap as $30/month for a fairly basic setup. By basic I’ve seen: 5GB disk space, 100GB transfer bandwidth and CPanel service. However availability and/or reliability of the cheaper service tend to make them a poorer choice. Through my research I found that a fairly typical price was between $40-60/month. And some competitive features were 7-10GB disk, with 100-150GB. Even then, the typical “step-up” options were almost doubled features with a price of $100/month. Logically this doesn’t seem very practical as you can obtain some dedicated servers for $100 or even do a co-location server for less. Hence my target was $50/month.

The more I read, the more I realized that reliability is a serious concern with VPS’s. Apparently many people have experienced considerable downtime or hard to diagnose problems. My guess would be poor technical support as it is very easy to misconfigure or corrupt a virtualized operating system. I came to accept that some VPS providers may have more downtime compared to shared hosting providers. Again this is only preliminary research.

Many providers do offer some sort of monitoring service (either free or extra charge). These can vary from simple ping commands from an external server at timed intervals. Or significantly more complex tools, however they all seem to imply that monitoring is in your best interest.

Almost all VPS providers will use some distribution of Linux. Technically, it could be another form of Unix (or even Windows with “Remote Desktop”). Additionaly most will have a preference to a Redhat variation (Redhat 9.0, Fedora Core, CentOS, RHEL). The benefit here is that I can duplicate a great deal of testing at home before I deploy a complex setup on the VPS.

Virtuozzo (the VPS management software in Linux) relies on some tweaking done to the virtuallized booting kernel in VPS. Hence when I saw Fedora Core 2 available, I blindly assumed it used a 2.6 based kernel, when in fact it was a 2.4 variant. On other VPS’s running CentOS, I’ve seen similar characteristics. — The bottom line is that it is beneficial to have a more up to date distribution even if you really shouldn’t modify it too heavily (i.e. Redhat 9.0 is almost 3 years old).

Software on the distributions will be fairly typical to any Linux: apache, database, mail, etc. However for management there are some options such as CPanel or Plesk or even perhaps a service specific option. If you want to save money (between $7-20/month) you can forgo the specialized options and even elect Webmin. However I doubt that it is nicely geared to be helpful for webhosting on a VPS or for running multiple shared websites.

This is final most significant factor. Depending on the partitioning of the VPS on the host machine, the VPS may or may not be able to grow. Example: If a 100GB disk layout was cut up in to 10 separate 10GB partitions and 1 user required an upgrade, this would not be possible!. They would have to buy a new VPS or transfer to another physical host. Hence it is very important that you understand your growth. Keep in mind that 1GB of disk space already goes to the Linux installed. Basic upgrades like software packages and bandwidth may be available, but physical resources may be fixed upon setup. Know these facts in advance.

Getting a VPS took me a little more time than I expected, but the research was much less than when I learned shared hosting in 2002. I plan to be up and running with my selection in the next few days.

From what Rob mentioned from his VPS experience, selection was probably the easy part!

Pocket Linux Server

About 2 years ago I purchased a Linux based PDA: the Sharp Zaurus SL-5500. The PDA was intended to be used on Windows and (later) Linux. The initial driver for Windows setup the device as a USB network device, however the latest driver set it up as a normal USB PDA. I found that using the older driver, I can assign an IP address to the device and configure it as a mini server. Although I no longer use it as a PDA, I have set up an Apache Web Server, MySQL database and PHP interpretter on it – all managed by setting up the SSH server. I sometimes plug it on various machines and do some web development or toy around with it.

I only recently heard of the Black Dog pocket Linux server. When plugged into ANY computer it will create a basic X-server and run a few basic (Linux) applications from the device within the host OS (Windows, Linux, etc.). It works similar to the Zaurus’ network capability over USB. Hence it can access anything the host computer can access. Even better it has an intelligent resume feature which can pretty much preserve your working desktop and resume it in place later on a different machine.

It ships with a 400Mhz process, 64MB RAM and base 256MB flash-based storage. My Zaurus, to compare, has 206Mhz, 32MB RAM and 64MB storage. Better yet it comes with a biometric scanner, is only 3.5 by about 2 inches in size, and already comes with Apache, SSH and several other programs ready to run. For about $250 you can get the 512MB model and if you plug in another SD card you can increase your storage easily.

Looks like I just found my Christmas present for myself.

CentOS 4.1 Quick Examination

Since Redhat stopped supporting their commercially available Linux distribution, they moved to an Enterprise Linux Server (RHEL) and left everyone else to use a community effort (Fedora Core). Considering the cost of RHEL, the source packages were recompiled and redistributed. The resulting CentOS is a free binary compatible distribution of RHEL without the proprietary Redhat only software. I have seen some virtual private servers using CentOS for the virtualized operating system.

I installed the DVD based copy of CentOS 4.1 on my main desktop a few weeks ago just to experiment. For the most part it, it installs and is setup very similarly to Fedora Core 3(?). Upon initial inspection it also seems to come with the similar list of software. However the major issue here is that it is geared for server performance. Hence, it will not include the latest versions of most software and instead use widely supported and stable applications (i.e. PHP4 as opposed to PHP5, etc.). I could tell that the desktop applications were a bit out of date, but that makes sense considering its intended purpose. … After having used Fedora Core 4 for the past four months, I was shocked at the performance of CentOS. CentOS seemed significantly faster han FC4. In terms of user interface, web browsing, launching applications and even running servers and daemons – it was very notable. I do not know if it has to do with the GCC4 being used in FC4, but I’m still surprised to realize this now. Anyways, I decided I could not use it for desktop purposes since much of the software was older and there was not as much support from the community in general.

I played around configuring different installs of Apache, MySQL and PHP. I tried recompiling source RPMs (SRC.RPM) from FC4, but it became tricky to have multiple versions running. I will try again from source files instead.

My opinion so far is that it is a VERY stable and usable server distribution. If the software it included was newer I would probably be using it as my main Linux desktop. Anyways, more later as I learn more.

Network Storage Device

As many have emphasized, Linux is exceptional in the server market. For consumers however, many do not realize servers can be very small scale and reduced to embedded devices. I’ve been working on a Linksys Network Storage Device for my home lan. Basically the device is a Linux server running on 133Mhz ARM Processor with 32MB of ram. However it comes with a 100Mbit network port and 2 individual USB2.0 ports. You can plug in harddrives or media devices into the USB ports and once you add it to your network you have a shared harddrive. Its a low power device which is very good alternative to building a full server doing the same work and much more affordable.

The folks at have put together multiple extra software packages and guides on how to do much much more than just a file server. Some examples would be a Web server, Software Revision control (SVN), TV media recorder, iTunes music server, Windows Domain Controller, and the list goes on. My intended functions right now are a LAN DNS Server, basic webserver, revision control, NTP (network time server) on top of file serving. My idea is to relagate some functions I have on my computer and others on my network into 1 primary (low power) machine.

It’s not up and running yet. I found information to over clock the CPU to 266Mhz, and soder in a RS232 serial port so I can see booting information and access a command prompt. Lots to play with – more information when it’s all hooked up.

Virtual Private Servers

One of Linux’s many strength’s is its highly suitable web hosting options. Primarily Apache web server on Linux with various open source applications can provide cheap solutions for hosting needs.

The most commonly used hosting option is Virtual Hosting through Apache. With a simple setup, hundreds of unique websites can be run with 1 single server machine. For about $100 (US) a year, you can get a good set of features from most providers. However, most providers limit your options (minimal email, limited databases, no Java App Server, etc.).

Until recently, the next best solution was Dedicated Hosting. This requires rental or ownship of a specific server machine and managing it yourself. Multiple virtual websites can be hosted and depending on the hardware it can have other services as well. However the cost is significantly higher. Most providers change at least $50 per month for basic hardware/features and it is fairly typical to see prices of $100-200 (plus fees) per month for competitive features.

The technology has been around for quite some time, but Virtual Private Servers (VPS) are recently becoming more popular. This is the process of running multiple instances of Linux and Apache on the same machine. Every VPS on the machine gets a percentage of CPU, disk space, etc. Then each VPS can then host whatever they want without the need to maintain server hardware. When they need to be rebooted, the whole machine is not rebooting bringing down other VPS’s on the same machine – more of software reset than hardware reboot. Software such as Virtuozzo is becoming a popular product from many providers. You can find hosting plans offering VPS from $20-40 per month.

Once I hear some good reliable reviews on VPS services I plan to migrate to that option. I’d welcome any comments on how well these services work.