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If you have a great website that’s starting to attract a lot of visitors, you’re likely beginning to wonder about the potential benefits of upgrading to a new hosting plan. For many companies, this boils down to two choices: VPS (Virtual Private Server) or dedicated hosting.
In this article, we’ll be discussing a few fundamental questions that may come up, such as: “Is dedicated hosting worth the extra cost?”, “Are dedicated servers the faster option?”, and “Can a website ever actually outgrow a VPS server?” — plus we’ll also be looking at few examples of industry-leading hosts offering each type of service. By the end, you’ll hopefully be able to make a well-informed decision about which of these two web hosting technologies is the right one for your own particular online endeavor.
To start with, let’s go over a few hosting-fundamentals, like the difference between a server and a hosting plan.
A server is pretty much just a computer with a hard drive, a CPU, some memory, and bunch of input/output ports — in many ways, it’s actually very similar to your computer at home. Independent of whether you get a VPS or a dedicated plan, it stands that the bigger and more powerful the hardware in the server, the faster your site will potentially be able to run.
Some of the above-mentioned hardware components are particularly important when it comes to selecting a server plan. Some of these are:
So what, then, makes choosing a server so problematic? The answer lies in two other factors that contribute to your server environment — your hosting plan and how these hardware components are actually used within the server.
A hosting plan is more than just a server. A hosting plan is made up of both the server and a number of management services such as core software upgrades, various security protocols (i.e. malware scans and automatic virus removal), and general performance monitoring, to name just three. To accurately judge the suitability of a hosting plan, you should be aware of the following factors:
The last item on our list — how the hardware is used — is more or less what separates VPS and dedicated hosting plans. So, let’s move on…
With dedicated hosting plans, there’s only one user who gets to use ALL of the hardware on the server. In contrast, with a VPS hosting plan the server’s hardware can be used by a number of different users.
A dedicated hosting plan can be thought in a similar way to your own regular computer. You own all of the hardware and you and you alone have access to all of the resources available.
A VPS, on the other hand, can be likened to a computer that’s being shared by multiple users. Imagine an office with a single computer and four employees. An individual mouse, keyboard and screen are hooked up to the computer for each user. In total, this one computer has four monitors, four keyboards, and four mice. Each user is running a separate version of Windows and each user is allotted a maximum of exactly one fourth of the available disk space, memory, and CPU speed.
VPS servers use “virtualization” technologies to effectively split their resources between multiple users. If the hardware consists of a 500GB hard drive, 12GB of memory, and four people use the hardware they will each get 125GB of storage space and 3GB of memory.
It’s important to understand that the only differences between VPS and dedicated servers that are worth highlighting all stem from how the hardware is used. Both VPS and dedicated hosting can offer low-end and high-end servers, and both can be blazing fast! Likewise, both services can come with automatic malware scanning and removal, yearly security audits, and more.
Some packages will include specific services for free, some will require you to pay a little extra; you’ll need to take a close look at the specific management services offered by whichever hosting company you’re considering.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the differences that stem from the architectures of the two types of services.
This one is pure economics. If a hosting company can put more people on the same server, they can make these packages cheaper because their costs per customer will be lower. This makes VPS options much cheaper than their dedicated counterparts. Low-end VPS services start at $20/month, mid-range ones clock in at around $55/month, and high-end servers will set you back anything from $120/month or more.
While I have seen a $99/month dedicated server, a good-quality low-end product will usually be closer to $150/month. Mid-range solutions will be around $250/month, and from there on the sky is the limit. Depending on your own particular needs, a completely managed dedicated hosting plan may even set you back about $2,500/month — though this is usually for websites with tens of millions of visitors a month.
Dedicated servers are generally said to be more secure than VPS. This is because in addition to all the usual threats that any hosting plan must face, VPS servers have a particular weakness that dedicated don’t: the hypervisor.
Aside from having the coolest name ever, the hypervisor handles creating and managing each of the virtual machines (allotments) on the server. Most viruses only affect one virtual machine (i.e. a single user account), but in some very rare cases they may actually be advanced enough to bypass the hypervisor completely, spreading to all the accounts on the server.
Configuration is one aspect where dedicated servers really stand out. Because you’re the only user on the system, you have near total-control over everything and can therefore do pretty much whatever you want with it — right down to changing various parts of its core software and or hardware.
By having full control over the server, you’ll be able to (as long as you have the skills) put together a configuration that’s just right for whatever site you’re running. Most users won’t ever need to — or want to — play around with such settings, but for those who need a very specific configuration in order to run a highly specialized application or other special cases, a dedicated server will likely be the only viable choice.
Performance is largely related to the server’s hardware specifications. Given two servers with the same specifications, dedicated servers will always have a performance advantage over VPS servers — because they don’t have to share the resources between users and with a VPS server. It follows then, that the very high-end server configurations only really exist for dedicated users. If your website or enterprise really does need a monster amount of hardware to power it, then you’ll only be able to get this kind of power from one or multiple dedicated servers.
First, let’s rule out cost. If your business isn’t yet generating enough to afford a dedicated server, then VPS hosting will almost certainly be a great choice. In fact, I generally recommend VPS to almost all online businesses. A good rule of thumb to follow is this: If your online enterprise isn’t generating enough money to cover the costs of a dedicated server, then chances are you’re nowhere near needing one.
Security is also easy to rule out. The additional security risk of a virus bypassing the hypervisor is so small that it rarely happens. If you’re starting a business based around security (i.e. legal, banking or government-related), you may want to consider a dedicated server for additional peace of mind, but for most other types of business it shouldn’t be much of an issue. It’s worth noting though, that there is no server in the world which is safe from attack if someone is bent on gaining access. What’s more, most security holes these days are created by websites and users using insecure code on the front-end of their website rather than from any fault of the server itself.
In my experience, the choice usually boils down to configuration and performance. For instance, if you absolutely must use a server with a very specific hardware configuration, you’ll need to go with a dedicated service that allows you to assemble your own physical server. Likewise, if you need to install special software, or you want to tune your hardware to make your software run as efficiently as possible, dedicated may be the only way to go.
It’s also worth noting there that unless you have an (expensive) arrangement with your hosting company that puts all of the day-to-day operations of running a dedicated server in their court, you’ll only really be able to utilize the additional power of running one if you have someone on your team with some seriously formidable server skills. If you don’t have anyone on the payroll who knows a lot about server technology, you’ll likely struggle to make proper use of — and maybe even be hindered by having to cope with — running a dedicated server.
Performance is a tricky issue. It’s all about hardware configuration. Not all dedicated servers are faster than VPS servers — and some may even be slower than VPS servers. Here’s an example: let’s compare a dedicated and a VPS plan, both from the same company:
As you can see, the VPS is probably a lot faster than its dedicated counterpart. You could say that the storage space and bandwidth are less, but this really has no impact on site speed. In fact, unless they want to store and serve videos on/from their own server, very few people will ever need as much as 90GB disk space.
As for bandwidth, this can indeed become a bottleneck. There is, however, a $150/month VPS plan at the same host which offers 5TB of bandwidth with eight cores and 10GB of memory. This is still a better price than the low-end dedicated solution!
So when is speed a decisive factor? I actually spoke to a SiteGround representative who was nice enough to be frank and talk numbers with me. He confirmed my suspicion — speed-wise, dedicated servers only beat VPS at very high volumes of traffic. The figure he quoted was about 500,000 page views a month, which is a considerable amount for most sites!
Based on the hosting plans available and the research I’ve done talking to various representatives, my short answer is: probably not. To really arrive at the right answer however, you need to ask two questions:
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, you should seriously consider researching a dedicated hosting solution. If the answer to both is “no” you should be fine with a VPS.
There is a final consideration: prestige. If you have a Gucci store, you probably won’t have IKEA chairs — even if they’re extremely comfortable and do their job perfectly well. If you’re creating an online banking app, from a marketing perspective you’ll likely want to tout that you use the most secure, most high-end server — even if such a setup isn’t technically required to run the app. In such cases, getting a dedicated server may also be worthwhile.
In many cases, choosing the right host is more important than choosing the right hosting plan. There are three things I recommend that you do to figure out which host is right for you:
Reading articles about top hosts will give you a shortlist of hosts to take a look at. Take these articles with a grain of salt, however, because most of them contain affiliate links that can, unfortunately, make a fewer of the less-scrupulous publishers rather biased. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that you’ll learn more about the good side of hosts mentioned in these types of article articles than the bad. On the upside, you’ll at least be able to familiarize yourself with a bunch of potential candidates.
Browsing hostingreview.io is also a great thing to do because this website doesn’t work with affiliate links at all; it gathers opinions via social media and rates the hosts accordingly. In my opinion, this is a much better system, although it too isn’t without its faults.
As far as I know, the data is aggregated. For example, a host with top-notch dedicated plans may have sub-par VPS plans. Negative reviews for VPS plans will affect the overall score of the company. Whether this is good or bad is debatable. Personally, I think a company should strive for excellence in all areas. If the same company operates one of the best VPS solutions but one of the worst dedicated solutions, that isn’t too reassuring — even if I’m actually only looking for a VPS.
Take care to also actually read some of the tweets about the site to get a sense of why people like or dislike the host you’ve chosen to look at.
Talking to customer support is an important way of gauging the level of attention a company pays to their customers. This isn’t foolproof either however, since sales reps are probably way more motivated than support technicians, whom you will be talking with after you actually purchase a plan. That said, a bad experience with a sales rep may be a good indication of the company’s general level of quality.
Need some specific examples of where to start? No worries. Below are some of the hosts we know a bit about. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect host; bad hosts have their good days and good hosts have their bad days.
While reading reviews you should know that downtimes of 1-2 days are rare, but do occasionally happen. A large host may have tens of thousands of accounts. The chances of a few suffering from hard-to-resolve problems each year are actually pretty high. Unfortunately, all hosts are liable to experience such problems and none are foolproof. It’s really how often they have such issues and how they go about handling them that really set the best apart from the rest!
I have two reasons for featuring SiteGround first. They tend to receive superb social media reviews and the time I spent with their sales rep was nothing short of awesome.
I tried getting a straight answer out of three hosting companies regarding the “superiority” of their high-end VPS services over their low-end dedicated services and SiteGround was the only one who gave me useful information and straight answers.
Their VPS service (which they, like many other hosts, label ‘cloud hosting’) may be a little on the expensive side compared to some other companies, but it’s extremely customizable. You can choose how many cores you need and how much memory and storage you have access to. A good VPS with SiteGround will cost you about $70/month, but you’ll be getting both great tech and an extremely good level of service. Their dedicated servers start at $200/month, which isn’t bad.
Liquid Web is another company that’s well-reviewed on social media. I worked with a friend on a website we put together a while back, which we decided to host with Liquid Web primarily due to cost concerns and it’s been there every since.
Their VPS plans come in at around $50 for the low-end with a la carte add-ons you can mix and match to your own needs. Dedicated plans start at $150/month — which seems like a pretty good deal at first glance!
Media Temple is a more than capable high-end hosting company that I’ve personally had a lot of experience with. They’re also, incidentally, the folks who host this very website you’re currently reading. Support-wise they have always been excellent; from sales reps to tech support, they almost always go above and beyond what’s expected of them. Although I’ve had a few previous hiccups with their shared services over the years, their VPS hosting plans are top-notch! Perhaps best of all, I’ve yet to bump into any kind of issue at all when it comes to installing things on them!
About the only downside of Media Temple is they are pretty expensive, especially when it comes to dedicated hosting. You get what you pay for, though. I haven’t tried their high-end services yet (partly because the lowest configuration costs a whopping $2,000/month), but a huge number of top-end big business/tech companies choose to use them!
Linode is a company I don’t have any personal experience with, but I often hear good things about them — especially regarding uptime and support. Mark Jaquith (a WordPress lead developer) for example, seems to hold them in high regard, which is definitely a good starting point.
The Linode RAM and SSD storage updates are fantastic. I downgraded and cut my Linode bill in half and it’s still faster.
— Mark Jaquith (@markjaquith) April 19, 2014
Linode is a VPS-only service — which is a good thing in my opinion because it allows it to focus all of its energy into doing one thing. Interestingly, the prices are given per hour rather than per month (although monthly costs are still visible if you need them). Another thing I like about Linode is that they have a “tiny” package for just $10 a month! This isn’t a powerful solution, of course (the price kind of says it all), but if you don’t have many visitors but still need a reliable VPS solution, it’s certainly a great alternative to shared hosting!
Their high-end $80/month VPS is extremely powerful for the price. With six cores, 8 GB RAM, 192 GB SSD storage and 8TB of bandwidth, it’s one of the most versatile packages I’ve seen to date.
You should now have a good understanding of the various differences between dedicated and VPS hosting. All else being equal, a VPS solution is likely the best bet for all but the largest online endeavors. If money really is no object, however, then there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a dedicated package. In some cases, it may actually be the only sensible option!
Don’t forget, though, that the various management services you receive with your hosting plan are just as important as the specs and the customer service — so be sure to check these out thoroughly with a few different hosts before making that all-important final decision!
Hello, my name is Daniel. I build plugins, themes and apps – then proceed to write or talk about them. I’m the editor for the WordPress section on Smashing Magazine and I write for a bunch of other online magazines. When not coding or writing you’ll find me playing board games or running with my dog. Drop me a line on Twitter or visit my personal website.
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