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Too big for existing shared accounts, but too small for a dedicated solution, many companies are finding virtual private servers are just right.

Allan Liska special to HostingTech | aliska@hostingtech.com

Many companies are outgrowing their shared hosting accounts and need to move their website to something more powerful. When a company outgrows the constraints of a shared hosting account, the traditional next step has been to move the website onto a dedicated server. This upgrade can be problematic for small to midsize enterprises without the expertise or the budget for a dedicated server. Fortunately, there is solution for these companies, one that has been growing in popularity in recent years: the VPS (Virtual Private Server), sometimes referred to as the VDS or Virtual Dedicated Server.

With a VPS, a hosting company cordons off a server into smaller accounts, creating a shell for each account. Each account has full administrative access, but to only to their portion of the server. Customers get the advantages that come with having root access, without worrying about hardware maintenance.

Hosting companies also benefit from VPS accounts through increased revenue. For example, if you purchase a server for $2,000, you would be lucky to lease it as a single dedicated server for $300 per month; whereas, if the server is shared between 10 VPS accounts at $80 a month, the return on the server could easily be $800 per month.

VPS pricing can range from $50 to $200 per month, depending on the user's preferred options. This makes a VPS attractive, even in the face of the $99 dedicated server packages available from companies like RackShack (www.rackshack.net), because VPSs require less management by the user. The $99 dedicated servers typically come without managed services. The degree of managed services common to a VPS package is appealing for companies with minimal I.T. resources and experience.

Creating a VPS
There are several ways to create VPS partitions; Ensim (www.ensim.com) and SWsoft (www.sw-soft.com) have products that are designed to segment a server into VPS accounts; however, the most common method of VPS deployment is the BSD jail.

Traditionally, a BSD jail has been used as a security feature. The jail imprisons an application within a restricted environment, so the application cannot affect other processes. The BSD jail is often used in BIND (Berkeley Internet Domain Name) installations. BIND is installed in a separate jail - with only the necessary binaries - so if BIND is compromised the attacker does not have access to the full system. This limits the potential damage an exploited weakness in an application can cause.

When a hosting company creates a BSD jail for a VPS, the entire BSD distribution is copied into the jail, rather than just a few binaries. This gives the customer almost the same level of access that a dedicated server would. There are certain things a VPS cannot do (and should not be able to do), such as reboot or shutdown the server and interfere with the other VPS accounts.

A mid-range solution
The rise in VPS solutions can be attributed to the increasing demand for complex hosting solutions from smaller companies and individuals, according to David Tong, chief executive officer of Fluid Hosting (www.fluidhosting.com). Fluid Hosting has been offering VPSs since February 2002.

According to Tong, customers are "mostly software developers who would like to have the freedom to install whatever software they choose. Others are people who would like to learn about maintaining/administering their own 'server' [through VPS] before getting their own real server."

NTT/Verio (www.verio.com), which has been in the VPS business since its acquisition of iServer in 1997, agrees. Dawn Wells, VPS product manager, sees two types of VPS customers.

"First, [there are the] value-added resellers: Web developers, designers, and programmers," Wells says. "These VARs [Value-Added Resellers] typically have medium-to-advanced technical knowledge. Second, small businesses that require flexible hosting, but can't afford dedicated hosting. They typically have a small I.T. staff, which is why outsourcing hosting and managed services is critical."

Currently, VPS users account for less than 5 percent of hosting, but as the need for complex hosting continues, the market for VPS accounts should increase.

Wells says, "As website requirements continue to become more complex and financial resources are more strained, businesses need a solution that offers more functionality than a traditional shared hosting plan, but at a more economical price than a dedicated server."

Tong thinks more people are seeing the benefits of VPS hosting: "The ability to have an environment similar to having a dedicated server so people can install their own choice of software - Apache, MySQL, PHP, et cetera - is a benefit that can't be offered through ordinary virtual hosting."

Software for success
The success of VPS accounts depends largely on the type of software used to implement them. Although the BSD jail is a simple and quick way to set up VPS accounts, it does not offer the same benefits more complex hosting software offers. SWsoft's Virtuozzo, for example, allows hosting companies to allocate system resources on a per-VPS basis. This allows hosting companies to offer service guarantees with their VPS products, thereby increasing the appeal of VPS accounts. Fluid Hosting is one of the companies migrating to the Virtuozzo solution.

"With the right software implementation, we believe there will be an increased demand for this," Tong says. "We have received many requests regarding our readiness to offer Virtuozzo."

The other advantage to using a software-based VPS solution is that it allows hosting companies the ability to offer a VPS service on multiple platforms. Fluid Hosting will offer the Virtuozzo product on Linux and FreeBSD platforms. NTT/Verio, which uses software developed largely in-house, offers VPS accounts on FreeBSD and Solaris. The flexibility of VPS accounts is their greatest asset. Both Wells and Tong see several new markets opening for the VPS services.

According to Wells, "One of the greatest market opportunities for the VPS is global expansion. There are many international markets that have not historically had an 'in between' option in hosting. The VPS offers more functionality and flexibility than shared [hosting], but less costly than [a] dedicated [server]."

Tong says the strength of VPS accounts is in the quality-of-service options.

"The current hosting industry is mostly based on virtual accounts in which one account is capable of bringing down the whole server - for example, a run-away script - or using up most of the resources, which degrades the server's performance," Tong says. "If all of these virtual accounts can be sand-boxed from one another, then the host will be able to increase its service quality guarantee by offering each customer the guaranteed system resources - CPU, RAM, disk [space] - in accordance to the customer's needs."

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