Why VPS is Perfect for eCommerce Hosting

I want to preface this little article with this fact: The optimal environment for an ecommerce website is a dedicated server. Nothing else offers you the level of control, security, and customizability as a dedicated web appliance for the simple fact that the entire server is yours. Unfortunately, dedicated servers are expensive. You either need to lease them, Co-locate your own server in someone's datacenter, or pay for a huge internet connection to your location where you host your own. I understand that $250-$8000 a month is not in the startup budget of most new ecommerce sites, so here is the next best thing:

Virtual Private Servers.

Virtual Private Servers, or VPS, are an intermediate service between shared hosting (where you get one domain account) and dedicated hosting (where you get the whole server). With VPS, the actual server hardware and resources are partitioned up into several isolated environments which each act as their own "mini" dedicated server. Each VPS maintains its own control over server software, mail servers, and independent software resources, parsers, and programs such as PHP and BIND. VPS minimize the drawbacks that shared hosting has and gives you guaranteed resources, a secure operating environment, and distinct advantages in performance and security.

The advantages of VPS are clear:

Control. While you can not usually change system-wide configurations such as the base operating system, you are free to update your PHP version, Apache configuration, MySQL version, or whatever application related change you want to make. Unlike a dedicated server where you can really, really screw something up if you don't know what you are doing, VPS don't really allow you to break something really important that keeps the server running. This makes it a great intermediate step in learning web server administration before graduating to a full, dedicated server appliance when your business needs to.

You can have more than one website. You can have multiple domains, subdomains, IP addresses, whatever. Some web admin panels have restrictions (like 25 or 100 domain licenses) but others like my personal favorite, cPanel, allow you to run hundreds of sites if you want off of one account.

Security. Each VPS acts like its own isolated environment, and as such your system and data files can not be seen by any other VPS account on the server. This is not always the case with some insecure shared hosting setups, where insecure permissions or scripts on another shared site can open the whole shared box up to attack. Also, if another VPS user leaves an SQL loop open and locks up the database server on their account, your account and resources continue to operate without interruption because your resource allocation is completely separate from theirs.

Cost. While VPS solutions cost more than shared hosting (most are in the $29.99-$99.99 price range), they are much more affordable than leasing a dedicated server appliance. The fact is, even the most mediocre dedicated server is oversized for a startup ecommerce site, and VPS represent a great value for the new internet entrepreneur.

VPS are not without disadvantages though, abet small ones. Here are the main ones:

It does take a higher level of technical savvy to maintain a VPS solution than a standard shared hosting account. I don't really buy into this one though, because when I ran my first dedicated server when I was 15 years old (yeah, it's so easy a 15 year old can do it) I only had one learning resource: The Internet. Everything you ever need to know and more about running a web server can be found for free on the internet. Add to that fact that most VPS plans come with an easy to use web administration interface that is fully supported and documented and you got it made.

Your VPS host has a lot to do with the quality of your VPS account. Mismanagement of VPS appliances by your hosting company may land you with too many accounts on one server and as a result you may experience performance hits. Choose your VPS provider wisely.

Depending on your plan, it may be a lot of work to setup. Once again, this is all related to finding the right VPS provider. A comprehensive VPS plan will include a ready to go, setup environment with a name-brand web management console like cPanel or Plesk. These easy turn-key solutions will have you serving pages in an hour or two.

I was thinking about writing a big section on "How to decide if VPS is right for you" but I couldn't really make any arguments for not going VPS. Virtual Private Servers are superior to shared hosting in every way, and frankly if you are running an ecommerce site where your livelihood depends on your site being available and making sales you would be a moron not to investigate VPS hosting. The price point is there, the features are there, and the security and availability are there.

In my experience, this is what I think a VPS account should have for an ecommerce setup (let's use a heavily modified osCommerce setup for example):

It should be based on the Virtuozzo VPS system. These guys invented VPS, and they do it the best.

It should have at a minimum 256MB guaranteed ram for MySQL database driven sites, and at a minimum it should be burstable to 512MB for the occasional memory intensive query. The size of your database and traffic should dictate this number.

Disk space is trivial- I have not seen many ecommerce sites go over 3-5GB with thousands of products- make sure you get at least 5-10GB so you have plenty of room for expansion.

Bandwidth is kinda trivial too- you have to have a lot of traffic to exceed the 100-250GB bandwidth packages included with most VPS plans, and lets face it- if you have that much traffic you are going to be making money hand over fist and move up to a managed dedicated appliance anyway.

Get some sort of automated backup. If your host does not include it, it's usually a $10-$15 option that is completely worth it. That way, if you are learning how to administer your VPS and you break something, your site can be restored and running again in an hour or two.

Make sure you are getting it from a reputable company that has 24/7 support. There are lots of places to save $5 when you are setting up your business but the hosting that runs your lifeblood is not one of them. Get your hosting from a big company- they have the experience, the staff, and the systems in place to keep you running.

Make sure you get a VPS account with a name-brand web administration panel as this will smooth out your learning curve. I personally recommend cPanel as it allows unlimited domains, has its own name servers built in, and has two levels of admin- appliance control through the Web Host Manager, and individual domain control panels for each site. I can't say enough nice things about cPanel.

Whatever company you choose, I hope you will take a look at VPS hosting. This is your business, and you owe it to yourself and your customers to have a hosting account that is quick, responsive, and powerful.

About the author:

Jason Chance is a full time Online Product Manager and contract developer for the SMB market. He maintain's a site at http://www.jccommerce.com where he shares what works when trying to sell and promote online.

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