Do you need a dedicated server?

By Michael Moncur (November 16, 2004)

If you run a busy web site, you may find it starting to outgrow its hosting account. A dedicated server may make your life easier, but before you take the plunge, you should be sure it's worth the price and that you can manage the server. Read on to decide whether a dedicated server is right for your site.

How Busy is Your Site?

Your first step in determining whether you need a dedicated server is to evaluate how much of the current host's resources your site is using, and how close it is to the host's limits. The following are the main resource a site uses:

  • Network bandwidth: Your host usually allows you a certain amount of data transfer per month.
  • Processor speed: Does your site respond quickly? A fast processor is especially needed for dynamic sites that use databases or server-side languages such as PHP.
  • Disk storage: Your host allows you to use a certain amount of disk space, and may charge you for exceeding the limit. Sites that deal with graphics or multimedia are the most likely to run up against this limit.

A dedicated server will have limits on these resources as well, but usually offers greater amounts for less money. In the case of processor speed, you will be guaranteed the full use of the CPU rather than sharing it with the host's other customers.

Do You Need Special Features?

Even if your site is running comfortably within its existing host's resource limits, you may want to move to a dedicated server for the other benefits it offers. Here are some potential benefits of having a server to yourself:

  • You can install software your site may need, such as an updated version of PHP or a database server, without waiting for your host.
  • You can run software that isn't typically allowed with shared hosting, such as java back ends, chat servers, and game servers.
  • You can provide services that are unavailable or expensive with shared hosts, such as software downloads and streaming audio.
  • You can customize and optimize the server to fit your site's needs.
  • On a shared host, your site's speed and availability can be affected by other customers' sites—and if your site has a busy day or a runaway script, it can affect other customers and get you in trouble with the host. With a dedicated server, you can be more certain that the resources your site needs will be available.

Can You Manage It?

While a dedicated server offers many benefits, it also presents a challenge: you will take on some of the responsibility for managing the server. How much you are responsible for depends on the type of server:

  • With an unmanaged server, the host sets up a machine, hooks it to their network, and hands you the root password. Unless there's a problem with the hardware, it's up to you to keep the server running.
  • With a managed server, the host leases you a server and handles the administration, leaving you to focus on content—similar to a shared account.
  • With a colocated server, you purchase a machine yourself and place it at the host's facility. They provide the Internet connection, and the rest is up to you. Colocation is the most expensive option, so it usually makes sense only if you have special technical needs that a cookie-cutter server can't fulfill.

Unmanaged servers are the cheapest option, and by far the most popular—but many customers quickly find themselves out of their depth managing a server with little or no help from the host. You shouldn't consider an unmanaged server unless you're an expert or are ready to spend a few months learning the ropes while trying to keep your site running.

Can You Afford It?

If you've determined that a dedicated server would help your site, the next question is whether you can afford the cost. Unmanaged servers are becoming very competitive, typically $99 a month or lower with a very low setup fee, but you may need more service than these basic offerings provide.

If your site is a labor of love, this comes down to whether you're willing to open your wallet. For a site that makes money or hopes to, you'll need to consider the cost more carefully:

  • How much profit does the site make each month? Will the profit cover the cost of a dedicated server?
  • Will the new server enable you to expand the site and make more money?
  • If a market downturn or company crisis prevents you from making money, can you afford to keep the site running anyway?

Keep in mind that hosting accounts can become expensive with a busy site, especially when you are nearing the limits of their capacity. When I moved my busiest site to a dedicated server, it actually saved me money each month—but I spend far more time managing it.

Conclusion

Dedicated servers are essential for large sites, and often can save money for smaller ones. If you decide to make the leap to a dedicated server, be sure your site will benefit and can cover the costs, and make sure you choose the right type of server for your needs.