There are a lot of companies who will offer you a dedicated server, and there appears to be an infinite number of options. Following some principles will help you to unravel the complexities.

Operating System

There are two main flavours of dedicated server, namely Linux and Windows. Linux is a derivative of UNIX, and has long been a popular choice of hosting environment. Microsoft’s Windows Servers are growing in popularity, though, for a number of reasons, not least because people are familiar with the OS from their home computers. There are other server environments, for instance the Apple OS X Server, but they are often based on UNIX, and in any event are not covered in this article.

There is no doubt that if you’ve never used Linux before and are thinking of moving to a Linux hosted dedicated server, then there will be a learning curve involved. That’s true of a Windows server, but if you use Windows then the familiarity will be there. Learning the command line operation of a Linux box is a task in itself, so this might weigh your choice when considering options.

It could be said that Linux generally has the better reputation for reliability, speed and security, and Windows has the greater flexibility and power. Either are fine for the small and medium size site, and though Windows is generally the more expensive option the difference is minimal so the only real choice is to do with the technology that you want your site to use.

If you have an existing site then to a great extent the choice might already be made. For instance, if your existing site uses ASP or .Net code, then the new server will have to run Windows because Linux doesn’t support those technologies. Of course the site could be redeveloped and changed over to PHP, but this would probably be a significant piece of work, so it’s unlikely you’ll want to do this unless it was already part of your plan. Also, if your site uses a lot of Flash or other multimedia then it’s likely that Windows is going to be the better option, but it’s unlikely that such a site would need the power of a dedicated server unless the content was enormous!

On the other hand, if your site uses PHP or PERL then your best option is Linux. Although Windows can run these technologies they are native to Linux and are simply more secure in that environment. Finally, if your site is all or mostly HTML with little or no database or server-side scripting then even if there are a lot of images involved Linux is almost certainly the better option.

RAM/CPU

This choice is a difficult one to prescribe, because it depends on a lot of variables. Basically, the more demanding your site is, the more power it will need from the server.

For instance, if you have a busy site that runs a series of .Net powered forums with all pages dynamically generated from an SQL Server database then you’re going to need a lot of RAM and CPU power. But if on the other hand you have a static brochure site then you’re not going to need so much.

A quick note on this topic – top RAM/CPU power is, of course, relative. In 12 months’ time or so what is considered high-end now may only be mid-range at best, but your site’s needs may not have changed so much. In consequence, the once high end servers become reduced in price and possibly fall more into your budget, so consider carefully, because dedicated servers are increasing in value all the time.

Bandwidth

This is an additional cost consideration when choosing a server. Bandwidth controls how much data can be delivered from the server, usually measured in a given month, and a multimedia site or a site that is graphics intensive is going to feel the effects of this much more.

Often there is a basic allowance, perhaps say 50Gb. What this means is that in a single month your website can deliver 50Gb of data. This might seem a lot, and indeed is, but a busy site could easily surpass this, and when it does then you will have to pay your host more, generally buying in blocks of 5 or 10 Gbs per month.

If you have high bandwidth needs then you should look around for a host that guarantees bandwidth availability. Even a dedicated server can experience slowing if there is a lot of concurrent demand, and the bottleneck may not be in the server but in the ability to deliver bandwidth to Internet. This requires a high speed pipeline, and you would be well advised to discuss your needs with various hosts to find who can supply the best solution for you.

Do you need a managed server?

Ask yourself a question: would you feel confident that you have the expertise available to set up and run a computer as a web server in your office or home? If the answer is yes, then you don’t need managed web hosting. If the answer is no, then you might.

The maintenance of a managed dedicated server is pretty much taken out of your hands. If you want something done, then you inform the hosts and they do it. You’ll pay a premium for this, of course, but it can take a lot of the worry out of your server. Your business may be nothing to do with IT, and you may have no reason to learn.

However, if you have the skills as part of your team, or have someone who is willing to learn, then it may be better for you to manage the server yourself. Just bear in mind that this is not necessarily the cheaper option as someone has to invest in skill development and give time and effort to the server itself. If you manage the server yourself control is kept completely in your hands, which means that you are responsible in every sense, including when things go wrong. But if you have security concerns, and wish to ensure that what you want done is done to your timetable and to your exact specifications, and you have the skills and resources available, then it may be better for you to manage your own server.

Test drive Linux free by downloading a version that runs from CD/DVD and doesn’t need to be installed: Download Knoppix CD.

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