The right time to move to a dedicated server often isn’t that obvious. Essentially, when a shared environment is no longer providing the performance the services, or the options that your website needs, you’re going to start looking for alternatives. The option of a dedicated server is at some point going to come up, but you don’t know if your site really needs it. So, here’s a few pointers to consider to help you make up your mind.

Performance

If you pay premium rates for your shared server hosting, then you might well be getting superb results despite heavy traffic. If this is the case, then performance is not going to be so big an issue for you. However, if this isn’t the case, a reasonable understanding of your site’s traffic levels will be important in determining the potential value of switching to a dedicated server.

The point at which traffic becomes an issue for a site depends a great deal on what the site delivers. If it’s a static site (meaning it has no database content) that is mostly text, then even tens of thousands of daily visitors might not have a noticeable impact on the site. However, if the content is image heavy, or contains Flash or other multimedia, or perhaps requires a lot of database activity (because of forums for instance), then the impact of traffic on the site is going to be considerably greater.

At the simplest level, performance problems will manifest themselves by your site beginning to slow down, causing long waits for visitors while pages load. Some visitors might begin to see error messages from the database because there are too many requests. In the worst cases, pages won’t be served at all because the server is simply overloaded. Monitoring error logs will give you an indication that these things are happening, but you should also try visiting your site at peak traffic times and try to navigate around. If there are problems, you’ll see them.

If your site is struggling with download times and errors even when its traffic is low, it might indicate that it’s the mix of sites hosted on the server that’s the problem. As stated previously, in a shared hosting environment, all sites on the server will be affecting each other. If the mix on your particular server includes a number of high-demand sites, this might be the cause of your site’s poor performance. You should discuss this possibility with your host, to see if there’s anything they can do about it.

If your site uses PHP or CGI code, it’s important to eliminate the possibility of inefficient or buggy code being the cause of performance degradation, because a dedicated server won’t do anything solve this problem.

Security

Importantly, security is much improved when you use a dedicated server. If one of the sites on a shared server gets hacked, then there is a fair chance that all of the sites on the shared server could get hacked. If one of the sites has a serious flaw, then all of the sites on the server are at risk.

This can be a double edged sword. You’re more in control of a dedicated server, so the responsibility for security is yours. You can set up servers to automatically update themselves with new security patches released by software vendors, and this is a very good idea. But you should also make sure that your own code is kept up to date. Bear in mind that CGI, PHP and ASP codes and scripts are all vulnerable to attack, and should be maintained for security.

Server Options

One of the most common issues that developing websites come up against is discovering that their current webhost doesn’t allow the server options that they want.

This is an issue that the PC Technology Guide came across. If you’re not familiar with it, the .htaccess file is a simple text file that allows a webmaster to give the Apache server a number of useful directives for a particular website. This can be anything from language and encoding settings to blocking access to certain files or folders, or even perhaps blocking certain browsers from a site. This ability to block browsers might seem odd, but it is actually very useful, because it can help to keep out web trawlers and spiders that consume site bandwidth in a very unfriendly way. These are known by name, so the solution is relatively simple: block them using a list of names in a directive in the .htaccess file.

The problem is that this can only be achieved if the Apache server has been set up to read the .htaccess file, which they almost always are, and the Apache mod_rewrite module has been installed and enabled… and it often is not. When a webmaster tries to use it and it is not enabled, the site will throw a server error on all pages. The host, when contacted, will apologise and explain that the mod_rewrite engine is not available, and when asked will confirm that unfortunately it will not be made available in the foreseeable future. The webmaster is left frustrated.

Of course a simple solution in this case is to move to another host that does provide this option, but sometimes there are a number of needs that are perhaps not standard to shared hosting options – for instance, the PC Technology Guide also wanted PHP5. This is when a dedicated server comes into its own, because the machine is your own, and you can set it up how you want. If there is a feature you want, you can have it. If there is a piece of software that you want to install, you can install it.

A word of warning, this comes with all the risks inherent in installing new software on any computer. You need to be confident and prepared to handle any technical issues that come up with your server, unless you opt for managed hosting, discussed later in this article.

Server Resources

A dedicated server is generally leased, not bought, but to all intents and purposes it’s a whole PC and it’s yours. If you want more RAM, you can have more RAM. If you want a faster CPU, you can have a faster CPU. This kind of control means that your server is much more scalable for your site. Of course this kind of maintenance might mean temporary downtime for your site, and it will certainly involve some expense, but it is still very useful to know that as your site grows you can beef up the server to keep pace.

Sites that offer up a lot of large files, or have a huge number of pages, may run into space issues when in a shared server environment. However, this reason alone is almost always a poor reason to move to a dedicated server. It is likely to be far more economical to buy extra space for a shared account, especially if traffic demands are being coped with. A dedicated server can give you Gigabytes of space for your website, of course, but unless you really need that much space, or you have other considerations, it’s probably better to consider simply improving your shared hosting.

Next, we’ll look at what to consider when choosing a dedicated server.

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