This article is part of a series created in partnership with SiteGround. Thank you for supporting the partners who make SitePoint possible.
The range of hosting options has become bewilderingly complex during the past few years. The basics are simple: a computing device has software installed which can respond to a network event such as a request for a webpage. How that hardware and software is installed, configured, organised, packaged, promoted and sold is the primary difference between all hosting options.
A dedicated server is the easiest option to comprehend. Imagine you bought a PC from your local store, connected it to your home network, installed web server software and configured the DNS appropriately. That device would be able to run your website and serve requests from all over the world. But could it cope with system crashes, surges in traffic, unexpected power loss, theft or security breaches? Someone compromising that device could gain access to everything on your network.
Web hosts such as SiteGround provide dedicated servers which solve these issues. You effectively own (or lease) a server which sits in a rack at the host’s data center.
Levels of management vary but most hosts will provide a pre-installed operating system and the software you require. More demanding operations may require multiple devices with load balancers and separate back-end databases.
Ease of Use
Hosts often provide some level of assistance but you’re largely on your own. Technical expertise is necessary to connect, install and configure the software required for your system.
Dedicated servers are regularly chosen by larger corporations with unusual or higher-than-typical requirements. They may have a team responsible for day-to-day server operations.
Dedicated servers offer ultimate flexibility. It’s your device: you can install whatever you like whenever your need it. Do you need PHP3, Node 8 and the latest beta of MariaDB? No problem.
The device’s capabilities are limited only by budget. You can choose the fastest processors, gargantuan quantities of RAM and multi-petabyte hard disks. You could add further servers and eventually have your own server farm.
The device’s full processing capability is yours and your alone. You have full, unrestricted access to the whole hard disk and all processing resources.
If that’s not enough, you can replace or add further components. It’s often more cost-effective to throw extra hardware at a system than spend many weeks optimizing the software.
Bandwidth is still limited by the data center’s capacity but a dedicated server remains the ultimate performance option.
Your server is only as reliable as the hardware. Processors, RAM disks and other components eventually fail but most hosts will offer some level of monitoring. RAID0 (redundant array of independent disks) options will prevent most data loss.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Your host will normally offer back-ups and monitoring services but it’s your server and you can do what you like. There’s nothing to prevent you logging in and running
rm -rf / to delete everything.
Hosts will provide advice but security is largely your responsibility. You will need to install and configure firewalls, virus scanners, SSL certificates and other options as necessary.
Humans are often the weakest point of any system. Someone could access the full system if your sysop team fails to adopt strong password and security policies.
Dedicated servers are normally the most expensive hosting option – expect to pay a few hundred dollars per month for an entry-level system with minimal management. Hardware upgrades and support may be extra.
Don’t forget you’ll also require additional staff costs to install, monitor and maintain that server.
Who Should Choose a Dedicated Server?
Dedicated servers are typically chosen by larger corporations with unusual or demanding mission-critical systems. To be cost-effective, a website would require a few hundred thousand visits per month.
Dedicated servers have fallen from favor recently. Cloud-based alternatives offer hosting in a similar way to utilities such as electricity. The more resources you use, the more you pay so costs may vary from month to month.
Cloud options differ but most offer a scalable virtual machine. The OS is effectively a disk image (file) which can be moved and replicated anywhere without being tied to any underlying hardware. This increases reliability and back-ups become simpler.
That said, dedicated servers remain the best choice where performance is critical.
Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.
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