Setting up a Virtual Private Server

Hosting Plans by GoDaddy

Hosting Plans by GoDaddy

Hosting has gotten pretty darn cheap. It’s amazing how many services offer hundreds of gigabyes of space, transfer, email, and other features for less than $20. How can they offer so much to so many? It’s so amazing, in fact, that it can’t be true. And it really isn’t true. Lets say you sign up for GoDaddy, one of the cheapest hosting providers around. You can sign up with an economy plan for $4.99 a month. I’ll tell you a secret about shared hosting, though: if you need to share a server, you’ll never reach anywhere near the offered 300 GB of transfer. And even if you reach something close, you’ll likely get a nasty email saying you’re using too many server resources. It is shared, after all.

The solution: Virtual Private Servers (VPS). It’s like having your own dedicated server, but much, much cheaper! What’s the catch? You have to know a little something about web administration.

Basically, a VPS is a virtual (or fake) box within a box. Get that? Yes, it’s a box within a box. It’s like running Windows XP on a MacBook, but not. More often it’s Linux running on Linux. You can get Windows on Windows too, but if you’re going to be administering your own server, you should really try a door instead of a window–it’s easier. But ultimately, you get to choose which operating system your virtual server (box) runs. I personally use Debian, since I’ve been using it for years. If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend Ubuntu Server. It’s just plain easy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you have to select a VPS service. There are a few viable options and a simple Google search will provide a list of people with large advertising and SEO budgets. I recommend Linode. It’s what I use (if you’re interested and find this article helpful, my referral code is a6a79ef05957081175fd9956f5eca5706c82e40b). Another great service is Slicehost, but I haven’t tried them yet.

When evaluating a VPS service, consider your overall needs. You should have a good concept of what you need so you can specify limitations on your VPS. Like all things, the more you pay for the more you get. Why pay for more than you need? Here are some basic examples:

  • Basic website – You want to throw together a web site and have complete control over how the server is run. A VPS is great if you need added security, background processes, or an SSL certificate (because you get your own IP address). If you want to upload files via FTP and have things magically work, a VPN is not for you.
  • Development – These boxes are great for developers. Most services allow mixing and matching operating systems. You can dedicate, say, 5GB to Debian and 7GB to CentOS, then choose which one gets booted from your control panel.
  • Online file storage/backup – It’s like having a complete storage system of your own design. There are dozens of ways to make backups and file storage automated and easy with a VPN, but that’s another post.
  • Proxy services – Do you want to browse more anonymously? You can route all your traffic through a VPN so nobody will ever know where or who you are. If you travel a lot and want a secure route to visit your office intranet, you can make that happen too.
Xen Options

Xen Options

Choose your service based on the combination of memory, storage, and transfer. Unless you expect to have hundreds of hits a minute for a basic web site, you probably don’t need more than the lowest plan. Most services will have some sort of monitoring. Try a basic plan, see what you use, and if you need more, upgrade. I’m sure any service provider will be happy to take your additional money. If you use Linode, upgrading is as simple as clicking a button or opening a support ticket.

First, there are several types of services available: Xen, Virtuozzo, Vserver, and OpenVZ. In my own humble opinion, Xen is the most current with the best backing. Its got some pretty hefty industry leaders on its side. That is, of course, just my own humble opinion.

Next, you get to choose an operating system. I already mentioned I prefer Debian, and there are dozens of guidelines on how to set up a simple Debian host. If you want extreme simplicity, Ubuntu is a good choice. Gentoo is powerful, as is Slackware. CentOS is a standard choice for those used to RedHat-style hosting, offered by many enterprise services. My service offers both 32- and 64-bit versions of most operating systems. Pick your poison. Just remember, if you choose a 64-bit operating system, you’ll be utilizing more space for your applications. On the other hand, 64-bit is the wave of the future. Maybe I’ll post an article on exactly what 64-bit means, but for now, you get to make that choice on your own.

Follow the remaining prompts. Allocate some disk space, which can be as simple as confirming the default option. Once your finished, it shouldn’t take longer than an hour for your VPS to be completely set up. Some services have anti-SPAM processes in place. These types of services might put your new system in a queue–it will have to wait until who-knows-what gets finished first. These types of processes may take up to 24-hours. If it takes longer, I’d suggest going with another service provider. Once it’s done, you can login.

That’s it. You’ve set up your very own server! Of course, you need to install software, but that’s another post entirely.

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