Cloud servers, VPS servers, Ubuntu, and nginx

Jacob Allred

I’ve always used bare metal servers running Apache HTTP on CentOS. I’ve always run nearly my entire business off of a single server. Every couple years I’ll order a new one, move everything over, and call it a day.

But the world is changing. Bare metal prices are going up while cloud and VPS server prices are going down. Ubuntu has surpassed CentOS for market share. nginx is second only to Apache for market share of active sites. It was time for me to change, too.

Over the past few months I’ve been moving everything I have over to cloud and VPS servers, Ubuntu, and nginx. The result has been phenomenal!

Fake Mail Generator

I started with my Fake Mail Generator server. I had a single huge VPS at Linode running CentOS and Apache HTTP. I love Linode. Their servers are affordable, reliable, and their support is great. They also offer discounts for paying annually.

I split this single server into four separate VPS servers: a frontend web server, two mail servers, and a database server. I used Ubuntu on all of the servers and switched to nginx. It was amazing! I’m using a fraction of the RAM and CPU I was using before, even though my traffic has increased dramatically since the server move.

Even better, the four VPS servers cost me less than I was paying for a single huge server. Part of this is because Linode gives you less for your money as you order larger servers (e.g., four 2GB servers gives you more CPU than one 8GB server) so I was able to get more for my money by splitting into multiple servers, but the biggest difference was nginx. It is serving millions of pageviews per month with only 1GB of RAM. There is no way Apache HTTP could do that. nginx made it possible to buy less powerful servers and get the same amount of work done.

Everything else

I’ve been hosting everything else, including the high traffic Fake Name Generator, on a single bare metal server at SoftLayer. I love SoftLayer, too. I started with The Planet many years ago, which got merged with SoftLayer, which recently got purchased by IBM. So my servers have been passed around a bit, but the quality of service has always remained high.

Unfortunately, SoftLayer’s bare metal servers have been going up in price. I tried switching to a less expensive company and had a horrible experience, so I decided I wanted to stay with SoftLayer. I’ve been fretting over what to do for months when I received a coupon for up to $500 off my first month of cloud servers at SoftLayer. With nothing to lose, I gave it a shot.

SoftLayer cloud servers have all-inclusive pricing. You don’t have to pay extra for bandwidth, IP addresses, DNS, etc. You get everything you need to have a fully functional, publicly accessible server for one monthly fee. I like that a lot.

I decided to move MySQL to its own cloud server, so I’ve ended up with a database server and an “everything else” server. I chose local disks (which I’ve read are RAID 10) for better performance. I was able to reduce my number of CPU cores and total RAM, again thanks to nginx. If you aren’t using nginx, you really are missing out. Not only does it perform better, but it is easier to configure and use. I’ll never willingly use Apache HTTP again.

For heavy tasks, performance is noticeably slower compared to my bare metal server but this is to be expected. My bare metal server had RAID 1 SSDs, 12GB of RAM, and 16 blazing fast Intel Xeon CPU cores. There is no way a cloud server is going to come close to matching that performance.

But I’ve learned that I don’t really need it to. My webpages still load fast, backups finish in a reasonable amount of time, and I’m saving money by paying only for the resources I actually need.

Why not Amazon Web Services?

AWS EC2 servers are a terrible option for most companies. There, I said it.

The real benefit to AWS is automation and the ability to quickly scale. If you aren’t automating and you don’t need to scale, then you don’t need AWS and you are probably throwing your money away and complicating your life by buying into the AWS ecosystem.

AWS also has some reliability issues. Yes, you can get around these by deploying bunches of servers and load balancers and whatever, but that is a huge extra cost (and complexity) that most companies don’t need.

So I don’t use AWS. I’ve been happily running everything off of a single server for over a decade with 99.9% uptime.