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Virtual Servers in the Media



A Hosting Tech Article


A corporate website is no longer a luxury. It has become a necessary communication tool - a core part of marketing and customer management efforts. Many companies are finding they are outgrowing their shared hosting account and need to move their website to something more powerful. When a company outgrows the constraints of a shared hosting account, the traditional next step has been to move the website onto a dedicated server. This upgrade can be problematic for small to midsize enterprises. Smaller companies might not have the expertise or the budget for a dedicated server. Fortunately, there is solution for these companies, one that has been growing in popularity in recent years: VPSs (Virtual Private Servers), sometimes referred to as VDSs (Virtual Dedicated Servers).

A private party
A hosting company cordons off a server into smaller accounts, creating a shell for each account. Each account has full administrative access to their part of the server, but no access to any other part of the server. Customers get the advantages that come with having root access, without worrying about hardware maintenance.

Hosting companies also benefit from VPS accounts through increased revenue. For example, if you purchase a server for $2,000 and lease it as a single dedicated server for $300 per month, you are getting a monthly return of $300 per month. On the other hand, if the server is shared between 10 VPS accounts at $80 a month, the return on the server is $800 per month.


Creating a VPS
There are several ways to create these jails; Ensim (www.ensim.com) and SWsoft (www.sw-soft.com) both have products that are designed to partition a server into VPS accounts; however, the most common method of VPS deployment is the BSD jail. Traditionally, a BSD jail has been used as a security feature.

The jail imprisons an application within a restricted environment, so the application cannot affect other processes. The BSD jail is often used in BIND (Berkley Internet Domain Name) installations.

BIND is installed in a separate jail - with only the necessary binaries - so if BIND is compromised the attacker does not have access to the full system. This limits the potential damage that an exploited weakness in an application can cause. When a hosting company creates a BSD jail for a VPS, rather than copy a few binaries, the entire BSD distribution is copied into the jail.

This gives the customer almost the same level of access that a dedicated server would. There are certain things a VPS cannot do (and should not be able to do), such as reboot or shutdown the server and interfere with the other VPS accounts.


Looking for a mid-range solution
The rise in VPS solutions can be attributed to the increasing demand for complex hosting solutions from smaller companies and individuals, according to David Tong, chief executive officer of Fluid Hosting. Fluid Hosting (www.fluidhosting.com) has been offering VPS since February of 2002. According to Tong, customers are "mostly software developers who would like to have the freedom to install whatever software they choose. Others are people who would like to learn about maintaining/administering their own 'server' [through VPS] before getting their own real server." NTT/Verio (www.verio.com), which has been in the VPS business since its acquisition of iServer in 1997, agrees.

Dawn Wells, VPS product manager, sees two types of VPS customers, "First, value-added resellers: Web developers, designers, programmers. These VARs typically have medium-to-advanced technical knowledge. Second, small businesses that require flexible hosting, but can't afford dedicated hosting. They typically have a small I.T. staff, which is why outsourcing hosting and managed services is critical." Currently, VPS accounts comprise less than 5 percent of hosting, but as the need for complex hosting continues, the market for VPS account should increase. Wells says, "As website requirements continue to become more complex and financial resources are more strained, businesses need a solution that offers more functionality than a traditional shared hosting plan, but at a more economical price than a dedicated server."

Tong thinks more people are seeing the benefits of VPS hosting: "The ability to have an environment similar to having a dedicated server so people can install their own choice of software (apache, mysql, php, etc.) is a benefit that can't be offered through ordinary virtual hosting."


Software for success

The success of VPS accounts depends largely on the type of software that is used to implement them. Although the BSD jail is a simple and quick way to set up VPS accounts, it does not offer the same benefits more complex hosting software offers. SWsoft's Virtuozzo, for example, allows hosting companies to allocate system resources on a per-VPS basis. This allows hosting companies to offer service guarantees with their VPS products, thereby increasing the appeal of VPS accounts.

Fluid Hosting is one of the companies migrating to the Virtuozzo solution. "With the right software implementation, we believe there will be an increased demand for this. We have received many requests regarding our readiness to offer Virtuozzo," Tong says. The other advantage to using a software-based VPS solution is that it allows hosting companies the ability to offer a VPS service on multiple platforms. Fluid Hosting will offer the Virtuozzo product on both Linux and FreeBSD platforms.

NTT/Verio, which uses software developed largely in-house, offers VPS accounts on both FreeBSD and Solaris. The flexibility of VPS accounts is their greatest asset. Both Wells and Tong see several new markets opening for the VPS services. According to Wells, "One of the greatest market opportunities for the VPS is global expansion. There are many international markets that have not historically had an 'in between' option in hosting. The VPS offers more functionality and flexibility than shared [hosting], but less costly than [a] dedicated [server]."

Tong says that the strength of VPS accounts is in the quality-of-service options, "The current hosting industry is mostly based on virtual accounts in which one account is capable of bringing down the whole server (for example, a run-away script) or using up most of the resources, which degrades the server's performance. If all of these virtual accounts can be sand-boxed from one another, then the host will be able to increase its service quality guarantee by offering each customer the guaranteed system resources - CPU, RAM, disk [space] - in accordance to the customer's needs."

"The current hosting industry is mostly based on virtual accounts in which one account is capable of bringing down the whole server (for example, a run-away script) or using up most of the resources, which degrades the server's performance. If all of these virtual accounts can be sand-boxed from one another, then the host will be able to increase its service quality guarantee by offering each customer the guaranteed system resources - CPU, RAM, disk [space] - in accordance to the customer's needs." David Tong, CEO, Fluid Hosting

"[There are two types of VPS customers.] First, value-added resellers: Web developers, designers, programmers. These VARs typically have medium-to-advanced technical knowledge. Second, small businesses that require flexible hosting, but can't afford dedicated hosting. They typically have a small I.T. staff, which is why outsourcing hosting and managed services is critical." Dawn Wells, VPS product manager, NTT/Verio

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