As a critical part of 80% of American businesses (and at least 50% of households) the web hosting world has become somewhat standardized. Gone are the days when it was impossible to compare one host against another, or even hosting packages within the same company. When you select a web host, whether for your vital corporate applications or your personal website, much of the hardware and software will be the same. The real difference between hosting packages is a question of scale – and selecting a large enough hosting package is vital to keeping your website running quickly during peak traffic.
Server Hardware: Build a Good Foundation
Believe it or not, you are surrounded by servers every day. From the tiny corporate servers that manage printer networks, to the network-attached storage servers that many people use for file backups, servers are all around you. Of course, most servers are designed for only a few people to access them at any one time – and they aren’t much more powerful than a desktop computer. For your website, you’ll need a server that can handle hundreds (or thousands) of connections at once, and can operate without interruption indefinitely.
When you select your server, you will be looking at three main components of hardware to determine which server package is right for you.
1) Processors – The “brains” of your server, most servers contain multi-core processors so they can attack computing tasks with greater speed and efficiency. In general, the faster your processors, and the more threads that are devoted to your server instance, the better your complex programs and applications will run.
2) RAM – “Memory” is vital to server operations because it allows access to information without forcing a read/write operation to the server’s storage drives. Even a personal blog needs a fair amount of memory, thanks to the memory-hungry operations of CMS programs like WordPress that have become so popular. For a dedicated server, 4GB is the bare minimum that you should be looking for.
3) Hard Drive Space – Finally, the hard drive space on your server is important, because it places a “hard” limit on the amount that you can actually store on your server. From images to HTML files, your website needs room to breathe – especially if you are hosting a website (like an e-commerce site with thousands of products) that necessitates large storage space. If your hosting company has the option, SSD drives are faster and more reliable than older hard drives, since they have no moving parts.
Redundancy and Support
While the speed and power of your hardware is important for day-to-day access to your server, you must also consider the hardware and software that is built into your server to ensure data protection and failover. For example, many servers duplicate their hard drives – running two hard drives in a “Raid-1” array to ensure that a single drive failure won’t cause the entire system to crash. Raid 1, 5, and 6, are all popular redundancy options – but they require multiple drives and can inflate your server price while giving you peace of mind in the long run.
Peak Traffic and the “Hug of Death”
Every website needs to worry about peak traffic – the number of users that will be attempting to access the website at the moment of its greatest popularity. For corporate websites, this usually occurs after a major newsletter goes out, while personal websites can see massive spikes in one-time traffic if they are picked up by a social media site when their content goes “viral”
Dangers of Being Unprepared
If your website can’t handle a high peak traffic, it will either slow down to a crawl or it will go offline completely. This is doubly destructive for site owners, since it means the site is down (or inaccessible) during the moment when it has become the most popular. Having your site go down when people are expecting to access your newly viral content looks unprofessional, and it leads other sites (called mirrors) to upload your content and take advantage of the traffic for their own goals.
Selecting a Host to Handle Peak Traffic
While there are a number of third-party content delivery systems that aim to strengthen websites during their moment of greatest viral success, the real measure of your site’s ability to maintain high levels of peak traffic comes down to your hosting package. In much the same way that you purchase a house with an extra bedroom when you plan on having a family someday, you should purchase a web hosting package with the bandwidth and server capacity to host your website when your marketing campaigns start to pay off.