Yes, the brief requirements mentioned above might give you a quick way to a working server. It looks similar to what your competition is using and what you find at one of the many places that lease out dedicated servers. But keep in mind – your business is being a web host. Your business depends on the hardware that you are going to use. You will need to develop a plan for your hardware usage as early as possible. If your business depends on the server uptime and on reliable server hardware – a cheap solution will eventually damage your business reputation and eventually drag your business down.
Imagine this scenario:
A web host builds up his business and tries to establish credibility and to win more customers. All goes well and the number of sign-ups increases. Then one day the hard drive on a server fails. Yes, there is a backup drive – but it is not configured for failover – it’s just holding the backups. No spare hard drive is available and/or the server needs to be rebuild and the configuration and data needs to be restored. The techs in the data center are busy fighting other fires at the same time and the response time to work on your server is about 2 hours. The result: several hours of downtime and many angry customers. Some customers might go public to forums and bash this web host. Result: new sign-ups might slow down and eventually potential customers go somewhere else and/or existing customers move away. The damage has been done and it will take at least 3-6 months to recover from this hard drive failure (lost revenue because of customers leaving and less sign-ups because of the downtime).
How could have this be prevented and at the same be turned into an advantage for marketing purposes?
Proper planning and a little higher investment at the beginning when the server was purchased would have done the job. Modern server technology allows to configure servers for failover and to prevent these kind of situations. Failover technology is widely available and no longer just for the big guys. The second hard drive that you get as a standard when leasing a server is not failover – it is just there for backup.
RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) technology – What is it? RAID is a configuration of multiple disks designed to preserve data after a disk failure. What RAID configurations are available and recommended for standard web hosting? RAID 1 (Disk mirroring): A technique in which data is written to two duplicate disks simultaneously. This way if one of the disk drives fails, the system can instantly switch to the other disk without any loss of data or service. If one drive fails, it will be replaced and the mirror needs to be rebuild. Minimum number of drives needed: 2 (two) Disadvantage of RAID 1: Unless 2 disk controllers are being used, the read/write performance is not as good as with other RAID options as the controller has to read/write to both disks at the same time. You only have disk space of one drive available. RAID 5: Provides data striping at the byte level and also stripe error correction information. This results in excellent performance and good fault tolerance. RAID 5 writes (stripes) both data and parity information across three or more drives. Disadvantages: RAID 5 requires a higher number of drives as one drive out of the set is basically being used to store the parity data. A set of 3 drives gives you the disk space of only 2 drives.
What does that mean to you as a web host? Using either RAID 1 or RAID 5 will protect your server from going down when a hard drive fails. If one hard drive fails, the server will continue to function to just fine. All you need is a spare drive and to trigger the rebuild process. Good servers allow you to hot swap a drive while the server is running. Good servers can do the rebuild process while being online (in production). Cheaper hardware either does not offer RAID functionality or if it does – might have to be booted to the system level to start the rebuild process.
Using RAID technology requires a higher investment upfront, but it protects your business. Additional cost probably averages about 10-20% but this higher investment also offers you the opportunity to have a marketing advantage. Most web hosts do not offer failover technology. If a hard drive fails – the server is down. Customers who depend on their website will appreciate the additional security level you can offer and are willing to pay a little more for web hosting. 10% on a $10.00 hosting package is not a big deal – if you sell the advantage properly.
Hard drive failover technology has more options. Consider buying a server with at least 4 slots for hard drives. You order the server with 4 drives but only use 3 of them in a RAID 5 configuration. Why? In a normal situation you will need to order a hard drive from the manufacturer. Even with next day delivery – the delay is significant. This will put your business at risk – the moment you need it least. But imagine having the spare drive available. The technician walks over to your machine – pulls out the failed hard drive and replaces it with the 4th drive (your spare drive). You’re up and running in no time. While your machine is rebuilding the RAID configuration (and serving websites at the same time), you are on the phone with the manufacturer ordering a replacement (hopefully you bought support and get it replaced under the support contract).
Another advantage is the peace of mind for you. Let a hard drive fail, you’ll be prepared.
By the way – failover technology is also available for your network cards. NICs can be teamed and therefore keep the network connection to the server running if one network card fails. Hard drives and network cards are known as the 2 pieces of hardware failing more often.
Of course there is a little more to server hardware than just hard drives and network cards. I recommend to buy quality hardware from manufacturers like Dell, HP/Compaq or IBM. Support and quality are excellent and the machines usually last longer. You will frequent BIOS, driver and firmware updates and spare parts will be available for more than just a year or so.
You will also setup a plan of when to retire a server and how you will migrate your clients over to a new server with no downtime (if possible). Good servers will at least last for 3 years. Support contracts are available for up to 5. So, somewhere in between you should consider retiring the server and to replace it with newer hardware. Proper planning and budgeting will help you to keep your business afloat. Save money right from the start to buy a new server in 3 or 4 years. $35 a month on a 48 month term will give you a good cash reserve to buy a new server with only need a small loan when it is time to replace the hardware.
I am always surprised how many web hosts do not have these simple things in place and then are surprised when it comes to time of crises. Avoid being one of these web hosts. I know that especially in the beginning your funds are tight. You don’t need to implement a failover strategy on your first or second server. But plan for it. Once you buy the 3rd server you probably can budget money for this and execute the plan