Technology

Windows Dedicated Servers: How To Choose The Right Hosting Company

My experience with dedicated servers dates back to 2003 when I started working with USC at Los Angeles County Hospital. We decided to pay for an external dedicated server because we had no control over the network’s firewalls, switches, DNS servers, or routers. All of this was handled by the hospital; we only had our little LAN inside. This made simple firewall adjustments a nightmare, as we had to coordinate and justify all changes with Los Angeles County Hospital ITS.

After a week or two of research, we decided to go with Rackspace. At the time, Rackspace was still a relatively new company, and the price seemed a bit steep. I worked in a NOC position at Tierzero in 2002, so I was somewhat familiar with Datacenters/colos. Rackspace.com had a diagram of their data center and it was such a logical, detailed and beautiful infrastructure.

The cost was easily justified because what you get is a “managed” dedicated server. This is very different from a regular dedicated Windows box and let me tell you why, Support. Rackspace has a 24/7 support team and an efficient ticketing system that often got responses within 10 minutes (from humans, not automated responses). Since we had mission critical web applications on this server, it was necessary to have a “second line of defense” in case of an emergency. I was still pretty new to IT, although I thought I knew it all at the time, my boss knew it was better if we had someone to call if something went wrong.

Generally speaking, if you can afford it, and if your client (or employer) can’t afford the downtime, it’s good to have as many people on your back as possible, in case something goes wrong. This is where you have to justify the cost for your situation. Can you afford downtime? Is this server for your personal blog, for tweaks and family photos, or is it for a mission-critical application for your most important client? Customers also appreciate the fact that you’re being brutally honest. If they ask you to put Exchange, Active Directory, a file server and SQL on a 3 year old server, they have it in the closet.

Explain to them that if (when) email goes down for 24 hours, they could be losing potential or current customers. You could also propose this: Let’s say 50% of your sales teams’ work is done via email. If you have 8 salespeople at $45k/year or $23.50/hour, and email goes down for 2 days, that’s (16 hours * $23.50) * (8 employees) = $3008, that’s a big chunk of a hosting bill. Unfortunately, some customers need a disaster to happen before they see the value of avoiding it. While we’re on the subject of swapping, Rackspace has an affordable product called swap hosting. This gives you the benefit of Rackspace’s infrastructure, the functionality Outlook addicts want, without all the Exchange server clutter. I have been using this solution with UptonParkFinancial and they are very happy with it.

Coming back to dedicated servers, below Rackspace, the “premium provider”, come all the “mid-range” providers. These providers are “unmanaged” by my standards, have longer support times, less helpful staff, uglier/less functional customer portals, less efficient data centers, more downtime, etc. An example of a mid-range company is Hostway. If I google “windows dedicated server” it appears that about 6 of the results on the first page are mid-range providers. It shows through their site design, terms of service, and pricing. Almost all companies not named rackspace fall into my mid-range category. I will only name hostway because that is the only company I have personally used.

Another more recently available option, cloud servers. We recently migrated all of a client’s websites from a dedicated server to an Amazon EC2 instance, and to my surprise, it was quite easy. Amazon.com, as you know, is the largest online retailer to date. They launched their Amazon Web Services (AWS) product a few years ago and now offers Windows instances. This solution is definitely for the sysadmin/techie type as you don’t get support out of the box, although they do offer support services via ticketing for an additional cost, in my opinion this is not yet you’ll be close to the service/support you’re getting with Rackspace. Here is the basic summary. Sign in to AWS, choose a region—US West, US East, or Europe—and select “Create New Instance,” then choose from the various clipart images they have available. You can choose from many versions of Linux, Windows Server 2008 with SQL installed, IIS, 32-bit or 64-bit, 2 or 4 GB of RAM, etc.

I’ll write an article in the next few weeks about AWS and EC2 instances with some tutorials on how to set one up.

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