When Written: Aug 2012
The options available to you for hosting a web site have probably never been more varied than now; however, the confusing mess of technical terms and marketing hype does not make the task of choosing which of the differing types to select any easier. We will hope to try and clear some of the fog and help you to decide what is best for your company.
Let us assume that you already have a web site sitting at an ISP somewhere, it may even be on a physical server that you own in a rack at the ISP. We all know that hardware doesn’t last forever so perhaps it is a good time to look at the options available in the Cloud?
The obvious advantage of the Cloud is that of scalability and fail-over redundancy. The ability just to pay for the performance that you need rather than having to over-spec a server for those few occasions that you need extra performance or in an attempt to future-proof the server against the normal ‘bloat’ of Operating System updates, is one of the most attractive lures of Cloud hosting. To start to decide what solution would suit your web site you need to take a long and detailed look at all the aspects of the web site in question and in particular any back-end services or code that are critical and may have been added back in the dim mists of time but without which your site would be most royally broken. If your site is nothing more that a bunch of static HTML pages then any of the offerings will work for you and you would probably go for PaaS (Platform as a Service) where the Operating System and environment is provided and updated automatically in the background for you. You don’t have any direct access to the Operating System and so should any advanced configuration be needed by your web site this may not be possible, but the administration of such a setup is minimal and that is its attraction.
However if you want full control over the Operating System with the ability to add extra services as needed, than you might be better suited to using IaaS ( Infrastructure as a Service) where you will have full remote access to the virtual machine in much the same way as you might with a hardware based solution. But bear in mind that you will also have the responsibility of keeping the OS fully patched. A lot of ISPs (1&1 and FastHosts for example) now offer Cloud hosting as an option over straight Virtual Machine hosting, the difference being that your virtual server is spread across multiple hardware platforms and so should hardware fail your virtual server will be run up on another box automatically with little or no loss of service. Some Cloud hosting services also allow on the fly configuration of resources such as RAM and CPUs to allow for variations in the activity of your web site. Others, however, require a reboot of the virtual server to achieve this and if this ability is important to you then you should check this first.
If the web site you want to build is created in one of the common Content Management Systems then most providers offer another type of web Cloud hosting and this allows you to activate a pre-configured setup of any one of these Open Source applications, to avoid you having to go through the process of uploading files, extracting, running scripts and setting permissions yourself. Any extra tweaking of the setup would then be done through the web based management tools that are normally provided like phpadmin. What a lot of SMB businesses would like to be able to do is to take an existing hardware based server, convert it to a Virtual machine and then host this virtual machine out in the Cloud. This way all the fancy configuration changes and the permission settings that you have had to make to ensure that your advanced web site runs and is secure would all be taken care of. Sadly few seem to offer exactly this capability, security being the reason given. Rather than just copying an old site to a new server with any legacy security settings there is a valid argument that when moving a site to a new server it is a good time to check and confirm the security settings. But imagine if you have a server with many sites on it, or a complicated Exchange server setup, then it would be great to be able to image this server and deploy it out onto the Cloud. This can only be done with a few of the Cloud hosting services out there like Amazon’s EC2. So what are the choices that you have should you decide to go the Cloud Hosting route?
If, as is quite common now, you use a CMS for your web sites then moving them to a Cloud based hosting solution should be a relatively easy process as most of the hosting providers have ready to install packages of the most common CMSs and it is a simple task of selecting one of these You will be asked for passwords for the database and it is a good idea to use the same one as your current live site. Once the package is installed it should then be a simple job of logging into the admin panel of the CMS and importing a backup from your current system. You may have to do this for the database backup and the separate file back up and also make sure that you have all the CMS modules installed that your web site uses. Once all this is done you should have a copy of your web site up and running. Test it thoroughly before attempting to go live. If your web site is allowing user submitted content, like comments or a forum or more importantly a shop then the final stage is to stop this functionality on your existing web site, obviously putting a message on there to say what you are doing so as not to annoy your visitors. Then do a final backup of the old database and restore it to the new CMS, make the changes to the DNS so that your domain now points to the new web site and put a simple redirect on the old web site just to catch any visitors whose DNS records may be cached and still have the old web site settings.
If your web site only uses static HTML pages then moving to a Cloud hosted solution is a simple job of just copying the various files to the new server, then testing and finally making the DNS changes and redirects as described above.
If your web site is more complicated and uses a variety of technologies then transferring it is going to be a much more complicated job. It is not uncommon to find a single site that uses ASP, ASP.NET, CDOSYS, and Perl technologies , and with such a site the configuration can be tricky as the ‘hacks’ used to get things working may have been made years ago and are rarely documented. Modern development tools are making such tasks easier as they create publishing setting files. These files do all the configuration of the server and permission settings for you, but in the case of a mixed technology site or an older one you will need remote desktop access to your Virtual Cloud Server in much the same way as you would have with your own dedicated hardware in a rack at an ISP, so make sure that the Cloud hosting solution that you choose allows for this type of access as not all do.
For many Cloud Hosting services we are not at the stage of being able to point a piece of software at an existing web server, ‘suck’ the full installation off and transfer it to a Cloud hosting solution. Even with the ones that allow this the sheer size of the files can mean that there is a more elegant way of transferring a server to the Cloud, however we are sure that the day will come when this is a practical possibility and without doubt we will need to tools to transfer our sites from one Cloud Hosting company to another with ease, as nobody likes the idea of being locked into one provider.
If you feel that Cloud Hosting of your company web site could be for you then take a look at Microsoft’s Azure (http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/ ) , which has just added Web hosting as a simple to use option as well as 1&1 (http://www.1and1.co.uk/CloudDynamicServer ) and FastHosts (http://www.fasthosts.co.uk/vps/cloud-hosting/ )and a new Cloud Server also worth a look is Openshift from Redhat (https://openshift.redhat.com ) . For the more technically minded and in need of some advanced features then Amazon’s EC2 service (http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/ ) is worth consideration, particularly as it is one of the few that allows the direct import of a VMWare machine image into its Cloud (http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/vmimport/ )
Article by: Mark Newton
Published in: Mark Newton