Before you make a decision on which Web hosting server to buy, ask yourself these questions: Have you taken all of your hosting needs into consideration? Have you thought about the software your server will be running? Do you know what the role of your server will be? Will it be able to meet the demands of that role?

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IBM Corporation is the exclusive sponsor of TechRepublic’s special series on Web Hosting. IBM’s e-business Hosting gives you the freedom to customize an array of services into a solution that is shaped by your business, not ours.

For more information, check out TechRepublic’s Web Hosting Center, or visit IBM’s e-business Hosting site

If you don’t resolve these issues at the outset, you could be setting yourself up for a long string of problems down the road. In this article, we’ll review some of the primary issues to keep in mind when you’re preparing to buy a Web hosting server. We’ll also examine the pros and cons of specific kinds of server hardware.

What should you look for when purchasing a Web server?
In today’s aggressive server market, network administrators have a number of choices. Obviously, server price will depend on which options you are looking for. Before you take price into account, however, you should consider several other factors. Here are the most significant criteria for evaluating Web servers:

  • Operating System
    The operating system you plan to use on your server will play a key role in your purchasing decision. For example, a machine that will be running Windows 2000 Server will have different requirements than a Red Hat Linux-based machine. The Windows 2000 server requires at least a Pentium 133MHz processor with 64MB of RAM, while Red Hat 7 can be installed on a 386 or higher PC.
  • Storage
    If you’re going to host home pages for your typical Web surfer, you won’t need a lot of room to store data. But if you’re going to host an e-commerce site that takes in thousands of orders daily, the server hosting the site will need room to store the database of user information and transactions.
  • Speed and Performance
    To keep customers coming back, your Web server must be able to keep up with the traffic it receives. Customers will soon become ex-customers if they see “Web server busy” errors when they’re placing online orders. To prevent such errors, make sure you note the processor speed and amount of memory available on all of the servers you consider. Low processor speed and low-grade memory can greatly affect the performance of even the best servers.
  • Scalability
    Sure, the machine that you purchase will meet your needs today. But what about when the time comes to upgrade? Network administrators should take scalability into account when they select a machine so that the server can expand with the user load. Be sure to ask questions such as “How many hard drives can I add?” and “How much memory can I put into this server?”
  • Manageability
    One of the biggest server headaches is simply managing the machines. Is the server you’re looking at easy to take care of? If you had to add or replace a hard drive or CD-ROM, could you do it quickly and without much effort? Will users notice much downtime?

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Examples of Web hosting hardware
Now that you know what you need to look for, where do you begin to look? Actually, you have several options. Here’s a quick rundown of the options and their pros and cons:

  • Cheap custom-built server
    This server is the least-expensive route, usually consisting of desktop components such as IDE hard drives and low-end processors. While this option will save you money initially, the server may eventually fail due to cheap parts that weren’t designed for the task of Web hosting. Sooner or later, these parts will also need to be replaced, costing more money in the long run.
    Pros: Cheap
    Cons: Fails often due to low-quality parts
  • Expensive custom-built server
    The pricier custom-built server is the way to go if you have your heart set on building a machine. The cost of building this server, however, is usually the same as purchasing a pre-built server with added options. Also, you don’t receive a warranty with this server, so if something goes wrong, it’s up to you to fix it.
    Pros: Well-built machine that generally won’t fail as often as its less-expensive counterpart
    Cons: Costs are often not worth the time and effort; no warranty
  • Pre-built tower server
    This is the path network administrators choose most often because they know that when they purchase a vendor-built machine, they’re getting a well-designed and proven technology. In addition, they can rely on technicians to help troubleshoot problems that may occur in the future. But these servers are generally designed with a specific operating system in mind, and the software that comes with these machines is usually OS specific. To have servers talk to one another, you often have to purchase machines from the same vendor.
    Pros: Service, warranty, and proven technology
    Cons: Vendor-specific parts; software that usually is not compatible with other vendors’ products
  • Pre-built rack server units
    The new kids in town are becoming the most popular servers to have around. Products such as the Cobalt RaQ and StarBox iBox are touted as the network administrator’s dream. These simple rack-mounted servers have all the functionality of a typical server but take up less space, produce less heat, and cost less. But these machines do have their drawbacks. For one thing, they can be difficult to upgrade. For another, software can be tricky to install, and most units come with a standard OS that can’t be replaced.
    Pros: Small size, rack-mounted, affordable
    Cons: Limited scalability; proprietary operating systems and software

The best way to decide
To make the right choice, it’s essential that you know your target user base and what functions the Web hosting server will be performing. While all of the hardware listed above can serve as a Web hosting server, each has its weak points. It’s important for you to pinpoint which weak points you can live with. The old adage “You get what you pay for” does not necessarily apply when it comes to Web hosting servers. Depending on your situation, a cheaper server might be able to handle your needs just as well as a more expensive one.
If you’ve purchased a Web server within the past six months, we want to hear from you! What factors did you consider when purchasing the server? Have you had any regrets about the purchase you made? Let us know by posting your thoughts below.