Anyone researching the web for hosting solutions soon realizes the most ill defined, overused, over-hyped marketing ploy of the 21 century is the term cloud hosting. Used subjectively everywhere with absolutely no continuity between brands. The cloud is the solution to everything web hosting.
One of the most confusing things about “the cloud” is that it does not refer to one specific thing—it means something different to almost everyone. Sure all those geeky tech types will be rolling their eyes and shaking their heads that lame lay people just don’t get it. Some lay people may even respond “never mind cloud, what’s the difference between shared, vps, dedicated?” While this post is designed to address the Cloud question, a brief refresh on the traditional hosting concepts help clarify the cloud question. The simplest way to explain the differences between shared, VPS, and dedicated hosting is a house analogy.
Shared hosting could be described as similar to renting an apartment. You take care of your space while the building manages the common areas. Quite true, especially if your shared hosting choice is with a more reputable web hosting provider. Others have suggested that shared hosting is more akin to living in a dormitory. You get your own room that you can furnish however you’d like, but you share the bathroom, lounge and kitchen with other people. If one of your fellow dormers is messy or playing loud music all night - well you get the drift!
Rather than a rental apartment, VPS hosting is more similar to living in a condominium. You get your own bedroom, kitchen and bathroom and you can design your space to fit your lifestyle. But you are still surrounded by neighbors. You are responsible for the condo maintenance – if your plumbing springs a leak, you have to fix it. And you can still have that noisy neighbor who keeps you up at night or one that throws a lot of big parties making it hard for your guests to find a parking spot.
Hosting on a dedicated server is like owning your own house. Of course it’s more expensive but you can design your space however you like. But like any homeowner, you are fully responsible for the maintenance and security of your home. And moving is not as easy. And of course unless you have the server in the closet, you still have neighbors. So in the context of website and web application hosting, what is cloud hosting and why would it be better than traditional hosting?
Many of the issues that arise with these ‘traditional’ forms of hosting can be attributed to the website being tied to a single physical server in a data center in one particular location. Never mind the pesky neighbors, there are endless horror stories of flooding, fires, that guy digging up the road down the street from the data center. There are server failures and backup failures. If not enough, many issues arise simply because you are too good at spreading the word . They say if you build it, they will come. Traditional hosting tends to be less forgiving and doesn’t allow the flexibility to grow or scale to handle traffic patterns. A cloud hosting platform offers not only the ability to scale, but also improved reliability and built-in resilience.
One of the main advantages of cloud hosting is that it does not tie your site to a single physical server. Different cloud hosting infrastructures achieve this flexibility in different ways. Some hosts offer site hosting still primarily on a single server but use failover technology. Other web hosts may use a cluster of web servers. Load balancers select the optimal server in the cluster and your site is served from it. If the server your site is on goes down for any reason, the load balancers will route your site traffic to another web server.
Another characteristic of cloud hosting is that there are options for seamless scaling. This is also referred to as “on-demand” or “on-the-fly”. Some cloud platforms can scale ‘up’ the amount of RAM and/or CPU assigned to a site. In the good old days using traditional hosting, adding more server resources usually meant moving your site to another server, which would undoubtedly involve some downtime.
Other scaling options available on some cloud platforms include the ability to scale your site ‘horizontally’ by adding more web servers—so your site can be served simultaneously from two or more load-balanced servers.
Other cloud characteristics?
One often touted characteristic of cloud hosting is utility billing or a “pay-as-you-go” usage-based model. With that type of billing your site usage is metered and you pay per second, per minute or per hour for all the services your site consumes. Of course the downside of only paying for what you use, is that you pay for what you use.
Often mentioned as a defining characteristic of cloud hosting is self-service—typically delivered through a web management interface. This type of self-service portal may be new for managing multiple VMs but web-based control panels have been used in hosting since people have had better things to do with their time. Think cPanel or Plesk. Nothing new there.(editor’s note: VMs are virtual servers...it's a whole other post)
Questions to ask a host when researching
All of the information you collect about in regards to the type of hosting will help you make a more informed decision. If you are considering cloud hosting options, you want to be sure to ask a few questions to determine if the hosting platform is really a cloud hosting platform or if they just sales boosting marketing spin:
- Clarify the utility billing and web management interface mentioned prior.
- Ask about the resiliency of their hosting platform.
- Is your site tied to a single physical server?
- What happens to your site when the server your site resides on goes down?
To describe resilience, cloud platform vendors often use terms like “fault tolerant,” “self-healing,” “high-availability” or “failover.”
Fault tolerance: the properties that enables a system to continue operating in the event of the failure of some of its components. If its operating quality decreases at all, the decrease is proportional to the severity of the failure, as compared to a naively designed system, in which even a small failure can cause total breakdownSelf-healing: great concept. Best defined as to err is human. If you really want to screw it up use a computer!
High availability:a characteristic of a system, which aims to ensure an agreed level of operational performance, usually uptime, for a higher than normal period. Many less sophisticated types just refer to them as service level agreements. (SLA)
Failover: In computing and related technologies such as networking, failover is switching to a redundant or standby computer server, system, hardware component or network upon the failure or abnormal termination of the previously active application.
You also want to ask about scaling options in the event your site activity increases or your application needs more server resources:
- What are your options?
- Does scaling involve a site migration or site downtime?
- Can you scale vertically and add more server resources (e.g., RAM, CPU)?
- Can the host scale out your site horizontally across multiple servers?
Answers to these questions will give you a good idea about the “cloud” capabilities of the hosting platform. After you have an understanding of the hosting platform, you can get into specific technology requirements for your site, how you are billed for services, the control panel, and their customer support, etc.
All of the information you collect about the host will help you make a more informed decision on where you should host your website.
Summing it all up!
Traditional hosting has been around for a long time and for many websites it remains just as viable an option for inexpensive affordable hosting. Still with the increase in the functionality and complexity of modern web applications, many features have evolved to ensure on demand and uptime availability of large applications such as Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Google Docs, and the like. The adoption of these advances into the webhosting industry as a whole has been widespread and a natural progression. Like traditional hosting, cloud hosting also has all data physically kept on server(s) somewhere. But ‘Cloud hosting’ with its improved resilience and scaling options has become a better hosting option for most and should be considered the new norm.