I upgraded the server that runs this site. Well, I should say I transferred from a traditional VPS on CentOS 4 32 bit server I’ve been on since 2009 to a CentOS 5, 64 bit, fully managed Smart Server.
What’s a Smart Server?
You know this whole cloud hosting thing? It’s like that, but not. I had serious concerns about the cloud. Certainly I was worried when I heard people running WordPress MultiSite had weird issues with caching and things not syncing up when new server slices were made. Reason enough to hold off for me. But then my host says “We have these in-between servers.”
LiquidWeb Smart Servers are kind of like Cloud Servers. First, I’m the only person on my server (which is a step up from VPS), and I have a set amount of bandwidth. I’m charged per-day, too, so if I need more CPU/Memory for a couple days, I only get charged for those days. That’s really nice. There’s a lot of normal ‘cloud’ features too, like I can spin up new images on the fly and use them (maybe 30 minutes total to do all that).
Yeah, 30 minutes. Thinking about how long it took to just migrate from host2 to gamera(Gamera (ガメラ?) is a giant, flying turtle from a popular series of kaiju (Japanese giant monster) films produced by Daiei Motion Picture Company in Japan. Created in 1965 to rival the success of Toho Studios’ Godzilla during the daikaiju boom of the mid-to-late 1960s, Gamera has gained fame and notoriety as a Japanese icon in his own right.), being able to move things around on the fly with only an hour of outage is nothing. When I moved my three WordPress sites, they took about an hour or so each (give or take). When I moved my forum with a 4gig database, it took about eight hours. We made jokes about how it was the size of Liechtenstein.(The problem with a 4gig database is when 400megs is in one table. Takes a long time, no matter what you do. The file copied over fast, but the exploding of it took long enough for me to nap.)
None of that was why I upgraded/moved though. The real reason for the upgrade was that my server’s been having weird issues, and most of my research said it was because I was on CentOS 4. I couldn’t upgrade SVN, I couldn’t upgrade PHP for much longer, and I was sure that come February 2012 (when CentOS 4 is EOLd) I was going to be increasingly in the cold. So I made a list of everything I’d ‘done’ to my server, all the upgrades and tweaks, and I went for broke.
For the most part, I can’t tell the difference between my old VPS and my new smart server other than the speed (much faster). What I did notice, and didn’t like, was that the memory tends to run ‘hot.’ With nothing going on at all, it was hitting 90% usage. With nothing going on for my old site, it’s at 50% (and normally hovered around 60-70%). Gamera definitely runs heavier, though I’m still using the old caching. I did have to up PHP memory to 64megs, from 32, after I ran into weird issues on one site, but for the most part, I’m in a ‘It Just Works’ state of mine. Oh and I will very much need to sort out external SSL, since everything’s on one IP now, and you can’t use multiple SSL like that.
Yet I’ve still not answered the question. What is a Smart Server anyway? Thankfully LiquidWeb isn’t the only site using this designation.
We know what Cloud Server is, and we know why it’s good. It’s flexible, it can add on memory and diskspace as I need it, and take it away if (when) I don’t. I’m charged for what I’m using, not a blanket ‘This is what I need on my worst day’ sort of deal. But the problem there is a lot of people actually need that flexibility but don’t have the brainpower to handle running their own server. Two years ago, I didn’t, that’s for sure. In fact, two years ago, Cloud scared me. But, just like VPS.net came up with Cloud Shared Hosting (which I jokingly called Cloud for Dummies), LiquidWeb and some other said that some of us really need a VPS, but we’d like some of those cloud features too.
This is the middle ground. Too many places were looking at Cloud Dedicated hosting, which is expensive, and not something we all need, and then was also that race to the cheap hosting. I pay $60 a month for my hosting, and it’s worth it. I know, it’s a lot of money to some people, but think on this: If I pick up the phone right now and call Tom, my sales guy, or Benny, the tech I know pretty well, they’ll take the time to help me. And if I call the 1-800 number at 1am? Someone is there who speaks English and knows what I’m talking about.(Not that I don’t love OffShore support, I know I love the ones at my office! Many of them are fantastic in their fields and well worth the price of admission. But too many companies force these intelligent people to stick to a script, and don’t teach them the hows and whys of the code, the company, and how to work with American customers. If you’re going to support Americans, you must learn how to deal with them, for better or for worse, you learn to deal with your customers. And yes, that means being fluent in their native language, and their technologies. This holds true for India, Mexico and that moron from Nebraska who wanted me to go into the registry on my Macintosh. AT&T.) So while I’m willing to pay more for someone who will bail me out, I’m not willing to pay more for something I don’t use. Like extra minutes on my cell phone, I don’t like to pay for hypothetical ‘in case I get the Digg effect or Matt links to me again’ CPU and memory.
While a Cloud Server would handle all that, it also requires consistent and constant management. You have to know what to expect, and be ready to go. Those of us who do all this as hobbies or as a side-gig don’t have the time. Also, sharing resources in the cloud makes some of us sketchy. The whole reason we self-host anyway is that we want to be in control. Cloud sharing started to sound a lot like Shared Hosting, which has issues of it’s own. Resource contention is s concern, as are bad neighbors. The cloud is great for hosts because it shares everything, and complicated for users because we don’t want to share.
It sounds a little repetitive to call this Cloud Light. In fact, it feels really repetitive to say “This is like a VPS, but with Cloud Add-ons.” Part of this is because understanding what the Cloud is, after decades of the old way, is hard for our brains to wrap around. For most of us, the cloud doesn’t matter. In fact, it barely matters for me. The cloud is really what the internet has always been to most of us: ephemeral and mystical. Don’t let the smoke out of the cloud, or your website will crash! See? You don’t know anything more than you did before, now do you?
The Cloud is synonymous with the Internet for many people, and I think the future of it is aimed that way. For me, having the ability not to be tied to hardware and to add on more space, memory and CPU as I need it is invaluable. Being priced reasonably for those things also makes me pleased. The Cloud gave me freedom, but a Smart Server gives me even more: the freedom to control my destiny on my server. And that’s just cool.
So what’s the downside? There are some.
Understanding memory usage has been the big issue. I mentioned before that Gamera uses 90% of the memory, normally, and after my database crash I came to understand why. See not being tied to hardware means I’m not tied to hardware memory either. So linux, being linux, uses up all the memory it can. I watched, and when I start doing more intensive stuff, like importing a 4G database, the memory dropped to about 75%, and then bounced back up to 80-90. This is what it’s supposed to do! When it starts running out of memory, it goes to swap. Now on the traditional VPS, this was bad. Swap meant you were ‘out’ of memory and about to crash. On a Smart VPS, this is okay. My swap sits around 10% right now until I clean it out.
Cleaning it out is where things get weird. Smart VPS memory doesn’t clean out. If I hot-swapped my memory, some genius at MIT sorted out I could actually read data off the memory. Of course, if you have the physical access to my server I have other problems. But swapping memory, well that means the computer swaps data to the hard disk and back to your RAM as needed. I’m not entirely sure how this all works, and I’m doing some research now (and asking the tech from last night for info he said he had about all this). As for the crash… My database crashed on Saturday because the table was 600mb, and the space I’d allocated for swapping like that was 400mb. Liquidweb’s support moved the SQL temp drive to a place with more space to allow for that and everything started working again.
SSL was pretty straightforward. I bought an extra IP, since it’s cheaper and easier than sorting out multiple domains on 1-IP for SSL for only two domains. The other domains don’t need SSL yet, so they can wait until WHM catches up with SNI and other weird acronyms you don’t care about.
Basically, I’m very happy. I’ve even started to forget it’s something novel.