Do You Need a Dedicated Server?

I could make this article really, really short and just write this:

No.

A slightly more accurate version would be:

Probably not.

Most web sites will never need a dedicated server. More than most. The vast majority. There are over 300 million web sites out there and far fewer than a million require a dedicated server. So, no, you probably don’t need a dedicated server.

That said, there is a chance that you fall into that small group that does. There are legitimate reasons for getting a dedicated server and they do deserve examination.

  • You need more CPU than a shared host will give you.

    Maybe you do a lot of back end processing for each request or you have a lot of auxiliary processes that have to run. Either way, a server solves the problem.

  • You run custom persistent software or a custom web server.

    Most shared hosts use Apache or IIS as their web server. If you need to run something else or something custom, you simply can’t share the server. Similarly, if you need to have some other software always running, most shared hosts are not going to be too happy about it.

  • You need more inodes (files) than a shared host will give you.

    This is the hidden gotcha at a number of shared hosts with “unlimited” packages. You can use as much space as you want, but there is a limit on the number of files. The limit might well be very high, but if you need to exceed it, a server may be the way to go.

  • You want better security.

    Even with the best security precautions, at the end of the day a shared server is still shared. Over the years a number of attacks have appeared that use exploits against one shared hosting account to gain access to the whole server. If you have data that you desperately need to keep secure, a dedicated server may make you more comfortable.

    That said, a dedicated server is not inherently more secure. It still needs to be managed, either by you or by the same people who manage the shared servers. It’s like this: you might feel more secure in a private home than in an apartment complex, but you still need to lock your doors.

  • You want better performance.

    There are actually two very different situations you have to think about when it comes to performance: everyday performance and performance during traffic spikes. Some web hosts run their closer to capacity than others and even though shared servers are usually very fast powerful machines, they do get overworked at times and your site’s speed can suffer even if your traffic is perfectly normal.

    Now imagine what happens if you make the front page of Digg or go viral on Twitter. The server gets hammered and one of three things happens. The server crashes, your sites becomes unbearably slow, or the web host takes your site down for using up too many of the server’s resources (read the fine print!). No matter which happens, you are losing out when you should be shining. For most sites, a dedicated server is overkill 99.9% of the time, but can definitely come in handy when you get your moment in the sun.

    Before resorting to a dedicated server, you should also make sure you’ve explored other options for improving your site’s speed, such as database optimization, caching of generated pages, etc. A little time to install a WordPress cache plugin is a lot cheaper than the cost of a dedicated server.

There is one other reason to get a dedicated server which may or may not count as “legitimate.” Sometimes you just want one. I have little doubt that I could run just about all my sites on shared servers without a problem. I don’t. I run most on a dedicated server because it gives me more flexibility. Sometimes I want to try out some persistent software than wouldn’t really be possible in a shared environment. And sometimes I recompile PHP with some extra stuff thrown in (or out). I use some of the space for extra offsite backup. And a few times a week I use the server for a things having nothing to do with websites at all, and just treat it as extra processing power.

Dedicated servers are a lot more expensive than shared hosting. Make sure you need it, or at least want it, before making that jump.

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