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Performance-related Hosting Features
In web hosting terms, “Performance” refers to the overall computing power of the hosting server, and most especially to its speed. Unfortunately, there is no single benchmark statistic that can determine which hosting company is going to have the “best” performance, or even the best performance at a particular price point.
You can’t simply look at one number like gigabytes of RAM or CPU processing speed to compare two (or more) hosting companies. You have to look at the overall suite of features and technical specifications in order to get a sense of how one host will compare to another.
Features that affect web hosting performance
APC — Alternative PHP Cache — Caching is the temporary storage of data for the purpose of speeding up future retrievals. When PHP scripts are run (such as in a Content Management System like WordPress), the results can be cached so that the next person requesting the same page does not have to wait for the entire script to be interpreted again.
APC is a PHP module that improves and optimizes the PHP caching engine. It must be compiled into PHP by the server administrator. APC is Free and Open Source, so it should be available from most web hosting companies.
Dedicated IP — The IP address is a computer-readable number that identifies a specific computer to the rest of the internet. It is how browsers find your website (after looking up public DNS records about which IP address goes with the human-readable URL you are looking for). In a shared hosting plan, typically all the customers on single server have the same IP address.
However, it is possible to get a “Dedicated IP Address” — that is, one used only by your website. This can be added onto a shared hosting plan. Alternatively, VPS (Virtual Private Server) plans and Dedicated Servers will have their own IP addresses automatically.
SSD — Solid State Drive — The hard drives in most computers (probably yours) is a spinning magnetic disk. This is a relatively compact and inexpensive way to store data, but it is not exceptionally speedy.
In order to read or write data, the disk arm has to physically move to the proper location on the disk. Sometimes, because of the way data is spread across a disk, the arm has to move many times in order to read a single file or set of files. This takes time; not much, but it adds up. Solid state drives — like high powered versions of those key-ring sized USB flash drives — are a huge improvement in speed over conventional spinning disks.
Disk Space — Shared hosting plans usually advertise “unlimited” disk space, and VPS plans either have unlimited or “pay as you go” data storage. In either case, the disk drives are usually virtual, sitting on top of a cluster of computers with a large amount of total disk space available. Therefore, most hosting customers do not need to be concerned about disk space.
However, Dedicated physical servers are limited by the actual hardware on the rack, so disk space is something you need to consider in these types of plans.
Bandwidth — Bandwidth is a measure of how much data is transferred in a given period of time. For hosting plans, it is usually measured on a monthly basis. Shared hosting plans usually have “unlimited” bandwidth, but this is based on an assumption of low-level use. Highly trafficked sites (tens of thousands of visitors) will need a VPS plan with some form of pay-as-you-use bandwidth.
The important thing here is not trying to figure out how much you might use — this is impossible to know. Rather, you want to look for a plan that has a reasonable per-GB rate and will scale up as your traffic increases. Cheap bandwidth that skyrockets in price if you hit your monthly limit — like cell phone overage charges — can be very expensive indeed.
Server Location — While you might have a specific reason to offshore your web hosting (legal concerns, for example), you usually want your server to be located as close to your main user base as possible, and otherwise very near to major internet trunk lines (very large US cities). It takes time for data to move, and the less it has to travel the faster your website will load.
RAM — Random Access Memory — This is what people are talking about when they just say “memory.” The more of it a computer has, the faster it will run (all other things being equal). While it is not the most important issue anymore — most commercial web servers have a lot more of it than they need — generally speaking, higher numbers are better here.
Reasons to care about performance
The most important outcome of high performance is speed — specifically, the load times of pages on your website. The faster, the better.
Faster web pages decrease abandonment and increase user engagement. Slow page loads — even with only minimal lag — provide a sense of cost to the user. Each click within the site costs a tiny bit of time, and impatient users with an infinite number of other options are not going to explore your site if the cost is too high.
On the other hand, if the site is nearly instantaneous the cost to click drops to zero. In fact, the speed of a new page load can become its own tiny reward, encouraging users to click and click and keep on clicking, especially if your content is engaging and your design is eye catching.
Faster page load times also provide a benefit to Search Engine Optimization. While high-quality content and legitimate back links will always be the foundation of good SEO practice, the technical side of SEO is still important.
One of the main technical measurements that Google currently looks at for page ranking is load time. They want the internet to run as fast as possible, and so they reward sites that run fast. Additionally, they know that fast sites are more appealing to their search users.
Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
What is the single most helpful thing I can do to improve performance?
Create an efficient website. When websites are very slow, it is usually because the pages are inefficient.
There are two aspects to efficiency:
One is on the server where bloated or inefficient code and database are used to create pages.
The other is on the client side where large amounts of content can take a long time and big client side scripts can take a long time to run.
How does disk use affect performance?
There are many was that disk use affects performance -- some of which you will have more control over than others. File fragmentation tends to make disk access slower. Similarly, slow hard drives affect disk access.
In general your hosting company will manage this side of things for you.
One aspect of disk performance that all website owners have access to is their own content. Keeping files like images and flash elements as small as possible certainly helps.
However, maintaining efficient databases will also improve performance.
With blogging software, databases often get clogged with old article drafts and versions that reduce performance. These should be cleaned up regularly.
So I should only accept hosting that uses a solid state drive?
In a perfect world, you would want a solid state drive. But remember: the old fashioned types still work quite well. And there are lots of things you can do to improve your disk performance using whatever hardware you happen to be using.
What is browser caching and how can it improve server performance?
Browser caching is done on the user side and it determines whether to ask for new copies of things that the browser already has stored.
For example, the header image on a website that the user visits a lot will be stored in the browser's cache. Generally, it isn't necessary to get a new copy of the image each time, because it rarely if ever changes.
Depending upon the nature of the site and its users, the performance gain can be substantial.
Why isn't web server performance just a matter of bandwidth?
Bandwidth is still an important aspect of performance. If websites were still just HTML files with a couple of embedded images, performance would be primarily just a matter of bandwidth.
But almost all websites now use enormous amounts of server side scripting and database accessing. As a result, performance is about much more than just bandwidth.
How do I add resources when I am on a shared hosting platform?
You have two options:
One would be to get another shared hosting plan or provider that has more resources or fewer users (a single server can host several hundred websites -- even over a thousand).
The other alternative is to get a dedicated server where you have pretty much complete control over the system.
Why does it matter where my server is located?
The internet is global, but connections aren't direct.
Moving a bit of data from one computer to another generally requires many "hops" from one computer to another until the data bit arrives at its destination. Each hop requires extra time, but not all hops are equal.
The closer the user's computer is to the web server, the fewer the hops and -- most important -- the shorter the hops.
What about a content delivery network?
A content delivery network (also called a content distribution network or CDN) is a distribution of computers all over the world.
These networks allow a particular website to be hosted in different places so that users can be served from hosts that are closer to themselves and thus speed up the process.
A number of companies offer these services, specifically Akamai Technologies and Limelight Network.
What about off-site performance?
For many websites, the biggest performance issues don't come the site itself but from embedded content delivered from other sites.
This issue is exacerbated when sites that are desperate for advertising revenue clutter their pages with heavy flash content. It is important to judge the costs and benefits of any addition to your website.
How can I improve Apache web server performance?
If you have access, there are many things that can be done.
One of the great advantages of dedicated hosting is that it's possible to tailor the server to your specific needs.
Apache is modular, so there are many parts of the program that you may not need to load.
Similarly, you can turn off DNS lookups, which can really slowdown data serving. The KeepAlive directive puts multiple requests on a single TCP connection.
You can even use more exotic things like mod_gzip or other tools to compress data sent to browsers. The page you are reading right now was sent in compressed form.
How can I improve IIS performance?
The performance of IIS can be improved using the same tool set that one would use for an Apache web server. Microsoft and various other sources offer detailed information on doing this.
So I really want a dedicated server?
If you need a great deal of control over your web server, you will need a dedicated server.
However, just because you have a dedicated server doesn't mean that you can get whatever you want.
Dedicated servers are rented through server companies. They need to be of general enough configuration that they can be rented out to other clients.
If you want complete control, you need a colocation service.
What is colocation?
A colocation service provides a place to put your hardware.
In general, only you deal with the system once it is installed. Thus, you have complete control -- but also complete responsibility.
The trend in computing is toward distributed solutions.
Of course, if you are up for it, you could create your own cloud web server with computers all over the world using OpenStack.
However, in general, although colocation has many uses, it is rarely the right solution for general website hosting because there are already companies providing services for most anything you would want to do.
What about cloud web servers?
Cloud web servers have a number of advantages over dedicated hosting. Perhaps the biggest is the flexibility with which you can add resources.
Adding more memory to a dedicated server requires physically putting more RAM into the machine. With a cloud server, it just requires changing the memory allocation of the cloud, which is done electronically and instantly.
Are there any cons to cloud based servers?
The downside of cloud web servers is that they are not necessarily any faster. There are other issues that people worry about like transparency and redundancy that are at least clearer with dedicated solutions.
Over time, it is likely that cloud servers will win out. But right now, dedicated servers are probably the way to go unless you have specific reasons to go with a cloud solution. But that may change soon.
Does my website speed really effect my search ranking?
Google says it does. But it does not appear to be your overall website speed but rather your time-to-first-byte.
Only some parts of a website performance is measured by this: network latency, server side processes, and web server load.
Clearly, these are not greatly under the control of those using shared hosting. But they provide more incentives for purchasing dedicated or cloud hosting