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Servers With a Smile

Home-brewing your Web site? Let's go server shopping.
February 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/36278

Before you launch your business's Web site, you need to have somewhere to put it. With Web-hosting companies as common as banner ads these days, most Net start-ups prefer to let a hired hand do the dirty work rather than mess with it themselves. But e-commerce services add up, and getting the features you want can involve a lot of hassle and moolah. At least there are other options: If you're technically inclined (or want to hire someone who is), you can host your site yourself.

The basic requirement for this is a Web server. Loosely put, a Web server is a combination of hardware and software that holds your Web site in memory and then farms it out through an Internet connection to browsers on the Web. Choosing the right Web server can mean the difference between uptime and downtime, as well as between making money and losing money.

The Hardware

You can think of the hardware part of the equation as a desktop computer on steroids. To handle the grueling task of hosting a Web page, the machine must be loaded to the gills with hard-drive space, memory and processor speed. All that can make for a mighty pricey PC. Thankfully, the hardware manufacturers know you're budget-starved, and they want to make sure they can get your business anyway. Therefore, a variety of manufacturers target start-ups.

Take the $2,784 (all prices street) Compaq ProLiant ML350, for example. That's pretty cheap, considering that big-time Web servers clock in at the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars level. It comes with a 1GHz Pentium III pro-cessor, 128MB RAM and a 9.1GB hard drive. If you customize online by adding a processor or hard drive, your price can creep substantially upward. And remember that the server price doesn't include server software.

Another option is the $3,238 Dell PowerApp.web 100. Specs include a 750MHz Pentium III processor, 256MB RAM, a 9GB hard drive and pre-loaded Windows 2000. It's also available with Red Hat Linux installed for a couple hundred dollars less. It comes in two versions: One version sits on your desk like a regular PC; the other slides into a rack instead. The rack-mount server is only 13¦4 inches high and looks more like a pancake than a desktop tower. But it's convenient, especially if you plan to purchase several and keep them all together in the same rack.

On the Mac side of things, you'll find the Macintosh Server G4 with Mac OS X Server. A 450MHz PowerPC G4 processor provides the speed, while 128MB RAM and a 30GB hard drive provide the memory and storage. All that power translates into $2,999 for the bottom-of-the-line model. If desired, you can work your way up to 1.5GB RAM and three 72GB hard drives for $8,649. Apache Web server software comes bundled with the Mac OS X Server operating system. If you're more comfortable in the company of Macs, these options are the ones to consider.

One server may not be enough, however. Many companies invest in several machines to handle the heavy volume of traffic their Web sites attract. Because traffic and load levels fluctuate wildly, your server could go down from operator error, a software glitch or a hacker attack. The last thing you want is for customers to get a "server too busy" error message-also appropriately known as the kiss of death for an e-commerce business. But if the prospect of second-guessing your site traffic makes you squirm, try hooking up with a server seller who will take care of it for you. IBM, for one, offers its Quick Launch for e-business Ventures program. Tailored to your start-up, Quick Launch is a scalable hardware, software, storage, edu-cation and support package. Pricing varies with each undertaking and includes financing options.

Remember that servers generally don't include monitors, keyboards or mouses: They're designed to be accessed through your office network. If you prefer the direct approach, you'll have to budget for those things.

The Software

It takes more than a stack of snazzy hardware to get your Web site up and running-you've got to have the right software, too. You'll need a network operating system to provide the basis for running the server software. When you purchase a server, you'll likely receive a choice of operating systems to have pre-installed (usually Windows or Linux). The main job of the Web server software is to answer requests for pages via Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, the mechanism for serving up static HTML pages. Additional, more advanced operations include CGI scripts and secure transactions.

You need to start by choosing a network operating system. Most popular are Sun OS and other Unix flavors, Windows NT, Windows 2000 Server and Linux. The Compaq ML350 comes installed with your choice of Windows 2000 or Red Hat Linux. If you go Mac, you get Mac OS X Server. If you're new to the whole experience, go with a popular, well-supported system like Windows 2000 or Red Hat Linux. If you run into problems down the line, at least help won't be too far away.

Next up is the Web server software. Two of the most popular titles here are Apache and Microsoft Internet Information Server. Although Apache is a free Web server, most commercial software in this area can cost well over $1,000. So if you don't go with Apache, look for hardware that comes bundled with a Web server. Purchasing a server appliance that's dedicated to Web hosting will usually cover your bases. Designed for easy set-up and use, they're ideal for first-time buyers. In addition, you should be able to get going in less time than it would take to dedicate a general-purpose server to Web hosting only.

We must stress that all your hardware and software will be useless without a fast, stable Internet connection, and we're not talking about puny dial-up access. T1 or T3 are better options-the more bandwidth, the better, especially when you're trying to feed your own site onto the Web.

Either you're really excited about the prospect of installing your own server and controlling every aspect of your online presence, or you're really not. If you fall into the latter group and don't want to hire an IT manager to do the dirty work, there's no reason to fear. You can always hire a host.