IT'S A VIRTUAL SERVERWORLD
Linux Format|October 2021
From his caravan in a field in North Wales, David Rutland takes you on a touring holiday through the world of virtual private servers.
David Rutland

The future is in the cloud, they say. But whose cloud? Google? Microsoft? AWS? Why not your own? There was once a time when people ran their own servers from home – under the stairs, in the back bedroom or from a lovingly kitted out homelab in the stripped-down carcass of the garage, meaning the vintage BMW restoration project is left to moulder on the drive.

A server is a simple beast at heart. It’s a computer (usually running Linux), with an internet connection, which receives requests for resources such as pages and serves them back to the machine that made the original request. Server. It’s in the name, innit.

But servers serve far more than web pages these days. There are progressive web apps, content management systems, databases and a whole host (geddit?) of other toys you may want to play with.

Some of these demand serious investment in terms of time, hardware, power consumption, and if you or your partner are light sleepers, noise becomes an issue, too. In fact a properly specced home server with adequate cooling often sounds like a jet taking off – so it’s time to take your server virtually off the premises.

What is a VPS?

If you’re determined to run your server away from home in order to avoid unnecessary concerns about power bills, antisocial noise, and so on, there are a few options available:

1 Rent out a dedicated private server in someone else’s data centre. This option gives you an actual physical machine, equipped to your exacting specifications, and on which you can run whatever software you want. It’s accessible only by you (making it private). Opting for a dedicated private server with an eight core Xeon and 64GB of RAM may get you the best possible performance, but it’s far beyond the needs of most home users, and the financial cost will run to thousands of pounds per year.

2 Virtual Private Server. As with the dedicated server option, it’s yours exclusively for as long as you choose to rent it, but the key thing here is that it’s virtual. Your virtual machine will be one of several being run on one physical machine. You will be given a dedicated IP address through which you can log in and install your own software, and many providers offer some degree of pre-configuration through pre-built images. For example, you can opt for a machine which will have Linux Apache, PHP and MariaDB all set up and ready to go. 3 The cheapest option is to buy space on a non-VPS web host which is already running Linux. As an example we bought a standard, low-cost hosting package from Godaddy.com at a cost of £12 for a year, and while it was technically possible to deploy and use Nextcloud through the web interface, it didn’t run well at all. Even the basic Nextcloud text editor (used to write this article) failed to function, save edits or reliably load documents. It also generated repeated warnings that “Your hosting account is reaching or exceeding its resource limits.” Basically a standard webhost isn’t configured in the same way as a VPS.

What’s a VPS for?

So glad you asked! A VPS can be whatever you want it to be, and you can use it for whatever you choose. Generally you would use it for hosting software which has a front-end which can be accessed through a web browser.

The internet isn’t what it was a decade ago, and thanks to the wonders of browser development, it’s relatively simple to run beautiful applications which replicate, replace or augment services you would normally have to pay for – either with cold hard cash or indirectly with your personal data which is harvested, stored, analysed and sold every time you go online without protection.

We’ve been a fan of private servers (both dedicated and virtual) for some time, and deploy our own services to help us keep control of our own data, while enjoying all of the amenity the modern web has to offer. This is some of the self-hosted software we use which should give you some idea of what its all about:

Nextcloud This should probably be your starting point, as it has basic versions of almost everything you could ever need. At its heart it’s a drop-in replacement for Google Drive and Dropbox. Where it excels is in its apps, which allow you to further expand the software to cover multiple use cases. There are full-fat office suites, music and video players, sync clients, mapping and location software, recipe managers, news aggregators… the list goes on and on. But while Nextcloud seemingly does everything, it isn’t the best at any one thing, and as time goes on you’ll be swapping Nextcloud functions for other services which are dedicated to a single task.

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