Servint vs. AWS

Note: This is an honest personal endorsement. I was not paid or offered any incentives for this post.

circuit I’ve been running Birdhouse Hosting for more than a decade now, and most of that time I’ve been hosting my services on a dedicated VPS at Servint.

I absolutely love the reliability and support I get through Servint, but every so often wonder whether I could reduce expenses by moving to Amazon Web Services, which lets you “pay as you go.” But every time I scratch the surface and try to do a real apples-to-apples comparison, I come to the same conclusion: Birdhouse is already in excellent hands, and I would not actually save money by moving, all things considered.

There are three cost categories to consider here; let’s break it down.

1) Hardware + Bandwidth

I’m currently leasing something very close to Servint’s FlexExpress (configured as follows):

Hexa Core Xeon® E5-2430 Processor 6 x 2.2 GHz Hyperthreaded Cores
15 MB MB Smart Cache, 7.2 GT/s QPI Speed
8 GB 1333MHz LV-DDR3 Memory
500 GB Nearline SAS Storage
6 TB Monthly Transfer
cPanel/WHM
FREE Daily Off-Server Backups

For this, I pay around $214/month. So what’s the equivalent AWS offering? It’s hard to make an exact comparison because the services are so different, but the Memory Optimized m1.large at AWS would give me 7.5GBS of memory and 420 GBs of storage at $0.24/hour, which works out to $178/month. Yes, there’s a small cost reduction there, and at my current usage, I could get by with those small-ish reductions in memory and storage.

But wait: With AWS, you only pay for the resources you consume, right? Well, yes, but keep in mind that I am running a hosting service here. With more than 100 customers, my server is in virtually constant utilization; with the world audience on rotating time zones, there is no significant downtime. Server resources are being utilized 24/7.

And don’t forget off-machine backups, which would be another additional expense at AWS!

If I instead bought a Reserved Instance of that same hardware from Amazon, I could bring the price down to $0.20/hr, or $148/month. Now that $66/month cost savings is starting to look pretty substantial, right? But that’s not the whole story.

2) Control Panel Licensing

In the early days of Birdhouse, I did all the provisioning myself, writing bash and php and python scripts to simplify setting up accounts, managing spam, adding bad IPs to the firewall, creating email and FTP accounts, installers for popular web software packages like WordPress and so on. It didn’t take long to realize that was a fool’s errand – not only do customers expect hosting control panel interfaces similar to ones they find at other hosts, but it’s a never-ending battle keeping everything functioning and up to date. Not utilizing a standard control panel system is madness. Not to mention the enormous security benefits that come with a soup-to-nuts hosting system that’s constantly being auto-updated in the background. Switching to cPanel hosting was the smartest move I’ve made in the evolution of Birdhouse.

In contrast AWS is not optimized for hosting control panels. Amazon will not sell you cPanel, will not install cPanel, doesn’t know or understand cPanel, and cannot support cPanel. Sure, I could buy a VPS cPanel license for $200/year, but managing it would be completely on me. Meanwhile, my ServInt lease includes cPanel. It’s ready to go out of the box, and the ServInt tech support staff understands it inside it out.

The base cPanel licensing cost, plus the immeasurable value of having it fully supported, easily turns the tables in the cost comparison for my needs.

3) Pro-Active Support

When you run a “bare metal” server through AWS, maintenance is completely on you. While anyone running a server on any platform should have the knowledge and skills required to maintain that server, reality isn’t always so simple. Some problems require advanced/arcane skillsets to solve, or may require many hours to figure out. If running the server is not your full-time job, that kind of problem solving may simply be out of reach.

If was running on AWS and something seriously blew up while I was at work, I’d either have to tell my customers to wait until evening (unacceptable) or I’d have to leave work to deal with it. But ServInt’s prices include 24/7 tech support, and a staff of engineers who have been able to solve nearly every problem I’ve thrown at them over the years, with minimal involvement from me. I don’t need that kind of support often, but when I do, there is enormous peace of mind knowing they’ve got my back. I’d have to pay big money to duplicate that kind of support with bare metal hosting, or with AWS.

In addition to support-on-request, ServInt also does some monitoring for the most egregious problems. If a customer Drupal install is compromised and ends up sending out spam, or if a rare cPanel vulnerability is discovered, ServInt will often step in and close down affected account or services, then let me know.

All told, I’m getting a ton of added value for the $66/month I could save by moving to AWS. It’s a potential monetary savings that gets completely wiped out every time I call on ServInt for assistance, or they step in to head off a problem at the pass. The more I think about it, the less tempting AWS looks.

Other cPanel Hosts

OK, so there are hundreds of hosts out there that offer integrated cPanel hosting. Yes, I’m also sometimes tempted to tap the lower monthly fees at other hosts, but the comparison story is similar. Once I factor in my server’s actual resource usage, combined with the fantastic track record ServInt has established over the years for my little side business, other hosts look less tempting. We’re staying put.

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