Managed Hosting: The Complete Guide (Basics, Pros & Cons)

Today managed hosting (e.g. managed ecommerce, especially managed Magento hosting) has become a standard in its field – especially with bigger companies – as a way to outsource IT tasks or to operate an existing infrastructure. This can range from on-site professionals operating on premises through remote support to supervision of applications migrated to the cloud.



CONTENTS:

 

Finding the right provider Web hosting solutions Managed vs. unmanaged hosting Managed hosting provider qualities Defining your own needs Hosting service providers Managed ecommerce hosting Managed Magento hosting Cloud hosting Off cloud & hybrid providers On cloud providers Choosing your cloud provider 5 key provider competencies 11 questions to ask your provider

 

Looking for the right hosting service provider

 

In this chapter we go through what you may need as a client focusing on your business processes, policies and special needs. 

 

Example: If you’re running an online store and your business is growing steadily, you can easily find yourself in a situation where developing your e-commerce shop and potentially conquering new markets is so resource intensive that your team cannot properly operate and maintain the underlying IT infrastructure.

 

That’s when you need to consider to hire a partner for this job.

Transformation of the market during the past decade has led to a significant change in the quality standards of the service sector, so those who really want to exploit their potential, besides being committed and productive, need to incorporate the philosophy of delegated management and coordination.

 

Web hosting solutions

 

Before we deep dive into describing the various solutions, for a better understanding, let’s a take a quick look at a few terms:

 

TERM DEFINITION
PHYSICAL SERVER A bare-metal server is a descriptive term for a computer server to distinguish it from modern forms of cloud hosting. It is defined as a ‘single-tenant’ physical server. Bare-metal servers have a single ‘tenant’. They are not shared between customers. Each server may run any amount of work for the customer, or may have multiple simultaneous users, but they are dedicated entirely to the customer who is renting them. Unlike many servers in a data centre, they are shared between multiple customers. Bare-metal servers are ‘physical’ servers. Each logical server offered for rental is a distinct physical piece of hardware which is a functional server on its own.
VIRTUAL SERVER A server, usually a web server, which shares computer resources with other virtual servers. In this case, the virtual part simply means that it is not a dedicated server – i.e. the entire computer is not dedicated to running the server software. Virtual web servers are a very popular way of providing low-cost web hosting services.
SHARED WEB HOSTING Shared web hosting service refers to a web hosting service where many websites reside on one web server connected to the Internet. This is generally the most economical option for hosting, as the overall cost of server maintenance is allocated among many customers. In shared hosting, the provider is generally responsible for managing servers, installing server software, security updates, technical support, and other aspects of the service. The hosting service must include system administration since it is shared by many users; this is a benefit for users who do not want to deal with it, but a hindrance to power users who want more control. In general, shared hosting will be inappropriate for users who require extensive software development outside of what the hosting provider supports.
CLOUD HOSTING Cloud hosting services provide hosting for websites on virtual servers which pull their computing resource from extensive underlying networks of physical web servers. It follows the utility model of computing in that it is available as a service rather than a product and is therefore comparable with traditional utilities such as electricity and gas. Broadly speaking, the client can tap into their service as much as they need, depending on the demands of their website, and they will only pay for what they use.

 

Shared hosting

Basically, a hosting service offers the opportunity of displaying diverse content on the Internet to anyone.

There are various levels of this kind of service. The most common one is shared web hosting for websites. As an additional service, it often includes email service or Domain Name Service (DNS).

It usually fulfils the basic needs of a start-up businesses.

All-in-one web hosting plans are offered by shared hosting providers who usually share the resources of a single server or a cluster of servers between many websites and clients.

In a shared hosting environment most technical details are totally transparent for the client, but certain parameters can be managed through a control panel.

 

Unmanaged dedicated hosting

 

Owning or hiring a server or servers of your own – virtual or dedicated – is another way of hosting a website.

In its simplest form, which is often called “unmanaged hosting”, the related work of keeping software updated, monitoring, managing backups, for example is mostly done “in-house” by your team.

The servers might be managed by the provider on a hardware or on the operating system’s level, but it is your responsibility to operate and maintain it.

In this way you can have more resources than using a shared hosting model, but you have to take care of managing and tuning server software and procedures that keep your website running.

If there aren’t any sudden increases in traffic or the application is very simple and does not require special environment or fine-tuning, shared hosting of self-hosting can be a good choice.

This, however, may prove to be sufficient over time and you might need to step forward to be able to meet the growing needs.

 

And that means constant investment: you’ll need to pay more for not only the renewal of the growing resource requirements, but you also have to find skilled professionals necessary for the reliable operation of all this.

 

As a consequence, in the long term, traditional shared hosting or unmanaged dedicated hosting is usually inadequate for the operation of a growing ecommerce store.

The additional load generated by the greatly varying traffic (e.g. Christmas rush) can only be served reliably by servers with significant reserves, which is usually not supplied by shared hosting providers.

There’s nothing more inconvenient than a situation when a server slows down before the holidays due to the increased load, or when the service provider applies traffic limits, causing significant losses to the operators of the online store.

Ecommerce stores usually need specific settings and special configuration, which service providers in the traditional shared-hosting set-up might not fully satisfy or follow.

It’s also very common that the professionals developing the online shop need daily direct contact with the people operating the server, which may also be difficult or even impossible in the case of a traditional shared hosting service.

You can avoid all this by making a strategic decision to cooperate with companies where the competences necessary for the development of ecommerce stores and for their hosting are concentrated in one hand!

 

Managed hosting

 

Managed hosting is an IT model meaning the host itself or a third party offers support for emergency or routine tasks for the servers that are hired or owned or started by you. Managed hosting usually comes with automated backups and monitoring.

It differs from unmanaged hosting services mainly from the aspect that the hardware, the operation system(s) and other applications are all, or most of them, managed in some way or the other.

The clients usually get an admin access of some kind, but they rarely take advantage of it, they rather access and use the resources of the rented system through a web interface or they turn to a 24/7/365 support team if they have a problem or a future support or development need.

 

It’s usually the providers who are responsible for

  • the deployment and configuration of the infrastructure,
  • the installation of the software applications,
  • the provision of technical support,
  • the supervision and the management of the resources,
  • detecting and fixing any problems that may occur,
  • and for the installation of updates.

 

How the provider manages “our” (the rented) resources, it varies from company to company.

The basic services are similar, but the “what” and the “how” of management are different. Nevertheless, the providers usually provide their services in three easily separable categories:

 

Infrastructure management

 

Managed infrastructure solutions provide a transformation road map to take your infrastructure from a basic model, requiring regular updates, to a dynamic, utility-based computing and cloud services that help in the formation of a truly adaptive enterprise.

It includes proven infrastructure management services ranging from remote system management, through secure datacentre hosting to utility and cloud services. It can heavily reduce TCO and complexity.

This can be effectively achieved through outsourcing, including managing your data centres, network and desktop support operations. As a client, try to make sure that your partner is ISO quality standard accredited – so you can be sure of consistent service-level delivery worldwide.

A special form of infrastructure management is cloud infrastructure management where the client’s infrastructure is set up or hired in the cloud.

 

OS management and monitoring

 

Management of the operating system comprises monitoring and incident management, backup and security management, the provision of patches and anti-virus protection for Microsoft Windows operating systems, and the assignment of root and administration rights.

You manage only your applications. Proactive monitoring can be useful to see the status of resources. Usually, this is done by various APM software solutions and tools, which helps to decide whether the experts should interfere or not.

Of course it’s up to the providers how the services above are offered to customers.

The main goal is to build environments which offer full-scale solutions to clients, regardless of the infrastructure.

 

Application management

 

Application management (AM) is the process of managing the operation, maintenance, versioning and upgrading of an application throughout its life-cycle.

AM includes best practices, techniques and procedures essential to a deployed application’s optimal operation, performance and efficiency throughout the enterprise and backend IT infrastructure.

AM is an enterprise-wide IT governance approach geared towards providing an optimal application performance benchmark for organizations while incorporating business and IT segments, but even when we have only a small team, or we are all by ourselves, it can pay off.

Regardless of starting services and installing applications on our own, configuring, balancing and managing resources still need expertise, which the provider has at his disposal.

 

To put it even more simply: Managed hosting covers hosting and maintenance for the clients, for their comfort. Classic “unmanaged hosting” is simply renting of the environment and the resources from the service provider.

 

A certain part of the consumers are many times not aware of the fact that their data, even without their knowledge or will, are part of some kind of a cloud.

One of the simplest examples are Apple products: you can’t even put the phone into operation without the creation of the so-called iCloud account, which sends immediately, without asking for your approval, your profile and the related data to the cloud.

 

Example: A comparison of   service and utility consumption, of water for instance. When turning on the tap, the clients connect to a system owned by someone else.

They don’t have to deal with the processes necessary for the operation, there’s only one thing important to them: the water should run, whenever they need it.

They have to pay a fee for the used quantity. The same thing happens when using managed resources: the client uses the resources owned by the hosting company.

 

There are other services which can be part of a basic package depending on the service provider, or they are offered as extra services.

 

These are typically the following:

  • backups,
  • load balancing
  • recovery after severe errors that negatively influence business continuity,
  • disaster recovery may also be included,
  • just like the processes related to security, e.g. Intrusion Detection (ID) and protection against Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS)

We are now thinking of providers of PaaS and IaaS in the first place. Companies which can make your everyday IT operation more reliable and predictable belong in these groups.

We have already defined providers of PaaS and IaaS in our previous article on cloud hosting.

These companies provide access to shared data centres, thus ensuring you redundant and reliable operation, independent of the size of your company.

You can save time and money in this way, because you don’t need to purchase newer and newer hardware or to take care of the appropriate storage and maintenance of this equipment.

Consequently, it’s meant to be taken literally that you have to pay only for your consumption.

These services are cost-effective at serving short-term projects, but because of their scalability, they are cost-effective when serving long-term business needs and on-demand type resources as well.

For example, you can double your memory capacity within a couple of minutes if your website needs extra resources to serve the suddenly increased number of visitors.

One of the things holding you back as a client may be the scepticism concerning data security.

This is on the one hand a matter of technology, and on the other hand, a matter of approach. Some clients still have difficulties with accepting that their business critical data are on the computer of another party.

Even though insisting on the physical proximity of your servers does not at all guarantee greater security, but quite the contrary! An offended employee, seeking to justify himself can often cause greater damages than any external attack.

That’s exactly why hosting companies have to comply with several security standards and requirements in order to earn their clients’ trust, as by improper handling of data they endanger their own reputation and ultimately their operation.

 

Pros and Cons: Unmanaged Hosting vs. Managed Hosting

 

In order to make things clearer, let’s have an overview of the main differences between unmanaged hosting and managed hosting:

 

unmanaged hosting pros and cons

 

 

managed hosting pros and cons

 

 

Which is better ‒ managed hosting or unmanaged hosting?

 

The real question to ask is which fits better the tasks to be carried out, which is the one that can fully serve your business needs?

It’s worth choosing managed hosting if:

 

  • you are in a smaller business and you have modest, limited IT resources both in terms of human competence and hardware
  • you want to make your IT budget more consistent and transparent
  • you don’t have time and expertise to deal with the configuration of the server
  • you wish to focus rather on business development instead of solving everyday IT problems
  • you are ready to outsource your infrastructure and give its supervision in someone else’s hands

 

You should stick to unmanaged hosting if:

  • you or your colleagues have experience in the operation of web servers
  • your IT budget is not significant and you are in cooperation with not more than 1 or 2 IT professionals, or you wouldn’t like to or can’t work together with a bigger team
  • you have time and competence for the configuration and maintenance of the remote resources
  • if you are not feeling comfortable with letting an authorized person have access to your data and keep them confidential

 

What aspects should you consider if you want to increase your efficiency through managed hosting with the help of a professional service provider?

 

To really take advantage of this approach, it is very important to have a clear picture of your own competence and your expectations towards a partner.

 

Let’s see what a client should check out when looking for a service provider!

 

Professional competence

 

Of course, the most important virtue of a professional hosting provider is a high level of technical expertise and experience.

 

Besides that, a hosting provider typically

  • employs specialists in their fields
  • offers 7/24 support
  • is aware of innovations and puts them into practice
  • knows the typical problems of systems they are managing
  • understands how these can be solved the quickest way and with the least possible inconvenience and disruption

 

 These are the main values that make managed IT services appealing for clients.

 

Communication, customer focus

 

A really good service provider actively communicates with the clients.

Proactive communication is very helpful for the client when it comes to planning the resources, optimal configuration of the system or its maintenance and when questions emerge and problems occur.

The best service providers treat their partners with special care and attention so the client feels his system is in caring hands. Reliable, quick assistance, of course, is essential to support this.

This attitude of a service provider is appreciated by experts and by non-professionals alike.

Many times it’s not a trained IT specialist at the other end of the line, so it’s crucial that the employees of the service provider can communicate technical information in a way that even non-professionals understand.

The quality of service depends greatly on the emphasis the provider puts on communication – this is one of the strongest points that you should consider as a client.

 

Specialized knowledge, responsible team

 

Especially when it comes to larger systems, it is essential that not a single employee deals with tasks including supervision, maintenance and troubleshooting.

A good provider focuses on understanding the workflow processes, the potential problems so it can properly and effectively coordinate the work of the team and achieve the best results quickly.

A service provider has a team competence in managing itself and controlling workflow processes by continuously improving procedures, involving new ideas and finally controlling the quality of the finished job.

As a client you have to decide whether to entrust your system to a constantly active team with dedicated knowledge

or to professional individual experts with strongly limited resources, time and potential, usually at similar costs

 

Pro-activity

 

A hosting service provider ideally actively seeks ways to improve the systems supervised by them.

Technical changes and improvements are initiated by them if deemed necessary.

If it finds that there is something else that would serve the needs of the client better or that another type of service would be more suitable, it informs the client about that.

 

Recognizing your own needs and competence

 

To determine your requirements towards a service provider, it’s important to be aware of your own needs.

Try to formulate in 6-8 sentences about your plans for your current store and what you want to achieve in the upcoming year.

 

Once that’s done, you should answer the following questions:

  • What solution is it you’re seeking hosting for (e.g. WordPress blog or ecommerce store)?
  • Is there any specific version requirement for any web technology (e.g. PHP version number)?
  • Is some special software or other application necessary?
  • What traffic size do you expect at the beginning?
  • Which are the external services or technologies that you want to connect?
  • How important a predictable IT budget is?

 

It is also good to have a clear picture about which goals can realized using your present resources.

What pieces do you have an in-house solution for and what is that you have to get from “outside”?

 If you can properly answer these questions, you have to think over how you can achieve your goals.

 

Some other useful points to consider:

  • Access to up-to-date statistics (which can help service providers make estimates, e.g. Google Analytics).
  • Precise, preferably documented, plan on the site to be built (what would you like to use it for and how?).
  • If you have already used some kind of infrastructure, the basic network topology and specification of it (if you have not yet done so).
  • You don’t have to be an expert in this field but it’s good if you’re up-to-date about web technologies (what are the market trends and directions of development?).
  • The basics of managed hosting and cloud services.
  • Understanding the natural amortization of outsourced services, meaning over time both the devices and the technologies become obsolete, and they need continuous development (in practice that means developments of 1 or 2 years, with the financial implications of that).

 

All this is also important to make sure you order only services which you really need.

If you’re looking for a professional partner, you should also act like a professional client.

 

Now let’s see what hosting solutions are available and which is best for your business to move to the next level!

 

Hosting service providers

 

In order to have a clearer picture of the various forms of hosting, let’s review some well-known providers.

As far as pricing is concerned, we have already discussed in our previous article what pricing you should expect.

By now it is common that a single provider offers various packages that may range from shared hosting to managed virtual private clouds. The main factors of pricing are, of course, the level of infrastructure and support provided.

Some providers offer hybrid solutions for quite low prices, even for a monthly fee of 4-5 dollars, e.g. SiteGround.

Of  course, setting bottom prices should not be your weapon when defining your strategy in the battle for clients!

Many times you can find hosting providers operating with money back guarantee, just like HostGator does.

It increases the added value if clients can feel as much secure as possible.

It’s quite common that support is available every hour of the day, every day of the year, and many times the hosting company needs to establish a large call centre in order to be able to perform that.

That’s what Integrated Computer Services or A2 Hosting puts emphasis on, among others.

And if you need larger infrastructure and you have no difficulties financing that, you can think of more expensive solutions as well: e.g. Liquid Web or Peer 1.

 

Nowadays it’s standard practice that you can also ask your questions to the appropriate person in the form of live chat most of the time when you browse the website of a Managed Service Provider (MSP).

You get relevant answers in almost every case, so if you don’t want to spend a lot of time going through the service descriptions and the SLA documents, it’s worth obtaining the information that way.

As a client you should inquire about data safety and on-call time in the first place!

 

You should have a complete picture of

  • the commitment period that can be undertaken,
  • the scalability of the infrastructure,
  • the applications presently in use and about the ones to be introduced,
  • the process of the support and the consultancy

 

No matter which provider you choose, the pricing model is one of the most important factors.

PaaS and IaaS providers are generally able to determine your expenses on the basis of consumption and often provide discounts for yearly commitments.

 

Managed eCommerce Hosting

 

If you have a successful online shop, sooner or later you will feel the need to put your ecommerce store in a runtime environment optimized to a chosen framework.

Hosting providers tend to highlight their ecommerce hosting capacities, and they guarantee continuous operational safety for your online shop ensuring proper operation with the appropriate HW / SW support.

In this way your online store is placed in a run-time environment tailored by the service provider to the needs of the framework. Be it a cloud or private environment, it’s optimized for the needs of the online store.

Since all ecommerce frameworks have specific characteristics, the recipes are not the same either.

That’s the reason why there’s a fundamental need for the service provider to know the selected store engine, so that they can take the burden of the in-depth technical management of the system off the client’s shoulder.

 

This has to include

  • maintenance of the system,
  • setting hardware configurations,
  • installation and supervision of software applications (monitoring),
  • updates,
  • patching,
  • technical support, assistance answering the client’s questions and requests and satisfying his needs.

 

Besides, the following additional solutions can optionally be selected

  • additional services increasing security and performance,
  • load balancing,
  • automated scaling,
  • optimization
  • disaster recovery,
  • vulnerability assessment,
  • performance tests,
  • consultations on the offers for future improvements.

 

All ecommerce frameworks have their own infrastructural needs by which they can be operated in the most efficient way.

A hosting service provider needs to have the expertise in all that, so this burden is off your shoulder as client ‒ to make sure your online store is always ready to serve your customers and it performs the best possible way.

 

Let’s see this in practice.

 

Preventive management

 

One of the greatest advantages of professional resource management is that it helps prevent problems by intervening in time.

Software compatibility checks, security scans and performance monitoring helps service providers identify and manage smaller anomalies before they become serious and significantly damage the conversion rate and the reputation of an ecommerce store.

 

Page speed

 

Slow page load influences search engine rankings and it scares off potential customers.

While in some cases excessive load can be caused by the inappropriate configuration of the website, many times the capacity qualities of the server also block smooth operation.

However, specialized ecommerce hosting makes it possible for the team in charge to monitor and track performance problems, and to apply, for example special caching techniques ensuring the website loads quickly even under heavy traffic.

 

Availability

 

Simply, if an online shop is unavailable, you won’t make any money.

Service providers usually guarantee an annual availability rate, for example of 99.5%. Even a higher level of reliability can be achieved if you choose a professional service provider, where the resources are redundant by default.

 

Security

 

IT security is of key importance for both parties.

A managed service usually includes updating and patching of server(s), software and applications.

Protection against viruses and cyberattacks are taken care of if you choose the appropriate service provider.

 

Managed Magento Hosting in practice

 

If you are looking for a solution specifically designed for your ecommerce store, you usually have to pay a higher amount for the knowledge and competence.

If, for example, you’d like to move your Magento store to the best possible environment, you’ll come across a lot of hosting service providers who support their competence with professional case studies.

You can find hosting companies who are specialists of several ecommerce frameworks.

MGT-Commerce, for example, serves its clients with extremely fast load speeds and if up-to-date innovations are also important for you, you should definitely check out Nexcess.

It’s typical that these companies own their server farms, just like the larger cloud giants (Amazon, Windows, Google).

On top of the fact that the infrastructure is privately owned, optimized solutions like store specific VMIs (Virtual Machine Image) – which are offered among others by Bitnami – also try to convince potential clients.

Accredited or certified competences are also important.

 

Obtaining the trust of a partner is not only matter of competitive price, a provider can reinforce its position by a corporate culture of regular trainings in the applied technologies and by qualifications gained at these trainings.

We at AionHill carry out our everyday tasks working in teams, of Magento Certified Developers. Our hosting solutions, based on Amazon Web Services (AWS), are supervised by our accredited system administrators with several years of experience.

 

Cloud Hosting

 

Cloud computing has grown significantly over the past years.

Up until a couple of years ago, this kind of IT infrastructure was available only to mid or large size companies, but thanks to technological innovation, cloud infrastructure now can be afforded by anyone.

Cloud computing is not just an IT fad, but a very strong trend.

Today, the needs of large enterprises could not be met if it weren’t for cloud technologies.Research by Cloudswave tells us that cloud services are expanding globally. 

 

managed hosting cloud market

 

On Cloud vs. Off Cloud

 

If we study the market, we can find solutions fitting our business needs both among on cloud and off cloud constructions.

A client might use parts of both service types ‒ this is called “hybrid solution”.

Let’s take a look at what the main advantages and disadvantages of these two service types are.

We encounter cloud technology every day. Often, as individuals, we don’t realize that we are using cloud services, e.g. Dropbox, Spotify etc.Soon, probably most software will have a cloud version and it seems to be inevitable in information technology that sooner or later every single company will end up using the cloud in some form.

To be able to make a decision about going to the cloud or choosing a hybrid adaptation, it is essential to analyse what goals and what kind of operations you have.

 

Off Cloud  

 

Hosting is called off cloud when the hosting infrastructure is typically static.

Off cloud can be hosted in a data-centre or on premise, where the servers are physically located in-house.

Both can be managed or unmanaged, virtual or physical, the main point of off cloud setups is that the resources are mainly static and fixed and you typically need hardware modifications to scale resources.

Off cloud hosting ‒ hosted or on premise ‒ of course, does not stop you from outsourcing tasks to system integrators. Hosting companies often offer built-in managed packages for that.

 

On Cloud

 

Cloud computing provides shared computer processing resources on demand.

It is a model for enabling on-demand access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources, which can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort.

Cloud computing and storage solutions provide users with various capabilities to store and process data in either privately owned, or third-party data centres located all around the world.

Cloud computing also relies on sharing of resources to achieve coherence and economies of scale, generally offering guaranteed resources form a general pool. 

In cloud computing the underlying infrastructural layer of on demand services is typically fully automated and completely transparent for the client, the level of control made possible for the client on one side and the level of management on the other side largely depends on the nature of the service, which can be a simple storage, a virtual machine, a platform or a single piece of software. In some cases these services can be combined freely.

Cloud users many times do not know the whereabouts of the physical resources – and they do not need to care about this either.Cloud providers may serve several areas of client needs.

With managed cloud solutions, not only the cloud infrastructure is offered by a provider but also the configuration and scaling of cloud services as well as the management of the OS and server applications.

Different levels of the system may be managed by different contractors.

It is also common that a provider acts as a middleman and rents cloud infrastructure from a third party and manages and configures it to re-sell it for the client. 

 

Which is better ‒ Off Cloud or On Cloud Hosting?

 

The following table gives you some help to have an overview.We have studied certain aspects of Off Cloud and On Cloud and summarized which one, in our opinion, has an advantage over the other.

 

 

managed hosting off-cloud and on-cloud

 

Off Cloud and hybrid providers and solutions

 

It has to be noted that off cloud hosting companies, or more precisely, hosting providers who started off as off cloud companies, by now also tend to offer hybrid solutions.

They are not as cost-effective as their large-sized, fully on cloud competitors, but they aim to offer more tailored solutions.

They often have their own data centres capable of handling a wide range of computing and storage needs: 3-5 locations globally in most cases.

Zadara Storage, for instance, lays special emphasis on “privileges” offered by private cloud solutions, such as VPSA storage array and ZIOS object storage services.

They give you the flexibility of the cloud without having to migrate your store. Their services can be tested in a demo environment as well.

They put a large emphasis on fast and reliable accessibility and they extend hybrid and private clouds with SAN and NAS.

If you need more advanced and customized services and are willing to pay for an exclusive, private infrastructure, Verizon may be a good choice.

Besides private cloud services, Verizon highlights their expertise in database management and Oracle’s cloud integration. They aim to offer exceptional client service with a 30-minute response time guarantee, appointing a dedicated Service Delivery Manager.

Typically such a high-calibre service is used by larger companies and therefore it widely supports different kinds of operating systems and databases.

 

On Cloud providers and solutions

 

If you want to migrate your online business to the cloud, you have a wide range of providers and plans to choose from.

We now pick 3 major players and compare a few of their basic services.

Describing the full portfolios of these giants alone would easily take a long blog post or even a series of articles. Let’s take a short look at the cloud solutions of Microsoft, Rackspace and Amazon.

 

Windows Azure

 

As the PaaS of Windows, Azure offers the company’s own operating system, which is quite effective if your application does not need anything else.

You can focus on developments since you don’t have to worry about updating the operating system, handling patches and performing fixes.

 

Windows Azure offers three main solutions in this field:

  • „Web role”:This operating system comprises the per-installed IIS 7 (Internet Information Services) and supports web technologies such as NET, PHP and Node.js.
  • Worker role:This OS is capable of running custom codes and basically any kind of application, including Apache Tomcat webserver or Java Virtual Machines, and it also runs smoothly with the previously mentioned Web role, of course.
  • Virtual Machine role:Here, you (the client) provide the resource with the OS by using a Windows Server 2008 R2 (Enterprise or Standard) VHD image. In contrast to Web role and Worker role, you are responsible for maintaining and updating the operating system. You can use almost any kind of programming language, framework or device in Azure to build your application. The functions and services can be operated via the REST protocol. Windows Azure client directories are available supporting several programming languages with open source licences. These are on GitHub as well.

 

Microsoft provides a free trial for 3 months in Azure, which includes a small-capacity server (Small Compute Instance) and other resources that are enough to test and get familiar with Windows Azure.

Like other cloud providers, Microsoft offers a pay-as-you-go pricing plan, based on an hourly fee.

According to the SLA (Service Level Agreement), Microsoft guarantees a 99.95% availability if you use at least two servers under one role.

SQL Azure is a well-scalable, cloud-based relational database service that can be used both by Azure cloud and your own office applications.

You can export data from it and it also supports regular synchronization with your local databases.

You can make payments on a pay-as-you-go basis or even get a discount if you sign a 6-month loyalty agreement.

In both cases you can purchase this service separately or together with other Windows Azure products.

It is possible to store structured as well as unstructured data in Microsoft’s cloud, which can be accessed by Azure applications and other applications via the REST protocol and APIs.

With the help of Azure Drive you can mount storage, managed by the system as a virtual HDD, which can be switched between your private and public clouds. The storage and virtual drive services have a pay-as-you-go payment scheme too.

 

Rackspace Cloud Hosting

 

The Rackspace Cloud Hosting infrastructure has control over the operating system.

Their service includes OS updates if you subscribe to Managed Service Level.Rackspace does not allow you to install your own virtual machine, you need to choose from specific Windows or Linux versions.

Rackspace charges you server usage on an hourly basis. In contrast to some other cloud hosting companies, with Rackspace you cannot cease or suspend hourly billings by stopping your servers.

If you want to keep an idle server without having to pay for the out-of-use period, you should make a backup of the server image (which may induce additional Cloud File services costs) and delete the server in question from your account. You can upload this image later if you need it again.

Rackspace doesn’t offer a free trial environment. However, you may create an account with which you can access the admin panel if you want to check out how this service works in more detail.

You are obliged to pay only after starting your server or some other resources.Although Rackspace can provide a range of solutions, mainly if you are OK with having less flexibility, you need to note that they have officially discontinued their beta program for managed application services for Magento, but still support customers who need help hosting their Magento solutions.

Managed Service Level includes server monitoring, layered support of the operating system and the application infrastructure (including automated updates and fixes) and also provides a technical guide to how to use cloud servers.

According to the Rackspace SLA, data centre availability is 100% except for scheduled maintenance which is announced at least 10 business days before scheduled downtime and are not exceeding 60 minutes per one calendar month.

As a result, guaranteed availability is in fact almost 100%, to be more precise it is 99.999%.

 

Amazon Web Services (AWS)

 

Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) is an IaaS platform, which is the most important component in the AWS range.

This is the basis for building their massive infrastructure. It supports almost any operating system that your applications may need.With EC2, the OS can be monitored and managed very effectively, but patching is the client’s task.

You can import virtual machine images in already created environments (Windows Server 2003 R2 and Windows Server 2008 R1 / R2, VMware ESX VMDK, Citrix Xen VHD or Microsoft Hyper-V VHD).Naturally, Linux solutions can also be used, such as CentOS.

 

Amazon EC2 offers

  • pre-configured servers on which popular database solutions are run (IBM DB2, MySQL etc.),
  • resource optimizing solutions,
  • web servers (Apache, IIS / ASP.NET),
  • application development environment,
  • servers which are optimized for different applications
  • other, e.g. media servers.

 

The Free Tier makes it possible to create a “micro” Linux or Windows based server and also to start other useful resources and applications which lets you have a deeper look into the solutions of AWS.

 

Amazon offers three payment options:

  • On-Demand: you pay hourly or monthly rates after using the given resource, with no commitment period.
  • Preserved: a one-time fee is paid on the basis of a 1–3 year commitment period with a considerable amount of discount; it is useful when you can precisely estimate your future computing capacity needs.
  • Spot: a special case when the client makes a payment offer for a cloud resource. For this you need to know exactly your own IT requirements and compare it to your present IT costs. Spot Bid Advisor helps you with this.

According to Amazon’s SLA, an availability of 99.95% is guaranteed, but you need to use an EC2 instance on two machines in two different Availability Zones. (We’ve mentioned AWS Availability Zones in our previous article.)

 

AWS provides database services:

Amazon DynamoDB is a fully customizable NoSQL cloud based service (some features are not available in the free tier), while Amazon RDS provides a cloud based relational database solution with similar features to that of MySQL or OracleDB.

Amazon Elastic Block Storage (EBS), as its name suggests, creates storage blocks to be connected to an active EC2 in every case.Every EC2 server comprises a certain storage capacity, but redundancy needed for safe operation is provided by EBS.

You can format the block just like a hard drive and can also set the desired file system.You can create Snapshots of the blocks for backups.

Although you need to pay for their storage separately, these backups use up considerably less space than the original blocks, for a number of reasons: compressed and empty blocks are not stored and, following the creation of the first version of the Snapshot, only new and modified data are stored.

 

Choosing a cloud service provider

 

Before choosing a cloud service provider to best serve your business needs, we suggest considering a few aspects right at the beginning.

  • What kind of services do you need?
  • How do you wish to access the resources?
  • To what extent do you want to use solutions in the cloud compared to the on-site (office) environment?
  • What kind of control do you want to have over the OS (in terms of applications and developments)?
  • Does the provider have up-to date security certificates and know-how?
  • Do the laws and regulations, which apply to your operations, identify geographical locations for company data storage?
  • What is the difference between the current IT costs and the estimated cloud IT costs?

 

Windows Azure

 

It may be a good choice for application developers who don’t need to run a Linux environment (although Linux servers have been supported by Azure since 2015).It supports basically every programming language at a reasonable price. If your applications make it possible to work in a Windows operating system, you don’t have to worry about OS fixes and updates.

 

Rackspace

 

Rackspace may be fine for those clients that consider it important to have the operating system under the provider’s control together with the managed hosting services.The IaaS and PaaS models combined provide convenience and high availability to the client. On the other hand, Rackspace lacks some services that the other two companies have and, additionally, convenience has its price.Out of the three providers, Rackspace is the most expensive.

 

Amazon EC2

 

One of the strongest cloud hosting providers if you need total control over the operating system, no matter if it is a Windows or Linux server.Amazon Web Services offers the widest array of solutions and services (as many as 72 of them).That’s why it is well scalable and you can use the resources for a number of purposes, e.g. for computing intensive applications, storage, database or for ecommerce.You can adjust your virtual machines smoothly to your business needs with the pre-configured AMIs (Amazon Machine Image).

 

AionHill Managed Cloud Hosting

 

As a Magento developer and managed hosting solution provider, AionHill hosts in the AWS cloud.

Our aim is to provide our clients with the best managed cloud hosting solutions available.

Managed Amazon Web Services allow your organization to take advantage of the flexible solutions of AWS but with the added convenience of expert management.

Managing AWS infrastructure, our team of account managers have a full knowledge of all available solutions, allowing us to tailor the service to exactly meet your needs.

Our technical team is accredited by AWS and receive ongoing training to ensure they can fully support your platform.

By implementing best practices to maintain our customers’ infrastructure, AWS Managed Services helps to reduce the operational overhead and risk.

It automates common activities such as change requests, monitoring, patch management, security and backup services, and provides full-lifecycle services to provision, run and support almost any infrastructure. Amazon provides every customer more than 70 services, from simple file storage through the so-called “serverless solutions”, to elastic cloud computing.

At AionHill we’ve created a stack to fully serve the requirements of any Magento based store.

Our team is managing 3 types of shared environments, we have created hybrid builds as well, but if your ecommerce business is fully customized, we are more than happy to shape the AWS cloud to get synchronized with your plans.

The mainly used AWS Cloud resources are the backbone of our hosting services, such as the EC2 instance types, which are mapped to the specific needs of your application to optimise performance and storage without over-spending.

Simple Storage Service or S3 will be configured for snapshots and other persistent object storage in S3 with lifecycle policies for archiving data to Glacier. Using this method, our customers’ vital and business-critical data is always backed up and stays secured.

If it comes to content delivery, what else could we use than Amazon CloudFront?

It is a global content delivery network (CDN) service that accelerates delivery of your websites, APIs, video content or other web assets. It integrates with other Amazon Web Services products to give developers and businesses an easy way to accelerate content to end users with no minimum usage commitments.

We are also eager to optimize given solutions. Elastic Load Balancing automatically distributes incoming application traffic across multiple Amazon EC2 instances. It enables you to achieve fault tolerance in your applications, seamlessly providing the required amount of load balancing capacity needed to route application traffic.

Balancer is ideal for simple load balancing of traffic across multiple EC2 instances, while the Application Load Balancer is ideal for applications needing advanced routing capabilities, microservices and container-based architectures.

For more professional approach, according to our customers’ needs we install New Relic Licenses. With New Relic, every single instance can be monitored thoroughly.

Using these metrics, we can give advice on optimization or on upscaling / downscaling of infrastructure. This way, we help our clients achieve quicker business growth, implementing data driven decisions.

 

In summary:  merging the two worlds of managed hosting and cloud services, we have the opportunity the give our customers one of the best services on the market where up-to-date technologies are used in every store.

 

An optimized, well-structured and cared online shop will improve user experience, which has a key role raising conversion rates, therefore more resources can be allocated to business oriented suggestions.

Managing and maintaining the whole infrastructure, keeping the running services and applications updated, monitoring the servers and all related tasks rest on our shoulders.

We have successfully optimized hosting environments for all kinds of ecommerce stores.

In some cases we helped the clients save as much as $400 per month by optimizing their infrastructure and there is a number of cases in which we could drastically increase page speed via our state-of-the-art hosting solutions.

Today there are over 250,000 ecommerce sites in the world on Magento, making it the most popular ecommerce platform.

Magento’s sophisticated features can fulfil the widest range of e-merchant and customer needs. Because it is quite complex, performance optimization is a continuous task for IT professionals.

As cloud hosting is becoming more widespread it’s worth examining your potential managed hosting service providers on the basis of different criteria.

Do they have all the relevant knowledge and expertise? What kind of references do they have? How deep is the knowledge of their professionals?

 

5 fields of expertise you should expect from your managed hosting solution provider

 

Of course, these statements are true when no experts can be found on the client’s side.

More precisely, even when the client has a team of experienced admins and managers, they do not really need hosting itself, rather customized solutions which can be integrated and relatively easily managed.This can be On Cloud or Off-Cloud, hybrid or not, or specialized for running a certain application (i.e. ecommerce framework).  We describe 5 competencies that can be expected from any serious managed hosting soliution provider today.


1) Technical knowledge:

On the one hand, thorough service knowledge is needed to manage a complex cloud project, on the other hand, internet based IT capacities are needed to build and install applications in a World Wide Web environment.For example, different capabilities are required for managing storage services and archiving than for configuring a virtual private cloud with dedicated database servers.The knowledge should be strongly based on experience, such as experience with open source solutions and different programming languages, just to mention two fields.

 

2) Analysing corporate architecture and business needs:

This is indispensable for being able to set up a list with all the services you will need.

Having this done, cooperation and communication with the client and their IT professionals will go more smoothly.

If you have a thorough understanding about the basic principles, the service oriented architecture will successfully support your business operations in the long run.

 

3) Project management expertise:

Today, project management capabilities and roles are vital for properly carrying out an IT project, to be fulfilled by determined experts with leader qualities.

Such a person must clearly see both sides, manage different resources, help in coming to an agreement in terms of the desired objectives, and take responsibility for reaching the scheduled milestones in the previously set way and time.

There is a great deal of responsibility with migrating an online store to the cloud since it is the project manager who is in the “front zone” connecting the client and the provider.

Usually it takes a lot of work and expertise to finish with the projects on time, avoiding extra costs for both parties.

The project manager also has to take into account that the client may be overspending, since it’s fairly easy to start and stop resources, and thus additional costs related to unnecessary or inappropriate services and resources can easily accumulate.

 

4) Clear communication with the client:

It can be expected from the provider that it thoroughly understands client needs and is able to give appropriate answers to the questions that may arise.

The provider should also follow all communications between the parties (i.e. every detail is documented in order to avoid any doubtful situations in the future) and reacts immediately when things may not go according to plan.

For example, such cases can be when a cloud service downtime occurs unexpectedly or the service underperforms.

Such situations can be handled with the effective communication of product owners and dedicated managers who take action as soon as possible.

Also, clear communication of prices, costs and service packages can be included here.

 

5) Security and compliance with regulations:

No matter what kind of service is used, protection and confidential management of user data are of vital importance.

The provider’s security service in this respect must comply with all laws, regulations and practices, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, HIPAA and other data handling regulations, but the client, too, has to keep some rules as well.

As for the AWS cloud, these aspects are taken into account with special care and thus a model of mutual responsibility has been elaborated.

According to this, cooperation can take place on strict conditions, defining responsibilities and protecting the interests of all participants (SRM – Shared Responsibility Model).

 

11 questions you should ask your hosting solution provider

 

In our previous article we explained what you should expect as a client when meeting the associates of the hosting solution provider, what questions they might ask you.

Now let’s see the other side and go through the key topics that the client should ask during the negotiations, and the questions stemming from them.

 

1) Where will your data be stored?

Nowadays, due to the growing number of cloud service providers, there is such a wide range of prices on the market that you should be suspicious about the too expensive solutions, and the same goes for the too cheap offers, or offers under the average market price.

Nobody wants to see their business critical data on a flash drive worn around the neck of a jovial IT specialist…

Well, in an ideal case your data is stored on some kind of shared or dedicated server, in a data centre that is at a geographically remote, physically protected location.

Whether it should be located within the country or across the borders, it depends on the business policies and also regulated by the legal environment.

 

2) What problems may occur during the actually running installation or migration?

You should expect clashes of opinions if you have not precisely clarified the characteristics of the software environment during the preliminary discussions.

There are compatibility questions like the OS, the assessment of the capacity requirements, or the version number of the web technologies to be used (PHP, cache).

Migration obviously comes with downtime, and that’s why you should inquire about the expected number of engineering hours, and ask whether migration is done during working hours or at a less frequent time of the day.

 

3) Is the provider a reseller of the service or do they have the infrastructure at their disposal?

Right at the beginning of the article we mentioned that the resources sold as a service can either be the property of the service provider or a third party.

For example, Rackspace has its own data centres at multiple locations.

However, if it’s Cloudreach or Datapipe – or AionHill – who’s at the other side of the table, then these service providers, as AWS partners, may be resellers of the cloud infrastructure of Amazon, and their IT professionals manage this cloud equipment and optimize them to their clients’ needs.

 

4) What kind of cloud services do they provide?

You should check out the main service types using the cost calculator of the big cloud companies.

Before going into negotiations, you should know whether the service provider has the appropriate competences and service portfolio.

To be able to do this, you of course have to precisely define your own business vision and your expectations concerning the cloud.

You should have discussions on whether the offered services represent a solution to your problem.

 

5) What pricing policy do they use? 

You should only pay for what you actually use.

That’s why you should pay attention to unrealistically high upfront costs.

In 80% of the cases these upfront costs are not even mentioned since, as we have said earlier, practically all service providers follow the pay-as-you-go scheme, of which the hosting company issues a monthly bill.

This is exactly one of the pricing methods which can push down the costs of the infrastructure usage well below the operation and maintenance costs of the client’s own server farm.

You may come across the upfront costs in the case of a fixed-term commitment. You may be surprised at the greater upfront costs, but usually that’s how you can realize the highest average discount.

The monthly cost of cloud resources can range from $2-3 to even several thousands of dollars. It all depends on what size and what kind of services your company needs.

 

6) How secure is the solution provided?

It’s not really the level of security what matters, but it’s rather how much the service provider does for security.

Does it have the necessary certificates, licenses, or as a third party does it manage services which meet the necessary requirements?

In addition to data management, enough attention should be paid to the monitoring of the firewall, to the setting of access levels, to access control and to encryption.

 

7) What happens if my data is corrupted or lost?

A precise SLA description is perfectly suitable for avoiding such situations.

In this undertaking, among others, this and similar cases are usually also covered. You need to know if you can access your data as well, or you completely entrust the associates of the service provider with that.

If your employees also have access to the files, access logging will also have to be monitored.

You should be informed about how the service provider intends to schedule the backups (daily, weekly etc.).

Under which conditions and how frequently archiving takes place? How quick disaster recovery can be performed in the case of an unwanted crash or data loss?

 

8) What kind of customer support services do they provide?

What sort of methods are there for error reporting? During which hours, how many days of the week can you reach the customer service?

What time frames are there for troubleshooting? Is there VIP support available and if yes, what is considered to be a critical error, the fixing of which has to be started immediately, and which errors belong to the category of “next business day”?

Through what kind of services can you contact the employees of the service provider when you detect an error? Average response time also has to be determined.

 

9) Is the system easily scalable so that it can follow the business needs?

With the expansion of your business, sooner or later you’ll outgrow the infrastructure currently in use.

The incoming and outgoing data traffic will increase, your storage need will grow, even the number of your products and visitors may drastically increase.

You can also quite often hear the words flexibility and scalability from the service providers. You should ask about the time frame and / or the financial implications of starting or stopping resources (upscaling or downscaling).

 

 

10) What downtime rate should you expect?

Downtime, or in other words network outage, occurs when the service is temporarily unavailable.

This can result in substantial financial loss.

For this reason, it’s worth looking for companies that guarantee the highest proportion of availability compared to the days of the year.

Of course, the answer to the question above is that there’s no downtime. What matters, is that the percentage of availability is as close to 100 as possible.

A great part of the companies usually publish the log files of the downtimes. If you don’t find any publicly available information on that, you should inquire about it!

 

11) How will you access the servers? 

It’s important to clarify in what way you will be able to use the resources, how you will access them.

Via what protocols will the upload of the static pieces of content happen?

Generally, the client is granted a certain administrative level access to be used through desktop and very often all kinds of smart devices.

 

Summary

The world of managed hosting is vast and could be bewildering for clients.

An online store owner may lack the competence which is required to start an ecommerce business in the cloud, but that’s why hosting providers are for.

This guide is meant to help taking the first steps as a client and understand cloud terms and essentials.

If you wish to reach customers globally, you might have to look at computing from a different angle, on a different scale. This will bring the transition and cost-effectiveness with itself. Moving your shop to the managed cloud may be the best choice for growth and expansion.

 

 

Zoltán Hetényi

Zoltán Hetényi

Hosting Services Specialist

Zoltán is an Amazon Web Services cloud hosting specialist, continuously looking for the optimal solutions for clients. His mission is to give a helping hand to online store managers who are interested in the “cloud” as well as to those who already use this type of hosting service. In his free time, Zoltán enjoys computer games and plays bass in the legendary RGB band.


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