It has been over ten years since I started this website. WebKeyDesign was the outcome of my rebellious nature and my love of technology. In 2005, a few of my coworkers liked having discussions to pass the day and so we setup an online forum on one of our Windows 2000 computers. This lasted for a few months only. As you can imagine our network admin did not share our fondness for discussing the merits of Star Wars versus The Matrix Trilogy. The online forum was shut down and hence I took it upon myself to setup a simple PERL forum script with my ISP. The forum worked well enough and was accessible over the Internet, but my ISP home space was limited and we would quickly outgrow the space allotted. The obvious solution was to open my wallet and purchase a domain and hosting space. In a matter of months our little forum grew into a proper forum solution using Invision PowerBoard and a cPanel Linux host. Interest in the forum ended up waning after a couple of years, and in the end all that was left was my curiosity with all things web server related. WebKeyDesign was the next logical step. The idea was to help people setup some simple websites and keep learning more about web hosting and web servers.
Today, you can find multiple solutions to web hosting and application services. There’s AWS, Google, Microsoft, and other cloud providers who all can provide robust internet services. There are also multiple shared web hosting solutions and virtual machine providers like DigitalOcean. The choices available today are significantly more varied than they were back in 2005. However this post is about where to start and some lessons learned.
The Poor Man’s Sandbox:
Much like in business, your budget is most likely fixed. You can only spend so much. Although you can setup a web server on your iMac at home, or even a Raspberry Pi nowadays, you don’t really want to do this. There are multiple reasons to advise against a home web server setup. Primarily, you want a web server to be stable and reliable. Your home internet connection can go down due to power failure, ISP issues, or even your dog pulling out your ethernet cable. There are just too many points of failure with a home web server. You will want to have a hosted solution.
Any hosted solution is going to cost you. You can save some percentage of funds by paying up front for a year’s worth of hosting, but when you are starting out, it is best to just pay monthly. You want to have the option to try multiple hosting companies. Some people find that a typical shared hosting option is what they are comfortable with and some other people will want to have cloud services like AWS. Give yourself the time and options to try different hosting solutions.
Server Operating Systems:
There are equally a wide range of operating systems on which your web server can run on top of. Given that the title of this post, you already probably know what I am going to recommend, but let’s summarize some of the other options.
Microsoft Windows Server is an operating system that most technical people may already be familiar with. Microsoft has a long history in the server space and today’s Windows 2012 and 2016 servers are available as virtual instances from Microsoft and other cloud providers. However Microsoft systems are not free and have licensing costs. You will find Microsoft to be more expensive than your typical Linux based solution. The other reason to not start with a Microsoft solution is that Windows Server is usually associated with Microsoft’s own IIS web server software. The Microsoft stack is a closed commercial solution with some exceptions.
Pretty much web servers tend to be UNIX based. There are multiple versions of UNIX or UNIX-like operating systems. There is BSD, Oracle Solaris, and then there is of course Linux. You can find hosting solutions based on BSD, but most like you are going to find lots and lots of Linux based solutions. Even though everyone calls it Linux, the Linux system is really the Linux kernel and GNU put together. There are many distributions of the Linux system, but most of them fall into three categories: business oriented Redhat, Debian based, and what I call bare bones like Arch Linux. If you are not comfortable with UNIX, most often you want something like Redhat or the Debian based Ubuntu distribution. For most of us, it comes down to choosing between Redhat and Ubuntu.
Redhat is in the business of supporting business customers and so the Redhat OS is not technically free. You have to pay for support. Redhat creates a free open-source distro named Fedora, from which they make the RedHat OS. Fedora has frequent changes and kind of like a developer’s OS. However from Fedora we also get a community driven stable distro known as CentOS. Most Linux based hosts will run CentOS because it is stable and free. Ubuntu on the hand is a very popular Linux distro that is based off of Debian. Many developers like Ubuntu because it is updated more frequently and is also free. While CentOS concentrates on stability, Ubuntu is updated more frequently. Either OS is a good choice for web services, but my personal leanings are on CentOS. If you will be developing software in the future or as your day job, CentOS is going to be closer to what businesses use for their systems. If you plan on just developing software for your own personal use or just want to learn some things, than Ubuntu is good choice.
Even though server operating systems like CentOS and Ubuntu exist, an additional cost that does get passed on to you is control panels. In the world of Linux there is cPanel and there is everyone else. cPanel costs are significant and they pretty much control the control panel market. Large hosting providers get cPanel licenses cheaper than everyone else, so they are cheaper when it comes to providing cPanel as part of their solution. cPanel can control a shared web hosting solution, to a reseller account, to a virtual machine, to the entire fleet of physical web servers. It makes supporting and managing web servers easier for hosting providers. There are other hosting providers who have other control panels or roll their own much like Amazon AWS.
There are virtual machine providers like Linode and DigitalOcean who provide basic controls for the virtual machine and nothing else. You are free to control your virtual machine through SSH Secure Shell, or purchase an individual license for cPanel or any control panel on your own. One option is install the free GPL version of Virtualmin, while not as user friendly as cPanel, it can provide most of the functionality of cPanel. However note, that the farther you go away from a typical shared hosting solution, the more you are on your own as far as technical issues and support.
Apache or Nginx:
With a shared hosting solution or reseller account, the web server will most likely be Apache or Nginx. With a virtual machine or cloud solution you may be able to install the web server itself. You can’t really go wrong with learning either of these popular http web servers. Most of the knowledge that you learn from Apache can apply to other web servers, so if you have to pick one to start with, I’d recommend Apache.
Once you have your sandbox up, it is time to setup a WordPress blog, a simple website, or perhaps write your first web app.
The Linux Web Server is an incredible piece of software engineering. It has allowed me to pursue my interests in computing and communicate to people all over the world. It has quite literally changed my life and I have no doubt that it can change yours.