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15/07/2019 | Giles Olley

9 top tips for awesome web hosting with AWS

In 2019, Webreality is known for a range of creative and technical digital services, but our roots are on the technology side. Over two decades we have built a reputation for website support that borders on the obsessive, and it’s the managed hosting of the websites we build that is the absolute foundation of that service.

Part of our role as provider of managed website hosting is to ensure that our underlying infrastructure is always optimised for our clients’ needs. It’s a heavy responsibility.

In this post I’m going to outline why we favour Amazon Web Services (AWS) for our web hosting infrastructure, give you some of our top tips for success with it, and recount the story of the journey we’ve travelled since we started providing managed hosting services almost 20 years ago.

Why AWS?

AWS offers probably the most cost effective real world computing power, data storage, backup and bandwidth solution in the world.

You can read the full story of our adoption of AWS further down, but we find that it outperforms all other options we’ve assessed in terms of:

  • security
  • resilience
  • reliability
  • scalability
  • flexibility
  • cost-efficiency.

And the global market for cloud-based hosting services seems to agree.

AWS in 2019 - a phenomenon in numbers

The data visualistion website Visual Capitalist published an article on 8th July 2019 describing the extraordinary scale and success of AWS. You can read the whole article here, but here are a few headline statistics from it that illustrate why we consider AWS to be a very safe and intelligent choice of infrastructure provider:

  • AWS has 5x more deployed cloud infrastructure as their next 14 competitors combined
  • Each day, AWS adds as much infrastructure as they used to run in total 7 years ago
  • AWS accounts for 41.5% of the public cloud market, bigger than Microsoft, Google, Rackspace, and IBM combined.

Infographic credit:

Our top tips for awesome web hosting on AWS

Now we’re going to let you in on some of our secrets for success with AWS. It is very easy to get going on AWS but requires skill to host hundreds of websites and services with widely varying requirements.

1. Choosing the right hardware is hard

Choose high data throughput over CPU. And you can never have too much memory!

2. It’s tempting to create an enormous instance to host everything. Don't!

One instance to rule them all won’t work. You’re far better off creating small instances and adding or removing them.

3. If you aren’t careful, the costs can escalate. Fast!

Ensure someone is always on top of the whole picture. It needs regular reviews. Reserve your instances - AWS allows you to commit to a year or more of an instance which yields big savings, but needs to be balanced with the risk of loss in the event that an unplanned change of circumstances makes a reserved server redundant.

4. Separate your web servers and database servers

This is vital best practice for data security. In 2018, as part of readying our infrastructure for the introduction of GDPR, we moved all of our websites and other products to separate web and database servers to ensure not just compliance but a level of security beyond what most specialist managed hosting providers will offer.

5. Monitor performance

AWS was never built to be a web host. It’s actually very good at it, but only if you watch closely how your web servers and SQL servers use their resources.

6. Don’t take authentication shortcuts

Create a virtual network and use Active Directory. AWS makes it very easy.

7. Tell yourself it’s physical

Create a VPN and firewall and treat them like physical devices. That’s how AWS works best.

8. Use Cloudfront CDN

Cloudfront caches your static, semi-static and dynamic content simultaneously in all of AWS’ 20 regions, which they refer to as “Edges”.

9. Use a 3rd party tool for backups

We use YLastic to automate all physical backup tasks. It’s hassle free!

Our journey from tin boxes to AWS

When we started out, full service web development agencies either used hosting resellers, or, if they wanted full control, they would have to specify, build, host and maintain their own hardware.

We chose control. So, for more than a decade, Webreality kept its own physical servers which were located in a data centre in Jersey, and managed initially by a trusted third party specialist, and then in-house by our own technicians. The list of regular maintenance was enormous.

By far the largest consideration was bandwidth. As our clients’ requirements grew, the cost of bandwidth in Jersey became a significant encumbrance and risked forcing us to raise our managed hosting fees. This emerging challenge coincided with the financial crisis of 2007 - 2008, a time when any increase in our fees would have been unwelcome for our clients.

Then the clouds formed

At Webreality we have historically developed software exclusively on the Windows platform because early on we recognised that Windows software, specifically .NET, was the environment best suited to the type of web development our particular clients required. 

This was material to our infrastructure options because, in the early years, cloud computing was mostly restricted to Linux systems, which locked out the enormous number of Windows developers globally. Amazon Web Services launched its first Windows server options in October 2008, beating Microsoft Azure by almost 2 years.

From toe in the water to all-in

In 2011, having been seeking a suitable alternative for its costly Jersey-based hosting infrastructure, we initially trialled AWS simply as a remote location for our own server monitoring systems. It was clear that AWS had potential to do more for us, but it was obviously geared for large-scale corporate processing missions and certainly not web hosting, which has its own unique demands and requirements.

By 2012, Webreality’s bandwidth and hardware requirements simply exceeded what was reasonable from a Jersey-located server farm. Although it remained technically possible, supply and demand determined that the bandwidth and power required for web hosting was prohibitively expensive in a small scale jurisdiction. We also had the vital disaster recovery, business continuity and data security factors to take into consideration.

After significant trialling of AWS and its still somewhat immature competitor Microsoft Azure, we took the decision to start an enormous migration project to AWS in 2013. This process took two years to fully complete. Six years on, we are increasingly satisfied with that decision.

But what’s in it for you?

If you don’t have the skills in-house to manage your own web hosting, you need a managed web hosting provider you can depend on. And your provider needs to have infrastructure it can depend on.

Amazon AWS is a vital link in the value chain that enables us to keep our clients delighted with the standard of hosting support on which we pride ourselves. For our clients, it can be seen as an additional layer of peace of mind - a carefully-judged choice by Webreality to ensure world-class security and dependability for our clients’ websites.