Brad's comments on the world of technology...

Current thoughts

I had some problems with my colocated serve the other day so I thought I'd try out one of the "VPS" server companies. These are firms which sell "virtual linux", basically a virtual machine running on their hardware. It's a good idea if the hardware is located at a data center with backup power and multiple high speed internet connections.

But if you do some research you find out that many of these have a poor reputation. I wanted to find one one on the east coast which limited the field - many of the better ones are in southern California.

For the purposes of this discussion, "VPS" means a virtual server running Linux which makes use of Xen. It's being commercialized here.

So, as an experiment, I signed up for three of them, vpsland, unixshell# and LeeWare Development.

All of them happily took my credit card and sent me automated email. But then nothing happened.

unixshell came back first with a machine - overnight - which is not bad. But the certificate on their billing web server is expired and 6 months old which does not fill me with confidence. I then followed their instructions to install a distro and boot. The install worked but the vm would not boot. And (apparently) no way to see why. I sent email. Nothing happened.

After 24 hours I opened a ticket on vpsland. Nothing happened.

LeeWare responded to email very quickly. They said they don't have any free Centos machine but I could use FC6. So, I agreed.

We'll see how this ends up. So far it's not a great picture.

1/2 a day passes
LeeWare came back first. I had to pick FC6 instead of Centos because they didn't have any machine free. But they did get the machine up and it seems fast and responsive. I've been installing things.

No word from vpsland or unixshell. My open tickets are unmodified.

(very late in the evening)
I got an email from a support person at unixshell describing all the problems they had setting up my account. They did finally get it going and it's working fine. Despite the late hour I start installing things.

(one night passes)
Over night someone a vpsland woke up and started setting up my account. This morning I could log in and start setting things up.

So, now all 3 are up and all within the promised "24-48 hours". Well, at least vpsland promised that. We'll see how the install/reboot/test cycle goes next.

(several days pass)
Ok, everyone is up and I've gotten good at cloning my 4 services. Just to review, I am trying to run a web site with these services:

  • DNS - named as a master and slave to several domains
  • MAIL - qmail running as relay for several domains
  • WEB - apache 2.0 serving static pages and as a caching proxy to a little lisp based web server.
  • LIST - mailman running a very slow mailing list

I managed to clone my existing colocated server to 3 vps sites. All were up and running after a few days of fooling around. I was able to get all the services up with only a few problems.

  • yum
  • ssh, rsync
  • rebooting

Yum worked everywhere and was a very helpful. If something was not installed I just did "yum install xxx" and it worked. A breath of fresh air.

ssh and rsync worked everywhere. I made extensive use of rsync to clone whole directory subtrees. This turned out to be very helpful. I use rsync to clone my website - I keep all the files on a local server and then rsync to update the site. If I lost the entire VPS I would not loose my data.

After pairing down and configuring the servers, "/sbin/shutown -r now" worked as expected. The sites all seem reboot safe after a little tweaking.

  • Different versions of the base O/S.
  • Different versions of Apache
  • Selinux problems

Different versions of the base O/S

I wanted everyone to use Centos 4.4. But I ended up with FC6/Selinux, Centos 4.1 and Centos 4.4. For sanity I'd like to stick with Centos as yum works and it's a modern distro.

Different versions of Apache

Each site has a different version of Apache. And, the all behaved slightly differently with my proxy setup. I ended up building and older version (2.0.55) on all 3 machines since that worked. I've since changed my Apache config to rewrite the URL's and I bet that will work with the different Apache's - I'll try at some point.

Selinux problems

This turned out to be mostly fear of the unknown. I'd never used Selinux. It seems big and complex (because it is). All I wanted to do was run my old services. The biggest issues seemed be running my proxy server on a non-standard TCP port and moving my dns zone files.

Convincing selinux to allow me to run my server took some time to figure out but I found out there is a tool which will read the log file entries when it fails and generate config files to allow it to work. Moving my dns zone files from /var/named to /var/named/data was much easier.

I'm not sure I need selinux in the end, but it does make for a pretty bullet proof server.

As I said, I signed up for three of VPS servers. I managed to get them to take my money and set up a server. I was able to hack on the server, set it up the way I wanted and reboot it. It felt just like my existing colocated server, only faster.

Here's a summary of my experience with each ISP:


Extremely slow customer support - almost non-existant. Took 1.5 days to get server up. Interesting billing web site which looks helpful. Very fast machine, very good connectivity. Located in Atlanta. Checkered reviews on the web. Flashy website. Good price/features.


Better customer support - slow but informative. These are are clearly closer to the metal. Took a 1.5 days to get up but got some technical email about the issue (it's a bit odd that there was a problem since I ordered a vanilla vps, but I think this whole concept is a bit new). Somewhat fast machine, not bad. Ok connectivity. Located in Atlanta. Checkered reviews on the web. Techy web site. Good price/features.

LeeWare Development

Best customer support. I suspect this is a small shop but they give personal attention. The could not offer me Centos but did offer to refund my money and put me on a waiting list (which was very nice). Reasonably fast machine, good connectivity. Located in the mid-west. Very simple web site. Limited offerings but they matched what I needed.

I like VPSland the best because they have Centros 4.4 and excellent connectivity. TThis is troubling to me, however, because their customer support is pretty non-existant. They do answer sales email, however, but only after 24 hours.

I like the unixshell# guys since I think they are more like me (geeks) rather than slick marketing folks. But their connectivity is not as good.

I really like Leeware because they were so helpful, but the lack of Centos (right now) puts them 3rd.

My current plan is to drop one and keep two. Originally I liked the idea of one in Atlanta and one in Chicago but right now I'm leaning toward ignoring the geography and focusing on two reasonable Centos based sites.

I totally expect one of these (or 2) do dissapear at some point. It's just too common an occurrence to ignore. So, my plan is to maintain two sites and keep them up to date. If one dies, I just move the DNS and don't look back.

The good news is that even two VPS servers are cheaper than my current colo server and I don't have to maintain the hardware. I just wonder how this will all look in 5 years.

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