During my freelance sysadmin days, my biggest annoyance was clients renting really high-end dedicated servers for sites that were serving a measly few thousand users a month. To call these servers an overkill would be an understatement. My first instinct was to try to explain to my clients how much of a waste of resource and money it is to host their sites in these expensive servers when a cheap shared plan will more than do the job. I tried to make them understand, as politely as possible, that they could easily pay for years of server rent with the amount they are spending each month on their dedicated servers. Except for a few of my clients, most of them would stick with whatever their original sysadmin guy gave them.
To give an example of what you can do with a very low-end server; this blog runs on fairly ok server for its use case. It’s a VPS, with two virtual cores and 1.5gb memory. On my busiest day, this site served ~300k page views in a couple of hours, I was monitoring the server live using htop, the cores never went over 5% usage and memory never went over 500mb usage. So even this cheap low-end server can handle a lot of traffic, if configured properly. The bottleneck is not even the hardware but how much connection the network can handle.
It’s amazing how much you can do on a really cheap, low-end server if configured properly.
That’s why I found The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud a funny dig on how startups spend ginormous amount on server infrastructure even before they have the user. (I know it’s not as simple as that, they are variables like certain system actually do need a high-end hardware etc, etc, etc. But generally speaking the idea is true for most startups).
So what constitutes a Low End Box?
While the definition might defer from person to person, a low-end box is usually referred to a bare minimum VPS or dedicated server. with root access. It’s for people who actually knows Linux/Unix and how to run a server. There is no point and click type script setup or installation. But there are plenty of documentations and walk-throughs out there if you have the patience to learn. LEB usually starts anywhere from 64mb and can go as much as 1GB memory. I think, once you go above 1GB it might not be fair to call them low-end boxes, and their prices usually starts with anywhere from $1/month (yearly plans) to $10/month. Storage can be on the low side (20-50GB) but bandwidth are plentiful (500GB-1TB easily) and port speed are usually generous (~100mbps-1Gbit). Processor speed is really not a big issue because people rarely use LEB to do processor intensive work, but multiple 1Ghz virtual cores are not uncommon.
Often, you can actually ask for a price quote for a custom configuration, most providers are happy to do it.
How are they so cheap and how reliable are they?
Despite what the big hosting providers will like you to believe, not only are server prices have gone down over the years but they are getting cheaper and cheaper all the time. But the price of their plans, rarely (if ever) goes down. Though the leading LEB providers often rival big hosting providers in terms of support speed and quality, their support usually limits to problems related to the hardware, network and payments issues. What you do with the server is totally up to you, they are not going to help you with that. Basically, there is no hands-on support or cpanel like commercial one-click control panel (which costs money), so LEB can afford to quote the price they do and still make money. They rely on volume, not on huge margin.
You have to watch out for scams, though, usually, they are the new service providers that pops out of nowhere and give out insane prices that no one else can offer. Try to avoid them. Your best bet is to search for reviews and check how long they have been around in the business. Most top LEB providers have been around for a while.
The best way to find and research on LEB is to join the largest LEB community LowEndTalk and check out the offer section (and read comments) on LowEndBox. ServerBear is also a great place to compare prices and performances of LEB.
Try to avoid OVH/Kimsufi based LEB providers. Because they are such a big player in the server market with cheap offers, a lot of LEB providers use them. While there is nothing wrong with their servers, they are notorious about completely shutting down the server if anyone in the machine is even remotely suspected (but not proven) to have done something against their TOS (like seedboxes, spambots). I have had two such experiences with providers on OVH (it wasn’t their fault at all) where a user was running seed-boxes without permission. There are also people who swear by OVH/kimsufi and will tell you that they never had such problem.
What can I do with these cheap servers?
Mostly people use these servers for self-hosting needs like:
- Mail servers
- Backup (they have special high storage plans for those)
- VPN (for people who are concerned with their privacy or people from outside US/UK trying to watch local video services like Hulu/Netflix)
- Torrent Seed-box (most LEB providers don’t support seed boxes, but some do. If you plan to run one you better ask if it’s against their TOS)
- Game Servers
- Media/Stream servers (for personal use)
- Just to learn how to use Linux Servers.
There are cases, where people do use LEB for illegal stuff like spam-bot/scripts, but they are not officially allowed and promptly banned, if found.
If you are trying to get your hands dirty and trying to learn Linux, this is an easy and cheap way to get started. Do your research, get the right provider, or try several; since they are so cheap that you can actually afford to do so.