Is PaaS or a Bare Metal Server the Best Choice?
It's never a bad idea to find ways to reduce your overhead.
As costs for website maintenance, apps, software, and other expenses stack up, it's tempting to think that you can save some coin on a basic server and manage the upkeep yourself. Depending on your technical expertise, that could be a legitimate possibility, but there's a lot you need to know before making that decision.
In my work with Shopify and app hosting, I've seen a lot of server configurations, complete with successful and not-so-successful results. Like most business choices, there's no simple answer when selecting a server. A lot depends on your business' unique needs and your skillset.
In order to make the best decision, you need to know some more-than-basic information about server services, security, and costs.
Know the Lingo
Before you dive into the alphabet soup of server jargon, let me help you with the vocabulary.
This is where you are renting an entire physical server in a data center. A data center is basically a huge apartment building for servers with tons of power and network capacity. A dedicated server lets you do anything on that server you want. You need to take care of all of the installation, administration, security, upgrades and maintenance since little to no support is offered. A dedicated server is also called a bare metal server.
This simple, no-frills server, known as a Virtual Private Server, is for the DIY crowd. This is basically the same as a Dedicated Server except instead of having the entire physical server to yourself, you get a percentage. So you might get 1/4 or 1/10 of a larger dedicated server and pay less.
The Platform as a Service model requires no server administration experience. You deliver the code, and the host manages the details like security, upgrades and more for a single fee. You'll definitely pay more, but someone else is responsible for the daily upkeep.
As you can see, knowing this distinction is critical for setting your expectations and budgeting not only your money, but your time.
(For the purposes of this article, let's assume that the Dedicated Server and VPS are identical. The differences between them are so small and not practical to separate here.)
Be Honest About Your Server Experience
Choosing a VPS will demand a lot of your team. If you have someone on your team who has the chops to handle this for you, then great. You'll be able to save money on server costs, since a VPS is more affordable than PaaS services.
Please don't underestimate the mastery required to handle all of the aspects of server setup and maintenance. Learning the skills needed could take months.
If you don't have a competent server wizard, then PaaS is probably going to be the best choice for you. "As a Service" means that you are paying an expert in server management in addition to space on the server.
If you're still wondering which way to go, think about what could happen in a crisis when the servers go down and you're losing sales. If you're using a PaaS, you'll have someone to call and bail you out. With a VPS, it's on your shoulders to get the server running again and doing any clean-up needed afterwards.
You Get What You Pay For
As you've probably guessed, PaaS is more expensive than VPS. How much more? Naturally, the answer is, "that depends".
Until an app is live, it can be difficult to predict exactly what your server needs will be, but there are other factors that will give you a rough cost estimate.
Traffic. The number of hits - not visits - you have per day will determine the level of server support you need.
Front-end vs. backend processes. If your apps are managing behind-the-scenes functions for your store, then you can get by with a smaller server. Apps that manage the customer side of your site, like managing purchases, will generate more server activity and thus, cost more.
Fortunately, it's pretty easy to adjust your server size in real time, so don't worry about getting that perfectly right the first time. For specifics on costs and reputable hosting companies, click here for my article on pricing these costs for your Shopify store.
I'm sure you've learned a million times that cheaper isn't always better, and hosting is no exception to that rule. Look past the sticker price as a single number and put it in the context of your overall revenue.
When you're choosing the right app support, consider how its features are going to improve your bottom line. If the the app is going to double or quadruple sales, but you're going to have to devote hours each week to maintaining the server, then the ROI might not pencil out.
On the other hand, if your app performance is generating a significant revenue increase, you may have plenty of cash flow to pay for a PaaS.
You're Not Locked In
Choosing PaaS or VPS doesn't lock you into either hosting service for life. It's pretty easy to start with one service and switch to the other as your needs change. It's common to start with a PaaS and then as your app is generating a return to use that return to hire your own staff and switch to a VPS setup.
In fact, it's even possible to host some parts of your site on one platform and other part on other platforms. I've done this before for several clients, and it's not as complicated as it sounds.
If you stay with a single hosting service, it will be cheaper in the long run because you won't have to pay a new set of fees. From the technical side, switching over does involve the added hassle of having to redo your setup, but it's a common practice.
If It Were Me...
My recommendation for most Shopify store owners is to start with SaaS hosting. When someone else is taking care of those details, you can focus on finding the best ways to grow your business. Your time is worth more than saving a few hundred dollars a month, and the peace of mind you'll have from knowing a that tech support is available 24/7 is priceless.
An exception to this recommendation would be for businesses who are large enough to have two or three developers or system administrators on staff who really know their way around servers.
Overall, my recommendation would be to avoid choosing the hard route. Entrepreneurs have enough details to chase and track, so if you can hand over the nuts-and-bolts operation to someone else - even if it's for a year or so - please give yourself that breathing room.
In fact, even though I've been managing servers since 2004, I still use PaaS for some of my apps. It costs me more per month but the reduction in hassle is well worth it.
I want Shopify store owners to have software development support that drives strong business growth.