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Why I'm ready to ditch my dedicated server and move to the cloud

Servers are big boxes of stuff just waiting to break. Over the weekend I got to play network administrator, and the experience has convinced me it's time to get rid of my dedicated server and move everything to hosted services.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Why would anyone run their own server if they didn’t have to?

Servers are big boxes of stuff just waiting to break and make their administrators' lives miserable. If I can pay a fair price to have someone else set up, maintain, secure, and support an online service for me that eliminates the need for me to own my own hardware and manage my own server software, I will take that offer every time.

Consumers figured that out long ago, which is why the big three of free web-based mail services, Hotmail and Gmail and Yahoo, collectively have more than a billion mailboxes in use. Many of those mailboxes are provided through ISPs, who were happy to get out of the POP and SMTP business.

But businesses still run on email. One recent report from the Radicati Group estimates there are 929 million business mailboxes in use, and most of them are still running on in-house servers.

The world’s most widely used solution for business email is Microsoft Exchange, with 51 percent of the market and roughly 473 million mailboxes in use, according to that report. Microsoft and its partners have been offering hosted Exchange for years, but more than 400 million of those Exchange mailboxes are still connected to on-premises Exchange servers.

I have no desire to run my own Exchange server, which is why I was thrilled to let someone else do it for me. I’ve been running my work-related email on a hosted Exchange account at Intermedia for the past three years, and I’m about to upgrade that account to Exchange 2013. I’ll be comparing Intermedia’s offering to Office 365, which I’ve been using for the past six months or so, as well as Google Apps for Business. Moving email to the cloud is a huge growth opportunity for both Microsoft (and its partners) and Google. (Is there anyone in third place?) Other essential business services, like your PBX, are also ripe for replacement.

Last month I shut down my last POP mail account. Every mailbox I manage, personal and professional, is running in the cloud, using either Microsoft or Google software. I no longer have to manage or troubleshoot POP, IMAP, and SMTP servers of my own.

And after this past weekend I’m about ready to hand over responsibility for some other servers as well.

A lot of the reasons I need a powerful dedicated server have vanished over the past decade.

I have a dedicated, Linux-based server at a hosting company that I’ve worked with for years. They’re in the process of transitioning my server to a new range of IP addresses this week. As a result, I’ve spent the past few days working in server consoles, editing DNS records, and manually tweaking obscure Linux configuration files so that everything works the way it’s supposed to. It hasn’t been painless. Nothing that involves the words DNS propagation ever is.

I only have to play network engineer a few times a year, and it’s usually for something simple. This level of mucking about with servers only comes along every few years, thankfully. But it’s painful enough that I’ve been looking at the alternatives. Can I hand the whole thing over to someone else?

A lot of the reasons I need a powerful dedicated server have vanished over the past decade.

  • As I mentioned earlier, I’ve already eliminated the need to run email servers on those boxes. I still have to set up accounts and occasionally reset a password, but that’s all done through a dashboard on a service managed by Google, Microsoft, or Intermedia.
  • My co-authors and I used to use FTP regularly to share files. These days we use online services. In 2009 and 2010, for two editions of Windows 7 Inside Out, we used Dropbox, which was convenient and reliable enough. For Office 2013 Inside Out, which just went to the printer, we used SkyDrive, which worked exceptionally well. The range of business-class storage services is impressive
  • Back when I started blogging, I used Movable Type and then switched to WordPress. These days most of what I publish online is here on ZDNet, where the servers are maintained by an engineering staff, thank goodness. So my moderately expensive, occasionally high-maintenance dedicated server runs a handful of personal blogs. WordPress now runs its own hosted service, which looks mighty tempting.
  • For our books, we created a custom URL-shortening service that allows us to provide short links to long URLs. So we can use the link http://w7io.com/10285 instead of http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc178982.aspx. And if a website owner moves a page without redirecting it, we can change the target of our short link on the fly. (Services like bit.ly won’t let you do that.) That allows us to avoid the problem of link rot, but it also means maintaining a legacy app.

I’d love to move my personal blogs to a hosted service. In the middle of the last decade I managed a couple blogs on Google’s Blogger service, but these days it feels like one of those neglected products that’s on the verge of being discontinued. (Take Google’s announcement of its decision to kill Google Reader, search and replace with “Blogger,” and you’ve pretty much got a preview of the press release.) Tumblr and other free platforms are fine if you just want a place to dump ideas and pictures

For $99 a year I could get every bell and whistle that WordPress.com offers in its Premium plan. Unfortunately, the terms of service prohibit most forms of advertising and e-commerce, which is a potential roadblock for me as a professional publisher. I could probably work within those restrictions, though.

In fact, it looks like I could easily move just about everything that requires a dedicated server over to a hosted service. I’d love to find a way to permanently hang up my network manager’s hat. Now all I have to do is find the time to research the options and actually make the move.

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