Zoompf's Web Performance Blog

Performance Questions to Ask Hosting Providers: Web Server Configuration

 Billy Hoffman on November 17, 2009. Category: Guide

Hosting a web application can be annoying and time consuming. There is the cost of the hardware. There is the time configuring, administering, and patching the operating system, web server, and other software. There is the security risk of exposing a machine onto the Internet. So it’s no surprise that many people and companies use a 3rd party hosting provider to host their web application and manage the infrastructure. Choosing a hosting provider should not be made lightly. You no longer have full control over the machine running your web application. For those interested in creating high performance web applications you must ensure that you don’t give up control over the features that you need to make your web application run as fast as possible.

This is the first in a series articles of performance questions you should ask a hosting provider. While hosting providers do offer dedicated hosting (where your application runs on a single machine all by itself) the vast majority of people choose shared hosting environments. While we will be references hosting services that use the Apache web server all of the advice in this series is applicable to Windows hosting as well.

Without a doubt the first and most important question you should ask a hosting provider is:

“What Control Do I Have Over Web Server Configuration?”

Image of Server Room

This questions is critical. Many of the easiest and most impactful performance improvements you can make to your web application, such as HTTP compression and caching, are configured at the web server level. You should start off by asking what modules are installed already. The Apache modules most relevant to performance are:

  • mod_deflate (for Apache 2) or mod_gzip (for Apache 1) – This module enables HTTP compression.
  • mod_expires – This module enables HTTP caching.
  • mod_rewrite – This module enables on-the-fly URL rewriting which is very helpful when maintaining and updating resources while using far future caching.

All of these modules are installed with the typical default installation of Apache. While this depends on the platform and the distribution they are almost always present by default. Sometimes web hosting companies will compile their own version of Apache from source to maximize performance for their particular server machines. Often they will remove modules to save space and time. If you find a hosting provider like this explain to them that you would like these modules installed. Tell them this is a reasonable request as these modules are part of the default installation of Apache. You should be able to convince them to turn these modules on for you. If not, this is a deal breaker and you should not use that hosting provider. The vast majority of hosting providers offer these modules even at the lowest pricing tiers.

Even if the hosting provider offers these modules, you should ask them for a list of all available modules as well as their policy is for enabling new modules. While mod_deflate, mod_expires, and mod_rewrite and the most helpful modules from a performance point of view there might be other modules, such as mod_cband or mod_bw, that you might want to use for performance reasons.

Once you know what you can configure on the web server your next question should be “how do I configure it?” In most shared hosting environments you will not have access to the main Apache configuration file httpd.conf but usually can control the web server through the use of .htaccess files. This is the best solution since it allows you to directly configure the web server. You simply edit the .htaccess file in the root directory for your web application and upload it to the hosting provider.

Some hosting providers supply you with a web interface to control web server configuration typically through a web administration system like CPanel. If this is the case ask to see examples of the interface. It could be simply a web form that allows to you edit a raw .htaccess file. It could be a more structured web interface with check boxes to turn on modules or forms to add new rules. Be very wary of any type of web-based server configuration. The interface will limit what you are able to configure. If a web interface is available ask if you can still manually upload your own .htaccess file to control the web server. If you cannot do this your ability to configure the web server will be severely limited. If the web interface does not provide the functionality you need you should not use that hosting provider. In general you should not use hosting providers that only offer web-based server configuration.

Bad Idea: Hacking Around Limits

Some developers like to point out that you can use server side application logic to compress content or implement caching for static resources like images or JavaScript files or CSS files. This means you don’t have to have access to the web server to configure things like HTTP compression or caching. Unfortunately this actually hurts performance more than it helps! With this method, PHP (or some other application logic layer) is invoked for all requests. Remember that the vast majority of requests are for static content and do not hit the application layer. The overhead of invoking PHP dozens if not hundreds of times for a page load removes any performance benefit of compressing or caching. We will explore this method more in a future post. For now you should completely avoid it. Never use application code to hack around the blatant shortcomings of a hosting provider.

Remember when choosing a hosting provider the single most important performance question you can ask is “how do I configure the web server?” In our next post we will explore more performance questions you should ask when choosing your hosting provider.


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