View from the beanstalk

In early 2015, I developed an unlikely hobby: tinkering around with hosting solutions on the web, specifically providers of infrastructure as a service (IaaS). It’s unlikely because it’s not something I consciously inculcated; it just happened. Three years later, this hobby has morphed into a techno-garden of obsessions that I tend to on the side, in between the hours of my day-job editing science pieces.

When in college, I worked a little with Google App Engine – a BaaS (backend as a service) popular at the time for hosting apps but not so much now. I followed that up with Linode in 2012 after Posterous shut down, and then Digital Ocean in 2015.

Linode and Digital Ocean both provide virtual private servers (VPSs). A VPS is a virtual server installed on a physical server that utilises a specified fraction of the server’s resources. For example, one of Digital Ocean’s ‘popular’ VPS configurations comes with 4 GB RAM, 80 GB SSD and 4 TB bandwidth (for $40/mo). Another VPS config has 2 GB RAM, 50 GB SSD and 2 TB bandwidth (for $20/mo). Both these VPSs could be running on the same physical server, with a type of software called a hypervisor installed on it to partition and manage VPSs according to users’ requirements.

Other options include shared hosting, where you have access to a part of a server’s resources (RAM, SSD and bandwidth) but not full control over how you use them. This is encapsulated by saying you don’t have root-level access. Shared hosting is preferred for small blogs and websites because it’s low-priced (starting at ~$3/mo). Then there’s bare-metal hosting, whereby you take charge of an entire server and all its resources.

Digital Ocean was godsend because of the one-click installs it provided. You purchase a VPS config – a.k.a. provision a VPS – such that it comes pre-installed with software of your choice, chosen from a menu. The Digital Ocean UI made the offering look much less like the intimidating cPanel and more like a fun testing area, considering VPSs were available for just $5. I think that’s how my interest truly took off.

Thanks to Digital Ocean, I was able to quickly learn the basics of working with cloud-computing, SSH, Linux-like operating systems, security auditing, webservers, content delivery networks, VPNs, firewalls, SSL/TLS and APIs. I don’t think the whole enterprise cost me more than $10. Additionally, both Digital Ocean and Linode offer excellent documentation; if you don’t find answers there, you will at stackoverflow. So there’s really no excuse to not start learning these things right away, especially if you’re so inclined.

Actually, you should probably pick up on these things even if you’re not so inclined because these are the basic technologies through which humanity engages the Information Age’s most powerful medium of communication: the internet. Their architecture, technical specifications and functional affordances make up the framework in which we conduct our techno-politics. What they allow us to do become freedoms and violations; what they don’t allow us to do become safeguards and restrictions.

Extending the importance of understanding how they work to one higher level of abstraction – we have the foundations of online commerce, digital art and information sharing protocols. Going even further, we start to bump into questions about memory, persistence, intelligence and immortality.

Every one of us is situated somewhere on this beanstalk, and with each passing day, there are fewer ways as well as fewer reasons to get off. (Even those who reject the internet must engage with it – either to implement their rejection or to engage with others who continue to use the internet.) As one developer wrote:

Ignoring the cloud or web services because they are out of your comfort zone is no longer an option. The app economy is shifting. Adapt or die.

As I tried to learn more about how these technologies impacted our daily lives – an nth or zeroth level of abstraction depending on your POV – I also realised the world’s foremost interpreters of the internet’s implications were white men. They’re too numerous to list but sample these authors of my bookmarked blogs: Sam Altman, Marco Arment, Andy Baio, John Gruber, Jason Kottke, Jay Rosen, Bruce Schneier, Ben Thompson and Jeffrey Zeldman, among others.1 Even to begin to decide whether the privilege enjoyed by this coterie biases their aspirations vis a vis the internet, you will need to pick up the basics.

Fortunately, the cost of acquiring this knowledge has been falling. Tending to my garden of obsessions has meant surfing the interwebs for different IaaS providers for hours on end, the various features they offer (usually the same but every once in a while something new comes up) and – interestingly – comparing their Terms of Service. During one such excursion recently, I came upon two great forums: LowEndTalk (LET) and WebHostingTalk (WHT). If you’re looking for cheap but reliable hosting providers, especially of the shared or VPS variety, LET and WHT have got you covered.

For example, this is how I came upon some hosts – esp. RamNode, KnownHost, WebFaction and SecureDragon – that provide infra at costs you will find not low but altogether “cheap” if you’re coming in from the world of Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, etc. If you’ve picked up the basics of server management and security, the prices drop further (sub-$5). Even managed WordPress hosting hasn’t been spared; compare the prices of LightningBase and, say, Pressable.

(Managed hosting is a form of shared hosting where the hosting provider manages an application installed on the machine for the user, such that the user will have to be concerned only with using the application rather than also maintaining it. WordPress is a popular application for which managed options are abundant because those who use WordPress often have a very different skillset than that required to maintain WordPress.)

In all, you will need to spend about five hours a week for a month and a total of $10 to unlock a whole new, and very socially and politically relevant, world. If you want to do more, check out Slashdot Deals for amazing learning ‘bundles’.


1. The only exception I’ve been able to think of is Om Malik. Then again, all the white people I’ve mentioned, and Malik, are also all American, and perhaps I’m focusing on American interpretations of the interet’s implications. I can think of a few people who operate out of India – Pranesh Prakash, Srinivas Kodali, Malavika Jayaram, Anuj Srivas, Kiran Jonnalagadda – but none of them are recognised worldwide whereas the white men all are. This, of course, isn’t surprising.