Build your own Linux VPS

5 years ago if you ask me to build my own Linux VPS for my websites I would’ve shaken my head and said it was too much for a non-sysadmin like me. Now I’m pretty comfortable of doing it. I want to share my thoughts in this post and hopefully it can be useful to other web builders.

When I first started I put my websites on shared hosting servers. While it was cheap and easy to setup you often don’t get the best performance on your dollar. This is especially true when your site gets more traffic and you are anal about the downtime like me. Until I discovered VPS. VPS is a great solution to move up from shared hosting. Having a VPS server means you have full control over a virtual host so you can install and configure the way you like; also, because using VPS means “renting” a slice of a physical server, someone else takes care about the racking, networking and hardware maintenance.

There are generally two types of VPS. One is “managed” and the other is obviously, “un-managed”. “managed” in this case means the service provider will help you install apps, trouble shoot, and in some cases, walk you step by step to help you resolve an issue, as long as you ask. And often times you have a full web based system control panel, like “CPanel” installed for you. The later case, apparently, don’t have this kind of service. You are basically given a barebone server and you are on your own. As you can see a managed service will be more costly.

I started with managed VPS. But as my Linux skill gets better the “managed part” of the service becomes less and less necessary. CPanel is a great tool but it also a big resource consumer itself. Sometimes you might find most of your system resource is consumed by addons, not the main apps like web server or the database.

To grow out of a managed service the key is to try and learn. for example, if you choose to stay on CPanel forever (not that there is anything wrong with it:)), you’ll stay on it for ever. To take the leap you need to be ready for it. It took me sometime to get to the comfort level that I’m at now. During which, I found a number of guidelines that I begin to follow.

Keep a good and updated server diary

I think this is the first thing to do when you start handle your own server. A good server diary can not only help you trouble shoot, it’s also a good reference when you need to re-install, upgrade, or in some less frequent cases, move to new service provider.

Like any other service you buy, hosting service provider’s service quality can go down too. You pretty much don’t have any other choices except voting with your feet. A good service log can make changing host a lot easier. Recently when I switched my VPS provide, it only took me a few hours to stand up full services on a brand new VPS host. The process also forced me to refresh and update my server diary.

Utilize the external services

To host a website on VPS, we have to install pretty much everything ourselves. They include at least Apache web server, PHP and MySQL. However, besides the basic LAMP stack, we also need to take care of services like DNS, email service. To keep your admin work as simple as possible, I strongly recommend outsourcing DNS or email to external service provider. For DNS, there are lots of options. I use For only a few dallors a month, you are completely shielded from managing your DNS app. Although you still need to understand what a “cname” is and how to change the DNS record to point your web site to the correct ip, you have a much much smaller learning curve.

Email is another service that can get quite complex. I found using Google App’s email service makes a lot of sense. Since their email service is based on Gmail, the IMAP , effective Spam filter and web access are all included naturally. Without the email server and SmapAssasin taking up resource on your server, your server is also better optimized. Google Apps has both free and paid version. Another benefit of using reputable external email service is the trust level you gain for your emails. A lot of my users who use Yahoo mail couldn’t receive message because they were marked spam. But since I started using Gmail service it has been a lot better.

If your web site has a lot of user generated content like photos, you may also consider using the cloud storage like Amazon AWS. I’m generally against building your site completely depending on the cloud but it another subject.

Install from source

I know this is quite a debatable subject. Installing application from source doesn’t always give you the type of control that you can have using the packaging tools. However, there are several benefit that can’t be overlooked.

First, you have the full control on the binary and you can build the exact binary that you want. For example, when building your own PHP binary, you can specify the features you want to enable to have a small footprint. Same can be applied to Apache httpd server. This will directly impact the memory usage of your web server.

Secondly if you are accustomed to source installation you will not need to hunt around for the latest RPM or whatever installation package that built by someone else. You can stay updated with the latest version of software. Since the same procedure can be universally applied to all the Linux distros you are less likely to be affected by the different packaging tool that different Linux distro offers.

And lastly, it’s really not that hard to do.

Some basic steps

With a brand new VPS, there are some basic setups that have to be run to ensure the security and basic usability. Your VPS service provider will configure your VPS to a certain degree before handing over so you might need to look into the system configuration like partitioning before proceeding to the steps below.

Update system information

When your new server is up and running, you’ll need to update the host name:
echo “” > /etc/hostname
hostname -F /etc/hostname
And don’t forget updating the hostname variable in /etc/sysconfig/network file
Also update the system time:
ln -sf /usr/share/zoneinfo/US/Eastern /etc/localtime

Create users

Adding users is the second must.

groupadd johndoe

useradd -d /home/johndoe -g johndoe -p johndoespassword

To create user “apache” for your web server you’ll need the following command:

groupadd apache
useradd apache -c “Apache Server” -d /dev/null -g apache -s /sbin/nologin

Turn off the unnecessary services

By default you’ll have some services up and running. You want to turn them off.
This is the command to show who is up:
chkconfig –list | grep 3:on
This is the command to turn one off
chkconfig <service name> off
Also, make sure double check who is listening on what port. On my servers, I only leave ports for sshd, httpd, mysqld and a few others.
netstat -an

Secure SSH

You want to turn off the root access:

/etc/ssh/sshd_config file, set this: PermitRootLogin no

Also you want to set up public/private key authentication.

I would also recommend changing the port from 22 to something else.

Set up a firewall using iptables

If you are reading this article you probably know what iptables is. The tricky part is how to configure it. A few years ago I went a great length to learn what tables and chains are and how to set up a shell script to configure an iptables firewall. The problem was I soon forgot what I had learned since configuring iptables is not something I do on a daily basis for a developer like myself. And guess what, I locked myself out on my first try in a new server.

Luckily there are tools today which wraps around iptables and expose an easy to use configuration interface. This makes the life a lot easier for me. APF is what I use and the project page can be found here:

Install some utilities, compiler and libraries

I only use CentOS/Redhat system as example and yum is my command of choice for packaging tool. Again they are just basic tools and libraries for installing Apache, PHP so others might need to be installed as well. But the key again, is to keep a good log of what has been installed so you have a good reference when you build your next server.

yum install man
yum install vixie-cron
yum install wget
yum install rsync
yum groupinstall ‘Development Tools’
yum install mailx
yum install zlib-devel
yum install openssl-devel
yum install libxml2-devel
yum install curl
yum install curl-devel
yum install libjpeg-devel
yum install libpng-devel
yum install mysql-devel
yum install libxslt-devel
yum install libmcrypt
yum install libmcrypt-devel
yum install libevent
yum install libevent-devel

Install applications

Now it comes the time to install your beloved apps. One thing to remember if you install from source is to create script in /etc/init.d and add the service entry. For example after installing Apache http server, you need to add the httpd startup/shutdown script to /etc/init.d and add it to your service list:

chkconfig –add httpd
chkconfig –levels 235 httpd on

Install a MTA

It’s likely that your web site needs to send emails so you probably need an MTA to talk to your external email server through SMTP for message delivery. If the system comes with Sendmail installed, I’ll go ahead use it. Here is a post I wrote to get sendmail work with gmail. There are other options like postfix, exim and qmail that you can consider. Here is a good article on MTA comparison. Although there are lots of pros and cons that you can munch on I think the most important thing to consider is which one is the easiest for you. With the latest development they are all very capable products so anyone of them can deliver your need.
This is quite a long-winded post. I don’t mean to write a tutorial but just want to cover some basics on building a Linux VPS (or dedicated server in this matter). A few years ago it was almost unthinkable for me that all these kind of things can be done by one person, but as the tools, technology and information become more available and easier to find, it is quite feasible now. I hope the post can be a good start for us web builders who are interested in setting up their own server. And please do leave your comment if you have any thoughts, tips or suggestions.
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