The best thing about attending WordPress meetups is when you chat with someone who has been working with WordPress for only a year or two, and you are able to tell them about a tool that will instantly solve a problem they have been struggling with every day. The look on their face as what you are telling them sinks in is always a joy to behold.
This article is about a tool that could impact your use of WordPress in that profound way if you currently pay for Web hosting.
Hosting sucks. The entire Web hosting industry. Even the supposedly “good” hosts give you only a fraction of the resources you pay for. Most of your money goes towards the marketing that persuaded you to buy their service in the first place.
Three years ago, I wrote about how the value and ease-of-use offered by the new wave of VPS (Virtual Private Server) providers – such as Digital Ocean, Linode, Vultr, Hetzner Cloud and many others – threw a spotlight on the lack of value added by Web hosts. I predicted that, as server management services continued to improve over the next decade, that lack of value would become increasingly apparent and would eventually lead to The End of The Web Hosting Industry.
Having worked with countless clients over the past 25 years as they struggled with their Web hosts, I have seen that the “experts” who provide hosting support draw from an extremely limited repertoire of solutions. Sure, they will be wonderfully helpful and patient when showing a new user how to install a plugin or publish a post, but when an actual problem arises, they are almost always clueless, and their script is explicitly designed to absolve them of any responsibility.
The most grotesque situations are when support staff spend hours “troubleshooting” problems that they surely know stem from the lack of resources they provide, in particular memory, but they cannot admit that to the client. I have even seen this happen to clients who were spending thousands of dollars a month, and the entire problem could have been resolved by moving them to a $60 server … but they could not do that because that it was not part of their financial model.
Ultimately, the best that hosting support can usually offer is to turn off all your plugins so that you can figure out the problem yourself by activating them again one-by-one, or they will offer to restore your site from a backup made when the site last worked. They will be polite and sympathetic, but their financial model is designed to provide nothing more than the most basic support.
You can do this for yourself. You can do it better.
For those of us who work with WordPress, and end up running dozens of sites for ourselves, clients, family and friends, the magical moment is when you suddenly realize that you can, quite easily, manage your own VPS and that it will, in fact, be better because even a $5 per month VPS gives you more guaranteed resources than most shared hosting accounts.
These modern VPS providers make it quicker, easier and cheaper than ever to rent your own VPS and, unlike shared hosting, no other customer can touch your resources, their activities cannot affect the performance of your sites. You particularly need to be certain of your hardware resources when you are doing anything complicated with your WordPress site, such as using WooCommerce to sell things, or the WordPress Multilingual plugin (WPML) to create different language versions of your site.
Less than a cent an hour, or $5 per month, gets you 1 GB of RAM (memory), a CPU core (the brain) to yourself and around 25 GB of fast SSD storage. I reckon this is more than sufficient for most installations of WordPress but, if you need more, you simply double your VPS and pay 1.5 cents per hour, or $10 a month. You can cancel a VPS at any time and only pay for the hours you used.
The beauty of running your own VPS is that adding additional website costs you practically nothing. You might at some stage have a $10 VPS on which you host 8 personal sites, and a $20 VPS on which you host 20 clients, and another $15 VPS that you use for Plex and some occasional torrenting.
Obviously, if you are not paying for a Web host, you must find some other way to manage your VPS. Some people do this manually. Sure, that sounds terrifyingly geeky, but all it boils down to is that they log into their fresh server, carry out certain steps to secure it and, then, install the software they want to run, such as WordPress. Thereafter, they log into their VPS once a week or so and type a few commands to keep it all updated and backed up.
Of course, the vast majority of people have neither the time nor the inclination to learn how to do this. The good news is that you don’t have to. There is now a Windows PC application called VPSrobots that handles all of that for you.
The developers behind VPSrobots describe it as “all-in-one VPS manager software designed for website managers”, but I like to think of it as my robotic server admin who lives safely on my Windows laptop.
When you sign up to, say, Digital Ocean and buy a $5 VPS, they will email the server login details to you. You enter these details into your VPSrobots application. All sensitive server info remains encrypted on your PC. You can also choose to use a private key as a more secure form of login.
The application connects to your VPS, logs in and gets straight to work, installing, configuring and securing it. The main page for each VPS shows its general system information such as the disk and memory usage, CPU utilization, the current processes running, and the status of Apache, MySQL and PHP.
It installs everything you will need to run this VPS as a Web server.
How about when you want to perform certain tasks, such as add a new domain or create a new WordPress site?
In the past, when you paid for Webhosting accounts, you were probably given a dashboard that allowed you to carry out these tasks by pointing and clicking.
If your Webhost was particularly unsophisticated, you might even have had some old, insecure software called CPanel installed on your account. CPanel does make it easy to carry out basic tasks via your browser, but the downside is not only that you have this old, poorly-designed, overgrown web application soaking up your precious resources at all times, but you also give hackers a huge surface area to attack and gain control over your account.
VPSrobots provides something far better. You carry out these tasks from their desktop application, which continues to communicate with your VPS via SSH (Secure Shell), so, there is no need to keep a resource-hungry and potentially insecure Web app running on your VPS at all times. When you exit the VPSrobots application on your PC, the connection to your VPS closes and hackers have no way to access it. This is so much more secure than any web-based app.
On your VPS, VPSrobots installs a light-weight client that is only active when you are doing things. For instance, it assists when you are backing up, restoring or migrating your websites. You can stop using VPSrobots at any time and log into your VPS in the normal way.
Once your VPSrobots application is connected to your VPS, you can do pretty much everything you would need to do as website manager, all via their easy interface.
You can instantly install any of the top 3 CMSs: WordPress, Joomla and Drupal, and the two most popular forums: phpBB and Simple Machines.
Once installed, you simply go to the site and answer the usual WordPress installation questions to create your brand new site.
Let’s Encrypt Everything
VPSrobots makes it easy to add an SSL cert to any of your sites. This is particularly important as, starting in July, the most popular browser, Google Chrome, will start marking all HTTP sites as insecure. The entire Web is being aggressively pushed towards HTTPS, so, it is just as well that VPSrobots makes it easy.
Again, SSL certs are an area in which users felt dependent upon their Web hosts for too long, and many hosts abused this trust by charging crazy amounts for those certs and pretending that they were somehow difficult to install. Now the certs are free and you can install them yourself in about a minute.
Explore Your VPS
If you want to browse the directories on your VPS, or change file permissions, or upload things, you can do all of that via the File Browser that it built into VPS. This essentially gives you the flexibility you would have if you were a command line wizard, right down to the ability to extract zip files.
The Holy Trinity: Backup, Restore, Migrate
Where it gets really interesting is that you can perform relatively advanced tasks such website backup, website restoration and, even, website migration from one server to another. This is precisely the sort of stuff that many people worry that they might need their web host for.
I would like to digress for a minute and explain why this trio – site backup, restoration and migration – are so essential to breaking away from Web hosts. As I mentioned earlier, when it really comes down to it, a Web hosts solution to any real problem will be to offer to restore your website from a backup made when your site was working.
Once you realize this, it becomes clear that, if you can simply master backing up and restoring your websites, you do not need your web host anymore.
VPSrobots makes backing up very easy. It backs up the entire site, zips it up and sends it to your Amazon AWS S3 storage. This reliable and inexpensive remote storage is a good way to ensure that you can recover your sites quickly if anything happens to your VPS. Personally, I would prefer Google Drive because, like most business owners, I have unlimited storage as part of my paid G Suite account, but VPSrobots are still working on adding support that.
You create a schedule for VPSrobots to make automated backups as often as you want. You can also define how many backups you would like to keep on your S3 storage. The default is 4, whenever a new backup arrives the oldest one is deleted. If I was doing nightly backups, I would probably set it to keep 14, meaning I would be paying more for storage but would have more time to notice that there was a problem with my website. If I was using Google Drive, with unlimited storage, I would keep 365 backups for each site.
Backups are useless if you do not regularly test them. I often grab a backup and restore it to create a temporary site under a different domain, just to make sure that everything works as expected. As you can tell, I lead a very exciting life.
Once you have set a schedule of automated backups, have confirmed that the backup files are arriving in your remote storage, and are confident that you can restore your sites from those backups at any time, there is no problem you cannot easily recover from. Even if your VPS was hacked, you can calmly delete the entire thing, start fresh, connect VPSrobots and restore all your sites.
Best of all is the ability to migrate your sites between servers, which the folks at VPSrobots refer to as “Website transfer”. This is a service that your web host might offer to perform for free when you first join them as a customer, but they will start charging you a hefty fee each time if moving websites around is a regular part of your workflow.
It is much better to be able to migrate your sites whenever you want, for free and without having to lodge a load of support tickets explaining what you want to do. Screw that.
If are a WordPress professional, this is something you need to be able to handle yourself, and VPSrobots makes it easy.
The Nitty-Gritty Stuff
The other area in which users are reluctant to cut their umbilical cord to Web host support is PHP configuration. When you get one of those errors about max execution time or max upload limit or whatever, you are relieved that you can post a support ticket and 20 minutes later receive an email letting you know that the limit has been increased, and now your plugin works. People feel so grateful to support for stuff like that.
The VPSrobots application gives you a simple interface to make all those changes yourself, including notes on what the default amounts were, and what you should probably change them to. This is pretty similar to what your support agent uses, but you no longer have to waste time submitting tickets and waiting for replies.
The application also contains a dashboard for enabling PHP modules …
… and another dashboard for configuring PHP. Again, this is all stuff you can do from the command line, but VPSrobots keeps you in a familiar “point and click” environment.
The most used firewall for all distributions of Linux is iptables. The VPSrobots application provides a visual interface that makes it easy to add port rules, IP rules, list the IPs scanning your server, and ban naughty IPs.
VPSrobots also scans your core Linux files to ensure that they have not been secretly modified.
The Windows application itself is frequently updated so that, when you connect to your VPS, it can carry out any updates that are available for your distribution of Linux and the applications installed on your VPS.
As a general security rule, update anything on your server that can be updated, as soon as possible. Try not to have any weak points.
Unfortunately, VPSrobots does not update WordPress core, plugins or themes. If you are managing a lot of WordPress sites, you should consider a WordPress management panel such as InfiniteWP, which I run locally on my laptop, making it a good match for VPSrobots.
The Free version of VPSrobots allows you to manage one VPS with unlimited domains and sites, and the application receives all updates.
The free version includes the sFTP file browser, the ability to enable HTTPS (SSL) on any of your sites, and the iptables and security scanning features to keep your VPS secure.
Free users can submit support tickets but, obviously, paying users receive priority.
The free version is a no-brainer for any Windows user who occasionally fires up a VPS to experiment with for a while. The application saves you the trouble of setting up your VPS and the point and click interface makes it a lot easier to use if you are not already a command line wizard.
The Basic level costs $29 per year and allows 2 VPSs. It adds the vital ability to backup, restore and migrate your sites. Your support tickets receive priority.
The Personal level costs $49 per year and allows up to 10 VPSs.
The Pro level costs $99 per year and allows unlimited VPSs.
To put that pricing into perspective, the best-known server management service, ServerPilot, offers less functionality but charges $10 per month for their plan that allows HTTPS (SSL). That is $10 per month, per server!
My guess is that the majority of our readers will fall into the 2 VPS / $29 per year category. That is $2.41 per month.
Myself, I would be in the 10 VPS / $49 per year category. That is $4.08 per month, considerably cheaper than any hosted server management service I am aware of but, for me, the main attraction is that I could manage all my servers from a desktop application, which is always faster and easier than hosted services.
There are hosted server management services that cost roughly the same as the Unlimited VPSs / $99 per year level. For instance, RunCloud costs $100 per year for unlimited servers but, if you are running that many servers, I reckon your main concern would be security.
A high-level user would be very aware that if RunCloud, or ServerPilot, or any hosted service gets hacked, all your servers would be wide open too. So, if you are actually big enough to need an Unlimited servers plan, an application on your own laptop is a far more secure option.
There is no free trial but all purchases are covered by a 30-day money back guarantee: if you decide, within 30 days, that you are not happy with VPSrobots, you will receive a 100% refund, no questions asked.
Technology makes things easier, and it keeps improving. We have already seen how plugins such as Toolset make it possible for you to make highly advanced websites with needing to code (Now Everyone is a WordPress Developer).
Managing a Web server was once considered to be a highly-specialized skill and we had no choice but to rely upon middlemen who shamelessly took advantage of our ignorance.
Now, thanks to the emergence of mass VPS providers such as Digital Ocean and the arrival of tools such as VPSrobots, you can take control of that aspect of your business, gain more flexibility in what you do, and all for an ongoing investment of time that is probably less than you would waste on support tickets, asking Web hosts to do stuff for you.
In the same way that you mastered online publishing, and WordPress was a tool that made that easy, you should use VPSrobots as a tool to make it easy to master server management.
The biggest problem I see with this application is that it is Windows PC only, there is no Mac OS version. Most of the developers and designers I see at tech conferences and WordPress events in Europe or North America tend to use Mac OS or Linux.
In South East Asia, where I live for half the year, there are more Windows laptops but my impression is that Macs are still more common among the level of a user who would be likely to pay for an application like this.
You can, of course, run Windows on Mac, either by using Bootcamp (a tool that is part of Mac OS) to create a Windows partition that you can choose to boot into, or virtualization software, such as Parallels and VMware Fusion, that allows you to run Windows apps alongside your Mac apps.
Windows 10 Home Edition costs around $100, Parallels and VMWare Fusion each cost around $70. You must also remember to buy virus software because you will now be running a Windows computer, even if it still looks like a Mac.
Realistically, however, very few people are going to go to so much trouble to run a server management application, so, I hope that, in the future, VPSrobots will release a Mac OS version.