Whatever hosting platform you choose, hardware matters - a lot

How much of a difference does modern hardware make? Here's how much faster things have gotten in recent years.

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Over the years, new forms of hosting infrastructure have followed a basic pattern: As new platforms open up new possibilities, they make it easier to not think about hardware.

Virtual servers, then containers, and then web services (including so-called serverless ones) have all added layers of abstraction. It has gotten easier and easier to forget that somewhere, underneath anything that you run in the cloud, metal boxes still make everything go.

This is useful when you want to put all your attention into building websites or selling software-as-a-service. But it's too much of a good thing if you know more about the hardware in your phone than the hardware that your business relies on.

That's because hardware quality matters a lot for the performance of the websites you build. No amount of abstraction can change that fact. And recently, while a lot of us haven't really been paying attention, hardware quality has accelerated very, very quickly.

Here's a quick look at some of the amazing advances that have happened lately. It's important for anyone who wants to run fast websites - or if you want to know what your money can buy from quality hosts today.

CPUs got 100 times faster in 16 years...then almost doubled again

One of our sister companies has been offering dedicated servers since 2007. We build these servers ourselves, so we've spent almost two decades comparing components like CPUs. It's always a matter of balancing performance, reliability, and price. In this section we're going to look at the CPUs that we've supplied to customers over the years.

That is to say that we haven't gone and cherry-picked the worst CPUs from last decade and compared them to the top shelf in 2024. We're talking about quality hardware through the years - only the stuff that we have found to be worth investing in for our customers.

Another group of people who have kept a close eye on CPUs for many years are the team behind CPUbenchmark.net. Their benchmarking assesses eight aspects of CPU performance and boils it down to a single figure that they call a "CPU Mark". It's pretty simple: a higher mark is a quicker CPU.

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There are three distinct periods in this graph.

  • From 2007-2019, shown in light purple, Intel ruled the CPU roost. Over those years, CPU marks grew steadily from about 650 to over 10,000. This is good progress for sure - anything that gets more than 10 times better in 12 years is doing well.

  • Then in the early 2020s there's a giant leap. Suddenly, Intel loses dominance as rivals like AMD turn up. The first AMD product in the graph immediately doubles the best CPU mark so far, and by 2023 we have a new record of around 65,000. The dark purple bars are only three years' worth of innovation, but that's long enough to change the game.

  • Finally the last few bars, in green, show the newest generation of CPUs that we offer. The best of them nearly doubles the high mark.

Whether you're running containers, or serverless hosting, or any other platform, the CPU is the system's workhorse. In just the last few years, the amount of work that a CPU can tackle has been launched into a new realm.

To put this another way: If you're still on a server from 2019, or even 2021, your hardware is definitely behind the performance curve.

Storage stories - trickier to tell, same moral

Looking at another vital component of any system, storage, we see a similar tale of improvement, and of the most recent gains being the biggest.

But where CPUs essentially saw one sort of technology improved over time, hard drives have been completely overhauled more than once. We've gone from HDDs to SSDs, and then NVMe storage. So there's more to look into than a single rating.

Bigger and cheaper

The easiest place to start is capacity. You don't need to be told that drives have kept getting bigger, but let's lay down a marker anyway. If you've been in the market for external desktop storage any time since 2007, here's how many gigabytes you could expect to get for every dollar you spent:

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The price of consumer drives has been remarkably consistent. The amount that you can cram into each drive has ballooned. Let's say that a dollar goes 20x as far as it did in 2007.

HDD to SSD meant immeasurably faster reading and writing

Input/output operations (IOPs) basically describe the speed at which a drive can read and write data.

Because HDDs had to spin to work (kind of like a record player), there was a physical limit on IOPs. That doubled over time from 7,200 to 15,000 RPM.

When SSDs turned up, IOPs changed a lot. There are countless ways to benchmark IOPs, and there's no standard test. From just two reliable third parties (the SSD Review and Tom's Hardware), you find data that places the SSD multiplier at anything from 3.5x to 1667x. It's basically the mathematical definition of "incomparable".

In our experience, it seems fair to say that SSD IOPs are hundreds of times faster than HDD.

NVMe takes latency near zero

Latency is a measure of waiting time. How long does it take for data to move in and out of the storage medium?

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In the HDD era, latency was around 4 milliseconds. That's quick, but it's almost a big enough number for a human to comprehend.

SSDs cut that down massively, to an unimaginable 115 millionths of a second.

Then NVMe storage lopped most of that time off, and today one of the biggest contributors to latency is the physical distance that electrons have to travel from A to B.

In short, latency barely exists anymore - as long as you're running NVMe storage. So, are you? A lot of developers don't know the answer. If that's you, it's definitely time to ask your hosting provider a few questions (or just get onto Webslice Containers and be sure).

Putting it all together: High performance

If you take one thing away from this article, make it the fact that hardware matters a lot for the performance of your hosting and websites.

Got room for one more takeaway? Add in the fact that even after you've found a provider who's running modern gear, there's still more that you need from them. Technology like virtualization layers make a big difference. Over-provisioning (or cramming too many customers onto a single server) can slow down any machine. Poor support can ruin any hosting.

The luxury of not having to think about hardware has let developers focus on what they do best. That's been good, for sure. But the world has been changing, whether or not you've been paying attention. Perhaps today should be the day that you check in on what's under the hood of your hosting platform.

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