Crucial Paradigm Australia (Disclaimer: Aaron W. from Crucial Paradigm emailed me early last week asking for a review on their re-launched Xen VPS plans. So here we go — a review on their Xen VPS after playing with one for a few days.)

Crucial Paradigm is a web hosting/web design company in Sydney, Australia that have both Australian and US based operations (just realised that their office is around 400 metres to where I work). They have been in business for 5 years now, and early this year they launched their virtual dedicated servers service, providing fully managed Xen VPS hosted at the Equinix data centre in Sydney (which is on the same road where I live!)

They have recently re-launched their Xen VPS service. Instead of being fully managed, Crucial Paradigm is now offering them unmanaged with full-management option at extra A$50/month. That has driven down the cost of their base packages. The VPS I am testing now, which is the cheapest on their plan page, has

  • 256MB memory + 256MB swap partition
  • 25GB RAID-10 storage
  • 10GB data transfer/month

All that for AUD$29/month, which makes it one of the cheapest virtual dedicated server plans in Australia. I know 10GB of data transfer per month is nothing and some sites can zap through that in a day. AUD$3.50 per excessive GB of transfer is not particular cheap either — but then again this is Australia we are talking about, unfortunately.

Signing Up and Deployment

You can sign up a Xen VPS account from the plan page, which is integrated with their WHMCS hosting billing system (why oh why do you want a domain name for unmanaged VPS service?!) Anyway, signing up is a breeze after putting in example.com. I think all sign ups are manually provisioned so there is no instant VPS deployment (although I think WHMCS does have HyperVM provisioning module). My VPS was deployed within an hour anyway as Crucial Paradigm has staff on support 24/7. Pretty good so far.

Note that at the point of signing up, you can choose from a list of available Linux distributions — CentOS 4/5, Debian 3/4, Ubuntu 7.10/8.04, Gentoo 2006 and Fedora Core 6. You can also choose a control panel, some with extra cost — cPanel, DirectAdmin and LxAdmin. More about this later — but for a start I chose a Debian 4 template.

CPU & I/O Performance

According to Crucial Paradigm’s VPS page, they have pretty impressive physical hardware running the dom0. At the time of writing they are deploying new VPS onto hardware with the following spec:

  • 2 x Xeon Quad Core 5410 (8 x 2.33Ghz, 24MB Cache)
  • 32GB DDR2 FB-DIMM RAM
  • 8+ Enterprise Drives RAID-10
  • Dual Redundant Power Supplies

While the physical server has access to 8 CPU cores, the low-end 256MB VPS I’ve got has only access to one according to /proc/cpuinfo. I think higher plans might have access to more cores. It is not a big issue for me as the bottleneck of most websites is usually not on CPU (if the scripts and database have been tuned properly). Disk I/O performance is usually more critical.

I used methods detailed in this LinuxInsignt article to measure the linear read and seek performance of the hard disk (tested at 9:30pm on Sunday):

# hdparm -tT /dev/sda1

/dev/sda1:
 Timing cached reads:   23060 MB in  2.00 seconds = 11555.72 MB/sec
 Timing buffered disk reads:  948 MB in  3.01 seconds = 315.39 MB/sec

# seeker /dev/sda1
Seeker v2.0, 2007-01-15, http://www.linuxinsight.com/how_fast_is_your_disk.html
Benchmarking /dev/sda1 [25000MB], wait 30 seconds..............................
Results: 141 seeks/second, 7.05 ms random access time

Result is pretty good. However I do personally find “performance testing” under the VPS environment is a bit less than useful because it all depends on how much resource your neighbours are using at the same time. Take disk read test for example, the result is different everytime, although it is usually between 200MB/sec to 315MB/sec.

I am happy to say that Crucial Paradigm is offering a very solid virtual dedicated server.

Network Connectivity

Crucial Paradigm’s Xen VPS is connected to a 100mbps port with pretty good connectivity. First of all it peers with PIPE networks which means pretty good speed for many broadband users in NSW. I also get quick downloads from inter-state mirrors. For example 3.5MB/sec from mirror.aarnet.edu.au in Queensland.

Best of all, it has very sweet latency for NSW users. 20ms average from my ADSL-connected home to my testing VPS, consider the first hoop is already 18 milliseconds!

Revolutionary?

There are now over 30+ hosting companies providing virtual private/dedicated servers in Australia. The question is — what sets Crucial Paradigm apart?

  • Xen LogoXen VPS. You’ll find most Australian VPS providers go with Virtuozzo-based service, and those that use Xen are few, although Xen itself is free (whereas Virtuozzo costs). I have nothing against Parallels but I do personally prefer Xen as it is more dedicated-like.

    Check my previous article on Xen vs. OpenVZ on why I prefer one rather than the other.

  • Affordable entry cost. What attracts me first to VPS is its price tag — it costs way less than a full brown dedicated server and yet it feels and behaves like one. Looking at the list of providers in Australia, not many of them can offer you a VPS for less than AUD$30 per month, so that Aussie Linux geeks can have a “cheap root” somewhere Down Under.

    Crucial Paradigm, GPLHost, and Labyrinth Data are the only ones I can find so far. Interestingly they are all Xen providers. Crucial Paradigm and Labyrinth Data’s low-end plans are pretty much on-par. CP’s one has more memory and offers plans scale all the way to 4GB RAM, but LD’s has more disk space, free WAIX traffic, etc.

  • HyperVMHyperVM VPS Management. I won’t say HyperVM is revolutionary, but it is indeed unique amongst Australian VPS providers. If you check out the VPS hosting offers section at WHT, you will find around 1/2 of the new providers are using HyperVM and OpenVZ. The reason is simple — you don’t have to code your own VPS management suite and at 50 cents/VPS/month it is probably the most economical solution for new providers.

    HyperVM is actually not too bad. I do prefer custom panels from SliceHost and Linode and found HyperVM too cluttered (icons everywhere giving you too much information). However it is powerful and it gives customers everything to shoot themselves in the foot. You can manage multiple nodes from a single installation.

    Why there’s no other Australian providers offering HyperVM-based solution is really beyond me. At least Crucial Paradigm is taking the lead here.

LxAdmin Screenshot Another point related to HyperVM is LxAdmin, LxLabs’ light weight web hosting control panel that is free with HyperVM-powered VPS, that I have reviewed here. LxAdmin has evolved since I last reviewed it last June. Instead of 100 free domains you now only get to host 40 domains, but it has also added a lot more functionality that makes it a more complete end-to-end web hosting package. It even integrates with WHMCS that Crucial Paradigm says is “free” on their plan page.

Why am I bringing LxAdmin up? In fact after a few hours my Debian VPS was up, I wiped it clean and installed CentOS 5 + LxAdmin template. The LxAdmin template has everything you need to get web hosting up and running — web server, DNS server, mail server, IMAP server, control panel, etc. Basically you can start hosting your sites or your clients’ sites straight away — why needs cPanel and DirectAdmin? You might swap out Lighttpd for Apache though for compatibility, and 256MB RAM is more than sufficient to run Apache + LxAdmin.

This is again something I have been wondering, as due to abundant budget VPS over there in US, LxAdmin/Host-In-A-Box has raised in popularity due to its cost and memory usage. No one in Australia seems to care about it but I am glad that Crucial Paradigm brought it in as the low-cost solution to run your own small hosting shop.

Conclusion

After playing around with a testing VPS for a few days, I can say that Crucial Paradigm has launched some very solid Xen VPS packages. While VPS providers are getting crowded in Australia, Crucial Paradigm managed to differentiate itself from the competitions by providing a low entry-level price tag plus a powerful server management control panel (HyperVM). By offering a free web hosting control panel (LxAdmin) and a free billing system (WHMCS), I think this VPS will be very appealing to small hosting shops or web design/publishing shops.

Will I host with Crucial Paradigm? Maybe, but definitely not at this stage. Bandwidth in Australia is still way too expensive. Unless you are a big bandwidth buyer, you usually have to pay $3-$4 per gigabyte transferred. Crucial Paradigm also lacks a community feeling on its site — where do their customers hang out?! I guess most individual/small business customers won’t care, but as a developer I do look out for signs of forums and active blogs to see how lively the community is (which usually reflects how good the service is).

All the best to Aaron and team.