Nginx—Surprisingly Easy

Out of curiosity I spent my Sunday afternoon moving this blog from Amazon S3 to a DigitalOcean VPS (spoiler, that’s a referral link). I didn’t have a solid reason to do this—it’s both more expensive and more effort—aside from to learn. I’ve never set up a web server from scratch before let alone owned a VPS. I kind of felt I needed one so I could earn some geek cred.

I’m running Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on the VPS since Ubuntu’s the Linux distribution I have the most experience with1. Nginx is acting as the web server and seems to be fast. It’s not like I have anything to compare it with though. The VPS is DigitalOcean’s cheapest droplet—512 MB of RAM and a 20 GB SSD.

Given my lack of experience with web servers, I was expecting Nginx to be a pain to set up. Surprisingly, it wasn’t. Within 30 minutes I had a test page up and within an hour I was serving a mirror of this site from a subdomain of this site. Granted, this is a purely static site, so I didn’t have to set up the full LEMP stack.

I won’t go into detail about how I set up the VPS but I’ll share a few resources I found. DigitalOcean’s support website has some good documentation on setting up a Linux VPS. There’s also a tutorial on setting up a LEMP stack but I’m not a fan of it. The tutorial uses the outdated nginx package provided in the Ubuntu repositories. It needs updating with info on getting the latest version of Nginx.

A very useful resource I found for learning about Nginx was Martin Fjordvald’s blog. He’s written several useful and interesting articles especially “Nginx Configuration Primer”. He’s also written a short book that goes into a bit more detail. It’s a quick read and definitely worth the ~£6.00 if you’re new to Nginx.


More than anything this was a learning exercise but there were a few benefits.

The biggest advantage is native support for root domain names. AWS doesn’t support them unless you use their Route 53 service. As a result, I had to use a 3^rd party service to redirect the root domain to the www cname record. This added an extra 200–300 ms to the DNS look up if somebody used the naked domain. It was a noticeable difference in performance. Now, the homepage loads in ~300 ms regardless of which domain you use.

Another advantage is the extra control I get. With S3, supporting features like gzip compression was an all or nothing choice. If a browser didn’t support gzip—an admittedly rare occurrence—it’d receive nothing but garbled data. With Nginx though I can enable the gzip_static directive and support these browsers.

Going forwards I’m probably going to serve Geography AS Notes from the same DigitalOcean droplet since GitHub pages offers even less control than Amazon S3. I don’t see any reason why I can’t serve it from the same droplet since this website is such a low volume site, it will have a negligible performance impact. If need be I can get a better DigitalOcean droplet but since Geography AS Notes is strictly not for profit and advertisement free I’d have to find some way to subsidise the cost.

  1. I’ve been running and maintaining Ubuntu on my Grandmother’s computer since 8.04. She uses my old MacBook now but had no problems with Ubuntu when she used it. ↩︎