Adventures in Web Hosting, Part 1: Testing Out Web Hosting

For a long time, as a web producer, I worked a lot on the design of sites, the code, dealing with stakeholders, tweaking user experiences, and working with engineers, but one of the most basic things about a website was something I never really had to deal with up and personal — the server. I had relied upon quite a few system admins to make sure that the websites I worked on had a great environment to live on. Now that I am doing freelance work as a small business person, I needed to take a closer look at webhosting and learn more about this very basic website need… and it took me a lot of time! The experience has given me a lot of material to blog, and the first part here will focus on all the things to consider when choosing a web host.

It has been said that web hosting reviews are a cesspool and there is indeed plenty of noise and spam out there to make it even more confusing to choose a web host. As standard practice in the industry relies heavily on affiliate marketing, many of the web hosting review sites out there are no better than affiliate link farms with “rankings” based on payouts. Beyond questionable consumer reviews, there are even more questionable practices out there to be aware of. So what are some of the ways I have done my research? Some of it can be done via Google (searching for “hostname sucks” or “hostname complaint”) some by Twitter, some by poking around in forums (like Webhostingtalk.com), factoring in costs and benefits, and also through pure and simple test drive.

Finding webhosting is quite a daunting task. In some ways, it might be never ending. I have been programming websites since 1996 and in those years I have gone through a few hosts myself. Hosting has changed as websites and platforms have evolved. For example, the average webpage has grown a lot in the last few years, and the trend is not going to reverse or stop any time soon. Here are some of the considerations I had in my shopping and testing of web hosts:

1. Disk space and bandwidth

First and foremost, in web hosting there is no such thing as unlimited disk space and bandwidth. Even if a web host advertises unlimited disk space and bandwidth, if you are using a shared hosting there is always a cap, usually in the form of CPU usage, database size, or limit in the way you used your account (no backups or archives). For the most part, the typical website will not be using a lot of disk space or bandwidth, but if there is a traffic spike, the terms of service will probably dictate that your account be suspended and shut down. This might mean that your site would go down without warning and a sign “The account has been suspended” like you have done something wrong and shady, as opposed to something more positive like “This website is shutdown due to overwhelming traffic.” If you are running a store or a blog, this kind of shut down can be very costly. One cannot blame webhosts for doing this per se, since shared hosting requires that everyone plays nicely by the rules in order for things to run smoothly. Shared hosting is a lot like a crowded apartment building with many small units rented out — you can’t have a bad tenant throwing a party for a thousand people without it negatively affecting the neighbors! If you have someone on the server who is getting backed or attacked, that will negatively affect your site as well. It’s not a bad thing for hosts to have limits in bandwidth or disk space, as it helps hosts manage the speed and availability of their servers.

2. Support for WordPress, e-commerce, apps, or growth

While there are plenty of hosts out there that offers WordPress as an install, there is a difference between offering and supporting. At a minimum, when you are WordPress, you need a host that supports PHP, MySQL, and .htaccess (which is a given with Linux but not so with Windows hosting). If you are looking at e-commerce, then you will need a dedicated SSL certificate, and that usually comes at an extra cost. If you need special set up for running apps, such as Ruby on Rails or Python.

Some hosts offer really great shared hosting, and that’s it. If you outgrow shared hosting then you will need other kinds of hosting (like VPS, Cloud, or Dedicated). There are some general rules of thumb thrown out as to when you need to consider an upgrade from shared hosting: if you get more than 1,000 visitors a day, more than 100,000 page views, or more than 300 concurrent users, but that can also vary depending on the software platform that you run and the memory it requires as well as the hardware specs of the hosting server. Before signing up with any host it is always a good idea to ask the host company about these things.

3. Availability of customer and technical support

What are the level of support offered — phone, email, chat, twitter? Not all hosting companies offer 24/7 support, and even if they offer 24/7 support, it is not always available by phone. And even when they are available by phone the level of knowledge can vary and it might not be US-based. Some companies are really great on social media, some are not so much. It does pay to test out the customer support before signing on with a company. For many people, not being able to reach support 24/7, especially when a site goes down, it quite painful. Think about how you would feel if your site goes down on a Friday night and you are not able to get through to anyone for help for days.

4. Reliability, speed, and uptime

There is no such thing as 100% uptime all the time as even the best hosts will go down from time to time (excluding maintenance). That uptime percentage is NETWORK uptime, not the uptime of individual servers. Generally if you can get 99.9% uptime (per year) that is really good. Keep in mind that 99.9% uptime per month still mean that there can be 45 minutes of downtime in that given month and 8 hours and 46 minutes down in a year. If that percentage is 99.8% the downtime actually doubles to 87 minutes in a month and 17.5 hours downtime per year. For the most part, hosts with above 99.5% network uptime is considered good.

There are many hosts that won’t provide uptime guarantee, and there are some that do. If your host does have an uptime guarantee, that usually means that they might compensate your downtime with a month’s worth of hosting for free. With a cheap host, that can mean that you save $5-$10. Generally, if you want reliability, you are going to have to pay for it, and shared hosting is the least reliable because more things can go wrong by its very nature. Your host’s network uptime is actually the best case scenario — it doesn’t include your own downtime and the server’s downtime.

5. Control panel

The gold standard currently out there for web hosting is Cpanel, which has been touted for its user-friendliness. However, there are quite a many different kinds of control panel software out there and some hosts use proprietary control panels. They all have different levels of user-friendliness. For example, GoDaddy, 1and1, and Dreamhost all have their own control panels. I have even known quite a few web developers who will charge clients extra for dealing with particular hosts like GoDaddy and 1and1, in part because of their clunky control panel as well as past experience with their support. I personally have had experience with GoDaddy, 1and1, and Dreamhost control panels and personally think the Dreamhost one is actually not too bad.

The good thing about Cpanel, however, is that currently there are mobile and tablet applications that will work with Cpanel, giving you control over your website even without computer access. For my purpose, to be able manage a website from my phone is quite advantageous.

6. Terms of Service

This is probably the most important part in considering web hosting because at the end of the day, you are signing a contract. You must read their TOS! Web hosts often requires prepayment and a term contract that you may or may not be able to get out of (or get money refunded) if you are unhappy or dissatisfied for any reason. Some companies will offer a 30-90 days satisfaction guarantee but their terms of service will tell you what that guarantee does not cover in terms of what they refund you.

Next in my series we will explore some of the pitfalls and questionable practices of web hosting everyone should watch out for.

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