Webhosting Revisited

I am currently moving my websites back from a shared webhosting environment to a dedicated server. Why do I take this extra cost, generated not only by higher fees for the dedicated server, but also by increased workload when I have to administer a webserver in-house?

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I had already a dedicated webserver a couple of years ago. I had abandoned it for three reasons: First of all the monthly payment is at least three times as much as a high end shared hosting account costs. But more importantly that old dedicated server used a Linux distribution which was less than stable, and I had to rebuild the server periodically. On top of that the support was less than perfect. If I had a question, the answer was mostly “We do only support the server in its standard configuration.” This meant a lot of work for me, and I spent way too much time administering my system.
I returned to a shared hosting plan. The deal was sweetened by many extras, like video hosting, a mailing list service and more. Considering it all, webhosting was almost for free. This was a great deal, at the first glance as it turned out.

I got what I had paid for.
But it did not too long until I realized that my websites were down for several hours, repeatedly. After complaining it turned out that the server was switched off because of system overload. But worse: I realized that spam links had been injected into all my Word Press blogs. Somebody had managed to access the blog database. I complained to the hosting company and repaired the blogs. Luckily I had backup copies available.
After a few days my sites were down, again. I called the hosting company immediately. It turned out that they are moving the whole shared server to a new machine, due to the prior problems. I was happy, for a while.
Soon after that I found that my traffic stats were gone. They had switched the statistics program from AW-Stats to Webalizer. And much worse, I then realized that my helpdesk installation was no longer accepting email, because some Perl modules had been removed from the server. All that happened without any communications about the changes from the side of the hosting company. I decided quickly to get my dedicated server back, but this time with a decent service package.

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A Hosting plan implies more than renting space on a server
The lesson learned from both scenarios is clear: If you pay for hosting, you do pay first and foremost for the people who maintain the technical infrastructure. This applies to a shared hosting plan as well as for a dedicated server. It’s true that I pay for the machine running the website, for electricity and for bandwidth. But the main benefit is the people who are taking care of the infrastructure 7 days per week, 24 hours per day.

What makes a web hosting service excellent?
The term “service” implies that there is a human being either performing a task for me, or helping me to perform that task, and this is exactly what I need. This service people need to be available at the time I need them. Waiting for an answer from Friday evening until Monday morning might well mean that my website is down over the weekend. This is most important in a shared hosting environment, where my own options to correct a problem are very limited.
Of course the service people have to know their stuff. If I ask them whether I can edit a certain configuration file manually, or whether the automation system will overwrite my changes at the next opportunity, I do need an answer.
I award the crown of excellence to service people if they do communicate as appropriate. One example is the implementation of a major configuration change or software update. Such events might render web applications dysfunctional and lead to a loss of statistical data. I want to do a backup before such a change, and I need to do some testing of my applications after it is implemented. For this reasons I must hear from my Webhosting company in advance about planned software and configuration changes.

What is a Great Webhost?

Which host is the right one for your website? There are lots of them. Prices range from free up to 100 Dollar per month or more.
It is obvious to me that I do not look for an exciting startup company to host my websites. I need a stable environment, managed by people with a track record, who know what they are doing. For this reason I prefer a utility-like company, with a clear focus on customer service.
To navigate through all this possibilities, I suggest you use a set of clear criteria. Here is the list the most important ones:

  • Reliability (99% uptime)
  • Excellent Helpdesk – fast response
  • Uses cPanel
  • Very fast internet connection
  • Abundance of bandwidth included
  • Multiple domains and subdomains allowed
  • Solid package of stats for each domain. I must know how many people, and who visits my websites.
  • Allows domains registered through an independent domains service
  • Multiple databases allowed
  • Located in free speech country

All these points are a must. I will not settle for less. If the hosting company asks for a contract running for many months, or even years, I want first a trial period. And I will ask about upgrade opportunities, in case I need some features not included in the actual package I consider to book. During this time I will see the real connection speed and reliability. I will also have a chance to experience their customer service department.
There are some features I really like to have. They are

  • SSH access, which allows me to manage minor changes directly on the server.
  • The ability to install SSL certificates for my domains. These certificates are necessary for encrypted connections. And they proof my identity to my visitors.

The bottom line is: I am looking for a reliable established company in a stable environment. I want a customer service giving me respect, being able to listen and willing to find solutions for any problem.
I want to keep my domains registered somewhere else, clearly not affiliated with the hosting company. If I allow the hosting company to register my domains, they can create complications if and when I should decide to move on to their competitor.

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