What is Larry Thinking? #4 => Finding a Good Web Host

August 26, 2007

In this edition…

About this Newsletter

Thanks, as always, to those that provided feedback on the previous newsletters. Your comments really help to make this newsletter useful. Please keep your questions and suggestions coming.

As always, older newsletters are available online and you can also use the corresponding forum to start any discussions.

The primary focus in this edition of the newsletter is on a singular topic: Web hosting. It’s not something I formally discuss in any book so I’m putting together all of my current thoughts here. In the next newsletter I plan on addressing creating true desktop applications, using C, C++, or the new Adobe AIR (I’ve been meaning to write about AIR for some time now). In response to my last newsletter, I did get some comments from Mac OS X users and will put together a mini newsletter just for them one of these days.

Q & A => What kind of Web hosting do I need?

I get this question often enough that it ought to be formally answered. To start, understand that Web hosting comes in three basic forms: shared, VPS (Virtual Private Server), and dedicated. There are four primary differences among these:

  • cost
  • number of clients per server
  • amount of control you have
  • how much support you get

Shared hosting is the most common and the cheapest (approximately $8-20/month US). With this arrangement, the hosting company is putting 20 or 50 or 100 or 200 or X clients/sites on the same server. It’s cheap and it should be well managed by the host. But you can practically never dictate certain settings (like how PHP runs) or what version of a technology is installed because such changes would affect all users. In short, you have almost no control but you don’t have to worry about managing the server either. The biggest concern is that the one server and all its resources (memory, CPU, bandwidth, and disk space) are being shared by so many sites, which will inevitably affect performance. If one site has a problem that bogs down the server, your site is affected. Even scarier, if one site has a security hole, in all likelihood your site is vulnerable too (if that hole allows access to the entire server). Still, for the vast majority of people and sites, a shared host should be fine.

Next up is a relatively new idea, the Virtual Private Server. Using software, one physical server can be divvied up among a handful (maybe 4-12) clients. Each client has their own operating system in which they can install their own software, customize the settings, run as many sites as they want, and so forth. The hardware is still being shared but the security is much improved: problems with one VPS shouldn’t affect another; security holes are only dangerous to one VPS. But to use a VPS, you have to have some administrative-level comfort with the operating system in use. VPSes use control panels to facilitate basic tasks but you’ll inevitably need to get your hands a little dirty. A VPS will run you between $20-60/month (US).

A dedicated server is a whole server that’s all yours. You’re not sharing the operating system, the software, or the hardware, so you can do pretty much anything you want. But you likely need very good knowledge of administering a server (i.e., if something goes wrong, you have to fix it or pay someone else to). A dedicated server will easily run you $150-400/month. (There is an exception to this in that you can have a dedicated Mac Mini for around $40/month.)

So which is right for you? I would use a two-step process to make the decision. First, from this list, choose the type that fits the needs of your Web site today. If the site is new or you’re just learning, go with shared hosting. If you’re max-ing out the shared hosting, try a VPS. Absolutely, positively do not go with a bigger plan because you expect your site to do well someday in the future! It’s very easy to move servers or upgrade plans later, should that need arise. I’ve seen users talking about getting their own server when they hadn’t even bought their domain yet. Big mistake! Get the hosting plan you need today; doing so won’t cripple you tomorrow.

The second step is to find a good Web host (discussed below), spending more than you have to. This may sound contrary to my first rule but I believe that you’ll be better off, for example, with a somewhat pricier shared hosting plan than a cheap VPS. I talk more about this later in this newsletter, but when it comes to Web hosting, cheap normally means cheap, not “good deal”.

A couple of last thoughts… First, if you’re just learning and playing around, you don’t necessarily need Web hosting at all. A Web host allows you to make your pages available to anyone in the world. If you don’t need that, don’t spend a dime, install all the free software (Apache, PHP, MySQL, PostgreSQL, etc.) you want on your computer, and be happy! Second, with very few exceptions, you don’t want to try to host a Web site available to the world from your home. Trying to do so is likely a violation of the agreement with your ISP and there are many technological hurdles to be overcome. Even if you can circumvent those two issues, and even if your computer is up to the task, the experience of users accessing your site on your home computer will be dreadful. Even a fast Internet connection won’t do. I get like a 4 or 6 megabit download speed at home but the upload speed is only 512 or 768 kilobits. This upload speed will be a major restriction when your site is sending data to the users. Plus hosting company facilities should have backup power supplies, multiple Internet connections, security, and so on (things you don’t have at home).

What is Larry Thinking => Finding a Good Web Host

Finding a good Web host is a much harder task than choosing a type of Web hosting. To start, ask yourself what you want from a Web host. For me, that’s simple: I want my site to be available all the time. I don’t care about the amount of disk space I get, the amount of bandwidth, the number of IP addresses, etc. The way I see it, if the site’s not available, who cares about all that? Moreover, when it comes to that stuff, hosting companies offer up ludicrous quantities. I host five sites, more or less, with a couple thousand images, some videos, an active forum, and I get maybe half a million hits per month. All of that fits within a gigabyte of disk space and I’ve never come close to hitting any limits. I also suspect that companies that promote these things do so to lure in lots and lots of clients (cramming servers full of sites). It’s also easier to offer up vast amounts of disk space than it is excellent customer support. So don’t be romanced by these numbers.

Being a realist, though, I know that servers sometimes have problems so the second thing I want is for those problems to be fixed quickly when they do occur. This means that the hosting company should ideally find the problem before I do, fix it promptly no matter what, and, above all, not cause problems themselves. Both of my past two hosting companies (Dotster, who is laughably bad, and One World Hosting, which was okay) caused a number of problems themselves, which is absurd (One World Hosting, which I generally liked, would upgrade PHP but not configure it in the same way, thereby breaking some stuff). So what it comes down to for me is customer support. I want 24/7 phone and email support (Doster, truly laughably bad, only offers any real customer support–the availability of people that can actually fix problems–eight hours a day, Monday through Friday; if your site goes down on Friday night, it’s down until Monday). Availability and support are therefore my criteria (if not the only criteria, they still make up maybe 95% of my decision).

When it comes time to look for a host, avoid all those Web sites that rank them. Except for reputable sites with other interests, like CNet, I suspect these Web host ranking sites are illegitimate and not worth any consideration. What you really need to find are the opinions of real, live people that have used, and stayed with, a hosting company. There are many forums and other sites online that offer this. Find a few hosting company names this way, then check out their sites. How good is their Web site? I’m of the opinion that a Web hosting company should have an attractive, easy-to-use Web site. Call me crazy. How long has the company been in this business? Where are they located? Do they run their own datacenters or rent space in someone else’s (not a good sign)? Check out their hosting plans. Are they well presented? Is it clear what features, versions of software, etc. are included? Are the plans being promoted or sold in such a way that it looks “too good to be true” (in which case it probably is)? And, most importantly, what are the customer service options? Call the company on the phone and talk with them. Although you almost always get a faster, more pleasant, result from sales than you would from tech support, an introductory call may still be a good indicator of a company’s service.

My recent experiences…

Last December, with Dotster, I finally went the VPS route (see the Q&A above). I was curious about using VPS, having never tried it before, and got a steal of a deal with Dotster, understanding that they offered limited support. I was thinking that’d be okay, though, as I’m pretty computer savvy and can solve many problems myself. In April or so, one problem came up that I couldn’t fix because I couldn’t access the server at all (via a control panel, SSH, or FTP). It doesn’t bother me that I had to pay someone an extra $75 to fix the problem, it bothers me that it took 24 hours and several phone calls to get to the point where I could pay someone $75 to fix the problem. I just had another problem with them last week (thankfully I had already moved my main site to another company by then). This time they caused the problem and didn’t fix it after several emails, phone calls, and a week. Moreover, it didn’t seem to be a problem for them that the problem existed! I found Dotster to be both incompetent and indifferent, the latter being a bigger problem. But I’m not writing this to besmirch Dotster (although I pity anyone that does business with them), I’m just trying to present the bad end of the hosting spectrum.

I just switched to ServInt, again with a VPS account. It’s too early to know if I’ll stick with them for the long haul but they were highly, highly recommended in many forums where I read people’s opinions. And they’ve been in the business for 10 years (good sign) and only do VPS and dedicated hosting (very good sign). Their price is okay, not great (more than three times what I was paying at Dotster, but when you factor in how much time I was losing and how much stress I was going through…), and interesting enough, they don’t offer a money-back guarantee. That would sound like a bad thing, but as they point out, those arrangements are invitations for bad people to set up hosting for a month, send out spam or porn or whatever, then cancel the account. I don’t want to be on the same servers as those types, naturally. ServInt offers excellent customer support, which was their selling point for me. They even monitor the servers for you (not necessarily the case with most VPS hosting companies), hopefully finding a problem before I do. And they have a support forum for general questions, only available to current customers. I’m not trying to sell anyone on ServInt and, again, it’s only been a month, but these were the things that I found reassuring when it was time to decide where I should put my site. There were two minor problems in getting my account setup, but they were both fixed promptly and apologetically.

Book Giveaway Update

The big book giveaway announced in the previous newsletter was a rousing success (IMHO). All of the English language books were taken within about 12 hours. My sincerest thanks to everyone for their interest in my work. I tried to reply to everyone’s request, but didn’t always have time. One thing I found intriguing was the number of requests for my “C Programming” book, so I’ll try to talk more about that subject in the future.

My Book News

The Ajax book has finally gone to the printer. I just reviewed the layouts and am pretty pleased with the results. It’s a different style of book for me, with more direct instruction and less explanation and theory. The code, I believe, is quite solid and reusable, which should result in a reliable Ajax experience for the end user. It looks like Amazon is selling it for $13.59 (as I write this), which is a good deal (one of the many reasons I like writing for Peachpit Press is that it’s nice to have good computer books available for under $20).

As a reminder, for those that aren’t aware of this, but the second edition of my PHP Advanced book, called PHP 5 Advanced: Visual QuickPro Guide, came out this past Spring. This was a major overhaul and written as a follow-up to my PHP and MySQL for Dynamic Web Sites book. The focus is almost exclusively on PHP 5 and its new features. This book also includes many chapters on Object Oriented Programming (OOP).