Web Hosting - Ten Basic Tips
Author: Koroush Ghazi
This page contains a testimonial of my extremely poor experiences with a particular web host, drawing upon these and subsequent experiences in over 7 years of running a website to highlight ten basic rules for choosing a web host. The aim of the page is to help prevent you from making the same mistakes I did.
So what is a web host? A web host is a company which provides a valuable service on the Internet: the physical storage and distribution of website pages on behalf of website owners. Basically they provide the hardware, software and bandwidth, and website owners provide the information. For a certain fee, the web host agrees to rent to a website owner space on their servers, and the accompanying bandwidth that's required for Internet users to be able to access the web pages from this server.
I threw this page together as a resource to help out potential webmasters in perhaps choosing a web host more wisely than I first did. A wrong choice can have terrible consequences for your website and its reputation, not to mention the loss of money in some cases. Keep the following 'rules' in mind when considering purchasing web hosting services.
The Ten Basic Rules
The hosting company which kicked off the creation of this article is the now defunct Oktagone.net. Their absolute lack of professionalism, and the (almost irreparable) damage they did to TweakGuides.com still makes me angry, and it's been quite a while since I escaped their clutches. My experience with Oktagone is the perfect example of all the things that can go wrong with hosting.
The basic story goes like this: I was looking for a web host in April 2004 for my then recently launched site TweakGuides.com. As with most websites, things start out small, so I didn't want to invest in a major server package costing hundreds of dollars per month. I just wanted some cheap but reliable Shared Hosting. Oktagone was recommended to me on a discussion forum because they were cheap and supposedly reliable. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number One: Never rely on one or two pieces of advice when purchasing hosting services, no matter how glowing the recommendation. Aside from the fact that people may not really know what they're talking about, some people often don't have any direct experience with the host they're recommending, and of course some people may even be paid by or affiliated with the host and thus their recommendation is not genuine. Nothing replaces decent independent research when choosing a web host. Hit Google and start searching for any and all accounts of a host by actual users. Virtually all hosts will show both good and bad experiences, but the good hosts usually have far higher incidences of the good rather than the bad.
When I joined Oktagone in April 2004 I instantly noticed the unprofessional setup - they had no formal billing system. You had to PayPal your monthly fee to them without any way of checking your account balance, or the actual service you had purchased. In fact at one point I upgraded my service and paid extra, yet still got the old service for a month or two until I noticed the difference in my bandwidth allowance. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Two: Don't use a web host if they can't automate or correctly administer the most fundamental aspect of a business: billing and payments.
Then I started experiencing site outages, both long and short. Sometimes only a couple of hours, sometimes up to a day. Outages are a fact of life no matter which web host you choose, because the simple but necessary act of maintenance on a server for example can result in a brief outage. Other unforseen circumstances can also occur, such as accidents or power outages at the data center where the server is stored. But it's the frequency and length of outages which determines whether you should leave or stay. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Three: Never ever rely on a web host which has constant outages, even if they always come up with some excuse for it. There is no genuine excuse for a web host which experiences frequent, particularly lengthy, outages. All good hosts have redundancy plans in place to prevent extended outages, and indeed if your host is experiencing repeated outages without doing something about it that should tell you how unprofessional their setup is. Your website relies on a smooth and consistent presence on the Internet to be successful. Constantly being unavailable undermines your image, reduces your income, and affects search engine rankings to name just a few negative effects.
After many months of problems with Oktagone, there was a relatively stable period during which my site flourished. I was getting 200,000 unique visitors a month and growing, and was establishing a reputable presence on the Internet. I didn't realise that this was the calm before the storm. Oktagone had a final blow lined up for my site: Oktagone was actually a reseller - that means they bought services from another company, and resold it at a profit. It turns out Oktagone didn't pay their own bills for two months in a row, so their provider simply shut down all their servers. I suddenly found my site was offline and inaccessible without a single word of warning, without any plausible explanation. It remained offline for around two days, until which time I found this thread on WebHosting Talk (WHT) detailing the debacle which had befallen all of Oktagone's customers. Within a day of the thread appearing, Oktagone sent out an official email saying that the problem was due to a "power outage in New York", and that a technician was on the way to resolve the problem within 36 hours. Needless to say this was a blatant lie, and Oktagone's owner later admitted - when confronted with the facts on WebHosting Talk - that he had simply not paid his bills and the servers had been shut down. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Four: If your website, or even the host's site itself, goes down for more than 24 hours, start getting very worried. This is not normal, particularly if you were not given any prior warning or plausible explanation. Check the WebHosting Talk Outages Forum to see if there is an existing discussion on an outage at your particular host or their upstream provider - you will have to do some research if you're not sure who your host's original provider is. This also leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Five: Begin the process of researching other potential webhosts the minute you are unsatisfied with your current host's service for any reason. This doesn't mean you should switch hosts at the first sign of trouble, but the sooner you do some research to find out which other hosts are available in your price range, and what sort of feedback there is on their services, the better equipped you will be to move in a hurry should it be necessary to abandon ship. You may notice that I've mentioned WebHosting Talk (WHT) several times in this article - I'm not affiliated or sponsored by WHT, it is simply a good place to research and read more about all aspects of hosting, and interact with the hosts themselves. In any case whichever avenue you choose, now is the time to do some research.
Within my first 24 hours of outage at Oktagone I was already actively looking for other webhosts immediately. I knew at that point that Oktagone was too unstable and that they were outright lying. I'd found WHT through a Google search, and the more I read the more I knew I had to get my site out of Oktagone's hands as soon as humanly possible. Of course like most new webmasters, I dreaded the entire process (and additional downtime) involved in having to switch hosts, but it was increasingly obvious that there was no other option. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Six: Once your site is down for several days, don't trust the host to tell you the truth about the situation, and don't just sit and wait - switch hosts as soon as possible. Simply put, if your web host hasn't taken steps to protect against extended outages longer than a day by having some sort of contingency plan, you're dealing with an unprofessional setup. In Oktagone's situation, their outright lying was bad enough, but the fact that they left some of their customers offline for over two weeks means that the owner was clearly uninterested in anything more than running hosting as a casual hobby to earn money on the side. He was wholly unprepared to undertake the responsibility of hosting, couldn't even pay his bills, and left all his customers stranded, all the while telling blatant lies and refusing to give refunds.
I was very lucky to get away from the situation relatively unscathed. I shopped around for, and quickly found another cheap (but more reliable) shared host. I was able to move quickly because my site was (and still is) extremely lightweight, and I have full up-to-date backups of everything. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Seven: Always back up your website regularly to your own PC and/or to another server or location other than your host's server(s). Your host may or may not take regular backups of your site/server, but you should never rely on these. In fact most hosts make it clear as part of their terms and conditions that you are responsible for backing up your own data. If a host goes down or goes bankrupt for example, you cannot depend on being able to get back your data or any backups stored on their servers. You must backup remotely to at least one other reliable independent location, preferably more, and backup regularly so that your backups are at the most 24 - 48 hours out of date.
My story demonstrates why this advice is invaluable - while I got away from Oktagone without losing any data due to my up-to-date backups, others hosted on Oktagone were not so lucky, and had to rely on the generosity of the original provider to turn the servers back on for a while so they could backup their data. Incredibly, during this period Oktagone actually went out of their way to prevent customers backing up their data, which was thwarted by the provider which owns the servers. Some people lost a lot of data regardless, and indeed often you will see webmasters lose days, weeks, even months of irreplaceable data when their host goes bust, or a server dies unexpectedly for example.
There are also some other factors which must be considered when choosing hosting, which my story again highlights. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Eight: Never register your domain name through your web host. Hosts will often offer to register a domain for you, and many webmasters who are lazy or don't know any better will accept this offer. The problem is that if your host is also holding your domain registration details, and the host goes offline for extended periods, goes bust, or you have a hostile relationship with them, then you can't switch your site to another host. Why? Because you need to be able to change the Domain Name Server information for your domain to point it to new IP address(es), and if this is registered through your host it may not be accessible and thus can't be changed, leaving you stuck.
This is the single biggest problem Oktagone customers ran into. Those that had also purchased their domain name through Oktagone couldn't switch to another web host with their existing domain names. The addresses to which their domain names pointed to couldn't be changed, leaving some sites down for a week or more with no recourse whatsoever. Luckily I had registered my site through another domain name seller than my web host (Godaddy.com), letting me switch hosts straight away without requiring any involvement from Oktagone.
Ok so what finally happened in my situation? What was the permanent damage through all this melodrama? For starters I had a lot of concerned readers trying to contact me during what was a peak period in my site's usage wondering what had happened. Yet of course because my site's server was physically offline (remember, the provider had pulled the plug because Oktagone couldn't pay their bills), they couldn't email me. I couldn't even put up any form of notice to tell them why TweakGuides.com was now inaccessible. Almost two days of this was bad enough, but two weeks would have broken my site's back. Some unscrupulous people had already tried, during earlier outages of my site, to rip off my material and host it on their own sites with the blatantly false explanation that "TweakGuides.com is no longer online, so we are 'archiving' their guides for them." How generous of them - all without my permission of course. I lost a few dollars as well because I'd paid in advance for my next month's hosting, and despite assurances of getting a refund, Oktagone never returned a cent, nor responded to any emails. Another telling sign of the kind of people who can run these sort of hosting businesses. This leads me to:
Basic Rule Number Nine: Never pay in advance for hosting, even if it entails a large discount. You may find that you lose all your money if the host goes down permanently, or even if they simply decide not to refund you the balance if you leave early for example. Consumer protection agencies, as well as the protection mechanisms in credit cards and PayPal can help you recover your money in many cases, but for small sums you're often going to spend more time and effort than is worth the money you're trying to get back. Pay for your hosting by the month, and do it using a credit card or PayPal so you have some form of protection.
In any case, as my story of woe comes to a close, I must say that although I can look back on it now as a learning experience, at the time the whole thing was very unpleasant and distressing. It was a crash course in the complexities and pitfalls of hosting, and one which I briefly repeated to a much lesser extent when I stepped up from shared hosting to a Virtual Private Server (VPS) a year after my Oktagone debacle. I used a hosting company called DEHE.com which at first seemed fine, until the familiar cycle of outages and problems occurred. Although not on the same scale of incompetence as Oktagone, and certainly not as deliberately deceitful as them, DEHE was another bad choice for me, and not suprisingly, they too eventually went bust. However this time I was armed with experience and knowledge, and after doing some more research I quickly moved onto a genuinely good host: EuroVPS has provided me with VPS Hosting that has stood me in good stead for over four years. This leads me to the final rule:
Basic Rule Number Ten: Finding a good host is not a foolproof business. Even the smartest and most experienced webmasters can still fall prey to a host which suddenly goes bust. Hosting itself is a risky, expensive and complex business, so the companies involved in hosting - just like any other business - can experience ups and downs. If you find a good host, stick with them through the bad times, although this doesn't negate the earlier rules I mentioned. For example, if a good host goes down for 24 hours or more, you should still research other hosts in preparation to move. Then when your host provides you with a reason for the downtime, judge its plausibility based on some research. All hosts have outages from time to time, but if a 'good' host experiences frequent outages, and things are steadily getting worse, then it's time to move on.
And remember this final bonus tip: cheapest is usually not the best choice when it comes to hosting. If having a stable presence on the Internet is important to you, if you don't want to waste countless hours trying to resolve mysterious problems with your site, then do your research and be prepared to spend a few extra bucks to get a quality service run by a professional team. Almost without fail, the cheapest hosts are the worst ones, because they're either using a business model that is extremely risky or unviable in the long term, and/or they are deliberately cutting corners in a range of areas which can lead to outages, data loss and terrible support. You definitely get what you pay for in the hosting world.