Switching loyalties - A new hosting company for better or for worse!

From assela Pathirana

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Contents

Disclaimer

Please, please take this with a grain of salt, for this is a very limited experience of a single person. While, the facts are true, they are my experiences and can be different for others. It is often better to see the whole big picture, when making a decision about where to turn for services. However, having said that, it is awfully hard to get objective evaluations on pros and cons of the players in the overcrowded field of web hosting. The most of what one may see after a Googling may be direct or (more often) indirect advertising!

What happened

As I explained during the early days of this site, (see this) I do this as a hobby, for my own amusement. So it goes without saying that I don't want to spend big bucks on web hosting or any other thing related to this hobby of mine. So, when I decided that I should do this on a paid hosting environment as opposed to piggy-backing on a university web-server as I did during late-nineties. Naturally, I went for the cheapest on the market that satisfy my requirements:

  1. I needed a Linux or other UNIX flavor operating system.
  2. Support for a few MySQL databases and PHP.

That's what I got for some US$4 per month from godaddy.com. There is no question that this is a bargain! 5GB of space, 250GB monthly bandwidth, 10 MySQL databases, what else can a fellow ask for?

My site is based on Mediawiki (description) and godaddy did not provide a Mediawiki installation. This was in fact irrelevant for me. Anyway, my Mediawiki installation was fairly non-standard, so even if they did have direct support, still that may not have worked for me. What I did was, within my 5GB space, I installed my version of Mediawiki and got the game going.

godadaddys cheapo shared-hosting do not [as of 23:17, 3 September 2006 (JST)] provide shell access for the users to login and install software. But, I circumvented it. I could install almost anything I needed, wrote a bit longish .htaccess file and my web site was up and running.

Initially, things were slow, but not painfully so. Remembering that I pay only 4 bucks a month, I did not complain. Then after about a month of detachment, I came back to see that my site was slooow like molasses! A page took more than 15 - 20 seconds to load. Even for 4 bucks it was not acceptable.

Godaddy support

First thing I phoned godaddy support people. I had done this only once before, when I really messed up my DNS records and they were prompt in helping me. This time, it was a bit different. First they suggested perhaps my ISP has problems. Of course this was the first thing that I checked and all other sites were working fine. When I told them that, they asked me to hold on. After about 15 minutes, they came back on line and told me:

  1. They notice that I am running 'mediawiki like somthing'. It may be slow, so I may optimize my code.
  2. I may pay 100 bucks a month and get a dedicated server.

I had already verified (1). In fact at the bottom of each page there is a little html comment tag saying how much time it took to render a page. It was consistently showing one or two seconds most. So, (1) was not the reason. And I do not have means or necessity to go for (2), when all I want is to have a hobby.

Further, when I checked the behavior of my site under moderate stress (you can do this by a web site load testing tool like JMeter) I was dismayed to find that it returns "Server Busy" errors.

I decided its time to switch hosts.

Why too-good-to-be-true hosting don't work

After spending an hour or two looking at different hosting offers on the web, it is extremely difficult to find a reasonably priced offer that looks good. This is NOT because they don't offer good specifications. In fact most of the companies offer wonderful packages -- often too wonderful for 3-4 bucks a month. And that IS part of the problem. A by-product of these exorbitant packages, is the inequality they create, unless the situation is carefully monitored. 250GB is 5 million 50 kilo Byte pages! That is more than 150,000 pages per day. So out of the hundreds of others who are sharing your server (cheap web hosting is always shared hosting by the way) one or two are running hot sites with adult content of something like that, then they can easily hog the machine down both in terms of network bandwidth and processing capacity.

One may wonder why there is no hosting companies which offer more reasonable limits for a more reasonable price. In my opinion, the answer is -- as the case with many other things in our overly commercialized world -- they simply play the number-game: I believe that not even 1 in 100 of the customers of these cheap and virtually unlimited hosting services use something even close to the limit the plans have imposed. More likely most of us use a small fraction of the potential capability. Which in itself is fine. But, the problem comes when most hosting companies bank on this fact and don't mean what they claim! If every single customer (or even a significant fraction) starts using something close to her/his allocation, hosting companies would be in serious trouble, because they are not really geared to provide the level of bandwidth (or processing power) they claim to provide! On the contrary, the moment several customers of these overcrowded shared machines start using a significant bandwidth, things start to get ugly.

Where is the ideal host

Well...for ones short of cash to pour in, like me, still nowhere to be seen! I really wonder why some small hosting company starts offering something like below:

  1. Several gigabites of storage.
  2. Low limit on bandwidth. (Less than 10GB/month?)
  3. Preferably not hosting adult sites (Not for any religious reasons! but simply adult sites often take more than their fair share of bandwith due to their high multimedia content and high demand.)
  4. Some mechanisms are in place to prevent resource abuse.

...

I have to admit that my quest for such a host is still far from over. I have moved from godaddy to Dreamhost. But, dreamhost does not fit the above bill of qualifications.

In comes dreamhost

Fist things first, If you ever need to get technical support, then don't go for dreamhost! I have contacted them over e-mail (they don't have telephone support!) and hm... let me put this nicely -- their replies can be entertaining, but not very useful. To be fair, never expect a cheapo shared host to provide support staff how goes beyond canned replies and talkling simple issues.


Having said that, there are much to be liked about this new host. Here's what I have found:

  1. 20GB hard disk space - you can use it for web+mail+any other thing that you want to do.
  2. Secure shell access (SSH) - this is reason enough for me to go with this new host over the former. Life is soooo easy with direct shell access.
  3. Most of non-root Unix activities are possible. e.g. cronjobs, daemons.
  4. It is possible to get large discounts off the standard monthly charge (some US$ 8 per month) and it is possible to test drive for three months.

A commercial

Dreamhost uses a smart method to attract more customers. They allow the customers to become sort of promoters by creating so-called promo-codes and giving them to anybody who will be a potential customer. When a new customer joins in using a promo-code, two things happen.

  1. The new customer gets a discount specified by the promo-code.
  2. The old customer (promotor) gets a discount from his/her hosting bill.

If you want to buy a shared hosting and e-mail account provide the promotion code "8090OFF". It will knock off more than 80% of the bill (about US$ 85 for the US$ 120/year hosting.) -- and I will also get a US$ 10 discount from my hosting bill for 'introducing' a new customer. However, please remember that I don't recommend them as a good hosting company -- just I host with them and for my purpose their service is sort of OK. But if you are a novice to hosting, then forget dreamhost, you will be in trouble with their mail-in support taking more than 48h to return your request. Also make sure the check when you sign up whether you really get this discount!

You can also search the web for different dreamhost promotion codes that gives varous amounts of discounts.

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