A Good Host is Hard to Find

HostingOur first web host made a lot of promises, as they all do. Looking back, at the time I was pretty overwhelmed at the sheer number of hosting companies available, and besides the price and common-sense things like storage space and bandwidth, I wasn’t all that confident on what differentiated one from another.

It’s been several years now, and we’ve gone through several different hosting companies. Each one was slightly better than the last, but in the end, they all let us down in one way or another. The last host we used let our site and email go down for a whole week, all the while trying to convince me the problem was on my local machine… I’m not an idiot. Needless to say, we dropped them in a hurry.

The point of this entry isn’t to badmouth any one particular company, or even hosting companies in general. Fact is, there are a lot of good, quality service providers available. No, the reason I’m writing this is to try to educate people who are now where I was all those years ago.

Lesson number one and one hundred: All hosts are not created equal.

Of course, this goes without saying. But how are they different? I’m going to go over a few of the big points, but will skip the really obvious things like number of email accounts, ftp accounts, storage space, bandwidth, setup fees and price. I’m not here to insult your intelligence. So, here we go…

Ownership: who’s really running the show? A lot of hosting companies don’t actually run their own equipment, but are merely reselling marked up services they’re buying from a bigger wholesaler. This leaves a huge potential for issues, particularly when it comes to service should anything go wrong (and it will). You’ll be dealing through (at minimum) one middleman who might or might not have any technical expertise, and playing a frustrating game of telephone tag.

Crowding: too many chickens in a tiny cage. Most hosting packages you’ll come across are on what’s referred to as a shared platform, or shared server. This means that one server holds several different accounts, different websites, and so on. The more accounts a hosting company can squeeze into one server, the bigger their profit margin… and the bigger the likelihood of server overload, slow websites, blocked up transfers, email problems, server failure and a myriad of other issues. You might pay a few bucks more per month for a plan with a company that doesn’t overload its servers, but it’ll be worth it. Room to breathe.

Service: your site goes down at midnight… who do you call? Our previous host didn’t answer their phone, which wouldn’t have been a big deal had they actually had an answering service. It just rung and rung. Email support was lacking at best – it took a few days to get back to us, and even then, their responses indicated they hadn’t even read the original email. By comparison, our current host is available by phone 24/7, and their phone number actually goes to them and not a call center overseas. Even better, the people on the other end not only speak fluent English, but they know their stuff, and they’re onto problems like sticky on rice. Emails are returned usually within five minutes, and actually contain useful responses. We get regular server status updates. Most problems are fixed before we even know they exist. That’s service.

Control: CPanel who? Okay, I would have listed this in the “really obvious” camp, but we’ve had clients whose hosting plans did not include a control panel, of any kind. I didn’t even think plans like this existed, but here we are. So, if the plan you’re looking at does not include a control panel, look elsewhere. You need this. Don’t let them tell you that you don’t.

Linux or Microsoft? Linux. Linux, Linux, Linux. We all know Microsoft. It’s familiar, it’s everywhere, it’s monolithic… and it is the bane of the web developer’s existence. Microsoft is a huge fan of proprietary technologies that blow raspberries at things like web standards and the like. If you want your site to work with all the latest bells and whistles… and without need for a pile of workaround hacks… go with Linux. For that matter, do us all a favour and ditch Internet Explorer in favour of one of the standards compliant browsers like Firefox or Opera.

The Acronyms: SQL, PHP, FTP, POP3, SMTP and SSL. Long story short, you want all of these. SQL means you get at least one database (generally I would recommend having three available). Databases are important if you want to run any dynamic content like news or blogs, or even if you just want to keep track of people who’ve signed up for your newsletter, or filled in your contact form. PHP is pretty much as important as HTML – it’s just another language, but similar to SQL, you need it if you want to do anything dynamically. FTP allows you to get files onto and off of your server with ease. POP3 and SMTP are your incoming and outgoing email acronyms… if you don’t have these, you’ll be limited to webmail, which is no way to do business. Finally, we have SSL. If you want any secure area on your website, particularly if you want to sell anything or process payments online, you need SSL and you’ll want a dedicated IP address. This is what makes your site secure.

Backups: just in case. Your hosting company should, as a matter of routine, provide nightly backups which can be restored should anything go wrong either at their end, or yours. Think of it as insurance.

Redundant Network: one instance where redundancy is a good thing. One connection just isn’t enough. Your hosting networks should be powered by multiple different carriers, which helps to ensure your site stays up.

Transfer Services: Getting from here to there. Switching can be a daunting task. You’ve got all your email accounts set up, your FTP program is sorted with your current settings, your website has a ton of pages and a database and you wouldn’t know how to go about moving all of it without breaking at least a few lamps. Not to worry. A hosting company worth their salt will provide a free site transfer service – in other words, they’ll take all of your stuff, and move it carefully and professionally for you. No fuss, no muss.

Guarantees: what’s too good to be true. This is a multi-part item. Guarantees can be good. If you’re not satisfied within a certain time period, the company should have a policy that allows you to get your money back. If the site has a 99.9% uptime guarantee, they should be able to back it up. Guarantees can be misleading too, unfortunately. The company may guarantee that you get some ludicrous amount of storage like, say, 30 Gigs… but for this example you could see the crowding item above. Everybody’s sharing that space, and don’t be surprised if their protocol cuts you off repeatedly when you’re trying to transfer files, or if you can’t access the files you’ve already uploaded.

So the bottom line… who should you choose? That’s not for me to say. Everyone has different needs, and what’s good for one company may be not enough or too much for another.

As for us, we switched to Fused Network in 2007, and they have really blown us away. They tick every box above, and more… and I recommend them to just about everybody who asks. So long as they stay the course, I’ll never switch again. You’ll see their banner ad in the sidebar, with an affiliate code in the link… we participate in their Fused Together program, whereby you can also choose to contribute affiliate shares to charity.

If you’re in the market for a new hosting company, I’d suggest you start your search there. Check out the tiny link to Hosting Reviews at the bottom of their site, and you’ll see I’m not the only one.

Sage Media is an international corporate design firm based in Ottawa, Ontario.

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