What are the requirements of a good hosting company? Let’s make a list:
- Fast and always up. That’s a big “duh”.
- Fast and responsive tech support. Having a site down is a serious matter.
- Ease of admin. A good control panel and
- Shell/SSH access. For non-unix heads, that’s similar (like a sparrow is similar to an eagle!) to a DOS command prompt. With shell access I can do in seconds what it would take hours or days to do through even the best control panel. Suppose I wanted to change the name of my website and to follow the convention that all the content be in a directory off the root with the site’s name. That is /neon-john.com for example. A really good control panel might let me use the FTP protocol to rename the directory. In the shell I simply type $ mv <old_name> <new_name>. In a shake* it’s done.
If you don’t know the Unix/Linux shell, don’t worry. You can learn it in time. You can even ignore it. But if you find yourself needing the help from a local guru, he’ll likely do double-back flips when he sees that shell prompt. It’ll save you a ton in hourly consulting fees.
- Access to the “bare metal”. Control panels are nice and in fact are vital for tasks that you rarely have to do and thus probably don’t remember the details involved. OTOH, sometimes you just have to get to the “bare metal”, to edit the raw config files. For example, I can do in seconds directly editing .htaccess what it would take far longer to do in a control panel – if the control panel author anticipated my needing to do it in the first place. “Bare metal” config is dangerous, of course, but sometimes vital.
- When moving an old site, the ability to move the site from the old host to the new without having to download and re-upload it again. Even with fast broadband, it takes forever, compared to those great big pipes hosting companies have connecting to the rest of the net. Unless the new hosting company is willing to do the move for you (none have yet), that almost requires shell and FTP access. With shell access and recursive FTP, moving my site was a single command affair. Fascinating to see data zip past at over 10 megaBYTE/sec.
- unlimited domain name hosting, email accounts and sub domains. None of these cost the hosting companies anything but they make life infinitely easier for the webmaster. For instance, if I want neon-john.com, neon-john.net and neon-john.org to all point to the same place, the most reliable method is to set each name up as a host and point it to /www.neon-john.com/index.html.Outfits like GoDaddy who are afraid you’ll get anything for free, try to do redirection tricks with frames and such. This screws up your visibility with search engines, many of which don’t search inside frames, AND it causes that “connection reset by host” problem I mentioned in part one.
- Fast Web Mail. Never know when you’re going to have to read your email from a web interface. The difference between simple HTML-based ones and elaborated scripted dynamic-page versions is amazing, especially when on dial-up.
- Outgoing SMTP Port 25 Bypass. This is a “duh” to me but a couple of companies I looked at didn’t have this.Here’s the deal. Normally when you send an email, the Simple Mail Transport Protocol uses Port 25 to squirt it out to the nearest mail server. In the good old days before scumbag spammers, any SMTP server (called a “relay”) would accept mail from any sender. This was part of the open nature of the net and was good neighbor polity. If my server happened to be down then I could route to another relay.Spammers ruined that so pretty much every relay operator on the face of the earth has closed Port 25 access to the Internet at large.Most ISPs still have open Port 25 but only from within their network. In other words, if I dialed in to bellsouth.net or used my DSL connection, standard SMTP worked but if I got on my neighbor’s cable connection, it would not.To allow customers to use their relay while traveling, the Authenticated SMTP protocol was developed. This runs on a non-standard port that varies by hosting company. I think GoDaddy’s was Port 5252, for example. Using ASMTP, I can go anywhere on the net and still relay email through my regular server.
Problem is, many ISP-operated servers are overloaded and somewhat unreliable. Even when they work they require you to have an email address @theirserver.net. I’d have to be [email protected] . Not good, especially for businesses. The solution is that the web hosting company also provides an SMTP server as part of the package. That’s great. The fly in the ointment, as I’ve learned, is that not all companies supply ASMTP. Now SMTP that one can access only from the outside net is absolutely worthless. Why? Because in an effort to stop spam, every ISP in the world (just about) has blocked port 25. Without ASMTP and a proprietary port to talk to it with, an SMTP server is useless because you can’t get to it.
- “one touch installs” of the server-side software you want to run. Things like WordPress, PHPforum, the Wiki package and stuff like that. There’s a BIG difference between the hosting company allowing YOU to install the package and having it installed for you. If you do the install then you get to be a Linux admin for a day. If you’re not really up on Linux admin, well tough spit. Even if you’re a hot-spit Linux guru, are you REALLY up on what it takes to install WordPress and MySQL and PHP and do it securely? I sure ain’t!
- Documentation in Acrobat (pdf) format. Wikis and HTML help pages are fine but when you’re struggling to get going, nothing beats having dead trees spread out around your keyboard for easy access and cross reference.
- Genuine English-as-the-first-language American people on the other end of the tech support line. We all know how horrid hindu-indian “tech support” (sic) is. Almost as bad is the new trend in using people from the FUSSR countries. Now I really respect and admire the Slavic and other people who finally escaped from the Soviet oppression. True survivors. But that doesn’t make them good tech support people.I finally blew off one candidate hosting company because the person on the other end of the “live chat” didn’t have a clue what Port 25 bypassing was and didn’t do English all that well, though better than the hindus. I spent the better part of an hour keyboarding with her before I gave it up. Nice lady but she simply didn’t know anything about hosting.
- 24/7 support. It’s funny but I don’t think I’ve EVER had a problem crop up when the sun is shining! I think that bugs and glitches must be photophobic or something. Having someone on the other end at “oh dark thirty” is essential.
- Live phone support available. Putting warm bodies on the other end of live phone lines is expensive so I understand that companies have to put limits in place. In my experience, if I can just dial in at any time, either the product is high priced to cover the overhead or there’ll be a drooler on the other end. Or both. DreamHost has a nice compromise where they allocate each customer a set number of call-backs a month. if I really, really have to have live support, it’s available. For more routine things, email will do.
- Email Support. Nothing’s worse than being told to conduct your support session on a Wiki or forum when you’re having problems just getting on! It’s OK to require initially using a web form to “open a ticket” so the support staff have a method of tracking the problem. But once the first exchange is conducted, it should be via email from there on out. Email can get through even if you find yourself stuck out in the jungle on the other end of 100 miles of field wire with a 300 baud modem.
- Hosting as their only business, preferably employee-owned. We know how horrible it is to have to deal with a mega-corp bank or The Telephone Company. Imagine that when you’re trying to fix your broken website or blog. People having a paycheck depend on their performances tend to do a better job. Like the old saying goes, At breakfast, the chicken’s involved but the pig’s committed. I want my company committed.
- Regular and reliable backups. Many hosting companies take the attitude that it is the customer’s responsibility to do regular backups. About as many companies then make it practically impossible to do so, shacking the customer with some clunky form of FTP or control panel interface. It takes only a little bit of extra effort on the hosting company’s part to set up regular shadow backups. It’s a service worth paying for if it isn’t offered as part of the basic package. Good hosting companies make it a part of the package.
Beyond this list of things, you should have a good feel for the company. Moving to a new hosting company is so traumatic that you don’t want to ever have to do it again. Do your homework up front and spare yourself the agony.
For each candidate company, I sent an email, usually to support, asking some simple details about the service. I tell ’em I’m prospecting for a new hosting company and need to learn a few details. I needed the answers but more importantly, I needed to see how responsive and thorough they were.
One very valuable technique is to put more than one unrelated questions in a single query. That will let you know how much attention the guy on the other end pays to your problem. If you get short answer to your first question only then the guy did as little as he could to blow you off and get to the next one. A good response will be at least a couple of sentences answering each question in turn.
One company that was otherwise quite interesting did that. Not wanting to blow them off immediately, I re-sent the message and at the top put
>>>>>> Attention: This message contains 3 questions please answer them all <<<<<<<
I still got blown off. And so did they.
Finally, price should not be much of a factor, if at all. The market is competitive enough to keep prices in line. Within that envelope of market pressure, prices vary, sometimes not very related to what you get. Choose the feature set and the comfort level that you need and only then lift the cover and look at the price. I ended up going with the most expensive company in the class (individual and small company hosting). I think I got a bargain.
In part Three (see, I’m slipping in a part. I’m the BlogMeister, I get to do do that.) I’m going to examine several companies in particular.
*Shake – A nuclear unit of time measure. About 10 nanoseconds, about how long it takes a generation of nuclear reactions to happen and about how long it takes light to travel 10 feet in a vacuum. Originating in that old slang expression, “faster than the shake of a billygoat’s tail”.