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Adventures in Web Hosting

In Mid-December, this site moved to a new host. This page describes the circumstances leading to that decision. (Last revised on 2000/01/02)

>> Based on the experiences below, here are some things to consider when choosing a new web host.

Two Years at Three Islands

For almost two years, www.hellonearth.com was hosted by the kind people at Three Islands Press (www.3ip.com). We had a good agreement for both parties: The site caused a minimum of traffic and in return could pretty much contain anything at all. 3ip hosts their web sites on MacOS machines with a Mac variant of the Apache Web server known as WebTen.

There were some snafu's. At times, the server was unavailable either via FTP or through the browser. Occasionally, e-mail dried up -- this usually turned out to be the consequence of some server reconfiguration. One day, the files were on the server but not visible via FTP -- during a server upgrade, the administrator made some mistake involving their local directory aliasing.

Due to an administrative error, no traffic reports at all came forth during the final eight months at 3IP. Of course, a few loud complaints would probably have uncovered the error.

The worst part, though, was server performance. Hosting at 3IP wasn't cheap, exactly, but even connected to a T3 at work, Graphics always loaded sluggishly. After a year, they upgraded the server and that helped a bit, but the connection was still way too slow. This, in the end, prompted the desire to switch hosting services.

The split with 3IP was amiable. They even sent a 1999 Christmas Card with an hand-written enveloped. Whenever a problem occurred, they would do their very best to fix it in the shortest time possible. They couldn't do too much about the data throughput, though -- at least not in the timeframe hellonearth.com was sitting on their servers. (Of course, the day of the good-bye they were just getting another T1 line... Murphy's Law.)

Searching For A New Host

After thoroughly searching for information on a good hosting service located in the United States (in magazines, on-line and on Usenet), the following candidates appeared promising:

  • Affinity Hosting - nice site, inexpensive pricing.
  • Concentric Network - horrible site, good-looking contract conditions.
  • Dreamhost - no setup fees, "adult plan", reasonable conditions.
  • HostPro - setup fee, professional look, no content restrictions on Unix servers.
  • Verio - huge feature set, not really a single hosting service but a group of smaller hosts.
  • VServers - excellent features, but strict content policies and high price.
  • Webhosting.com - good features, decent price, utterly incompetent tech support.

Affinity.net has rather strict rules on content and retains full rights to delete sites which don't match their internal (and diffuse) criteria. A brief look at the HellOnEarth Gallery made me wonder: What will they consider obscene, how much will they accept? What if some article takes the f-word in vain?

Concentric Network looked very professional and competent -- unless one happens to look for the acceptable use policies. After an unsuccessful and frustrating half hour, the search was aborted.

In a similar vein, Dreamhost does not allow adult content on their regular packages, but they offer an "adult plan" where customers are allowed their full First Amendment rights as long as they cough up a LOT of money for it.

Verio made an uneven impression. Negative comments on the web and on Usenet -- as well as the fact that they were buying out ISPs and hosting services left and right across the USA -- left a bitter aftertaste. The fact that they are listed on NASDAQ didn't help to instill much confidence, either.

VServers offered an excellent and unsurpassed feature set, but their adamant rules on "adult content" were too scary. And I quote:

"Many of our competitors do not require their customers to comply with these guidelines. If any of our potential customers are unwilling or unable to comply with these guidelines, we respectfully invite them to visit one of our competitors."

Webhosting.com looked good up to the first technical query about whether they supported SSI : "Yes, SSL is available." No, not SSL (Secure Socket Layer), Server Side Includes. "I dunno." Good-bye.

HostAmateurs

That left only HostPro. Not the cheapest of the bunch, but they received top grades in almost every magazine or online comparison. Their customer service was supposed to be excellent and their sites were supposed to be very fast and reliable.

They also offered an "Easy Switch Program" for customers of competing hosting services. As a Network Solutions Gold Partner, they would take care of making the whole move as hassle-free as possible. Their sales team also gave its assurance that content of a mature nature was allowed, but only on their Unix servers. A strange policy, but Unix servers are generally preferrable anyway...

After filling out the form and credit card data on the HostPro site, the following things happened:

  • The Billing Dept. of HostPro immediately sent an e-mail stating that they could not charge my credit card. Funny, it works at the gas station when putting gas in the Beemer...
     
  • The Sales Dept. immediately assigned a "temporary IP address", FTP access and a "Domain Control Panel" to configure the server.
     
  • When HostPro's pages state that they offer e-mail access, they mean POP access, i.e. mail boxes to receive mail with, but no SMTP server to send mail. This feature has to be enabled separately (at no extra cost, though).
     
  • For one week, the Tech and Sales Depts. were unable to transfer the domain name to their servers. In that interval, MOATMAI processed four addressed changes at Network Solutions, without any problem or backlog.
     
  • Just before New Year's Eve 2000, on December 28, 1999, www.hellonearth.com disappeared from the name servers all over the world , i.e. HellOnEarth was wiped off the face of the Earth due to an administrative error at HostPro, followed by another administrative error which left the domain off-line for five days (to date). This meant no web access and, even worse, no e-mail services.

HostPro Tech support was quick to reply -- with autoresponders. Actual responses could last up to three days. When I asked for a reason for the DNS problem and how much time they would need to fix it, I received the following reply from technical support (emphasis mine):

Date: Thur, 30 Dec 1999 18:39:32
From: "Andrew W." <awon@hostpro.net>

I apologize for any inconveniences this may have caused you, however, we have taken care of the problem and this should not be happening again. There was a corrupt DNS file that has now been taken care of.

Unfortunately, we cannot foresee everything that can and may happen to a computer and if you have used a computer yourself, then you will know that sometimes files do become corrupt.

However, this is the first time that we have experienced a problem like this with DNS and we are currently working on a system to ensure that issues like this can be handled immediately so that we can have your site back up ASAP.

Apparently, the technical support representative thought that he is dealing with a complete moron -- which might not be too far off the mark, given that I chose HostPro in the first place.

Right now, 3IP looks rather good again -- and HostPro does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.