I wrote this up originally for the Arcane Palette site, but for fun I’m reposting it here, too, because I think it’s fairly useful information. Enjoy!
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We’ve all been there at some point. You’re on the phone with some bored dude behind a computer anywhere between 200 and 9,000 miles away who may or may not speak English like a native but whose name is invariably something as innocuous as John. He sounds like he might know what he’s talking about but in most cases he doesn’t, not really.
If you do business online, you never want this to be your web host.
So how do you find a host that doesn’t suck? The biggest mistake people make with any technological purchase is getting a whole bunch of stuff you don’t need because it sounds important. Most times, this is simply due to lack of information – all those web builders and pre-installed software sound great (even though you’ll probably never use them), but what do you really need? And what does all this stuff mean anyway? I’m going to throw some knowledge at you, because presumably knowledge is power.
Web hosting typically comes in three different flavors: Shared hosting, Virtual Private Servers, and Dedicated Servers.
Shared Hosting plans are where your website is stored on a server that hosts numerous other websites — possibly hundreds. For most small-time sites, this is okay, the load is distributed evenly across all sites and it’s suitable for most incoming traffic. This is what most basic plans are based on. However, if your site is hit by a sudden flood of traffic (from a popular Digg, Tweet, or Google bomb), your site could easily go down, and bring down many others as well, as the server suddenly hits a critical point where it can no longer process incoming requests. This is also why most shared hosting enforces bandwidth caps, after which, your site goes down due to bandwidth restrictions if you reach a certain level.
Dedicated Servers are where you have your very own server all to yourself. There is no sharing with anyone else, because it’s your server. These usually require a skilled admin who knows what he’s doing and are by default, more of a “here it is, now off you go” kind of solution. These are usually powerful machines, and can be used to resell hosting yourself (if you know what you’re doing). For the most part, you’re on your own for support, and If there is ever any kind of issue, it’s usually a hardware issue. Or you broke something. These usually come with a package of tools pre-installed for you on the server but otherwise it’s up to you to put anything you want to run on the server yourself.
Virtual Private Servers are like a combination of both. A VPS is a dedicated server that has been partitioned off into pieces, with each piece acting like its own server. You wouldn’t put as many accounts on it as you would a shared hosting plan, but you are sharing it with other people. The benefit of this is a dedicated server-like environment, with full access and control to do whatever you want, with the compromise that you are sharing it with other people and if you (or they) exceed a critical level of incoming requests, again, it could bring the whole thing down. For all intents and purposes, these are treated like dedicated servers that you can get on the cheap.
What you should be looking for
The kinds of things you should be looking for really varies depending on what you are going to do with your site. You don’t need unlimited bandwidth and storage if you’re only going to launch a few squeeze pages, for example. Often, the most important aspects of your environment are the hardest to get hard data on unless you’re getting a dedicated server – RAM, CPU speed, hard drive speed. Instead, hosts like to give you “bandwidth”, which is the amount of data passed through your site. But that tells you nothing about how quickly that data is accessed.
At some point I found a website that listed just about every host you could think of in the world, and where they ranked with each other in terms of speed. A lot of them were close enough for it to not even matter. Since then, I can’t find the site again, but some good advice I’ve learned is to not be married to any one web host – the minute you start thinking there may be something wrong, start looking for something better. They suggested using google for “<hostname> sucks” and seeing what your prospective host ranks versus every other host you’re comparing to. Invariably, people will talk when their service sucks, but when it’s working, they’ll keep quiet – searching for what “sucks” might be the best way to find what doesn’t suck, or what sucks less, at least.
My rule of thumb with web hosts is that they should be invisible – you should never, ever have any situation where you think “my web host is…” Because it should just work. It should just be there. You shouldn’t have to think about it. If you’re thinking about it, it means that there’s something in the way and that is the path to problems. Most often, this happens when you’re dealing with tech support, but not always. A lot of hosts have their own proprietary control panels which are awkward and limited if you are used to the standard cPanel or something similar.
Web hosts that suck
Here’s a few hosts I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole:
GoDaddy – let’s be honest. GoDaddy is a domain registration service with hosting tacked-on. The only reason they do hosting at all is because they need a way to get more cash out of your pocket after you already shelled out a few bucks for a domain, and because they know that a lot of people won’t be patient enough to shop around for actually decent hosting. Their own website lags when I go there and try to load the page – how good could their hosting possibly be? The answer: awful. And if you are using WordPress? Even worse. Their servers are ill-equipped to deal with even the most basic WordPress blog, and their backend is cumbersome and counter-intuitive. I don’t even like using them for domain registration – I’ve had much better experience with domain.com. domain.com, unlike GoDaddy and some other domain registrars out there, doesn’t hide the process of moving your domain to another registrar – it’s right there as an option from a dropdown list. Most places you have to submit a special request, or go through a secret back panel after uttering the holy words. Domain.com is simple, easy to use, and uncluttered, and I’d choose them over GoDaddy any day.
APlus – there were a few months when we first started doing design where we had a run of really bad experiences with web hosts. It didn’t really matter what the specific issue was, there just always was an issue, and invariably the host in these cases was APlus. I don’t even remember what the specifics are, I just remember that there were 3 or 4 things in a row that had horrible problems with weeks of going back and forth with tech support and they were all hosted on APlus. Even one experience like this would have sent me running.
Netfirms – back before we were doing web design as a business and it was still just a hobby for me, one of our early projects was Chocolate Cat Studio, which was the umbrella for Erin’s pottery. One of the ideas was to eventually find a way to sell stuff online. A website was built, and because I didn’t want to pay for hosting, I did some research for free, Geocities-like website hosting. That’s how I originally found Netfirms – which advertises itself as site hosting for small businesses. The restriction for the free hosting was that you had to display a banner ad. That seemed okay at the time, and I hid it in a nondescript location. A few weeks later, I found the site I built plastered with huge banners that broke the site. Broke, because the site was using frames (you laugh now, but once upon a time, frames were quite the thing, I’ll have you know), so the banner was auto-inserted into the header of every single page – including the frame. Besides that, the site was slow. This ended my brief period of having any respect at all for Netfirms. Only recently have I had an experience with them as an actual domain host and found them to be even more abhorrent than I had originally assumed. Their database server on this particular site is so slow as to be non-existent, and their technical support is, by all accounts, also MIA.
Web hosts that don’t suck
1and1 – this is the host we use for Arcane Palette, jazzsequence, and all of our other projects. Also, we maintain several client sites on our 1and1 account as well. Across all of them, I have never had any problems. In 2 years we’ve had maybe a total of 5-6 hours of downtime and that was just one day. The admin panel is easy to find what you need quickly, without a bunch of crap you don’t really need cluttering things up. I know that it’s industry standard to use cPanel, but I find the interface cumbersome and annoying. 1and1’s back-end may be proprietary, but I can navigate it easily and get what I need to get done, which is good both from a developer and from a newbie standpoint.
Nexcess.net – it’s sort of a thing if you hit the Magento forums that if you don’t have a server or host that is tuned a specific way, your Magento site is going to be slow. Just take a look at our demo site that we use for development. This is the way your store will behave if you don’t have a dedicated server. Or a specialized Magento package from Nexcess. Now go to Wild Oats Boutique. The site screams. When we moved from their old host to Nexcess, the difference was like night and day. These guys are good, fast, and have great tech support. They are definitely one to keep your eye on.
Hostgator – Hostgator is one of those that always shows up in these lists. And it’s true, they’re good. I can’t say much about Hostgator – and that’s a good thing. They pass my “it’s invisible” test. Any site I’ve ever worked with that was hosted by Hostgator (and there have been many) I never had a single problem with, I never had to think about the server environment or hosting, it just worked the way it was supposed to.
AN Hosting – AN Hosting powers Upstart Blogger, among others. As Upstart Blogger gets a lot of traffic, is always fast loading, and its’ author has nothing but phenomenally good things to say about his host, I am willing to accept it as given that it works pretty well for him. And if you sign up with his affiliate code, you get his 30 day blogging course for free, which may be a bonus if you’re planning on starting a new blog anyway.
(mt) – Media Temple (mt) is what the big guys use. It powers pretty much every major, high traffic design site I go to. As such, they aren’t cheap, but they make up for it in speed and reliability. if you’re shopping for a dedicated server and your primary interest is quality, these guys should be what you compare everything else against – consider this the top of the line model.
That concludes my rant on hosts. I hope it’s been helpful. If it has, be sure and pass this on. and if you ever want to get in touch with us, feel free to drop us a note on Twitter or write on our wall on our Facebook page, or just send us an email and we will get back to you.