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Hi! I'm Owen Winkler, and I write this drivel. This blog is about my own life and my random observations thereof. Sometimes I write about technical stuff here, but mostly that's at RedAlt. Please enjoy, or if not, click on my ads. Either is fine with me.

November 7, 2005 12:00am

Hosting Test Suite

I have recently had some difficulty with a hosting service. I won’t get into too many details as yet because I am still giving them a chance to redeem themselves after the most poor service I’ve ever experienced, but basically here’s what happened - I signed up for VPS hosting, they charged me for the service but never sent login details, they never answered my support emails, and finally they refused to give me a refund after two months saying, “VPS is not managed service and client need to take care of the rest once it is ready. “

Yes, in spite of the poor English, this is a reasonably well-known company.

In any case, I’m pretty fed up with hosting. It you’re a web site owner and you’ve been looking for hosting, you know pretty well how difficult it is to find someone that has all the features you want and the reliability you except. So how do you find great hosting at a reasonable price?

Other people you know who pay for hosting will say, “I’ve had a great experience at such-and-such host.” And then they’ll give you an affiliate link. (Can anyone say Site5?) So who knows if the service is really top-notch or they’re just trying to make a buck?

There are at least a dozen hosting search web sites out there that let you search for a host with the features you require. Well, ok. But isn’t it weird how every host on those sites offers a $1/month plan with 80GB of space on a dedicated server? And then you go to the site and find out that yes, they offer that plan, but to get those features you need to sign up for some other things that cost $300/month. So the value of those search sites is zero.

Maybe it would be better to have a service that actually goes out and tests a plan from a hosting company that is very close to certain specific criteria - enough to host a blog and some photos/files. Maybe they could run a feature suite on that host to see what services they provide, what versions of software they offer, and how well it all runs.

One of the major issues WordPress has had in installing on various hosts is that they all run their PHP differently. Some use CGI, some use server modules. Some run their CGI in weird protective shells, some don’t. And the php.ini settings, ugh… It all amounts to very differing environments on the server that the software has to account for. And so what if you find a great host at a great price and they report all of the features you need, but they have their PHP configured so backwards that you jump through 80 hoops just to get something simple to run? At that rate even $5/month is a waste.

More importantly, no service I’ve seen has ever talked about how great their support is and backed up their claims. The service that I mentioned above said they offered 24/7 telephone support. What they don’t tell you is that it’s a long-distance call, and there aren’t enough techs available to keep your wait time down to less than an hour. So what looks like a promising support bonus is actually something that you can’t rely on at all.

Sure, you want the service to be so stable that things just run. But we all have had things go awry before, whether through server error or a stupid mistake we’ve made. We’ve needed database backups restored, we’ve needed help setting up our DNS, we’ve needed extra software installed or upgraded on our servers, and sometimes we’ve needed simple questions answered like, “Where are my log files?” Good support is a necessity for good hosting.

So where is the chart that tells you who the good hosts are?

The guys at WordPress have tried to assemble a list of recommended hosts. I’m not sure exactly where this list comes from but I know that more people have had problems running WordPress on Dreamhost than anywhere else I’ve heard of. They report things like “I’ve temporarily disabled your database because you are running a query that is hitting the database too hard” and don’t bother to help you figure out the issue before summarily shutting you down. Each of those hosts kicks back some of their WordPress hosting fees to WordPress somehow, so I’m not sure that the recommendation there is even reliable, even if those guys are generally on the level.

Is there nothing that can help us?

I’m wondering what it would take to put together a service that pays for hosting at various hosts and keeps it for a month or two. During that time, it would simulate support issues by purposefully misconfiguring something and submitting it to their support department to gauge their response. A thoughtful scale could be compiled based on the difficulty of the issue, whether it was solved, and how long it took to arrive at a solution.

There could also be a complete inspection of the services available, such as what versions of what software the server was running, scripts installed, etc.

Most hosts oversell their servers. A complete report would tell how many other people were hosting on that off-the-shelf plan. It would also tell whether the host had an issue with maxing out their advertised storage limit - since many hosts will sell 100 × 3GB accounts on a server that can only hold 100GB total, on the assumption that the users won’t use all that space.

Bandwidth overages could be tested to see whether you get a warning when you approach your bandwidth limit, and then what (and whether) you get charged when you exceed it. Backup features could be verified. Extra charges for extra features could be calculated. The control panel for operating the hosting could have screenshots and be reviewed for capabilities.

What do you think? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? What other testing might you want to see?

Incidentally, Asymptomatic is hosted at TextDrive since I signed up for their VC3 program, and I’m having no issues so far. This isn’t an endorsement (yet) as much as an assurance that those other folks didn’t get my business.