A Forum Admin's Guide to Web Hosting

By cheat_master30 · Oct 5, 2014 ·
  1. cheat_master30
    As anyone who's searched for a new web hosting company probably knows, guides to the hosting world are an extremely common sight online. Just look at all those results!

    webhostguides.png
    Above: Although isn't Siteground's article a bit unethical? They're a web hosting company, they're gonna recommend themselves!

    So why am I writing this one? Why do we need yet another guide to the world of web hosting when so many exist out there online?

    Because there's one major problem with almost all those other articles.

    They're garbage. And this is because the hosting world is dominated by affiliate schemes. No one wants to write a critical, interesting web hosting review, cause it doesn't pay. It pays to send people to low quality, crappy, EIG brands and rake in the dollars made off referrals. Hence just about every hosting article you'll read elsewhere was thought up by a snake oil merchant in some sad attempt to conning people into picking terrible hosts and giving the writer an easy paycheck.

    wordpresshosts.png
    Above: Even WordPress.org lists crappy hosts as 'recommendations' in order to rake in the affiliate dollars.

    But this article is different. I'm independent, I don't make any money at all from affiliate referrals and I'm only listing hosts I've had some experience of in the past. So if you want the first genuine, unbiased guide to web hosting, read on!

    So what type of host should I use?

    Shared Hosting

    The obvious advantage of shared hosting, is the price. Because you're only paying for a small percentage of a server, the monthly costs are extremely low, being between 2 and 15 dollars a month. This means its affordable for everyone, ranging from young kids to college students to retirees to people on the bottom of the career ladder.

    It's also pretty user friendly too. You just get a control panel (like CPanel) and can edit things like databases, FTP accounts, email, etc in just a few clicks. This is pretty good if you're new to hosting websites and just want to get your brand new site or forum up and running, since you only need the bare amount of knowledge to do so via a shared hosting.

    The drawback with shared hosting however, is a lack of control. Because with hundreds of customers all relying on the same server, the host really can't afford to let clients go messing around with server software and resource intensive scripts. Otherwise everyone's services will be equally affected, ending in misery for everyone as sites start going down all over the place and things like upgrades start breaking existing code.

    As a result, control is kept under a very tight leash. SSH/command line access is usually blocked for obvious security reasons, persistent programs like IRC bots and chat rooms and game servers are banned to avoid taking up too much of the memory or RAM, and things like disk space and bandwidth are usually greatly limited per account.

    But hang on, your might say. Don't these shared hosts offer deals where you get unlimited space and bandwidth per month?

    Well, yes they do. But you can't actually USE that amount of space and bandwidth.

    First and foremost, it doesn't even exist. How could it? Even letting every customer have 300 GB space and a terrabyte worth of bandwidth would mean you'd need a server with... oh, I don't know... 30 terrabytes of hard drive space and 100 terrabytes of bandwidth. How much would that cost?

    10tbharddrive.png
    Above: If we're only hearing stuff like this now, how are these 'unlimited' companies offering all that space? Magic 100 TB hard drives/setups for every fifty to a hundred customers?

    Via http://www.extremetech.com/computin...b-hard-drive-helium-filled-shingled-recording

    Good question. Nothing that size actually exists on the market. But assuming it's about 3000-6000 dollars for the hard drive alone. You'd then about 6000 more dollars for the 100 terrabytes of bandwidth, an unknown amount more for the data centre and however much the pricy computer/server used to host the sites would go for. So maybe about 15-20000 dollars then.

    Even assuming no support or tech costs at all, that'd mean everyone would have to be paying 16 dollars a month minimum. And have to pay for the full year in advance. That's not likely, nor economically feasible for the 3-5 dollars a month these companies are charging.

    And unlimited? Yeah, that's not gonna happen. Unlimited doesn't exist, you can't buy an unlimited size hard drive, or get an unlimited internet connection. It's physically impossible, in the same way that having unlimited energy in the universe is impossible. If it was possible, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter could run off shared hosting.

    http://www.google.co.uk/about/datacenters/inside/streetview/

    Above; Who needs that massive data centre when you've got cheap hosting for five dollars a month?

    So how does this actually work? Well, they simply assume their customers won't use most of the resources they're given. Most sites are statistically tiny after all, and even many decent sized forums only use the bare minimum of disk space and bandwidth (assuming they're not hosting tons of large files like a warez site). So everyone only gets something reasonable (say, 1-10 GB of space) but merely thinks they're getting more because the bigger number looks nicer. And if all sites ever used all their allocated resources? The server would probably crash. Like if everyone went to their local bank and asked to withdraw every penny in their account.

    That said, Shared Hosting isn't by definition a horrible option. As mentioned earlier, it's the cheapest possible way to get a website online, and for many people out there (especially those with smaller forums and blogs), it's the best way for them to maintain an online presence. You just need to shop around a bit and not get distracted by all the 'unlimited' offers.

    Specialist (but also shared) hosting

    The next type of hosting (although technically it's just another variant of Shared Hosting, albeit at a different price) is Specialist Hosting. What do I mean by this?

    Well, just about anyone from 'free forum hosting' to 'Software as a Service' to 'script specific hosting' (like WP Engine).

    At the lower end, you've got the freebie deals and hosted services. Ranging from Proboards to Zetaboards to Weebly to Freewevs, these services offer site hosting with the caveat you can't as easily move to another company afterwards, since your site and data lurk in a system that's usually proprietary to the hosting company.

    At the mid range, you've got paid (but similarly restricted) services which lock you into one script with no file access, but give you at least some freedom to move your data elsewhere if necessary. Examples include Invision Power Services' hosting services, vBulletin Cloud, Squarespace and various others.

    And then at the higher end, you've got services like WP Engine, which give you file and database access, but restrict you to using one type of script on their services. They pretty much sell themselves on technical support and optimised infrastructure, with the idea being that they make up for their price simply by peace of mind.

    So should you use one of these companies/services? To be honest, I wouldn't recommend it. Yes they offer some peace of mind, cause their servers are set up specifically to run one particular piece of software. Yes they can offer more in the way of support, cause they often know that software pretty well.

    But by using these services, you're basically agreeing to permanent vendor lock in. Software doesn't stay stagnant. What's good one year isn't always good the next. Not every upgrade is an improvement over the last (just see vBulletin!) So by choosing to go with a host like this, you are restricting yourself from moving to better software if your current choice turns out to be the wrong one, or if future changes in the development strategy lead to quality declining. Such services also (especially on the lower end) overcharge like hell, because they know that its very difficult for their clients to take their data with them and find a company offering a better deal.

    vb4.png

    vb5.png

    Above: As vBulletin demonstrates, it's very easy for good software to turn bad. Quickly.

    I'd advise against them.

    VPS Hosting

    Kind of like a cross between shared and dedicated hosting, VPS hosting pretty much offers you a small dedicated server... that's hosted on the same machine as a bunch of other small dedicated server equivalents. So in other words, you pay a bit more than with shared hosting, and get many of the features of a dedicated machine.

    The foremost advantage here is that you're generally not restricted in what you can do on your hosting account. You can access the command line, you can set up and run services, you can install software packages and updates... basically, you can treat it like your personal computer, with all the benefits that provides.

    As a result, it's good for learning how to manage a server, and for setting up scripts like Discourse that you can't run on standard shared hosting, as well as learning how to use them.

    There are a few downsides though. For one thing, it's obviously more expensive than standard shared hosting is, because you're getting more control and actual dedicated resources for your money. Add how a VPS is pretty much never oversold (at least to the ridiculous levels of shared hosting), and the end result will mean that technically, you'll be offered less disk space and bandwidth on a VPS than you would on a shared machine.

    The other issue is support. You see, unlike with most shared hosts, VPS hosting packages come in two types; managed and unmanaged. The former has you supported by technicians and support staff working for your hosting company, the latter has you on your own.

    And as you may have guessed, the latter is the cheaper option. So if you want cheaper hosting... well, better figure out how to act as system manager on a Linux web server.

    VPS hosting is good for people with a midrange budget, some time to learn the technical side of server management and need for greater control of their sites.

    Dedicated Server Hosting

    Finally, there's the high end of the market. Where to put no fine a point on it, you buy a whole computer (or ten) in order to specifically host your websites on it.

    The advantages are that you get full control; you can install anything, host any kind of content or script you'd ever want (within the bounds of the law), choose who gets access, that sort of stuff. It's just like having a second computer to use a home, albeit one you'd got to log into remotely via SSH (unless you're willing to physically drive to the data centre).

    But as you may have guessed, there are some disadvantages. Namely, you'll need to pay. And while you can get the servers at a fairly cheap rate if you're willing to look around, that usually comes a hidden cost. What cost? Well, just like with VPS hosting, there are two levels of server management you can get for a dedicated server (or server farm).

    Managed

    And unmanaged

    And just like with VPS hosting, the former means 'there's a team of technicians keeping your server up and running', while the former means 'you're the one who has to do everything'. Most cheap setups are (as you may expect), the unmanaged type. So if you want good dedicated server hosting, either be prepared to spend a fair amount getting a team of 'professionals' to manage it, or buy a few dozen 'Linux for Dummies' books and read up on enough SSH commands to get round that pesky server admin stuff yourself.

    Windows Hosting

    Anything from Shared Hosting to Dedicated Servers, except running Microsoft Windows instead of Linux. Whether you need this type of service depends a lot on what programming/scripting languages you're running on the server, with ASP/ASP.Net being things you pretty much have to run on a Windows machine.

    Will you actually need one to use Windows instead of Linux? Probably not, the more common scripts like XenForo and Invision Power Board use PHP (a scripting language that's mostly platform independent and runs well on Linux servers), and even the rarer ones like Discourse use non Microsoft languages and technologies like Node.js instead of an ASP variant. But hey, if your script if choice runs on ASP.net or other Microsoft developed technologies, and you're absolutely certain there are no other options... then you're gonna have to use a Windows Server hosting service and pay more for the privilege. *

    * Technically you can run ASP and .Net on Linux, and you can run languages like PHP on Windows. But the former is usually buggy compared to the official Microsoft options, and the latter usually means spending a significant amount more just for the right to use Windows on your server instead of a free operating system.

    So what hosting company should I actually use?

    Based on my experiences, the following seem to get decent enough reviews for the services they offer:

    Shared

    MDD Hosting - Offers both a great hosting service and top notch support. They actually didn't mind that my site was using 500GB of bandwidth a month for example. On a mid range shared hosting plan.

    VPS

    WiredTree - Great support (they are managed after all), good servers, plenty of resources for the price you're asked to pay
    Linode - See above
    Servint - Heard good words about them on this very forum.

    Dedicated

    I've heard good stories about Rackspace and the likes here.

    The next few companies seem to offer decent services, with some caveats:

    DigitalOcean - Supposedly offers easy to use VPS hosting with decent server specs and speed, but is a bit quick to censor controversial content.

    Media Temple - Stories about them tend to be either 'best host ever' or 'worst host ever' with just about nothing in between.

    You can find some others in this 'reliable hosts' list on this very forum:

    https://theadminzone.com/threads/list-of-reliable-hosts.116081/

    And who wouldn't you recommend?

    Any company owned by EIG for starters. They offer terrible support, slow servers, almost daily downtime and all kinds of other horrible things. Worse still, they've actually bought out at least half the big companies in the industry, meaning that it's all too easy to look for a new host and end up with yet another one of their brands.

    Here are the companies they own (from Wikipedia):

    1. 2slick.com
    2. AccountSupport
    3. A Small Orange
    4. ApolloHosting
    5. Berry Information Systems L.L.C.
    6. BigRock
    7. BizLand
    8. BlueDomino
    9. Bluehost
    10. Directi
    11. Dollar2Host
    12. Domain.com
    13. DomainHost
    14. Dot5Hosting
    15. Dotster
    16. easyCGI
    17. eHost
    18. EntryHost
    19. Escalate Internet
    20. FastDomain
    21. FatCow
    22. FreeYellow
    23. Glob@t
    24. Homestead
    25. HostCentric
    26. HostClear
    27. HostGator
    28. Hostnine
    29. HostMonster
    30. hostwithmenow.com
    31. HostYourSite.com
    32. HyperMart
    33. IMOutdoors
    34. Intuit Websites
    35. iPage
    36. IPOWER/iPowerWeb
    37. JustHost
    38. LogicBoxes
    39. MojoMarketplace.
    40. MyDomain
    41. MyResellerHome
    42. NetFirms
    43. Networks Web Hosting
    44. Nexx
    45. PowWeb
    46. PureHost
    47. ReadyHosting.com
    48. ResellerClub
    49. Saba-Pro
    50. SEO Hosting
    51. Southeast Web
    52. Spry
    53. StartLogic
    54. SuperGreen Hosting
    55. Typepad
    56. USANetHosting
    57. VirtualAvenue
    58. VPSLink
    59. WebHost4Life
    60. webhosting.info
    61. Webstrike Solutions
    62. Xeran
    63. YourWebHosting
    Other big companies I don't recommend are 1&1, GoDaddy and Lunarpages. They promise the world for nearly nothing, but then often offer poor quality servers and shoddy support as a result. GoDaddy is better for domains though, and it might be at least adequate for the WordPress specific hosting they've recently started selling (according to some on Web Hosting Talk).

    As for smaller companies... well, GreenValueHost is getting a lot of bad reviews recently, at least partly due to the owner being willing to go on forums and get into fights with ex customers. And apparently, the person behind notoriously bad web hosting panel software Zamfoo runs a hosting company too... which he pretty much only supports outside of his day job hours. Best to avoid stuff like that.

    So what's this Web Hosting Talk thing?

    It's the biggest forum out there about web hosting. It's known as a place a lot of customers go to find new hosts, and where an awful lot of companies go to try and win back said customers.

    Here's a link:

    http://www.webhostingtalk.com/

    It's also a great place to do research about your future hosting company. Check how many complaints they get. Tons? Probably best to look elsewhere then.

    Similarly, also look at the behaviour of the company's owners and representatives. How are they responding to complaints about their services? Politely, in an intelligent and reasoned way? That's good. Flaming the hell out of the ex customers and talking about they're evil scumbags who should die horribly? Run very, very fast in the other direction. You do not want to be stuck dealing with an egomaniac webhost or support rep.

    What else should I look out for when choosing a web hosting company?

    Plenty of things. Does their site look professional?

    webking.png

    Above: If your host has a site like this, find a new host

    Is their site design or content stolen?

    mddhostingrip.png

    Above: Like this poor copy of MDD Hosting

    Is there forum or support community active and with a decent amount of activity coming from the staff?

    Are there tons of horror stories online about their services?

    suckssites.png

    Above: If you've got three or four 'sucks' sites, then be really, really wary of the company

    Are there lots of good reviews on internet forums?

    Basically, do your research.

    What about webhosting review sites?

    Ignore them. They're basically scams.

    This is because (as mentioned in the intro), affiliate payments rule the web hosting world. As a result, these sites are not neutral databases of web hosting reviews, but carefully 'moderated' propoganda rags designed to shuttle people off to EIG brands like Bluehost, who just happen to pay the best affiliate referral fees.

    fakehostdirectory.png

    whoisfake.png

    Above: Oh look who runs the fake directory...

    They get even more dishonest when you look into them on a deeper level. For example, quite a few are actually run by web hosting companies. Oh look, guess who ends up on top of the list?

    And those reviews are very carefully filtered too. For instance, many bad reviews of high paying hosting companies will rather suspiciously get deleted in order to not give the game away or stop people from going with the companies paying the best referral fees.

    Finally, some of them literally work like mafia protection rackets. Pay us well, and we'll remove bad reviews and keep up good ones. Pay us poorly (or not at all), and we'll censor away your good reviews and leave up only the bad ones, giving everyone a terrible image of your company.

    Don't bother with these websites. It's an utter miracle that they haven't yet been shut down for astroturfing yet.

    And so, that concludes the article. I hope it taught you how to find a good web hosting company, as well as how to avoid falling for the affiliate based crap that keeps being published in otherwise 'respectable' publications.

    Let's get some decent hosting articles and reviews out there!

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