The Thinker

Adventures in Rehosting

This blog is one of a number of web sites that I manage. Except for the one I actually get paid to manage (and it’s my staff that does the real work) the rest are for my amusement only. The other two sites that I manage are the Oak Hill Virginia Online site and The Potomac Tavern. In addition my brother’s domain 50,000 Cronkites is parked in my web space. I have a few inactive blogs attached to The Potomac Tavern domain that I also maintain.

And all was well until the Christmas Eve surprise. For three days my Potomac Tavern domain got zonked. Bandwidth was running about one gigabyte a day. On a typical day this domain might transfer and receive 100 megabytes of bandwidth. This would not normally be a problem except that the contract I have with my web host gives me four gigabytes of bandwidth a month. It wasn’t long before I was getting quota alarms all over the place. I was spending my Christmas vacation monitoring bandwidth, fine tuning .htaccess files and restricting forum permissions to members only in order to bring it down.

And I did bring it down. My web host graciously gave me another gigabyte of bandwidth, but others hitting my domain quickly consumed it too. I’m not sure exactly what caused the problem. I don’t think I was under a denial of service attack but I noticed that the MSN search engine alone consumed over 500 megabytes of my bandwidth in one day! Thanks a lot Bill Gates! With all those billions you would think you could at least ask me if it is okay to suck 500mb of my web content, or perhaps pay me for the privilege. MSN must have done it multiple times because I only had 110mb of content on my web site.

But MSN was not alone, just the most egregious offender. I do know this had the potential to bring to a grinding halt communications in The Potomac Tavern unless I coughed up some hefty fees to my web host, successfulhosting.com, for more bandwidth.

I was planning to rehost in June anyhow when the contract was up. But Successfulhosting.com is still living in the dark ages and charging what now seems to be a premium price for web hosting. Oh, what is web hosting? A web host is basically a computer facility with big fat pipes to the internet. You rent space on their machines because it’s always cheaper to do that then buy your own servers, stick them in your basement and install your own fat pipe to the internet. My domains, like most small domains are virtually hosted. This means I share a machine in a server room with other users who I don’t even know. It’s a cheap solution, but it can also mean that I am competing for CPU time. Sometimes access gets a bit slow.

And that’s been an increasing problem with my domains on successfulhosting.com of late. I don’t know if there are too many competing domains on my server, the constant database queries were bogging down or what. It certainly was not because I had pornography on the site. But this bandwidth attack made me realize one thing: I needed a bigger and fatter web host with more disk space and a lot more bandwidth.

So I went hunting for a new web host. I had known that competition had been bringing down prices, but I was not aware of just how much cheaper things had gotten. I looked at three web hosts seriously. I first started at Canaca.com, located in Canada. Their Silver Plan looked like a really good deal: 20 gigabytes of storage space and 400 gigabytes of bandwidth for $7.95 a month (if you pay for 2 years in advance). That would sure take care of the bandwidth thieves. But I didn’t know anyone who had used it personally. I also looked at Jumpline.com, on the recommendation of a Tavern patron. Jumpline offers a cool technology called Virtual Dedicated Servers. Basically this means that you are still sharing a server with others but you are guaranteed your share of the CPU and bandwidth. So if someone else is sucking down the bandwidth and CPU on your machine your stuff will still get out. Jumpline had the best prices on VDS technology that I could find. But to seriously address potential bandwidth problems in the future I wanted at least 20 gigabytes per month, and that was $21.95 a month. On the advice of my friend Dawn Gibson (who ran the very successful Back of the North Wind BBS in the 1980s and 1990s) I eventually selected Site5.com. Their Horsepower Plan was a very good deal indeed: $6.95 a month for 1.5 gigabytes of server space and 50 gigabytes of bandwidth. It was so good that Dawn, who already had them as a web host, was a bit upset she couldn’t get the same deal.

I’m still virtually hosted with Site5, but it has some nice features that only fellow geeks would appreciate. For example, I can park two domains for free inside the same web space. This means I can pay just once for the web space and effectively place 3 domains in there, all for $6.95 a month (for a one year contract paid in advance). Also, it was running much more current versions of software that I cared about. In particular they were running MySQL 4.0. MySQL is a relational database used extensively for web sites. The 4.0 version has important features I’ve wanted for years. It seems successfulhosting.com can’t be bothered to upgrade its MySQL servers.

Unfortunately it’s not always simple to move domains from one host to another. If your web site is nothing but simple static HTML pages it’s no big deal: FTP the files down to your PC, then FTP them up to the new host, and tell your registrar the names of the new name servers.

It’s a lot more complicated when you have large interactive web sites. I have two domains running phpBB forum software, which means I have to install this software on the new host. But of course I don’t use it out of the box. I have made special tweaks all over the place. I’ve installed phpBB modifications and added some unique features I personally wrote in PHP. So I have to get them working again in the new environment. It’s sort of like installing Microsoft XP and then having to apply numerous service packs and patches. It gets old rather quick.

Aside from the web pages and the software moving the database itself is a separate task. It meant getting secure shell access on the new host, running the mysqldump command and FTPing the database as one file to the new servers, the reloading the database with the standard mysql command. Since I had new database names I had to use on the new host I had to edit configuration files to get things to behave the same way again. Naturally since my users don’t want much inconvenience I had to logically turn off the forums, capture a snapshot of the database, then move it.

First mission is accomplished: the Potomac Tavern domain is now moved over to Site5.com. With the additional space and bandwidth I’ve installed a phpBB modification that will let users attach files to their postings or private messages. Thanks to extensive pretesting it went off apparently without a hitch and with minimal downtime. The only variable I couldn’t control was how long it would take the new domain name server information to propagate out to my users.

Now I can be a bit more leisurely. I want to consolidate all my domains in the same web space. Next one up is the oakhillva.com site. This is largely done but I accidentally removed some files, so recreating them is somewhat tedious. Last up will be this blog, and I may just leave it here at successfulhosting.com until my contract expires. After all I’m paying for the space and bandwidth.

I still don’t know why the bandwidth problem blossomed so quickly. I don’t think my domains are suddenly that interesting. I suspect there were a lot of nefarious probes looking for vulnerabilities on my site and that was part of the problem. But hopefully I don’t have to worry about either server space or bandwidth for quite a long time. So far things look good on Site5.com. Pages come back so much more quickly than they did on the successfulhosting.com servers. I hope it stays that way.

In a future entry perhaps I will talk more about web hosting and how this service is rapidly evolving. Agile hosts like Site5.com seem to be able to keep up with the technology and find more efficient ways of doing things. I think a number of web hosts are charging way too much. Customers are beginning to discover there are better deals elsewhere. But given the hassle moving from one machine to another I can see why many will choose to stay where they are and pay inflated prices.

 

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