The Thinker

Great web hosting at last

Since I put my first domain on the web around 2000 I have been in a quixotic-like search for a good web host. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a web host serves web content, like the content on this site. To say the least, I have been frequently dissatisfied, in part because I have more sophisticated needs. Without some research, I cannot tell you how many web hosts I have used in these last nine years.

They all fell flat eventually. Moving my many domains from one web host to another was an annual (sometimes more than an annual) exercise. That is why it is such a pleasure to say that I have found a good and reliable web host at last. I just renewed my annual contract with my current web host, Media Temple, not with reluctance but with something bordering on enthusiasm. I had not even waited to get a billing reminder. To make sure nothing slipped through the cracks I took the initiative and renewed before the end of my contract in early August.

Is Media Temple the perfect web host? It is by no means because the perfect web host really depends on your needs. It is not for everyone because most people who need web hosting are not particularly web savvy nor are they particularly fussy. These people go to hosts like GoDaddy, in many cases because they do not know where else to go. I run a small part time business where I install web software for people, so I have worked on lots of hosts. GoDaddy is optimized for small sites like a Cub Scout Troop where page hits are low and customers are not too fussy if service is sporadically unavailable or inconsistent. In most cases, these customers do not notice issues because they do not get enough traffic for anyone to notice. In many cases, they do not know the right question to ask anyhow to resolve their particular issue so they stay silent and hope it goes away.

Media Temple like all web hosts has a help desk. However, you are expected not to be a web moron. You are expected to know what things like DNS and SSH are. You are expected to use their knowledge base to see if the answer to your question already exists. You are expected to take the time to make sure your sites are backed up and you are not exceeding your quota. Your primary interface for doing these things is the integrated Plesk control panel. Using Plesk is straightforward but at times a bit mysterious. I am quite web savvy, but even I was surprised by how deeply nested Plesk can be at times. For example, I wanted to use phpMyAdmin, a typical tool provided by a web host for administering MySQL databases. It is installed but you have to dig for it. Moreover, you have to turn off popup blocking for your site so it will come up.

Plesk allow you to do pretty much everything you need to do to manage a web site. You can create databases, backup your files, schedule cron jobs, set up users and mailboxes and enable features like SSH. Only occasionally have I had to get my hands dirty, so to speak. Since everyone is virtually hosted, I once had to change PHP to handle attachments of more than the default two megabytes, which meant going in as “root” and editing a php.conf file. I find certain things much faster to do the old fashioned way, using SSH and the Unix command line. Deleting a directory with all its folders is so much faster in Unix with a rm –r –f folder command.

Once everything is set up though, things run sweet and most importantly, reliably. Mainly, you do not have to worry about the sorts of problems that used to drive me nuts, like consuming too many server resources, or sporadic periods where page response is slow, or sudden inconsistent behavior.

I have had a few issues, some of them caused by my own ignorance. I ran out of disk space once because I stupidly hadn’t told the backup software to not let backups exceed a certain amount of disk quota. I have hit kernel and burstable memory limits a couple times, resulting in the domain not being available. When I have noticed quirks, I reboot my virtual server in the Plesk control panel and problems tend to disappear. Two system-related problems where I needed technical support in twelve months is a vast improvement over previous web hosts where issues were often out of my control and the help desk surly or not available.

I currently host six domains (including this blog) using one account with minimal issues regarding any of my domains. I am using their Dedicated-Virtual service, paying about $42 a month (a discounted price with a one year contract). If your needs are more modest, you may find their Grid Service ($20 a month) more than adequate. If your needs grow, Media Temple offers a convenient upgrade service. No web host can promise unlimited server resources for $50, $20 or $4.99 a month.

Paying more for a web host does not necessarily mean better service. If you are getting great hosting for a $4.99 a month special, enjoy it while you can because a company cannot be profitable selling hosting at $4.99 a month unless they cram a ton of rarely accessed web sites on the same server. $20, $40 or $100 a month will not necessarily buy you great web hosting either. It really depends on how much traffic your site gets. Mainly it depends on whether your host has the right mixture of people and technologies to juggle the complexity of web hosting. It also depends on management making a conscious effort not to oversell their servers to keep their profits up.

Media Temple is the first web host I have found that has demonstrated it has the right stuff. As such, providing they can maintain this high level of quality, they will have a long time customer.


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