Coming to you from the cloud

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not the least bit obvious to you but this blog is now coming to you from the cloud. My move to cloud computing is but my latest adventure in hosting. This blog has moved around so many times in its nearly fourteen years even I don’t remember all the places it’s been hosted at. For at least the last four years or so my sites have been hosted at Hostgator on its generally inexpensive shared hosting for about $15 a month (plus an annoying $4 a month for a dedicated IP).

Today though you are being served my fresh content from the cloud. Yes, I am using cloud computing at last, rather than a server in a server farm somewhere. Actually a server farm and a cloud-computing center look pretty much the same except the cloud-computing center is likely a lot bigger. Even I have no idea exactly where my words are coming from, but rest assured they are still sent from a machine on a rack deep in a hosting center somewhere.

All I really know is my blog comes from a gridserver.com domain, which is owned by MediaTemple. “Owned” probably does not apply here. I’m using MediaTemple’s Shared Grid, which is actually Amazon Web Services. I know this from calling their support and asking the question. While MediaTemple still has hosting centers, they have outsourced their shared hosting to AWS. MediaTemple is not alone. Oddly enough most major web hosts are outsourcing a lot of their hosting to someone who will do it faster, better and cheaper in the cloud. This is probably Amazon Web Services, but they are not alone either. Google and Microsoft are the two other major cloud providers and there are a host of smaller ones.

I’m in the cloud in part for cost but also because being in the cloud I get more value. MediaTemple’s Shared Grid service uses all solid state drives, which means there is none of the latency that exists from retrieving content off a disk drive, which requires moving disk platters around. So all things being even, response is faster on this hosting. Readers should also be “closer” to my blog: six routers in my case instead of sixteen to get through between server and browser. (Static content comes from a content delivery network I pay $9 a month for.) So now it’s like going through six stoplights to get to a destination instead of sixteen. A properly managed cloud-computing center also takes care of a lot of the hard stuff, mostly through advanced engineering. Outages are far less likely; patches are less likely to incur downtime. In general readers like you should expect faster response and fewer quirks and issues.

Where vendors like MediaTemple add value is by making using the cloud quite simple. If you were to buy an Amazon EC2 service, you would be expected to manage much of it yourself, including security and upgraded to the operating system. Amazon handles the backend stuff, but MediaTemple wrote a nice friendly wrapper with its control panel so I can use it without thinking too much. It is still technical to administer my sites at times but most stuff can be done elegantly inside its control panel.

Rehosting though is still a pain, which is why I’ve avoided the hassle and waited until my Hostgator contract was ready to expire. This is one of five domains I own. Moving each to the cloud is hardly a trivial process. It means moving masses of files around and in most cases exporting and importing a database, skills not easily acquired. I also have to edit a number of files to make the integration between programs and databases work. This all takes time, attention and a certain amount of geeky skills that I happen to have.

Since I can get this for a fair price (up to 100 domains for about $20 a month, with obvious overall resource quotas I am unlikely to exceed) my hope is this will be the last time I have to rehost. I’ve been plugging away at this for more than a day and my most challenging site still has to be moved. To move that I’ll also have to integrate a certificate first so that content can be sent securely.

In general though I am following the trends. At some point traditional hosting will be obsolete. It will all move to the cloud and probably hosted by Amazon, Google or Microsoft. You won’t know or care who’s doing the heavy lifting. Vendors like MediaTemple and HostGator will distinguish themselves by writing wrappers around cloud hosts for an optimal customer experience and by working with cloud providers so that the infrastructure can be highly tuned for their customers’ needs.

For you and me, reading my blog should be a faster, less quirky and a more reliable experience.

Great web hosting at last

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Growing Pains

The Thinker by Rodin

It may not seem like it, but this blog is growing.

My web host is still complaining, like it did last December, that I am using too many resources. It doesn’t appear that I can run this blog on a $16.95 a month virtual private server any longer. While my visits and page counts are relatively static (200 to 300 page views a day, as documented by SiteMeter), my blog seems to get a lot of search engine traffic. This is likely due to its breadth (five and a half years, 850+ posts, 954,000 words) and my half-hearted attempts at clever marketing (all those links running down the side of my web pages). I suspect that search engines are the culprits driving up my resource usage. As a result, I get stern warnings from my web host.

Call it vanity but I want this blog to be visitor friendly and search engine welcoming. This blog has become something resembling my raison d’etre: my reason for living. The Buddha might suggest that my enlightenment recedes the more vain I get about my blog. Yet, like most humans, I want to feel that after my body turns into dust that I will have left the world a little better than I found it. This is getting increasingly hard to imagine when I consider my personal carbon footprint. This blog may sometimes amuse readers. It may occasionally instill anger. It may annoy, bore or simply make most you zoom on to the next site of interest. But perhaps all this effort is worth my time and increasing expense for the opportunity to communicate an interesting thought, articulate a well-turned phrase or spawn an insightful idea or two. A century ago, creative people like me had to hope we could write something worthy of publishing and then hope someone would read it. In the Internet age, the playing field is more level. We blog and hope for the best.

In any event, when SiteUpTime (which monitors my site hourly to make sure the server is responding) tells me it frequently cannot access the site, I have to assume you are having the same problem also. Timeouts are not acceptable to me, so I am digging a bit deeper into my pocket and rehosting again. My new web host is Media Temple. What is new this time is not my virtual private server, but that I have dedicated server memory that is all mine. No one else can have it. It is not much but I am hoping that 256MB of dedicated RAM will be enough to give readers the fast response time they deserve and search engines the ability to easily plumb my site for its content.

I spent the last couple of days, among many other tasks, buying this new hosting account and moving my content across the Internet. It went from some hosting facility in Providence, Utah to this newest one in Culver City, California. If $42 a month will not suffice (the effective rate if you pay for a year of hosting at a time, otherwise it is $50 a month for their lowest end Virtual Dedicated plan), I may have to dig into my pocket a little deeper still. Fortunately, I can pay for my hobby easily enough by selling my own Internet skills and picking up some occasional money from hosting ads here. I no longer have to pull from the family till to pay for my hobby.

So I hope you notice things run a little faster around here. I also hope that this is my last web host. Lord knows I have been through enough of them. Only time will tell.

Confessions of a CPU and memory hog

The Thinker by Rodin

I have heard of diners who eat so much at all-you-can-eat restaurants that the management throws them out. All you can eat apparently means as much as the restaurant thinks you should eat. Eat too much and they are losing money. Therefore, certain patrons find their butts unexpectedly on the cement sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

While I have never been thrown out of a restaurant for consuming too much at the buffet bar, I have been driving my web host a bit batty lately. This is because my blog is getting more popular. I have noticed unexpected downtimes. In particular, my MySQL database (which drives all the content you see here) has been churning through CPU cycles on the server, even though my tables are not huge and my content is well optimized. At least that is what my web host is claiming. They sent me this ominous email a week or so back:

Recently your account potomactavern.org has been causing high load on the server. This is a serious problem as it degrades server performance for all of our clients who share and are hosted on the same server. High loads contribute to problems such as delayed e-mail and slow site loading times; you may have periodically experienced some of these issues.

This blog is hosted under my potomactavern.org web space. Anyhow, I was pointed to this web page that told me how to go on a resource diet. So I have been using its guidance and have been playing with Apache web server and MySQL database server settings trying to minimize usage. Yet, this seemed to cause more downtime. Reducing the number of processes that MySQL can use, for example, makes response time slower. It also seemed to cause MySQL to crash, which generated more support tickets.

Nonetheless, I thought I had taken appropriate actions. I even emailed the person who sent me the warning, asking him if what I had done was okay. I never heard from him so I assumed my usage was now acceptable. Over the course of several days, I noticed that the number of hits I was taking was declining precipitously. Instead of 500 page views a day, I was getting 150. Lately, it has been more like 100.

When this happened a year ago, it was because Google had found too many broken links, so it dropped me from its search index. This time though when I went into my Google Adsense account to see what was up, it reported a HTTP 403 error. This means that my server was refusing to serve any content to Google. This seemed very odd, so I filed a support ticket. They told me to fix my robots.txt file. This file tells search engines what they may access on the site. Only I did not have a robots.txt file for this blog. So what was going on?

More emails later, I learned that since this blog exists in a directory under my potomactavern.org domain, any rules affecting the potomactavern.org domain would affect it too. Moreover, under the potomactavern.org domain there was an .htaccess file. This is a hidden file used by the Apache web server to say who is authorized to access the site. The file contained a statement that told Google (and only Google) to go away. This was confirmed by looking at my SiteMeter referrals log. I still saw referrals from Google, but they were rare. I do not know who added this statement to the file, but I have no memory of adding it. I quickly removed the command and Google reported it could read my blog again. However, it will likely be some time before it fully indexes this blog again. In addition, there is no way to know whether the site will get as much traffic as it has gotten recently.

So apparently, I have sinned, but it was a sin of omission. If this was their way to limit my CPU usage, then I wish they had the courtesy to tell me.

I have learned there are some drawbacks to becoming more popular. I am learning a little lesson in the realities of web hosting that most people do not know. The amount of bandwidth and disk space you are given is merely marketing. In most cases, they mean nothing. In my case, I can store up to 2.5 gigabytes of data on the server. In addition, every month I can use a half a terabyte of bandwidth. Even with the extra traffic, it is a rare month that I use 5% of my bandwidth. So apparently, what really matters to a web host is how much CPU and memory on the server that you are using. If you are using” too much”, you are abusing the server. Note that this web host like most set the criteria for what they consider to be a “reasonable” number of domains that can exist on one server. The exact criteria though tend to be obfuscated. We can assume though that they want to put a lot of domains on the same server. This way they have to buy and maintain fewer servers. They expect your usage will be minimal. You, of course, are thinking, “Gosh, what a deal! $5.95 a month for hosting and I have terabytes of bandwidth! I better sign up!”

Since I have a virtual private server, I share this server with others but I also control exactly which applications are installed and how they are used. If I want to (and generally I do not) I can tweak settings in MySQL and the Apache web server to give myself more memory and CPU. In my case, I used the default settings. The defaults were apparently set too high for the number of domains actually placed on this server. For this, I pay $16.95 a month. If I want, I can elect to pay about $60 a month to be on one of their servers with no more than twenty domains.

I certainly understand that if I truly am a CPU hog that I should pay for a higher class of service. Still, I am puzzled by how I could be one. 500 browser page views a day, even if you add the usage consumed by search engines and feeds should not cause that much of a performance problem. (I also now cache my blog entries so static content is served unless the last request was more than an hour ago.) While I have a couple other domains other than this blog, they do not get nearly as much traffic. Yes, I know that serving the graphics and such on web pages also consumes CPU and bandwidth. In addition, generating content from MySQL on the fly uses CPU cycles too. While I do not run a hosting center for a living, I still find it puzzling that my traffic would use that many resources. With microprocessor on the servers capable of hundreds of millions of instructions per second, I should be a blip on their radar. Yet I am not.

Naturally, this problem manifested itself as soon as I sent in my money to renew my web hosting for another year. This means I can cross my fingers, upgrade my service (hoping that I will not meet the murky criteria for being a CPU hog again) or find another host. Regardless, I am unlikely to get my money back. To compensate I will move my forum to my friend Jim Goldbloom’s web space. This way, these issues will not impact the small number of regular users on my forum.

What I find annoying is that web hosts generally provide no clear and up front criteria for what high usage looks like. In my naiveté, I think that CPU and memory usage should be metered. If I am one of twenty hosts on a machine, then logically I should be able to claim 5% of the memory, 5% of the CPU utilization and 5% of the disk space at any one time. Actually, if I am not using the remainder, I am fine with someone else using it, but I sure want my 5% when I need it. It seems reasonable and fair to me. Moreover, I should have a tool that shows me my usage and compares it to the total available and the actual number of other domains the machine is hosting. As best I can tell, there are no such tools and I doubt this is accidental.

Web hosts of course need to make a profit. They do so I suspect in part through obfuscation of these sorts of details. As in the all you can eat buffet, there is only so much CPU available and memory available; they are finite resources. You are entitled to your share of it, but they will not tell you what the share is, only when you have used too much of it. As a result, people like me are left wondering what the heck they are supposed to do. How am I supposed to know if any web host can support my traffic for X dollars per month?

If anyone knows of a web host that guarantees a percentage of the CPU for virtual private server hosting please leave me a comment. Even a chat with a technician at LiquidWeb, which hosts my friend Jim Goldbloom’s web space, got me nowhere. They tell me that information is proprietary.

Meanwhile, I am feeling very paranoid. I am monitoring my resources, checking my web logs and wondering if I am being good or bad, but having no way of knowing. I am also wondering whether my content will denied to Google or other search engines again without my knowledge or consent. Whatever, web hosting strikes me as a lot of smoke and mirrors. Customers deserve clear criteria for acceptable usage.

Adventures in Virtual Private Servers

The Thinker by Rodin

About two years ago, I went through a rather arduous adventure in rehosting. I regret to report that after about two years of hosting with site5.com, I have to rehost again.

The rehosting game goes something like this. Things always start out very promising. Your web pages scream back at you. Then, slowly, response time degrades. It is the usual problem: companies try to squeeze a bit more profit by shoving more and more customers on the same server. After all, that is the advantage of virtual hosting. Most of us cannot afford to rent our own dedicated server nor have the traffic to justify it. We want a web presence but do not want to pay for one that guarantees speedy response. In short, we emulate Jack Benny and are proud of it. Nevertheless, we sell ourselves on web host marketing material. I have yet to find a web host that does not claim to offer both fanatical support and low numbers of users on each server. This, of course, is just marketing hype. If some of them are actually honest, they are either charging a lot more or losing money.

Some months back things got to the point where my users were regularly impacted by slow server response times. I complained and things mysteriously got better. I think some other customer using the server was consuming most of the CPU, leaving customers like me high and dry. I assume to make things better they moved that customer to another server. However, over the subsequent months, I got more slowness. “White screens of death” were its principal manifestation. This is what you get from the web server (Apache, in my case) when the script takes too long to execute.

Sniffing around, I read the Apache configuration file on the server. Apache was configured to timeout after 15 seconds. I politely asked site5.com if they could up the limit so my users would not see white screens of death. They politely said no. The problem continued. I politely asked again. Again, they very politely said no. See, everyone on the server would be affected, because the web server’s behavior is shared among all customers. To make the change, the machine would have to be rebooted. Moreover, other customers might not like the longer timeout interval.

Particularly since my hosting contract was coming up for renewal, it sounded like it was time for an amicable divorce. The root problem in this case was that I could not change the Apache web server configuration settings to my liking. I doubt my scripts ran inordinately long. My most CPU intensive applications are on a phpBB forum I run, yet many sites run very busy phpBB boards without a problem. Therefore, most likely the root problem with my performance issues was that my server simply had too many customers using it. The white screens of death suggested this server was just above the waterline, and smart (or better moneyed) customers might want to abandon ship.

The question for me became where to go from here. I could find yet another company offering virtual hosting, sign up with them, and the problem would likely recur. I could contract for a dedicated server, but I simply cannot afford that luxury. The alternative was to use a virtual private server instead.

As a techie, I have been reading about virtual private servers for a few years. Using technology that to me is indistinguishable from magic, it allows one physical server to be used by many customers, yet each customer has complete control over what appears to be their personal server. Yes, you enjoy root level access. Only in reality, the machine is still shared with others. This option costs more than virtual hosting, but costs far less than a dedicated server.

Of course, a virtual private server is subject to the same laws of economics that affect virtual hosting. Too many customers on the same machine are going to slow things down. Performance is still constrained by available CPU, memory and disk space. In addition, running virtual server software takes additional system resources. The difference is that, in theory at least, I can avoid white screens of death by restarting my virtual web server to give it a higher timeout value. When traffic is high my users may have to wait a little while longer, but the web page should eventually come back to them.

I contracted with westhost.com, but wisely chose a one-year contract. As I am discovering there are other downsides to virtual private servers. For one, the control panel is a lot more elementary than other control panels I was used to, like cpanel. For example, there is no web application to help program cron jobs. (Cron is an operating system utility that allows you to schedule programs to run at certain times of day automatically.) You have to program cron jobs the old-fashioned way: from the command line. At the moment, this is a problem, since this version of cron does not like commands more than 80 characters in length. On the other hand, it is neat to do things like create as many databases on the fly as I like and install any application I want. It is also neat to turn on and off my virtual server, as well as to have real root access.

In short, at least for the moment, those with needs that are more specialized but without deep pockets should consider virtual private servers. In addition, only those who are not afraid to get their hands dirty with Linux should embrace them. I have some of these skills, but could certainly use more. As a professional IT manager, I have staff to do these things for me. Doing it by myself on the side is certainly educational. It gives me an appreciation for what my hard working staff does for me.

It is still a pain to transfer domains, although somewhat less so than it has been. phpMyAdmin creates a nice dump of the database for relocation, but the version on my new host has a 2MB file import limitation. This means to load the data I must run MySQL from the command line.

Dynamic applications are still a pain to rehost, particularly if you have customized them. It still means tar-ring and gzip-ping their files, moving them from machine to machine using FTP, then gunzip-ping and untar-ring them into the right directories. New database instances must be set up and populated. Configuration files must be tweaked. Moreover, all the ancillary third party software used by the application has to be set up again. In this case, I had to install a new instance of phpAdsNew, transfer my advertising database and carefully set it up. When all this is done then you also need to point the domain to the new host, which means your users have to wait while your change propagates across the Internet.

I am still a bit leery about virtual servers. Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. In addition to being more flexible, virtual private servers also have some great security advantages. For example, there is no way a virus on my server can infect someone else on the same machine, because virtualization technology creates an impenetrable firewall between my virtual world and others. If my virtual server crashes, it does not affect others on the same machine.

Fortunately, I have 30 days to put westhost.com through its paces. If it does not meet my needs, I can get my money back and I still have time to host somewhere else. I can also choose to extend my contract with site5.com and put up with their virtual hosting annoyances.

There is a variant of virtual private servers called virtual dedicated servers. Most web hosts selling VDSes are actually selling VPSes. However, a true VDS will actually ensure that you get your fair share of system resources. That may be my next step if a VPS does not work out. Naturally, a true VDS costs more than a VPS, and so far, sticker shock is keeping me away.

I have two more domains to move over to westhost.com, including this blog. I hope to do it slowly over the next few weeks as I feel more comfortable navigating in this new and strange VPS world.

Continue reading “Adventures in Virtual Private Servers”

Adventures in Rehosting

The Thinker by Rodin

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.