Hosting services: my recommendations

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1155 Words)

After hearing on Twitter how an acquaintance’s new hosting provider went ‘mammaries skyward’ this week, much to their understandable annoyance, it occurred to me that I have some recommendations I can make on this subject. While I don’t host that many sites, I’ve been doing it for long enough and had experience of both personal and medium-traffic sites that I’ve experienced the highs and lows quite a few times already.

The Golden Rule: Support > Everything

When it comes to hosting, the most important thing to look for, beyond what all the statistics of how much space and bandwidth you get, beyond even quoted up-times, is the quality of the support service. The big question is: when things go wrong - and if you host long enough, eventually they will even in the best possible hosting environment - how quickly are problems resolved, and how responsive are the support engineers during the process. Literally nothing is more important than this, and unfortunately it’s the one thing that you’ll only really learn with experience, unless you’re hosting a site big enough that you can get a formal SLA. Assuming you’re not going big enough for that, the only way to judge this is by being with a provider for a while, or knowing someone who has been with them, or possibly looking at online review sites - although frankly these are often highly unreliable, polluted as they are with inaccuracies and omissions either because of ignorance (people who post glowing reviews after being with the site 2 weeks) and unfortunately by frequent shill reviews.

I’ll post a couple of hosts I’ve had good experience with over many years later in the post, through good times and bad.

Know Your Bandwidth

Personally, I instantly rule out any host that claims ‘unlimited bandwith’. This is a crock - there is no such thing, and to claim there is just means the host is already lying to you before you even start - they have to pay for their bandwidth, so they can’t possibly allow everyone truly unlimited bandwidth and stay in business. If you really need unlimited bandwidth, i.e. you have a high-traffic site with lots of media files, then you will quickly bump into the way that these sites offer this ‘unlimited’ deal - via throttling. You may not have an absolute physical cap on your bandwidth, but if the tap is locked off to a slow dribble beyond a certain usage, it’s really worthless. In practice, ‘unlimited bandwidth’ is just a marketing point that they hope will draw in people who will only actually use a tiny amount of bandwidth, but will somehow favour them because the offer looks good. Don’t be one of those dumb guys.

Really you need to establish your bandwidth requirements and head for a host that can fulfil them for a reasonable price. For example, ogre3d.org uses between 125GB and 250GB per month, which is a reasonable amount, compared to my personal site here which only needs 5-10GB per month.

If you have ‘spiky’ bandwidth, i.e. occasionally you need to be able to distribute large amounts of data, but it’s not a constant stream, it would be best to go for a lower monthly limit and host high-bandwidth items elsewhere. I often use Amazon S3 for this purpose which can be made to look like a sub-domain of your own site, and which charges for bandwidth at a very fine granularity so matches your demand closely - it’s more expensive than buying a monthly allowance if you use it a lot, but for on-demand spikes it works very well.

Shared, Dedicated or Virtual/Cloud?

I currently use two shared hosts and one dedicated host, to match the demands of each site. Personally, I’m still very skeptical about virtual private servers and cloud hosting, due to a bad experience I had a few years back when we tried running ogre3d.org on a VPS. We lasted not much more than a month before we moved the server to a dedicated machine because the VPS simply didn’t deliver on its promises - performance was unpredictable and to be honest you had the worst of both worlds - you had to admin your own server but you still didn’t have a 100% guarantee that no-one else would be screwing with something on the machine, or that the disk arrays wouldn’t be hammered by someone else (regardless of CPU assignment), or some other balancing issue. Virtualisation has evolved in the last few years so this may not be an accurate representation anymore, but personally I wouldn’t go for a VPS again any time soon, unless it was a machine I controlled entirely and partitioned myself into virtuals - at least with shared and dedicated servers you know exactly what you’re getting - either a low-maintenance but shared resource environment, or total control & power. VPS claims to offer a middle ground but in my experience it didn’t deliver.

So, who do I use?

For my shared hosting, I’ve been using Hosting Matters for about 10 years now. I went through a couple of other hosts before them and had terrible experiences, but since I switched to them I’ve been very happy. I can count the number of hours downtime (that I’ve been aware of) over those years on one hand, and whenever there’s an issue they’re incredibly fast to respond - they have both community forums and support tickets depending on the urgency. It’s also very reassuring to see the same names cropping up in the support responses over the years.

Their offerings are pretty standard, nothing that would make them jump off the page for anyone looking for a stellar feature list or super-cheap pricing. But they’re very reasonable, they’re honest about what they’re offering (like bandwidth), and as I said before, support > everything.

For dedicated hosting, since 2007 I’ve used Dedipower. They’re based in Reading, their support staff are all local and are on the end of a phone if you need them (no call centres). Having been through a UK dedicated server comparison twice in the last 3 years (once again just recently), Dedipower came out as the most competitive for the service they were willing to offer, and I’ve been happy with the support service. In once instance in fact, when I moved a sub-site off the server, they were quickly on the phone to me within 10 minutes to tell me it was ‘down’ - at which point I had to explain it was expected & apologise for not notifying them in advance. You really can’t complain about that.

I hope that’s useful to someone. In case I need to point this out, I’m not getting paid or receiving discounts to promote either of these hosts, they’re just the two I’ve been most happy with over the ~10 years I’ve been hosting sites. YMMV but they’ve worked well for me 😀