Hosting Providers: Shop Small

Having built as many sites as Web-Op has, you get pretty familiar with different hosting providers. Many users wish to supply hosting for their projects, to ensure they’re in control in the event of a dispute, or control costs and features. For these users, I offer a strong piece of advice. Choose a smaller hosting firm!

“But why? 1&1 or GoDaddy (or other large firms) offers hosting with supposedly huge limits for the change that fell between my couch cushions!” I knew you’d say it! There are several reasons:

  1. Really large hosting firms tend to use cluster setups. These often require enormous propagation delays, so a simple task, like “set up new FTP account” or “add a database” which takes 20 seconds on a single-machine setup can take 30 minutes.

    Cluster setups also often mean you’re stuck with awkward database provision. The database server or cluster is often a seperate host, so naive code expecting it at “localhost” must be fixed. And you’re likely to get an unpronounceable, non-intuitive name for that database, being a maintenance hassle later.

  2. Large hosts tend to rely on custom control panels. These are normally okay for basic situations, but when you want to do something out-of-the-ordinary, like a custom nameserver setup, mail hosted on an external server, or altering your Apache or PHP setup, you don’t want to spend time fighting the panel for the controls you need.

    Even large hosts which have a more or less standard cPanel setup (Bluehost, I’m looking at you) tend to bury the actual commands in extra panes of advertising or buttons for upsells. Alternatively, they may cripple basic do-it-yourself features (like activating a SSL certificate you bought seperately) in the hopes they can drive you into buying their upsell version.

  3. There are often surprise restrictions which hobble the account. Many hosts which promise “unlimited storage” will also say “only 10,000 files”. However, items like themable systems, and off-the-shelf packages like shopping carts often consume several thousand of these files before you’re even out of the gate. Also common are extremely tight rules on how much CPU time you can use, because the server is highly oversold. These are often poorly disclosed and virtually impossible to independently audit.

    Email is also often restricted. GoDaddy, for example, limits most of their hosting to 1,000 outbound emails per day; anything left over is deferred. Sounds like a lot, eh? Consider an online shop which sends a receipt to a customer, a pick list to the drop shipper, and an invoice to the owner. Say it gets 200 orders a day. You’re down to 400 emails left. Plus a contact form, which could get quite a few inquiries per day. Blog comment notifications. Then add one hostile user pounding the site with nonsense comments, and you’re deferring real customer data.

  4. You’re a replacable customer. The margins on hosting are microscopic, so it may be worth it just to lose you as a customer, rather than push to satisfy you. Big hosting firm support systems are built with tiers of cannon-fodder employees that can’t help you and merely want to get you off the line. Even if you get angry, there are 300,000 other customers that are unlikely to move away. And 10,000 more lured by the promise of 60 cent per month hosting coming every month.

In our experience, smaller hosting companies are better on these issues in three key ways:

  • They’ll charge the dollar or two more to cover their expenses without wildly overselling their resources
  • They’ll usually just give you a standard, sanely-configured control panel (cPanel or Plesk)
  • There’s typically a chance of contacting someone competent in support inquiries.