In Search of a New Webhost
Recent issues with my current webhost, IX Webhosting, have spurred me to initiate yet another search for a new host that offers more robust MySQL support. In a nutshell, I woke up one day early this week to discover that Scot’s Newsletter Forums was down and all its MySQL database files were deleted. I filed an immediate trouble ticket to tech support. Some 26 hours after the problem with the forums began, it miraculously reappeared with all data perfectly intact. But it wasn’t for another three days that IX actually answered my trouble ticket with a vague and wimpy note lacking any real explanation.
All in all, my IX experience has been much better than that with my last webhost, Invision Power Services (IPS), the company that makes Invision Power Board, the software that powers Scot’s Newsletter Forums. IPS was the worst webhost I’ve ever used. Other hosts I’ve used in past have included Hostway.net (reliable, surly tech support, not a great value) and SectorLink (bad reliability and support but I stopped using its services almost 5 years ago).
I have very specific needs, all of which need to be met, for me to move to any new webhost. They include:
- Highly reliable SMTP/POP/IMAP email hosting that does not use a stupid method to protect against spammers taking over the SMTP server. Preferred security would be user/password authentication required for both inbound and outbound mail. Using the same server for both with POP authentication is acceptable, but I think the separate server approach is much smarter. SSL is not my preference, although my primary concern is performance with SSL — so if it’s got snappy performance, I’m OK with SSL.
- At least 50 email accounts per domain, with a high level of account configurability.
- A liberal limit, or unlimited, MySQL concurrent connections. The concurrent connections number is something of an oversimplification, but it’s a starting point for discussion. To put it another way: Robust MySQL server performance that can handle the load when I send out my newsletter and everyone is attempting to hit my server-installed WordPress blog simultaneously. I also have a MySQL-based forums that has been affected by the newsletter too.
Also pertaining to MySQL databases: I’m looking for at least five MySQL database sets, daily backups, and phpMyAdmin with multiple user logins (preferably in control panel). I also need to be able to configure multiple user access to the database with configurable permissions.
- Configurable FTP access by multiple user accounts, with permissions, with configurable volume access.
- Free multiple domain hosting, with a minimum of five domains plus at least five subdomains for each. More domains would be vastly preferred. (Not to be confused with domain name registration/management, which I could care less about.) Controls for managing domains should be full-featured and intuitive. The control panel should provide full ability to create, manage, and delete new domains without needing a trouble ticket.
- High bandwidth limits or unlimited bandwidth.
- Linux hosting only. I don’t do Windows for webhosting. Too many problems with server apps.
- Quality Web metrics not just logs. Webalizer is OK.
- Reliability and rapid technical support. Generally speaking, it’s impossible to know this upfront. But a word-of-mouth recommendation from an actual customer on these two points would go a long way with me.
- The control panel: Generally, I don’t care much about the UI. What I care about is the full depth of the configuration features, functions, settings, and nuances. What I have found is that many control panels with terrible UIs also don’t offer all the functionality. cPanel is the classic example of a limited-UI product that also offers limited functionality.
Of course, each webhost can customize the control panel it offers, so not every cPanel configuration is equal. But I’ve spent time with cPanel from two webhosts, and the experience was bad with both — not because the UI isn’t great (and it isn’t) but because features and configuration options were limited.
In general, the control panels I’ve had the best experience with were custom built or heavily customized by (or for) their webhosts. Hostway’s email-management tools are the best I’ve ever seen. I left the company recently because of its price/performance ratio, which wasn’t great. But I wish I could have taken that part of their otherwise lackluster home-brewed control panel with me.
The control panels I like best are H-Sphere and Plesk. Again, of course, the functionality has to be surfaced by the webhost too. H-Sphere was the first CP I ever used, and it’s the one that I’m using now. The UI is so-so, but the functionality — especially as IX has implemented it — is quite good. The UI requires a lot of extra clicks and isn’t all that intuitive, but I’ll take the depth of settings and functions any day. I’ve never had the pleasure of using Plesk, but all the demos I’ve taken have left me very intrigued. I just discovered that Parallels apparently purchased Plesk. Good move, Parallels. But please keep delivering the webhosting admin and client product.
JaguarPC, a webhost recommended to me by a colleague, comes very close to what I’m looking for. It comes in shared and something it calls “semi-dedicated” shared service, which costs $30 a month and promises that the number of shared users on each server will be 1/6th or less that on the company’s $12 (less with longer pay periods) shared hosting service. I’m attracted to that option because my experience has been that a few bad apples on a server can make a big difference in the reliability of a shared hosting site. I’m willing to pay $30 per month for a year to explore the possibility of better reliability.
There are two problems with JaguarPC that I’ve identified so far:
1. It uses the cPanel control panel, and the company was good enough to give me 60 minutes of live access to the actual control panel for a practice account. (There’s also a less functioning online demo on the JaguarPC site that I linked to show cPanel above.) What I found in using JaguarPC’s CP is that it is a good cPanel implementation, but that there were controls and settings I want that weren’t there. Hard to warm up to that.
2. Working with JaguarPC’s sales department about how many concurrent MySQL connections it supports elicited a less-than-encouraging response. Sales was unwilling to actually talk to me about the subject, but instead pointed me to this support page on its website. The upshot being, JaguarPC isn’t saying how many simultaneous max. connections to a MySQL database it supports before its servers throw off a MySQL error message.
As I alluded to above, “max. conncurrent connections” is truly imperfect terminology — a gross oversimplification of how databases may be limited, especially on a shared server. But the wording on this knowledgebase article basically promises nothing. The aspersions cast upon “your developer” don’t match the reality of the current state of the world, where the popularity of MySQL-based CMSes, blogs, forums, and other server applications — like WordPress, Movable Type, Drupal, vBulletin, Invision Powerboard, and many others — have become such a key goal for customers of shared hosting sites that any webhost that fails to recognize that is apt to fail.
Bottom line: because I want a lot from my next webhost, it will likely take me a long time to find one that actually delivers what I need. But none of the specs and functions I’ve listed are negotiable for me. I need robust MySQL support above all — that’s the main thing I’m lacking now. But this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Anything less is going to cause me headaches.
All that said, I welcome any and all suggestions about webhosts coming from actual customers of other products. Please post comments here or send me email, whatever you prefer. One SNB reader, alexgieg, posted interesting comments and details about his new webhost, which offers liberal and I think very smart support for MySQL databases and overall bandwidth on its clients’ websites. Among the comments he posted is a message from his Webhost about problems with WordPress that might be addressed by applying better hardware.
In essence, alexgieg’s new host, nearlyfreespeech.net, offers a pay-as-you-go plan that charges you a penny a day for starters and charges two cents for each additional process. It doesn’t offer email support, and that lets me out. But it’s interesting just the same.