phpBB and hosting choices

In this post I look at the three basic types of hosting out there and discuss their strengths and weaknesses: shared hosting, virtual private servers and dedicated servers from the perspective of phpBB.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting means that one web server is being shared by many domains and customers. It’s generally inexpensive and for most people hosting a phpBB forum it’s a logical choice. And that’s because most phpBB forums have specialized communities interested in topics with a narrow focus. Total posts may be in the thousands. It’s rare for a forum to have more than 100,000 posts. Spending $5 or $10 a month to host a forum is certainly cheaper than the more costly alternatives.

Like Amazon Web Service’s PaaS (Platform as a Service) you generally don’t have to worry about the small stuff with shared hosting, which is good because chances are your knowledge of web technologies is not great. You want to leave the heavy lifting to those who know what they are doing. You often don’t know or care what operating system is being used and you sure don’t worry about upgrading it. The web host does all that for you behind the scenes.

But (and you knew there would be a but) you don’t get something for nothing. With shared hosting, many others are using the same machine and they may be using a lot of the server’s resources, slowing down your access or access for the people using your site. Shared hosting often comes with caps on resource utilization that tend to be not widely known. This can lead to some frustration and heartburn, but not always. Some shared hosts do a good job of balancing demand on a server. Others are trying to squeeze out all the profit they can and flood a server with many domains, leading to a lot of these problems. Those who are disgruntled move their domains elsewhere but many don’t because they don’t know how.

Even if you and your users don’t notice performance issues or resource limitations, there are some downsides to using shared hosting with phpBB. One I see all the time and keeps me gainfully employed. Resource limitations can cause upgrades to fail and there is no way to circumvent the problem as shared hosting means “one size fits all”. Some hosts will be embarrassingly far behind on the technology stack causing issues like you want to upgrade phpBB but they don’t support one of the newer versions of PHP that you need.

Busy boards generally find that at some point they outgrow shared hosting. There are too many mysterious HTTP 500 errors. Users get blank screens or posts take forever to process. Or they exceed quotas, like the number of inodes (files and directories) allowed.

With luck you can make shared hosting work for you, if you have a good web host and your needs are modest. It is the cheapest way to go.

Dedicated servers

The opposite of shared hosting is a dedicated server. This is a machine (generally with both a web server and a database server on it) that’s all yours. Even very busy forums will have a hard time making a dedicated server sweat, assuming it is properly configured and maintained. Performance is sweet but it comes at a price. Dedicated servers are expensive, typically hundreds of dollars a month to rent. Even worse from the perspective of many is that since it’s your own server, you are responsible for it. You have to worry about upgrading the operating system, database and various utilities. These are not skills most people have. They can be purchased but just buying the services of a system administrator to do this work for you can cost hundreds of dollars a month. Dedicated servers are great for those with deep pockets and for very busy boards with hundred or thousands of posts a day and lots of reading there may not be any other choice.

Virtual private servers

A virtual private server (VPS) is actually a shared server, but you have your own separate operating system and software and you are guaranteed your share of the server’s resources based on your contract. These tend to be a sweet spot for growing boards, but costs tend to start at about $50 a month. It’s called a virtual server because it appears that you have your own server but it’s not actually true. But from your perspective it is your own box, which means like a dedicated server you have to worry about upgrading the system, malware and all sorts of issues or pay others to maintain it for you. Some VPSes are not quite enough for very heavily trafficked boards. You may have to buy a dedicated server or close up shop. Most have generous quotas but if you have lots of files or very big files, the 100GB or 250GB quotas on these machines (including the operating system) may not be enough and hosting may get very expensive.

Where to host

There is a huge amount of competition among web hosts, which keeps costs down. But as you know you don’t get something for nothing. Hosts that charge $1.99 a month are probably going to be hard to get a hold of on the phone when issues arise. You are also likely to find lots of problems: slow page loads, frequent timeouts, etc. Moreover, with all the competition a good web host today may be a bad one tomorrow.

It helps to ask around for recommendations as well as check out online hosting reviews, but hosting reviews should be taken with a grain of salt. Many make money by steering you to certain hosts.

Over fifteen years or so I’ve moved from host to host many times, but I am fortunate to have the technical skills to do this if I don’t like the service. I’ve used both shared hosting and VPS hosting. Some of the hosts I used no longer exist, or were acquired by other more moneyed hosts. Here are some of my current hosting recommendations. FYI, I currently make no money in referrals so my advice is at least honest.

  • Shared hosting. I’ve had good luck with Hostgator now for about five years. It’s far from a perfect host. The ticketing support is slow and generally takes a day or two. Phone support is faster but wait times can be aggravating. But resource issues tend to be few and the hosting tends to be reliable. At $10 a month or so it tends to be a decent value. It gets a solid B grade, which considering the margins in this business is a good grade.
  • Virtual private servers. When I had more complex needs I had a VPS with MediaTemple. MT is a classy and solid web host with well engineered solutions. Their prices are not the cheapest but they tend to offer the best value. Their Grid Service is essentially shared hosting so if you have deeper pockets consider them for your shared hosting needs.
  • Dedicated servers. I’ve never needed a dedicated server myself but I often work with clients who have dedicated servers. Again, MediaTemple plays very well in this market. Softlayer (which also offers VPSes) also has thought through this hosting very well, and offers all solid state drives.

Some hosting notes

  • GoDaddy is the 800-pound gorilla host you probably have heard about already from all their advertising. It used to be terrible but now warrants a solid C+. Technical support in particular has improved from being abysmal. You can do worse than GoDaddy for sure, but it is heavily marketed and they are constantly trying to sell you services of dubious value.
  • Cloud hosting for phpBB is really not yet quite a thing, in that it’s hard to find installation packages with phpBB prebuilt. In addition there is a learning curve with cloud hosting. Unless you know what you are doing it’s probably best avoided right now. Moreover, you can probably get a better value with traditional hosts.
  • Many hosts offer CloudFlare or a similar Content Delivery Network (CDN) free in its basic form, but you have to specifically enable it in the web host’s control panel. This is a great way to improve the speed of your page loads, but it only works with static content like pictures. It does this by putting content geographically close to your users, usually meaning there are only 2 or 3 “hops” between a browser and the content. However, phpBB serves almost all of its content dynamically out of a database, so there’s little reason to pay extra for it. Ideally you will have a web host that is large enough to be its on CDN so the number of “hops” between routers is minimal.
  • I think it’s best to go with a one year contract. This way you are not out too much money, but you save some money compared to month-to-month leases. After a couple years of experience you might want to lock in a longer contract for additional savings.

If you administer a phpBB board, you should find my book Mastering phpBB Administration invaluable. Learn lots of tips, tricks and secrets I learned from serving over 400 clients. Paper and Kindle versions available.

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