Where should you be hosting?

It’s not unusual for forum owners to want to rehost. Rehosting though is a big decision. You generally pay for a year or more of hosting up front and you have no assurance that the new host will be better, or even as good, as your current host. In addition, moving a forum to a new host is a pain, which is why a significant part of my business is helping clients move their forums. If you’d like me to help, send me an inquiry.

It does beg the question of where you should move to. Generally the pain level has to be pretty high to move to a new host. It’s often easier to renew what you have or pick a higher level of service with your current host than tackle the time and expense of rehosting.

Hosting is in flux

For the most part you are left to sifting through the general hosting market to figure out a good host. And the hosting market like much in the IT world is in flux. Thus, my recommendations to clients has changed over time. For example, I used to recommend HostGator to my clients and even hosted my sites there too. Then Hostgator became a victim of its own success. It got bought out and is now just another company that is part of the Endurance International Group portfolio. About the time they were bought out, the quality of their hosting declined. I noticed a marked decline in their technical support. Needless to say I don’t recommend Hostgator anymore.

High usage solutions

Certain forums fall into a specialized class of hosting. If you are one of these forums, you are already probably on specialized hosting. Mostly these are highly trafficked forums. To deal with the hundred or thousands of posts per day, you are likely on a dedicated or virtual private server, and are probably paying handsomely for the privilege. If you fall into this category but are on shared hosting, you probably are having issues and need to pay for one of these solutions.

Stick with commodity software

One thing for sure: get generic web hosting. This means you need a cheap LAMP stack: Linux (operating system), Apache (web server, although nginx is acceptable), MySQL or MariaDB (its clone) for the database and PHP for the scripting language. phpBB of course is written in PHP so it must be available. Don’t pay for Windows hosting. It’s more expensive, you don’t need it, it adds complications and you will probably get poorer performance.

My guess is less than 2% of forums fall into the high usage category, which means generally that inexpensive shared hosting is where most forums belong. Okay then, which shared hosting? There are lots of hosting guides on the web, most of dubious value. Working with lots of clients though I can tell you my own personal opinions. The final choice may come down to which services you value the most, such as fast and convenient technical support. As a general rule this is not available for shared hosting.

Here are my current ratings for popular web hosts with notes as applicable. I have no axe to grind and I make no money from these opinions so at least you know they are unbiased.

Shared Hosting

  • Grade A
    • Siteground – No telephone support but chat and ticket support. Nonetheless it is smartly engineered and well thought out with features like automatically managed Let’s Encrypt security certificates.
    • Bluehost – Technical support is a bit slow but you can usually get a hold of someone within half an hour or so. Great support once you get a representative. On par with Siteground. You might want to choose between them based on price or features.
    • MediaTemple (Grid service) – Proprietary control panel (not cPanel or Plesk) but uses all solid state drives. A bit harder to use than cPanel-based sites but much more reliable and fault tolerant than what is typically available, as well as faster-serving due to the solid state drives and the built in Content Delivery Network (CDN). Stay away if you are not particularly technically inclined. Redundancy is built in making it a great choice if you need high availability. This is actually Amazon Web Services under the hood but made much less geeky for us less technical people. Terrific and fast technical support but you have to understand their boundaries of what’s available on the Grid service.
  • Grade B
    • Hostpapa
    • 1and1 – Available in many countries including UK and much of Europe.
  • Grade C
    • Hostgator – See above
    • GoDaddy – Much better than they were a few years ago, decent technical support but sometimes there are frustrating issues with how they have their shared hosting configured. Lately I’ve been having users complain about poor integration with phpBB 3.2.
  • Grade D
    • Web.com – Really poor technical support with Level 1 techs who know very little and work hard to make you just go away. Their web hosting configuration is suboptimal, confusing, nonstandard and often causes problems as a result. If it’s anything beyond the most routine issue they will want to forward you to their Level 2 service for which they will charge a $75 fee.
    • Network Solutions – Part of the same conglomerate that owns web.com. It’s ironic considering Network Solutions used to be the center of the Internet, responsible for maintaining the whole Domain Name system. As a host though they suck and are expensive.
  • Grade F

Virtual Private and Dedicated Servers

For highly trafficked forums only. You basically need to be a system administrator or can hire one to use these solutions. Don’t expect any handholding because you will be lucky if you get any.

  • Grade A
    • MediaTemple – a premium web host worth paying for with terrific technical support
    • Rackspace – services more the business community with prices accordingly, but top notch
  • Grade B
    • Digital Ocean – nice fancy infrastructure with all solid state drive but you are basically on your own. You need to be a techie. Their host control panel can be baffling if you are used to cPanel.
  • Grade C
    • 1and1 – great prices for this class of service, but servers seem to be old and underperforming. Technical support is above average for this tier.

Specialized solutions

  • Amazon Web Services EC2 – only for geeks, but it allows scalable cloud computing. There are AMI (Amazon Machine Instances) for phpBB that you can install.

Obviously I left out lots of hosts as there are hundreds out there. I reference the ones I work with most frequently with clients. Please leave comments about your experiences so others can benefit or avoid mistakes.

February 2017 work summary

The business was slow during the first half of the month but then came pouring in with multiple requests all at once toward the end of the month, making it hard to keep up. It sure would be nice if requests came in in a more orderly fashion. Mostly I handle upgrades. Since phpBB 3.2 makes upgrading much easier I expect business to drop in general over time. We’ll see.

Anyhow, in February here’s a summary of my work for clients. As usual, all client information has been anonymized.

  • A client upgraded his forum from phpBB 3.0 to phpBB 3.2. Previously he had had my digests mod installed and wanted to keep its old functionality, but he was limited on what he could do in the Administration Control Panel. This is because upgrading does not removed dead module links from Administration Control Panel for phpBB 3.0 modifications. So I removed them manually for him. I had not released a Digests extension for phpBB 3.2 at the time I did the work so he had to wait on that. I installed the Pages and Board Announcements extensions. Some days later I created a website index page and dressed up its content to use the forum’s style. I made it HTML5 compliant too.
  • I assisted with troubleshooting HTTP 500 errors that occurred mostly with login attempts. The web server was listed as CGI/FastCGI instead of Apache, but it turned out to be really nginx masquerading as FastCGI. nginx was used by the host go gain more economy of scale. I tried changing some settings in the .htaccess file and changing PHP to version 5.6, but the same issues happened sporadically but frequently. Occasionally users could login. I suggested opening ticket with the web host (web.com), thinking it might be due to a timeout issue that cannot be changed by client. Client called web.com tech support, not their Level 1 support was useless. The suggested paid support. Paid support could not help him as the issue was due to the server configuration which they would not change. I recommended that the client move to a VPS solution but as he has a five year contract with his web host he opted not to do this and is using workarounds. The curious thing is that login generally failed when using the login link, but worked when the login form at the bottom of the index was used. This suggested that the problem was due to how nginx dealt with HTTP GET vs. HTTP POST requests.
  • Upgraded a forum to phpBB 3.2.0. I changed the style to Absolution and applied the existing logo to style. I installed the latest Tapatalk extension and the Board3 portal. I tweaked the Absolution style to make it look as similar as possible to what was used before. Ultimately though the Absolution style didn’t work out, so the client elected to use prosilver. I added a line to his .htaccess file to take users to the portal page by default. I changed his server settings to put https:// in the links and edited a line in his site’s .htaccess file to redirect forum traffic to use https.
  • I extended a client’s logical volume another 50GB, so it is now 50% full. I did additional research based on his email to see if I could fix his SMTP server. I declined the work as a bit outside my comfort range and suggested contracting with a Linux system administrator.
  • Problems with this client were somewhat similar to the second client. He was getting a “No input file specified” message when clicking on update tab when running the phpBB installer. It did not appear to be a phpBB issue as the message is not in phpBB’s language files. A web server of CGI/FastCGI was reported when I selected the PHP Information link. Some research suggested to me that he was really using nginx as the web server and a bad shared nginx configuration may be to blame. I turned on error logging and hope to see some clues when the log is available for download. Ultimately though the client ended up quite frustrated because his hosting (GoDaddy) seems to be unable to upgrade to phpBB 3.2 because the web server won’t integrate properly with it. So my help really did not solve his problem, which turned out to be outside the scope of what I can do, as I can’t fix GoDaddy’s hosting.
  • I upgraded forum from phpBB 3.0.10 to phpBB 3.2.0. I installed a proprietary Milk style for phpBB 3.2. I changed the color code of the style to orange to match the old style. I removed dead module links for an old Private Message spy mod that had been installed. When attaching images or files to a post or private message, after picking the file to attach the user did not get a dialog box asking for the attachment comment. This happened if certain attachment settings are set to zero (allow unlimited) in the Administration Control Panel. Changing a set of these values from 0 in ACP Attachment settings solved the issue. I created a phpBB bug on this issue.
  • I received a downpayment for an upgrade from phpBB 3.0.14 to 3.1.10 that is scheduled for March 6.
  • I converted a forum from phpBB 3.0.12 to phpBB 3.2.0. I picked one of the rotating images for the banner and tailored it to fit the space. I installed an unapproved Advanced BBCode extension. It seems to work properly with no issues. After moving files around installed phpBB Gallery, development version for 3.2 and it seems to be working as well with the exception of embedded images in posts. This can be fixed if Apache can be tuned to use modRewrite, but my attempts did not work. I could write a script to change the links in the posts’ text, but the client has not opted for this solution at this time. I ordered a security certificate from the web host so he can support https traffic.
  • A client had moved over his PunBB forum to phpBB as was having various issues. I tightened up the spambot countermeasures for the forum by installing the Stop Forum Spam extension. He encountered a predictable module access error trying to login to the Administration Control Panel. I copied over my user_permissions column for the administrator from my reference installation to the admin’s in the database and ACP login was possible. Later I added a forum link for his book and attached a forum image. I provided advice on resetting passwords, setting up moderation and handling notifications. I answered various questions and assisted in creating various moderator groups. Some username_clean values were not in lowercase, which meant these users could not be found in the ACP. This is likely a problem with PunBB conversion program. Using SQL I lowercased these values and solved that problem. The three new moderator groups were missing forum permissions, resulting in moderation requests when moderators posted in forums. I gave these moderators full access to all the forums to solve that problem.
  • Installed a spambot extension for a client’s WikiMedia wiki as it was attracting spam. Waiting on his web host to upgrade PHP so I can upgrade his forum.
  • I upgraded a forum from phpBB 3.0.11 to phpBB 3.2.0. I installed NavBar search extension for 3.2 to enable the logo to center. Installed Stop Forum Spam extension and enabled the Q&A spambot countermeasure.
  • I provided some advice to a client on upgrading his forum. It was having severe performance issues running on PHP 5.4. I was able to provide advice that allowed the upgrade to succeed.