Avoid hosts owned by the Endurance International Group

As I have noted before, since I work with many clients I have developed hopefully informed opinions about many web hosts. Perhaps I should not paint with a broad brush but I do have one suggestion: avoid any web hosts owned by the Endurance International Group.

Web hosting tends to be a low profit business. With so much competition, customers will shop around for the best deal. This results in many hosts offering cheap plans for $5 or $10 per month. Web hosts can hope to find profitability in volume but since there is a lot of competition profitability usually comes from consolidation. The Endurance International Group buys web hosts. It looks like they find profitability through throwing all these companies under one umbrella and one hosting center.

I used to host with Hostgator. I found their support good and their infrastructure above average, yet their pricing was very reasonable. Then they were bought out by the Endurance International Group. Almost immediately afterward their support became crappy and I noticed delays accessing my domain as well as infrastructure related issues. When my hosting contract was over, I was happy to move somewhere else.

When you call these companies for support, you are immediately placed into a third-level support queue. After you finally connect with a human, these brain-dead support people follow scripts that are designed basically to not solve your problem and make you go away. Moreover, I found myself far more knowledgable about hosting and how to solve problems than they were. They could rarely even cover the basics. If you needed real help I found I had to badger for second-tier support.

All this is to keep their costs low since one support center for dozens of companies is obviously cheaper. But it results in inferior service, as evidenced by my experience with hostgator.com.

Endurance International Group own a lot of hosts, most pretty obscure. Among those they purchased you may be familiar with include Hostgator, Bluehost, Hostcentric, iPage and Site5. You can see a full list of the brands they bought on this Wikipedia page.

Given the low margins, the hosting business is likely to continue consolidating. There is certainly a lot of smoke and mirrors in this business. What used to be good hosting can turn into poor hosting pretty quickly when they get acquired. This is true of MediaTemple, at least it’s Grid Service, based on my latest experience since it was bought by GoDaddy. Right now my recommended hosts include Siteground for most hosting and Rackspace for dedicated and virtual server hosting.

It’s quite clear to me though that you are likely to be unhappy with any hosting owned by the Endurance International Group. So avoid.

Why you might want to use SMTP to make emailing more reliable

Emailing from phpBB is often problematic. In a previous post I looked at various ways to make sending email from phpBB more reliable.

In this post I look at why you might want to configure phpBB to use SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) to send emails. If you are using a Windows web server (IIS), this is usually required. You can change these settings in ACP > General > Client communications > Email settings, which can be set halfway down the page.

By default, phpBB hands off email to PHP using PHP’s mail function and hopes for the best. If the mail function returns FALSE, the email should not have gone out. You won’t necessarily be know if it fails, however. Known email sending failures appear in phpBB’s error log: ACP > Maintenance > Error log.

Even if the PHP mail function returns TRUE, it may be a false report. In many cases TRUE only means that the mail was accepted. Whether TRUE means “accepted” or “successfully sent” depends on how your host’s email server is configured.

Once accepted by the email server, the email is likely to be closely examined. If it has some of the markers of being spam, it will probably get blocked from actually being sent out. In this case, you probably won’t know about it. You can greatly improve the odds that emails will go out successfully if you:

  • Create an email account that uses your forum’s domain, ex: admin@mydomain.com
  • Assert this email address in phpBB: ACP > General > Client communications > Email settings. Set this email address for Contact email address and From email address.

By default on Linux web servers (most typical kind of hosting), PHP’s mail function sends outgoing email to a sendmail process. Essentially, emailing is the job of your server’s operating system, so you can’t control it. Because you can’t control it, sendmail will be configured generically. Any other domains on the server you are using will send email out through the same sendmail process.

However, if you use SMTP to send email instead, you have to authenticate yourself with the SMTP mail server. By properly authenticating yourself, emails are likelier to go out. The downside is that it’s a bit of a hassle to set up SMTP. I discovered this on this site when I moved my hosting to siteground.com. It uses WordPress which by default also uses sendmail. Emails weren’t going out. A call to Siteground’s tech support revealed that SMTP was a better way to go. They provided the credentials to use and now my WordPress email notifications go out quickly and reliably. This should work for phpBB too.

Don’t assume that you can use an external SMTP server like GMail. Many web hosts will block outgoing SMTP email. If it’s allowed, by all means go ahead. You should check with your web host for the proper email settings to use.

One possible downside is that outgoing email quotas are likely, but that’s probably also true if your host uses sendmail. Your web host can tell you what policies if any apply to your hosting. See the previous post for instructions on how to properly set your email package size and to set up a system cron, if necessary. Make sure it works by sending a test email, an option available on the email settings page.

June 2018 work summary

June was a very slow month. This wasn’t bad as March was so crazy and I was teaching a class too. Summers are often slow around here as people have other things to do with their time.

I used the month to get out version 3.2.7 of my digests extension instead. I actually did quite a bit of analysis for clients, trying to work through the requirements of a job. A lot of my work these days involves very complex upgrades where many things have to factored and considered by the client before moving forward. I expect some of these will get authorized and worked on in July. Anyhow, it was nice to have a break. Overall though I’d prefer work to be more regular rather than either light or super heavy.

  • I upgraded the Cleantalk extension for a client to latest version (5.6.5) per client’s request. I also changed the spambot countermeasure from simple image to reCaptcha V2.
  • I upgraded a forum from phpBB 3.0.12 to 3.2.2. There were lots of issues associated with the client’s hosting. FTP did not work reliably (regular timeouts) meaning lots of files had to get requeued and resent. Upgrade was to place forum in a new /forum folder instead of root folder. There were issues upgrading on web server, so I converted database on my machine. I had to empty the migrations table to get it to work. One error discovered later by the upgrade: missing row in the phpbb_acl_options table meant that I could not install extensions. Once I added it, the manage extensions link appears in the Administration Control Panel. I installed the Absolution V3 style. Installed Thanks for the Post (RC) extension and Banner Scroll (RC) extensions. I had to move some files for the banner scroll extension into /forum/images folder. Lots of work tweaking the style. I abandoned provided site logo and reverted to earlier one as it worked better with the style. I tweaked the logo so it is kind of centered, hard to do with CSS blocks. Added G+, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter icons to navigation bar. Installed reCaptcha V2 as spambot countermeasure. Later: finally got SSH access and that allowed me to move files and images folder. I removed all other content in public_html directory.
  • Configured Cleantalk for a client with two similar websites. I used Cleantalk to remove spam accounts from both of their domains. Additional work troubleshooting an issue with moderation, not quite understood yet, want to know if it recurs. I removed items in moderation queue by approving each then deleting manually from the topic. There were still issues with Cleantalk extension being unable to communicate with Cleantalk server. Both allow_url_fopen and CURL are enabled in PHP. Probably an outgoing firewall issue. I asked client to talk to web host about the issue and provided a list of servers that should be allowed to communicate with. Later, I was asked to resolve signature issues on one domain for a particular issue. The role was not assigned for many forums for the person’s group and in the case of some forums the Registered Users group permission for signatures was set to NEVER meaning the special group’s permissions were being overwritten. Later, I disabled search on another of the client’s domains because he had integrated a Google Custom Search field.
  • I migrated a forum and also upgraded it. BitNami was installed (phpBB 3.2.2) on new host so rather than simply migrating to new host I converted the database on my machine instead. SSH was my only tool, so I used it to change and import the database from the command line and make file changes manually using vi. I installed seven additional language packs. I removed dead modules. I installed reCaptcha V2 spambot countermeasure. I placed the old logo on the default prosilver style. About a dozen files would not copy over, and caused Filezilla to crash. This client was kind enough to leave a comment on my home page expressing satisfaction with my work.
  • I upgraded a forum from phpBB 3.1.3 to 3.2.2 on a Windows server running IIS. I provided guidance on a Joomla issue which led the client to take care of that issue first with a Joomla expert. The upgrade went fine and I reapplied logo on the prosilver style. However mysterious issue with posting (no refresh screen after posting) remained. I eventually determined it was due to incorrect integration of email by the forum. When posts are made, post notifications are sent. This was causing the error. I suggested raising issue with web host or moving to Linux hosting. Did not install Social Media login extension, although we discussed this.