Your web host may be virtual

Introduction

I recently wrote a post about putting phpBB in the Google Cloud. I learned that it’s not too hard to do if you have decent technical skills or even if they are more modest. There could be some serious upsides to putting your forum in a cloud like Google’s, Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. (There are other cloud vendors out there.) These could include lower costs, higher uptime, and scalability if you forum gets suddenly popular.

Most of us though contract with web hosts. For example, I use Siteground. Web hosts have server rooms somewhere where they keep all the equipment they need to host your forum plus lots of other websites. Most web hosts have multiple server rooms in various countries. The closer these are to their customers and their site viewers, the better. For example, Siteground has server farms in Chicago, London, Amsterdam and Singapore. They have incentive to organize their data centers to be fast and reliable because they control them. Siteground does this not only with four server farms, but by having an end-to-end solid state infrastructure. They figured out that although solid state drives (SSDs) were more expensive, they were heaps more reliable and faster than filling their server rooms with mechanical disk drives. It’s been key to their success as a company.

Virtual hosting

These days though some web hosts are figuring out they don’t need to bother with the actual hosting anymore. There are two ways they do this. One is old, the other is new.

The first way is to be a reseller. For example, ABC Hosting may actually rent servers in (hypothetically speaking) a Rackspace server room. Becoming a reseller is not hard. Siteground will let you be a reseller. Resellers are often people like me who have multiple clients and as a convenience to their customers also provide hosting. I don’t want to bother setting up a server farm, particularly if I can lease one. If I did, I would probably choose to become a Siteground reseller, since Siteground’s spiffy servers sold me on being their client. Siteground would provide a front end console for me to use, and consoles that my customers would use too to which I would apply my own logo and some custom pages. From the customer’s perspective, it looks like I have my own server room. The downside is that I would become responsible for any hosting issues. I would essentially be the support department, and I’m not available 24/7. I don’t want to get involved in the minutia of my client’s hosting, so I don’t expect to ever become a reseller, even though it would generate a good deal of passive income for my business.

The second way is that some web hosts are becoming virtual by using cloud providers. Who’s the number one host on the web? You probably don’t have to think too much: GoDaddy. You may be surprised to learn that in 2018, GoDaddy decided to move much of its hosting inside AWS. You can read why here. Basically, GoDaddy realized that AWS built a much better infrastructure. They can resell Amazon’s cloud services under their own label for less than they can maintain their own hosting centers. AWS has a sophisticated set of services and they have the fast connection and high reliability thing all figured out. This is not good news for GoDaddy’s hosting staff. Presumably most of them will be laid off at some point.

All this suggests that web hosting will be undergoing a fundamental transformation as hosts ditch their own hosting centers to find better reselling deals in the cloud. In short, your web host may become a virtual web host. If you host on GoDaddy, there’s a good chance it’s already virtual hosted on AWS.

Should you host in the cloud?

This does raise the question: why not just buy your hosting from a cloud vendor like AWS and skip a middle man? If you read my posts on cloud hosting, you’ll realize the main issue is that cloud hosting tends to be complicated to set up, maintain and troubleshoot, at least from the perspective of someone trying to get some web space without a lot of technical skills. Virtual web hosts like GoDaddy essentially become front ends for optimizing the hosting experience for people likely a lot like you who want the process to be simpler. So they offer 24/7 support, domain management and basic customer handholding while putting up a virtual front end that suggests they are doing all this themselves when in fact the technical infrastructure is outsourced to a major cloud vendor.

My bet is that at some point Siteground will do the same, in which case I will have less reason to use them. If I know a suite of virtual web hosts are all using AWS, for example, I can get choosier and choose a virtual host based on their support and the ease by which I can do things via their control panels. I can assume the reliability and speed will all be excellent since they are hosted in a professionally managed commercial cloud. Since I do have the technical skills to put my sites in a cloud like AWS, at some point I will probably just do that. I pay a premium primarily to call someone on the phone to resolve some technical issues. Right now the $20/month I pay for Siteground hosting for my domains is reasonable, even though I am guessing I could pay $10/month or less putting my sites in the cloud. I’d just have to fix any technical problems myself, and right now the cost difference doesn’t make it worth my time.

For most of you, this is probably true too. Price is certainly important when you decide who to host with, but ready support, easy interfaces to managing your sites and fast page load speeds probably matter more. At some point you either won’t know or won’t care if your web sites are actually in a major cloud vendor’s facilities somewhere. Virtual web hosts aren’t probably going to advertise this either.

If interested in Siteground hosting, use my affiliate link

If you are intrigued about my discussion of Siteground for web hosting, learn more on my rehosting page. If you decide to host with Siteground, please use my affiliate link. You won’t pay anything extra and I will earn a small commission.

June 2019 work summary

My work in April and May was surreally slow. Happily, this was not the case in June. Work just kept coming in and it got a little frantic at times. A lot of it was hairy upgrades from phpBB 3.0, something of a speciality of mine. Once I get paid for all my work, I should reach my midyear revenue goal which if it repeats for the second half of the year should top last year’s income, then an all time high.

  • The original issue was blank screen that users were having accessing the forum. It was some sort of security issue. Someone, probably the web host, placed a line at the top of the forum’s .htaccess file that triggered the issue. Commenting out the first line of the file brought the board up. Next I was asked to upgrade the from from phpBB 3.0.11 to 3.2.7. I completed the upgrade completed with no issues. I installed the prosilver_se style, but made a number of tweaks to remove rounded corners, apply their logo across the entire background, put black along the sides of document window and to add two links to the navigation bar. I then installed an unapproved version of the Board3 Portal extension that seemed to work with phpBB 3.2 correctly. I edited the .htaccess file so portal page came up first. The portal though was not quite ready for prime time. Time showed an issue with adding new portal modules, so I was asked to disable it.
  • I updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.2 to 3.2.7. I reinstalled an updated version of the prosilver_se style and their logo. I added the ACP Add User extension, which allows administrators to create new users. This is a popular extension for locked down boards where registration is disallowed. I tried to upgrade PHP to 7.2 on Bluehost but it didn’t take. I suggested the client file a ticket to get it properly upgraded. It took a few days but Bluehost finally came through.
  • Troubleshooting for a long-existing client’s forum. Negative values for the number of unread of unread private messages were appearing on the navigation bar, possibly due to a bug in my digests extension. I created some SQL that addressed the problem, and implemented it on both their development and production boards. I then upgraded both the development and production forums from phpBB 3.2.5 to 3.2.7. I also upgraded my digests extension on both forums from 3.2.10 to 3.2.13 and applied a patch that should prevent negative values from being stored.
  • I updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.4 to 3.2.7. I also updated the board’s Latte style, being careful not to overwrite changes and to recompile the style (it uses .sccs files). I updated my digests extension from version 3.2.10 to 3.2.13 and the Media embed extension to version 1.1.0. Later in the month there was additional work. Emails wouldn’t go out; they were being captured by a web host’s outgoing email spam filter. I chatted with the web host. They told me to change the email server name and email started working again. I disabled the user control panel interface again for digests as the client wanted to be the only subscriber.
  • I upgraded a forum from phpBB 3.0.12 to 3.2.7. I used a standard prosilver style installation with a logo. The forum has about 100,000 posts and there were no mods to worry about. It took about an hour to do the upgrade but there were no issues during the upgrade. I disabled the contact form. I enabled the reCaptcha V2 spambot countermeasure. I added a home link and placed their logo in the header. I made a test post to make sure it was working well. I suggested changing PHP to 7.2 and see if other software on the site crashed and if not leave it at PHP 7.2. PHP 5.6 is currently being used.
  • Big project #1. The forum required an upgrade from phpBB 3.0.14 to 3.2.7 but had to be rehosted at the same time. This is because the content on the forum is sensitive in the country where it is used. It was reported and the web host (FatCow BTW) just shut it down. Fortunately, they were able to get the database and files ported over to the new host. There I created a test upgraded version of the forum and did my best to replicate the many features and unique look of the forum on phpBB 3.2.7. Fortunately the existing metrolike style was available and most of the modifications on the board for phpBB 3.0 were available for phpBB 3.2 as extension. The number of extensions desired though was highly unusual and was in the dozens, and not all were approved. Invariably, a few modifications did not have equivalent extensions, so some things required manual changes. For example, there is a unique message that shows to new users inviting them to register that was not able to be done with an extension, primarily because it had to show only to guests. I added this manually into the forum’s header with template logic to show only to guests. In addition, the client wanted forum permissions changed, keeping everyone from reading forums with sensitive content but allowing search indexes to still index its content. I did this by creating a special group and giving read permissions only to people in this special group. It took a lot of back and forth and since the client was nervous it was done via email. I had hoped to use Skype to work through the myriad questions. I was paid for the analysis and waited for permission to do the formal upgrade, which I got yesterday and finished. The client is now reviewing it.
  • Big project #2. This was a lot like the last big project in many ways, except the forum does not contain sensitive content, but is a big and very successful forum based in Australia. The board was a heavily modded phpBB 3.0.5 installation that needed to be completely migrated to phpBB 3.2.7. I began with a test installation of phpBB 3.2.7 to try styling and extensions. It soon became clear that we needed a full test upgrade, upgrading a copy of the whole production database, not to mention more than 100,000 image files. There were so many images that the client ran out of hosting space. So I solved it with a symbolic link to the old files folder. phpBB Gallery was a big part of this upgrade and had to move successfully. Unfortunately, the version of phpBB Gallery for phpBB 3.2 is not approved. The original developer abandoned it, someone else took it up and it was buggy. So there was a lot of trial and error to get not just attached images but phpBB Gallery to work acceptably. It was apparently too big a project for the last developer who tried to do this upgrade. He left due to mental health issues. (It’s unclear if it was related to this work!) The full test upgrade revealed a host of challenges. For example, I ended up manually adding and removing columns from phpBB Gallery tables to port the data over successfully and get rid of a lot of errors. There were also logout issues on the existing forum that emerged, issues with the upgrade itself where we ran out of memory (on virtual hosting!), making everything quite challenging. There were also issue with the Javascript lightbox integration. I’m happy to say that it all went well thanks to the full trial and a lot of beta testing by the board admin and his beta testing team. Still finishing some of the final tweaks and there may be more work to add security certificates and upgrade PHP. There are other applications on the domain that apparently aren’t PHP 7 compatible.
  • Updated a forum for an existing client from phpBB 3.2.5 to 3.2.7. Updated prosilver_se style and language pack (Danish) as well.
  • Maintenance work for an existing forum for medical professionals. I’ve had them as a client for nearly ten years now! I added and configured the Board Rules extension using text provided by the client. It acts as a disclaimer of sorts. I made signing off on it to be required by new users. In Plesk, I updated 20 packages that needed updating. Later, I updated phpBB from version 3.2.3 to 3.2.7, updated the phpBB Media Embed and my digests extension. I updated four of the 5 styles in use because they had newer versions.
  • Urgent request from another client in Australia. My Smartfeed (version 3.2.10) extension would not run. I was given SSH access but didn’t have much in the way of clues in the error log. Eventually I just disabled the extension, then enabled it again and it worked.