Another Aabaco (Yahoo) Small Business hosting rant

Getting clients off Aabaco (formally Yahoo small business) web hosting is becoming something of a specialty of mine. Today I finished a three day job involving moving a client’s phpBB 2 forum off of Aabaco to a new host and a new domain. (See previous post on Aabaco.)

Earlier in the year I was finally successful getting a client’s data off of Aabaco web hosting. Mainly I was stymied by getting a copy of the database since the binaries Aabaco provides are not portable or usable. I couldn’t make a backup in phpBB 2. The functionality is there, but unless you have the tiniest forum you can’t make a backup because it times out.

So that leaves trying to get a backup using phpMyAdmin, which is installed on Aabaco sites but of course it’s a dreadfully old version. Same problem there. Any table of sufficient size (like the phpbb_posts table) you can’t export because of a web hosting timeout. Earlier in the year though I finally figured out a way to get an export. It involved taking slices of large tables and exporting that, say 10,000 rows at a time. To say the least it is tedious. You have to write your SQL very carefully. The option to export a slice of the table is there, but not obvious. Once you download it though, you need to check it. Is it complete? For each file I used the Unix tail command. Each SQL statement in the export should end in a semicolon. If you are missing a semicolon at the end of the export then, no, that slice is not complete. So you make smaller slices but with persistence, care and a great deal of tedium it can be done.

Moving the files turned out to be another issue. Last time I was successful because FTP worked. This time it didn’t. A query to their customer care line provided instructions that didn’t work. I think it’s part of a deliberate strategy. If you can’t get your files off of their site, how can you move it? You are a customer for life. The files that mattered were images, most for the attachment mod for phpBB 2. It seemed like a lost cause and given that there were 7900 images, downloading them one at a time with their file manager was not an option. (Of course their file manager is not intelligent enough to allow you to choose multiple files for downloading!)

Necessity turned out to be the mother of invention. I was able to write a short PHP program to at least list the images and output them to the screen. I had to write it using their file manager. With a list of files I could cut and paste this into a program I wrote on my local machine. No FTP? No problem as I could grab the file with HTTP if I knew what the file names were, which I now had. I used PHP’s curl library and some file commands to fetch them one at a time and store them on my local machine.

So with many hours of effort I was able to grab all the images and populate a local database on my machine from the Aabaco database. I had to dig for a copy of phpBB 2 to set up the file structure the phpBB conversion program expected. I created a phpBB 3.2 instance and eventually succeeded in converting it. (I had to fix a few data issues with the database.) And I was able to upload files and database to the new host. It was quite a challenging job but getting off Aabaco is possible, just costly for this particular client.

I have to laugh though. Looking at phpMyAdmin I could get a sense of how “current” their infrastructure is:

  • MySQL version 4.1.4 – released August 31, 2004. (It used MySQL client version 3.23.49, even older!)
  • phpMyAdmin 2.1.19 – released August 28, 2008

All this plus no hidden files allowed! Moreover we were delayed for a while because the phpbb_sessions table had to be repaired. The client told me it happens regularly. Yes on very old machines with problematic disk heads, I’m not surprised that all these reads and writes means this table has to be regularly repaired, by hand of course.

If you absolutely must get your forum off Aabaco web hosting however, you might want to contact me. Given the effort involved though I’m sorry to say it won’t be fast, cheap or easy.

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
    • – 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 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.

Found the worst host on the Internet

Working with many disparate clients also has me working with many disparate web hosts. Web hosts run the gamut from great to poor. Most have strengths and weaknesses and may be fine for one use and not fine for another.

So it’s notable when I run across a web host working for a client that is totally abysmal and seems stuck in time, in this case around 2001. And which host would this be? Aabaco Small Business, formerly Yahoo! Small Business.

The client wanted to upgrade his phpBB 2 forum hosted there to the latest and greatest, phpBB 3.1. Looking through the rudimentary web host control panel, it looked like a challenge. Most hosts bundle cPanel or Plesk, but they rolled their own rudimentary control panel. Trying to find simple things, like a file manager and access to the database was baffling. Looking through the software my client was using was like going on an archeological expedition:

  • The MySQL database is 4.1, released in 2003. Most hosts are on 5.5 or greater.
  • PHP 4 was being used. The minor version was not identified but version 4 was first released in 2000. Most hosts are on version 5.3 or greater.

I was able to upgrade PHP to 5.3.6. There was no obvious path to upgrading MySQL but it didn’t matter as phpBB 3.1 still supports MySQL 4.

Eventually I figured out how to use FTP to upload files, so I created a folder for phpBB 3.1 like I usually do and started uploading files. When I tried to run the conversion and upgrade though it wouldn’t work. I spent a lot of time puzzling it through. Eventually I figured out that “hidden files” like the .htaccess file did not upload. Aabaco Small Business screens them out. So it was literally impossible to upgrade him at all. It also means that you cannot install most modern open source software on Aabaco because they use .htaccess files.

So we looked at rehosting options. The client already had an account on GoDaddy and wanted to move the forum there. I found phpMyAdmin was available on Aabaco, naturally a very old version. Since I could not create a backup inside phpBB (timed out) I hoped I could in phyMyAdmin with its export feature. That timed out too.

The Aabaco control panel though did have a way to make a backup of the database. When I looked at it though, it was unusable. Unlike phpMyAdmin, which would export as a number of portable SQL statements, it made binary “dump” files. Essentially I could only export it to another MySQL 4.1 database which GoDaddy does not support.

So the client is at the mercy of Aabaco tech support, basically some people in India, to make a usable backup so he can rehost somewhere else. Needless to say they have no incentive to do that.

The rehosting is on hold for now while the client chases other problems. But this takes vendor lock in to a new level. It’s the shoddiest web hosting out there. Avoid!