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.

Breaking the GoDaddy domain registrar habit

I have never used GoDaddy hosting. This is in part because I have worked with so many clients who did use GoDaddy hosting, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

The good news was that over the years GoDaddy’s hosting and support have improved from abysmal to acceptable. Their hosting now rates a solid C, which is not bad in the hosting business, and their support a solid B. You don’t usually have to wait long on hold when you need their tech support, and their support tends to be good.

I do use GoDaddy as my domain registrar, however. I do this because over the years I learned painfully that to divorce from a bad web host, it helps to keep your domain registrar separate from your web host. Move your files and databases to the new host, point your nameservers for your domains to the new web host and you have the equivalent of a Las Vegas divorce. It’s all done quickly and neatly.

It turns out though that GoDaddy’s domain services are pricey and annoying. If you’ve used GoDaddy, you no doubt learned they will try to upsell everything, and that includes domain management. While that is annoying, when I looked into it I discovered that they really charge quite a lot for their domain registry services. In fact, they are one of the most pricey registrars out there.

So I used the excuse of their latest bill for renewing a domain as an excuse to find a cheaper and less annoying registrar and move my business there. I’ve only got five domains but it looks like I should save at 33%-50% by moving to my new registrar, namesilo.com. Not only are their charges for domains significantly less than GoDaddy’s, but they throw in some very valuable extras.

For example, namesilo.com charges $8.99 a year for a .com domain, while GoDaddy charges $15.17. That’s a savings 33%, but the savings are comparable for other popular top-level domains.

I have a blog that I would just as soon not associate with me personally, in part because opinions expressed there might affect this business. The business me is strictly agnostic. I take on pretty much all clients as long as they will pay my rates and I don’t find their content personally offensive. I have worked on some adult sites if their content was clearly legal. This business is less than five percent of my total business.

For my blog, I would like to disassociate its domain from me personally. In case you don’t know, when you have a domain you have to fill in various contact information where you are supposed to enter your actual name and address. On GoDaddy, I paid $9.99/year for privacy protection so this information was not shown publicly. It comes at no charge though on namesilo.com. namesilo.com also offers free domain protection. This means someone can’t steal my domain. GoDaddy charges $5.00/year per domain for this service.

It takes about a week to transfer most domains. Transferring my domains also meant a bit of hassle: I had to unlock my domains, get transfer authorization codes for each domain and enter them into various web forms on the namesilo.com site. But it’s all straightforward, while generating a lot of emails from both registrars. namesilo.com works like most registrars: to transfer the domain you are essentially buying another year for the domain.

There’s no point in paying a lot of money to GoDaddy for domain services anymore. Nor do you have deal with GoDaddy’s constant and annoying upselling features. The support on namesilo.com was good when I tried it. It took only a few minutes to get them on their online chat system and they answered my question promptly.

 

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.