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. 

My current hosting recommendations, last updated April 2019

Right now my recommended hosts include Siteground for most hosting and Rackspace for dedicated and virtual server hosting. If you are considering rehosting, I’ve listed some of their advantages and disadvantages on my rehosting page. Read it over carefully because all hosts have special terms and conditions and limitations. If you choose to host or rehost with Siteground, please use my affiliate link. This way I earn a small commission. You will not pay extra.

If you need help moving your website to Siteground, or a new host, I can certainly help. You might want to send me a service inquiry. If you choose Siteground, you should be able to have them move your site for free, but you have to ask.

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.

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.

Why does my forum’s performance suck?

With growth or just with the passage of time, phpBB forums can slow down. Pages may take a while to load if they load at all. You might get HTTP 500, 403 or other errors.

Today, site visitors expect fast response and if they don’t get it they may just decide it’s not worth coming to your forum. However, troubleshooting the root cause of these problems can be hard.

Often just opening a support ticket with your web host will bring you resolution. Or not. Web hosts run the gamut from poor to excellent, and generally the less you pay the poorer the service is. Web hosts though often know what the problems are, they just don’t want to tell you, as it makes them look bad. They may want you to pay for a higher quality of hosting to “solve” a problem that is really their fault, because they don’t maintain their infrastructure properly.

Here are some reasons that may be at the heart of your forum’s performance problems:

  1. Increased traffic. The traffic may not be traffic to your forum, but to other websites hosted on the same machine (server) as your website, if you are using shared hosting. This used to be a huge problem. Hosts would overload servers with domains because it was cheaper than going out and buying new machines. This works for a while until enough customers complain. The smart customers rehost somewhere else but obviously their hosts are hoping the rest won’t bail because it’s too much hassle. If traffic is getting consistently slower over a relatively short period of time or you are seeing a consistent increase in 500, 403 or similar error pages while using shared hosting, this is probably the reason. If your site is getting massively more traffic than you did before you might need to upgrade your hosting to a virtual private server or possibly even a dedicated server. Web hosts usually provide reports on usage that will help you get an idea if this might be the cause.
  2. Old hardwareThe law of entropy states that over time systems must degrade, i.e. become more complex or inefficient. It happens to your host’s servers too. Your website may be on a server that is ten years old, or has insufficient memory or CPU power for today’s needier software. So work may go into a queue until the CPU can catch its breath. While you are waiting of course nothing is happening. One clue may be to check the software installed on a server. For example, if you look in phpMyAdmin and you find that your MySQL database is running version 5.1 (released in 2008) then maybe your server is 2008 vintage, or older. Today MySQL 5.5 is generally the minimum version installed, with 5.7 being the newest and shiniest.
  3. Underpowered servers. Your server may not really have sufficient resources (CPUs, disk drives, etc.) to handle the traffic that is on it.
  4. Resource limitations. With shared hosting in particular there are implicit and generally poorly understood limits on the number of “resources” you can use: files, memory, CPU time or units of database work. You will usually see errors like this when they happen. They mean generally two things: either you are outgrowing your hosting or your server is overcommitted with other domains it is supporting. If your traffic is pretty steady, it’s more likely the latter problem. This is a sign of a poor host. You might want to rehost.
  5. Dated software. I mentioned that a host still running MySQL 5.1 is a yellow flag of caution. It’s not that MySQL 5.1 was a bad version, but many new features and performance improvements have been added since 2008. Your forum’s software has probably gotten more complex so it could use those improvements. Similarly, hosts running PHP 4 (fortunately, there are very few of these left) or even PHP 5.2 need to update their technology stack. You can see your version of PHP, web server software, operating system and the database in the Administration Control Panel, PHP information. Even the web server software you use can be dated. Still on Apache 1.2? You should probably be hosting somewhere else.
  6. You’ve been hacked! This happens rather infrequently, but it does occur from time to time. Malware or other bogus code may have infected your phpBB programs, templates and stylesheets, chewing up CPU and worse possibly infecting your readers’ computers with malware. Needless to say any malware must be removed. It may be discovered by comparing your software with a reference version of phpBB that you are using.
  7. Your database needs tuning. With so many reads and writes, your database may have grown and scattered itself all over the server’s disk platters, making it time consuming for the database management system to read and write data. You can try repairing and optimizing your forum’s tables in phpMyAdmin or a similar tool and see if performance improves.
  8. Your database is not properly configured. You may be missing primary keys, or indexes for tables. In some cases certain standard columns (added with upgrades) end up missing. Primary keys and indexes are used to retrieve data quickly. If they are missing the database won’t complain, but it will read all rows in a table to get what it needs, which is highly inefficient and can make a forum crawl. These sorts of problems are often the result of database updates that never finished properly, although they may have said they did. This can happen frequently upgrading from phpBB 3.0 to 3.1.
  9. Your phpBB version is woefully out of date. I am still surprised by requests that I get to upgrade phpBB 2 forums. phpBB 3.0 was released in late 2007! The problem is often not phpBB 2 itself, but your PHP version, which has evolved, making the handshake between PHP and phpBB awkward and inefficient, if it doesn’t trigger PHP warnings or errors. Upgrades are never fun or painless, but something you need to keep up on.
  10. You need to use a different database. Typically phpBB is used with the MySQL database because it’s free. phpBB at least in theory supports a host of other databases including SQLite and SQLServer. Most of the testing is done against MySQL and really phpBB is optimized for use with MySQL or its clone MariaDB. You will probably see better performance if you stick with these databases.
  11. You are using Microsoft software on the server. IIS is Microsoft’s web server. If you are running IIS you are also on a server using a Microsoft server operating system. IIS is not a bad web server but it works suboptimally with phpBB. phpBB should work best in a standard environment. So if you have the option to move to a Linux/Apache web server you may find marked performance improvement.
  12. Your browser is old. phpBB expects a reasonably modern browser. If others aren’t having issues but you are, maybe it’s time to upgrade your browser from IE7 or Firefox 2. Stick with recent versions of browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera.

There are other reasons your forum could be slow, but most likely the cause is one or more of the above. If you don’t feel you have the expertise to troubleshoot these issues yourself, or simply would rather have it done professionally, send me a service inquiry.

phpBB and hosting choices

In this post I look at the three basic types of hosting out there and discuss their strengths and weaknesses: shared hosting, virtual private servers and dedicated servers from the perspective of phpBB.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting means that one web server is being shared by many domains and customers. It’s generally inexpensive and for most people hosting a phpBB forum it’s a logical choice. And that’s because most phpBB forums have specialized communities interested in topics with a narrow focus. Total posts may be in the thousands. It’s rare for a forum to have more than 100,000 posts. Spending $5 or $10 a month to host a forum is certainly cheaper than the more costly alternatives.

Like Amazon Web Service’s PaaS (Platform as a Service) you generally don’t have to worry about the small stuff with shared hosting, which is good because chances are your knowledge of web technologies is not great. You want to leave the heavy lifting to those who know what they are doing. You often don’t know or care what operating system is being used and you sure don’t worry about upgrading it. The web host does all that for you behind the scenes.

But (and you knew there would be a but) you don’t get something for nothing. With shared hosting, many others are using the same machine and they may be using a lot of the server’s resources, slowing down your access or access for the people using your site. Shared hosting often comes with caps on resource utilization that tend to be not widely known. This can lead to some frustration and heartburn, but not always. Some shared hosts do a good job of balancing demand on a server. Others are trying to squeeze out all the profit they can and flood a server with many domains, leading to a lot of these problems. Those who are disgruntled move their domains elsewhere but many don’t because they don’t know how.

Even if you and your users don’t notice performance issues or resource limitations, there are some downsides to using shared hosting with phpBB. One I see all the time and keeps me gainfully employed. Resource limitations can cause upgrades to fail and there is no way to circumvent the problem as shared hosting means “one size fits all”. Some hosts will be embarrassingly far behind on the technology stack causing issues like you want to upgrade phpBB but they don’t support one of the newer versions of PHP that you need.

Busy boards generally find that at some point they outgrow shared hosting. There are too many mysterious HTTP 500 errors. Users get blank screens or posts take forever to process. Or they exceed quotas, like the number of inodes (files and directories) allowed.

With luck you can make shared hosting work for you, if you have a good web host and your needs are modest. It is the cheapest way to go.

Dedicated servers

The opposite of shared hosting is a dedicated server. This is a machine (generally with both a web server and a database server on it) that’s all yours. Even very busy forums will have a hard time making a dedicated server sweat, assuming it is properly configured and maintained. Performance is sweet but it comes at a price. Dedicated servers are expensive, typically hundreds of dollars a month to rent. Even worse from the perspective of many is that since it’s your own server, you are responsible for it. You have to worry about upgrading the operating system, database and various utilities. These are not skills most people have. They can be purchased but just buying the services of a system administrator to do this work for you can cost hundreds of dollars a month. Dedicated servers are great for those with deep pockets and for very busy boards with hundred or thousands of posts a day and lots of reading there may not be any other choice.

Virtual private servers

A virtual private server (VPS) is actually a shared server, but you have your own separate operating system and software and you are guaranteed your share of the server’s resources based on your contract. These tend to be a sweet spot for growing boards, but costs tend to start at about $50 a month. It’s called a virtual server because it appears that you have your own server but it’s not actually true. But from your perspective it is your own box, which means like a dedicated server you have to worry about upgrading the system, malware and all sorts of issues or pay others to maintain it for you. Some VPSes are not quite enough for very heavily trafficked boards. You may have to buy a dedicated server or close up shop. Most have generous quotas but if you have lots of files or very big files, the 100GB or 250GB quotas on these machines (including the operating system) may not be enough and hosting may get very expensive.

Where to host

There is a huge amount of competition among web hosts, which keeps costs down. But as you know you don’t get something for nothing. Hosts that charge $1.99 a month are probably going to be hard to get a hold of on the phone when issues arise. You are also likely to find lots of problems: slow page loads, frequent timeouts, etc. Moreover, with all the competition a good web host today may be a bad one tomorrow.

It helps to ask around for recommendations as well as check out online hosting reviews, but hosting reviews should be taken with a grain of salt. Many make money by steering you to certain hosts.

Over fifteen years or so I’ve moved from host to host many times, but I am fortunate to have the technical skills to do this if I don’t like the service. I’ve used both shared hosting and VPS hosting. Some of the hosts I used no longer exist, or were acquired by other more moneyed hosts. Here are some of my current hosting recommendations. FYI, I currently make no money in referrals so my advice is at least honest.

  • Shared hosting. I’ve had good luck with Hostgator now for about five years. It’s far from a perfect host. The ticketing support is slow and generally takes a day or two. Phone support is faster but wait times can be aggravating. But resource issues tend to be few and the hosting tends to be reliable. At $10 a month or so it tends to be a decent value. It gets a solid B grade, which considering the margins in this business is a good grade.
  • Virtual private servers. When I had more complex needs I had a VPS with MediaTemple. MT is a classy and solid web host with well engineered solutions. Their prices are not the cheapest but they tend to offer the best value. Their Grid Service is essentially shared hosting so if you have deeper pockets consider them for your shared hosting needs.
  • Dedicated servers. I’ve never needed a dedicated server myself but I often work with clients who have dedicated servers. Again, MediaTemple plays very well in this market. Softlayer (which also offers VPSes) also has thought through this hosting very well, and offers all solid state drives.

Some hosting notes

  • GoDaddy is the 800-pound gorilla host you probably have heard about already from all their advertising. It used to be terrible but now warrants a solid C+. Technical support in particular has improved from being abysmal. You can do worse than GoDaddy for sure, but it is heavily marketed and they are constantly trying to sell you services of dubious value.
  • Cloud hosting for phpBB is really not yet quite a thing, in that it’s hard to find installation packages with phpBB prebuilt. In addition there is a learning curve with cloud hosting. Unless you know what you are doing it’s probably best avoided right now. Moreover, you can probably get a better value with traditional hosts.
  • Many hosts offer CloudFlare or a similar Content Delivery Network (CDN) free in its basic form, but you have to specifically enable it in the web host’s control panel. This is a great way to improve the speed of your page loads, but it only works with static content like pictures. It does this by putting content geographically close to your users, usually meaning there are only 2 or 3 “hops” between a browser and the content. However, phpBB serves almost all of its content dynamically out of a database, so there’s little reason to pay extra for it. Ideally you will have a web host that is large enough to be its on CDN so the number of “hops” between routers is minimal.
  • I think it’s best to go with a one year contract. This way you are not out too much money, but you save some money compared to month-to-month leases. After a couple years of experience you might want to lock in a longer contract for additional savings.