How I found a web host
I have recently moved the website to a new web host. However my search turned into a major
mission so I thought I would share my experiences. My mission was to find a reliable host that
would be around long-term, and that would provide the usual things like email, FTP, domains and so
What do I need?
My first step was deciding what I needed. My basic needs are a host that serves up HTML files
for trial software, and allows password-protected FTP for specific customers. I don't need any
server-side scripting as I want to keep my pages as clean as possible. If I ever did need scripting
- FTP so I can upload files to the server.
- POP3 and SMTP so I can use the site address for email. You can't run a business with a hotmail
- Provide raw log files. If you want to see how well your site is indexed by the search engines,
this is essential.
- Over 20GB monthly bandwidth.
- Ideally with a phone number for emergency support.
- Ideally under about £100 per year (about $170 per year).
- I don't need ASP, Frontpage, PHP or any server side scripting.
- I don't need a dedicated server. This is too expensive and I don't want to be a Unix
- I don't care whether the web host runs Unix or Windows. My needs are fairly simple and
the server operating system should not matter.
May 2005 - Search through google
Armed with my list of requirements, I spent some time searching through google. After spending a
total of 6 to 8 hours doing this over a week or so, my enthusiasm began to wear thin.
Finding the hosts was not a problem, the problem was finding one that is reliable. My
previous hosting experience had included mysterious down-times and email failures, and I didn't
want to repeat this. I found some interesting things during my search:
- Control Panels. When using my old host, I would just email them whenever I needed to make any
changes - the only thing I could do myself was use FTP to create the site structure. But on google
I found most web hosts offer a control panel which lets you make these changes yourself. In general
this is good, but some panels don't work reliably through firewalls. This turned out to be a
problem later on.
- Resellers. I discovered many web hosts don't have a direct connection to the internet backbone,
instead they share space on the server of someone who does, or they rent a server off someone who
does. Any support problems with a re-seller would mean going through two layers of support before
the problem was fixed, which is no good.
- My discovery of resellers was the end of my efforts to find anyone through the search engines.
It was taking too long to go through each site, send and re-send emails with questions, or file
support tickets and check back for answers.
During my search I was surprised how many hosts had inaccurate phone numbers, or didn't reply to
phone calls or emails, or made me use support tickets instead of email. If any web hosters are
reading this, you could improve customer satisfaction greatly, simply by replying to emails and
phone calls. I don't expect technical support over the phone, but it would be nice to speak to
someone for a few minutes just to make sure the website is real.
This is also a lesson for me in regards to this web site - make sure I repond to email promptly,
and make sure the phone number is correct!
May 2005 - A False Start and the Great SMTP Scare
After looking through google I found several possibilities. One that stood out was www.netpivotal.co.uk - they offered 80GB bandwidth for £4
per month, and they were really friendly and helpful on the phone. The only problem was they didn't
offer SMTP, but when I spoke to them I got the impression they might do if asked nicely.
So in the middle of May I opened my NetPivotal account and uploaded my site. When using FTP I
was used to seeing an empty directory structure to upload into, but with NetPivotal there were lots
of pre-existing strange files and folders. I never investigated but I think they are used by
Frontpage, and as I wasn't using Frontpage I didn't worry about them.
My problems started when I tried to use the Plesk Control Panel - basically it wouldn't work
when I accessed it from a computer in the office. The office has internet access to ADSL through
Windows Small Business Server ISA (Internet Security Accelerator), and it turns out ISA has
built-in rules that deny certain types of traffic. The only thing ISA likes is basic HTTP, and
Plesk uses non-standard ports. I wasn't able to reconfigure the server, so the plesky NetPivotal
control panel was not available to me.
I also explained why I needed SMTP and asked if this could be made available to me. Their answer
was 'no', although they never actually said 'no'. I asked if it could be made available, they said
they didn't support it, I asked to escalate the request, they went silent. After repeating this
process a few times, I got the message.
So no control panel and no SMTP. One thing they did support was a 30 day money back guarantee,
which I invoked on the 2nd June. To be fair to NetPivotal, they did what they promised, they were
always helpful on the phone, they are good value and if they ever did offer a control panel that
works through Windows SBS, and offered SMTP, I would reconsider them.
Another lesson I learnt was that many web hosts do not like SMTP in any shape or form - I
could almost sense the smiles freezing on their faces when I asked about it. I guess hosts got
burned by spam and are now ultra-cautious. I can't blame them, but did this mean Ubercode was going
to be forever without email? Would I have to rely on fax and post for all communication in 2005? It
was time to widen the search.
28th May 2005 - Joelonsoftware
My next stop was www.joelonsoftware.com - this is a
forum run by a very smart guy called Joel Spolsky who runs a software business in New York. Joel's
forum is an island of intelligent discussion in the midst of an ocean of inaccurate information and
advertising that makes up the rest of the internet (Joel, if you're reading this can I have a link
please?) Joel runs the site like a benevolent dictator which is fair enough as it's his site. If
you've read any Terry Pratchett books just think of Lord Vetinari's rule in Ankh-Morpork (there
goes my chance of a link)
Exaggeration aside, Joel's site is a good place for discussing all angles of software
development. So I posted an article asking for suggestions for a
suitable shared host.
This gave me a list of some sites to check out, although a lot of folks thought I should go for
a dedicated server. I looked into the pricing, and shared hosting is $10 to $15 per month for a
reputable host, but a dedicated server is about 3 times that. $10 to $15 per month is in my budget,
but the higher figures are not. So a dedicated server will have to wait.
Another useful suggestion from the forum was www.webhostingtalk.com. This site is huge, it discusses
everything related to web hosting, shared hosting, dedicated servers, design of sites, search
engine optimization, dealing with customers, and 100s of other topics. It would take weeks to read
through all the information here. Another useful thing about webhostingtalk, you can visit the
forum that discusses hosts and do a search for the name of a prospective host. If there is any bad
comments or praise of a host, it will be here. You have to keep your eyes open when reading the
negative comments - sometimes people try and do something stupid that the host doesn't support,
then they complain about it. But if you're selective, webhosting talk is a brilliant source of
So Joel's site had helped me and led me towards good sources of information on web hosts. But
could there be an even better source?
An Even Better Source!
While browsing webhostingtalk I found www.whreviews.com
by Daniel Lemnaru. There are hundreds of websites that discuss web hosts and make recommendations,
but most of these are disguised advertising since they link to each other. Daniel is not connected
with any of the hosts he mentions, apart from an affiliate program which he is open about, so his
site is much more objective. He also maintains a list of best web hosts, which he keeps updated on
a regular basis. He also has articles on choosing hosts, moving web sites, and plenty more
So if you are looking for any kind of web hosting, I would strongly recommend Daniel's site. The
articles are well researched, well written, and the site is kept up to date. It's the most
impartial source of information I found during a month of searching.
The List of Fifteen
My next task was to work through the recommended hosts from www.whreviews.com. This table shows
the hosts and my initial comments:
||Bandwidth / cost
||25GB for $15 per month
|75GB for $10 per month
||site has flash
||30GB for $30 per month
15GB for $18 per month
||15GB for $18 per month
||site has flash
|40GB for $9 per month
|50GB for $7 per month
||Couldn't read site
||site has flash
didn't load in my browser
||$42 per month upwards
uses plesk control panel
site has flash
||15GB for $18 per month
||15GB for $20 per month
||15GB for $15 per month
||200GB for $50 per month
||ideal for a huge site
||23GB for $11 per month (B1000 plan)
||15GB for $18 per month
||site didn't work properly in my browser
||15GB for $11 per month
||site has flash
no email link on site
The ones in green are the ones I wanted to check out in more detail, and I rejected the others
for the reasons shown. Details are correct at the time of writing (15th June 2005) but you should
visit the site for the most current information. Bear in mind this list is my subjective opinion. I
had specific requirements, so my reasons for rejecting a host do not necessarily apply to other
During my search, I updated my list of requirements. I decided it was bad to share server space
with AWG sites (adult, warez or gambling) since they are morally dodgy and are more likely to be
targeted by hackers. Also if their IP address is blacklisted this would affect other sites on the
Also I didn't want a web host that used Flash on their own site. My problem with Flash is the
animations are always on (they ignore the Internet Explorer setting Tools - Options - Advanced -
Multimedia - Animations which should turn them off). Also my internet access is sometimes
limited to dialup and I don't want to wait around for some cheesy flash advert to download (why is
flash always used for ads?).
The List of Four
Well I was now down to a list of four. So I revisted the sites, printed out their price
comparisons, looked at their Terms and Conditions, emailed some questions and waited for a
response. Here's what I found:
hostmatters.com I got a response to my questions within a few hours and what they said
was encouraging. They can meet all my requirements (except the phone number), they don't host AWG
sites, and they are happy with hosting multiple domains in the one package. Multi domains is
different from redirection - with redirection you type in www.mysite.net and get redirected to
www.mysite.com, but with multi domains you can FTP a separate folder, set up the name servers, and
have www.somesite.com going to a folder other than your main site. The only drawback is, these guys
are the most expensive of the bunch, in terms of dollars per gigabyte.
For: Good tech support, multiple sites, no AWG sites. Against: expensive.
hostgator.com Again I had a quick response to my questions. They could meet all my
requirements, except they also host AWG sites. On the positive side they have 75GB monthly
bandwidth which is excellent value, and they let you host multiple sites. There was one other thing
I didn't like - I believe they outsource their support to a non-English speaking country, as the
answers to my questions were much shorter than the answers from the other hosts, and the answers
were written in a strange style of English with unusual mis-spellings. I think out-sourced support
for a web host is a mistake, as you want someone who is physically there to deal with some types of
For: Excellent bandwidth, multiple sites. Against: Outsourced support, share with AWG
lunarpages.com This was the site I looked at first, and there was something about the
name I liked, so I was secretly hoping this would be the one to choose. But I was determined to be
objective, so I sent them my questions. Again they replied quickly and they met all my
requirements, except the one about AWG sites. To be fair, they said they monitor the load to ensure
server resources are not consumed but there's still the danger of hacking, or IP blackslisting. On
the positive side these guys are good value as you get 40GB for $8 per month. On the minus side
(again) they charge for extra domains - so if I wanted a personal website in a subdirectory on the
same account, this would be extra.
For: Good bandwidth, good support. Against: they charge for extra domains, and they host AWG
site5.com Again I emailed my list of questions and got a speedy response. These guys
promise the average response time is 10 minutes or something which is excellent - personally I'm
happy as long as they respond within an hour or two. The quality of their response was also very
good, they had intelligent and well written answers to all my questions. Also they don't host AWG
sites, and they are good value as you get 50GB for $7 per month. Another thing I liked, one of the
managers posted on webhostingtalk.com and the quality of his posts was good.
For: Good bandwidth, multiple sites, excellent support. Against: Nothing yet (but read
9th June - Making a Decision!
After my careful comparisons and my checklist, I was thinking site5.com was the best. In fact I
was about to sign up with them when the lawyer-ish part of my brain (the part that shuns the
sunlight and prefers to dwell in dark caves with dusty documents) decided to read the terms and
conditions on their website. Boy was that a mistake as there were pages of them.
Since it was getting late I decided to print their Ts & Cs to look at the next day. Their
trendy color scheme of mid-grey text on a light-grey background was illegible on my black and white
laser printer. So I asked them to email them instead.
Next day when I read though them, there are some I think are unacceptable. Firstly, their
conditions said I had to pay monthly, even though they agreed in email that yearly in advance was
OK. Secondly and far worse, there's the usual indemnification where the customer (ie me) has to pay
up if site5 were sued for anything that could remotely be my fault. But what was worse, this clause
survives the end of the agreement. So even if I left site5, they could in theory ask me to
indemnify them years later for anything that could be construed as my fault.
I don't think that's reasonable so I declined to sign up with them. One down, three to go...
Lunarpages.com had the same indemnity clause and the same survivability clause. Bye bye
Lunarpages (sob sob), two to go...
Down to hostgator.com and hostmatters.com. Hostgator give you 3 times the bandwidth for a
fraction less money, but they host AWG sites and outsource their support. I've had enough of flakey
websites and intermittent email, so my final decision is www.hostmatters.com. So I signed up with them.
15th June - Hostmatters.com (the first week)
I'm not planning to give a blow by blow update of how we're getting on, but I thought some
feedback would be useful.
The initial setup took about a day which is good. I updated my nameservers at my registrar, used
FTP to upload the files and everything works fine. The site seems faster than it used to.
Also I got to test the hostmatters.com support a lot sooner than I planned. When configuring and
testing Outlook Express as my email client, I kept on having intermittent Outlook errors. After
some time, and after I googled for the error details, we decided it was some obscure internal error
in that version of Outlook. For this particular error, their support wasn't much better than just
searching the web, but they did try, they seemed quite clueful, and I would give them good marks
for support so far.
Finding a web host took a lot longer than I thought. It took me something like 20 hours over 2
months. If I had to make any suggestions, they would be:
- Write a list of exactly what you want. The list of questions at the end of this article is a
- Do not use your web host as the registrar for your domain names. If you do, it can be difficult
getting the names back again if you part company. Instead use an independent registrar that does
not do web hosting, and just update the name servers at the registrar.
- Email their support with some questions before taking out hosting. If their support is no good
before you take out hosting, you can be sure it won't get better.
- Avoid web hosts that are resellers and avoid hosts that outsource support. Your site is
important to your business, and you want staff that are ready and capable of dealing directly with
problems. You don't want to go through layers of people to get help.
- Make sure you have an independent email address, such as hotmail or similar. It's no good
people emailing email@example.com if mysite.com isn't resolving.
- Try and avoid web hosts that allow AWG sites. You and your web host have enough to do without
getting caught in hacker wars that can erupt between these kinds of sites.
- When you have a prospective host, check them out at webhostingtalk.com. Some negative feedback
is OK as this means you can see how they handle it.
- Avoid sites that have 'unlimited' bandwidth offers. Typically they average your bandwidth with
the bandwidth of other sites, and if you use a lot they can boot you out for 'unreasonable server
usage' or something similar.
- Don't go for the cheapest option. In hosting, $100 per year makes a big difference to the
quality of the host and the quality of support. Your site only need be down long enough to lose one
or two sales, then all the 'savings' of the cheaper host have gone.
So here is my updated list of web hosting questions (remember these are specific to my site, so
they may be different for you):
- Will I be able to use WS_FTP (my FTP client) to upload HTML files and EXE files to my
- Do you provide POP3 and SMTP for email? I can't use my ISP's SMTP server since I move between
- Do you also provide a webmail interface? (in case I have to administer my email from some
place where I only have web access)
- What is the monthly bandwidth? Is there also a daily bandwidth limit? (some hosts don't
allow you to use more than 1/30 of the monthly limit in one day)
- Is there an automatic way of capping usage to avoid me paying extra bandwidth fees? And if I
consistently use up to the monthly allowance is this OK?
- How many domains can I host? Eg I have several different sites. Can I point these to different
folders, or is that an extra cost?
- I currently have the domains registered at a separate registrar (eg register.com). I want to
keep the domains registered there, and update their nameservers to point to your hosting service.
In particular I want to continue as the registered contacts for my domains. Is this possible with
- Do you provide access to the raw logfiles? I want to download them via FTP and analyze them
- Do you have a phone number for emergency support?
- If you have a control panel does it work through Windows Small Business Server 2003? This
blocks port 8443 which causes problems for some control panels (eg the Plesk control panel does not
- What is your setup cost?
- When using shared hosting, do you also host AWG sites on the same server?
- Aproximately how many sites do you have per server?
- Do you have your own datacenter? Or do you rent space in a rack? Or are you a reseller?
- Can I pay yearly? (usually cheaper!)
- Do you have local support staff, or do you outsource to another country?
- If there is a complaint about my account, do you contact me first? (you don't want your site
to be suspended if one disgruntled customer phones up and complains to your web host)
That's the end of my list of questions.
I hope these questions are useful - they would saved me a lot of time had I known them at the
start. If you have any comments or ideas, please contact me using the links below.
Bill Rayer, 3rd July 2005