Time For A Web Host Review

Screenshot of Linode UptimeI recently went through and evaluated various hosting options for my sites. I’ve got no complaints with my current host, Linode. As the screenshot up above shows, the server has been running for nearly a year. They’ve had a couple network issues over the past year but I honestly couldn’t remember if they affected me so I checked Site Uptime and the last time it showed the site down was Aug 7, 2010.  I’ve had more problems related to my own home router or ISP. So why the review? It’s time for some fairly significant upgrades which will be made easier by building a new server and then migrating the data (at least that’s my current thinking) so now’s a good time for a move.

What I Have Now

Linode provides a bare-bones VPS (virtual private server). They provide the base OS, I do everything else. This provides great freedom and I’ve learned a lot, but there’s also a downside which is that I have to do everything myself, including all troubleshooting. There’s no control panel, everything is done from the command line. I could install a control panel if I wanted to. There are several open source options available so the financial cost could be low. While a control panel could help me get some things up and running quicker and more reliable I’ve yet to really explore those options until now.

Since I have no complaints about Linode, from either a performance or cost perspective, I won’t be looking at other bare-bones options.

What I Looked For

I like having the VPS  so I’d be sticking with that. The main thing I’d want is a host that would take some of the work off my plate and allow me to do things quicker. So I looked for managed VPS providers or those that offered a control panel in their price. I found than many managed VPS services also required a control panel and this was typically either from cPanel or Parallels Plesk. This control panel requirement was especially true of the lower cost managed hosts.

The cost of a managed VPS is significantly more than I’m paying now. At least for what seemed to be reliable vendors. Moving to one of these would at least double my cost so there would need to be a significant benefit to me.

I narrowed my selection down to two: Knownhost and Servint.  I signed up with Knownhost because they were cheaper and provided a 30-day money back guarantee. They had things set up quickly, within 9 hours of my registering (they say between 12 and 24 hours depending on what you read). I picked cPanel as my control panel mainly because it’s more common and I used it back when I was on shared hosting. They were even quicker in processing my request to cancel my account and request a refund (within 30 minutes of my submitting the ticket to cancel).

Why’d I cancel? It’s not because I disliked Knownhost itself and the fact they made it easy to leave is a bonus in my book. I left because I decided that a control panel and a managed server wasn’t for me. I don’t spend all that much time doing maintenance and have automated many of the routine tasks. In the end, there’s little real benefit to me and a significantly greater cost. I like doing things myself but didn’t like having to figure out how cPanel was doing things. If I change my mind about that I would be more than happy to return to Knownhost.

As a disclaimer I should mention that I looked at the server for a day before deciding to cancel. I’m sure there were ways around my issues, but having to figure them out defeated my time saving goal. Most of my issues was the way control panel sets things up. I never took advantage of the managed service to do any of my installs.

If I split up my sites into separate accounts they actually became harder to upgrade. I keep WordPress up to date using Subversion and already have the scripts to do it quickly. I could do the same on the new server but that begs the question – why use a control panel? And generally speaking the “managed” part of the offering doesn’t apply to things not installed through the panel.

I also had issues updating the plugins through the built-in WordPress update feature and was prompted for FTP information. I suppose  could have provided it but I don’t really like entering FTP account info into a web page (or even having regular ftp enabled although SFTP may work). This appears to be because Apache runs under one ID (root on that server) while the files being updated are in a directory owned by another user. Again, I could probably work around this but the more workarounds I use the less beneficial the control panel and managed service is.

The Decision

The bottom line is I decided the added cost, both financial and the learning curve, didn’t justify moving from what I already consider a solid host. I’ll be staying with Linode.

An added benefit of Linode (and probably many other VPS providers) is I can set up a new server to do my build and testing. I can then either change DNS to the new server when it’s done, or clone the disk to the old server and reboot with that disk. Another option would be to change the IP address. Changing DNS would be easier as it would eliminate down time (at least in theory, if I don’t screw it up) although I’d probably avoid any site changes for a couple days while the DNS full propagates.

I went into this with part of me figuring the added cost wouldn’t be worth the effort so part of me figures I wasted a few hours. On the other hand I got this post out of it and I scratched an itch and put to rest any consideration of moving hosts.

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