Time For A Web Host Review

Screenshot of Linode Uptime

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.

A New Web Host – Linode

image of laptops connected to WWW

image of laptops connected to WWWJust before the New Years holiday I moved this site to a new web host, Linode. I’ve been with Slicehost for just over two years and don’t have any complaints and think they’re great. There’s an interesting thread on the Slicehost forum about how other vendors have matched and exceeded Slicehost’s offerings. In the thread even Slicehost has admitted they stagnated and haven’t taken advantage of the resources available to them through Rackspace which purchased them about a year ago. That’s part of my reason for shopping around, the same plan at the same price after two years. There were some other hosts that offered more for the same or less money. I  moved because I get more of what I need for the same cost (well, actually a nickel a month less).

I like using a VPS (virtual private server) for my websites. It gives me a lot of control and nearly unlimited flexibility so I wasn’t looking for anything different. I wanted more memory, either by having more physical memory or by more efficient memory usage.

Finally, I’m not running a business. While reliability performance are important, as is good tech support when it’s needed, I’m not willing to pay a premium “just in case”.

Slicehost provided 10GB of disk and 100GB of bandwidth to go with my 256MB of RAM on the slice. The only thing that really mattered to me was the RAM. I never even came close to my bandwidth limits, likewise on the disk space. Slicehost offers only 64-bit OS’s (actually, they now offer 32 bit apps on a 64 bit kernel) while Linode offers 32-bit images.

The two main reasons I picked Linode were:

  • More memory for the same price (360MB vs. 256MB)
  • 32-bit OS which provides more available memory on my server

Linode also provides more disk and bandwidth but I don’t even come close to what Slicehost offers so it wasn’t a factor in my decision.

Slicehost has been extremely reliable and their tech support has been quick and efficient when needed. I couldn’t expect more from any provider. My Linode suffered an unexpected reboot due to a RAID disk failure early on so I was a bit worried. But they’ve been rock solid since then. Slicehost also had some hardware issues in my two years with them and I had a brief outage for an unexpected reboot and later when they moved me to a replacement server.

One differentiator with Slicehost is the ability to do automated backups which make restores simple and fast. But the backup service is an added cost ($5/mth for the small slices. Linode did offer a beta backup service that I was trying out. It was extremely unreliable and they’ve currently suspended the beta pending some architectural changes. If an image type backup was important to me I’d probably have looked a Zerigo (see below) in greater depth since they seemed to offer the most flexibility. (I currently backup my websites, databases and configuration files to my local PC every night and I’m happy with this.)

Linode’s management console has a few more features than Slicehost’s console and I like working with it a little better, but it’s nothing that I’d be willing to pay more for. While Linode doesn’t offer a backup service one feature I like is the ability to copy a disk image. I have 16GB of disk and I can partition this up any way I want. I have three 5GB partitions of which 1 is my actual server partition. The other two are rotating copies. While not truly a backup, before I make a change I dump the oldest copy and make a new copy the production image. I screw up the server I can boot off the copy (or just copy it back). This isn’t truly a backup since it’s all on my server but it’s a nice way to recover from a bad upgrade. It proved useful while testing out Linode.

By switching to the 32-bit version of Ubuntu server I picked up about 30 MB of free memory over my 64-bit Slicehost server. Added to the additional physical memory this gave me much more breathing room on my server. Occasionally my Slicehost server would resort to swapping which my Linode has yet to do despite having more available Apache processes and concurrent connections configured.

I also briefly looked at Zerigo. They’re pricing is competitive with Slicehost (Linode is cheaper) and Zerigo offers 32-bit OS’s . They offer a 4 day test drive and I took them for a spin over a weekend.  Zerigo also offers server snapshots for backups. The snapshots are more flexible than Slicehost’s backup offering. (At least as their described, I didn’t test this feature). There wasn’t anything compelling to make me pick them. I did have problems getting their DNS to resolve to my server, although it worked fine with a 3rd party DNS service. I didn’t open a support ticket since I didn’t plan to stay beyond the trial period.

All-in-all I’m very happy with Linode despite an early hiccup. They have a good reputation which they seem to be living up to. Even with the reboot a support ticket was generated and emailed to me explaining the reason and actions taken.

SquareSpace Considered

squarespace_logo SquareSpace has been getting a lot of publicity in most tech podcasts I listen to. It had the feel of an orchestrated publicity campaign so I didn’t pay much attention to the hype and ignored it for awhile. But the thought of having a hosted website along with the ability to extensively customize the site made me decide to take a look at it, so I signed up for their free 14 day trial. The bottom line, there’s a lot to like but I won’t be moving any existing sites to it.

I started off reviewing Squarespace by looking at things that were important to me but were lacking in most hosted website solutions.

  • Ease of importing an existing site
  • Ability to do my own backups and ease of moving the site to another host
  • Ability to customize extensively (add java scripts, html code, etc…)

SquareSpace does better than other hosted solutions (WordPress.com, Blogger, etc…) in these areas but it just wasn’t quit up to what I wanted. In short, I didn’t like the loss of control. Of course, to others this isn’t a problem at all.

Importing an Existing Site

SquareSpace provides the ability to import a WordPress blog along with Blogger, Moveable Type and TypePad. WordPress and Blogger can be imported over the wire, the others need to be exported to a file then imported. WordPress can also be imported via a file exported from WordPress.

I tried importing this site but received an error both when importing over the web and from a file. So I used another one of my sites (much smaller) which imported fine over the web.

The import took all the posts and moved all the graphics hosted on the site over to SquareSpace. Since the URLs changed I opened a support ticket to see if there was a way to maintain the old URL structure. Here was the response:

The Web importer preserves old permalinks within our system. Even though we save a user’s journal entries under a new, Squarespace specific URL, any requests for their old permalinks will be redirected properly (301 Permanently Moved) to the new Squarespace URL location. This should preserve your existing PageRank and any other google/search engine juice you’ve accumulated over time. Even though your old urls are not displayed in the browser URL bar, we are still redirecting your old traffic properly.
This will work when you map your own domain to your Squarespace account.

I never moved my domain to SquareSpace but it does seem like the URLs would redirect properly if I did. Along these line, internal links within posts were properly redirected to the new SquareSpace URL.

What was a bit of a problem was that the static pages were not imported. They would have to be moved over one by one. Also, my tags were not imported (categories were).

Ability To Do My Own Backups and Move Site Out

This is where SquareSpace falls short for me. While SquareSpace itself seems to have a solid backup regimen with real time backups to standby servers and periodic offsite backups there’s no good ability to create my own backups.

I can create a Text Snapshot which contains the structure in a XML file although the ability to use this to another system depends on the other system. This export can not be used to restore a SquareSpace site or import into another site. The Journal module (blog) can also export it’s data to a Moveable Type format which some other systems can use to import. Both of these must be done manually.

This is really no worse than other hosted platforms like WordPress.com or Blogger, but I like the ability automate backups and have the results in my possession. Moving from one CMS platform to another is never easy but some of the hype around SquareSpace implied you could get your site out as easy as put it in. While SquareSpace makes it about as easy as they can to get data out, it’s no magic bullet. There will be considerable work moving from SquareSpace to another platform.

Ability To Customize Extensively

Here’s were SquareSpace excels over other hosted platforms. There are extensive configuration settings for the various modules. So many, that it can be a bit overwhelming and not always intuitive trying to figure out what each one does. To help with that there’s support videos along with a good online manual.

All the site configuration and design, along with the the actual content creation is all WYSIWYG and done online. If the WYSIWYG editor doesn’t give you enough control you can also replace or tweak the CSS.

I didn’t spend too much time playing with the design tools since I’d already decided SquareSpace wasn’t for me at this point in time. As with most WYSIWYG editors you may run into some limitations if your looking for a specific design, but it certainly seemed robust. I did have a couple problems with the editor. Once the screen locked up on an edit page while inserting a script, in another case the settings dialog stopped taking input in many fields. In both cases canceling and repeating the action resolved the problem. I was impressed with speed of the editor despite being all online and extensive use of ajax.

Summary

Pros

  • Hosted by SquareSpace – no software for you to maintain
  • Hosted on grid computers – your site does have limits based on your plan, but if the site gets dug or slashdot’d it will handle the traffic.
  • Reasonable and Tiered pricing structure so you only pay for the features you need.
  • Extensive analytics included and supports rss feeds.
  • Moving an existing blog is simple 

Cons

  • Hosted by SquareSpace – Yup, it’s also a “pro”, depends on your point of view. You do give up control.
  • If you want a truly unique, complex or specific design it requires HTML and CSS knowledge or the hiring of someone who can do it.
  • In my opinion the ease of use has been over-hyped. While it is easy to use at the basic level so are the free solutions. Once you get past a basic blog and built-in templates the interface and options take some getting used to.

SquareSpace does cost, unlike WordPress.com or Blogger. The prices seem reasonable for what you get. The question is, are those features worth it to you? Plans range from $8 – $50 although you can get a discount code at many tech podcasts these days and there are discounts for multiple sites. You’ll need the $14 account of you want to map it to your own domain name. You can sign up for a free 14 day trial, no credit card needed. If you don’t buy a plan after 14 days they just drop your account.

SiteUpTime – Web Site Monitoring

I came across SiteUpTime.com which does web site monitoring, as the name implies. They offer a free plan which I just signed up for to monitor The OS Quest.

The free plan includes:

  • 1 Monitor
  • 30 or 60 minute check intervals
  • 4 Monitoring Locations
  • Email Alerts
  • Monthly Reports
  • Online Statistics
  • Control Panel
  • Web Server Monitoring (http)
  • Email Server Monitoring (pop3)
  • Email Server Monitoring (smtp)
  • FTP Server Monitoring (ftp)
  • Public Statistics

There are some reguirements on the free account. You need to link to their site (I added a badge to the right sidebar) and you need to agree to receive occassional emails about their services. Plus you can only have one free account.

The way the system works is you specify a primary location (of the four) when creating the monitor. If the site in not accessible from the selected monitor then additional locations will be checked. The locations are San Fransisco, Chicago, New York and London.

The also have Premium and Advanced plans which increase the number of monitors, frequency of monitoring and the type of services that can be monitored.

It’s worth noting that your monitoring services, not servers. So if you want to monitor both ftp, web and email on a server you’ll need three monitors.

I just signed up so I can’t really say if the service is as good as it seems. But, it will be interesting to see how Bluehost does, even though a 30 minute interval leaves a lot of time for unnoticed server reboots.