DO NOT Play it cheap when it comes to your web hosting

In Resources, Training by Christopher Michael Foley2 Comments

ARTICLE UPDATE


This article is one of our more popular and I didn’t want to change it and the cautionary tale is still quite relevant as it was when I wrote it. That said, this story now has a new happy ending:

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Just when I thought I’d seen it all, one of our clients fell victim to a series of (should be obvious) consequences brought on by bad advice and playing it cheap.

Consider for a moment that your web hosting environment is the foundation of your online business.

Read that sentence again, please. Thanks. Okay, here’s a story for you. This is one of them boogeyman stories that we tell our clients to scare them into making better choices. No, really. Get comfy.

The project started off just as any project. We asked the client’s web supervisor for their FTP credentials so we can grab their site files, move a copy of their site to our development server and get to work. Naturally, we never work on the client’s live site because that’s an enormous liability. No thanks. We build on our server and then when everything is good, the client is happy, the build is signed off on and approved, then and only then do we install the new site on the client’s live hosting environment.

One rule that’s consistent in our work is this: The FTP credentials the client gives you will never work. It’s just one of those things, and there were no surprises here. So, armed with the predictable bad FTP access, we got the client’s permission to speak with the hosting company (who I will not name here, again for reasons of liability..) and request from them a new FTP account through which to connect to the server. The helpful technician created a new FTP user for us, gave us the credentials over the phone and even offered to send me those credentials via email. Hey, cool. Good work. Upon hanging up the phone with our friendly technician I pulled up the site’s URL, and um… whoa.. wait.. The site is GONE. Why is the site gone?!

But why is the site GONE?

Yeah. My stomach rolled over and I felt a distinct and unpleasant lump in my throat. See, what actually happened when the technician created a new FTP account for us is that he deleted the root directory in which the website files lived on the server and replaced it with an empty directory. Let me say that in layman’s terms: The dude erased the site from the server.

Oh boy..

Back on the phone with technical support, luckily I was able to get right on the phone with the same guy and the conversation went something like this:

ME (CF): Hey, guess what. Looks like you overwrote the home directory. The site’s gone.

Tech Genius (TG): Are you f*&king serious?

CF: Yes I am f*&king serious.

TG: Oh SHIT!

CF: Yes, well said. So can you please fix this ASAP? I understand if you have to escalate this to a senior tech, but we need this site rolled up from a backup before the end of business today.

TG: Um… there are no backups on this plan.

CF: What do you mean “There are no backups on this plan?

TG: I mean the customer isn’t paying for backups.

CF: Wait a minute, are you for real?! Is your business located somewhere in the middle of 2003? How do you not offer backups with all of your hosting plans? I mean, what happens if the hard drive in your server dies? You call the customers and say “Oh sorry, our hardware failed, and you’re screwed because you didn’t buy the $5 monthly backup plan add-on.” Is that what happens? REALLY?

TG: I can’t answer that, I don’t work in sales.

Oh dear. Well, the following call to the client went as well as could be expected. Luckily the server records plainly showed what happened. Our butts were covered but this didn’t help the client any. Since my client doesn’t post new content all that frequently I was sure that even a month-old backup would be okay, and I asked the client to provide the most recent backup for us so that we could restore their site for them before starting on the work that we’d actually been hired to do. Deep breath.

Let the foreshadowing begin…

You can see this coming from a mile a way, can’t you? The client had no backups. No weekly, or even monthly backups had been set up for the site. Their hosting company is not backing up their site, and their IT person is not conducting off-site backups. To make things even more interesting, it turns out that the original developer who built their site didn’t ever deliver it to them on disk or Dropbox or anything. He just installed it on their server and called it a day, cashed his check.

Why were there no backups? Because the customer didn’t know that they had to have backups. True story.

Sigh..

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So now what?

This story does actually have a happy ending, though I’m reluctant to tell it because I don’t want to dilute the point of this article. We were able to restore the site.

While the Tech Genius deleted all of the site files that were in the site’s root directory, he did not delete the site’s database, which means that all of the content was still there. And by content I mean copy; text. All of the text was there, but all of the images were gone. All of the site’s design definitions were gone. The site’s THEME was gone. All of the plugins and any customizations to those plugins. Gone.

Luckily, the original developer didn’t do much actual work to create a nice custom site; he bought a rather generic theme from Theme Forest, made some very minor alterations and again, called it a day. Through various techniques such as the Way Back Machine Internet Archive, and some extreme cleverness by our front-end developer Nick, we were able to get the site about 80% rebuilt in the matter of a couple of days.

Keep this in mind, though. A couple of days equates to about 16 hours of rush labor. Consider the cost of that. So yeah, we got the site back up on the client’s behalf, and we did it quickly and successfully, but it was a very expensive endeavor and it shouldn’t have been.

DON’T BE A CHEAPO

When bootstrapping a small business or startup it’s important that you place your cash where it’s going to make the biggest impact on business. Some corners must be cut. Other corners must not be cut.

Do not play it cheap when it comes to your web hosting. I have a “deep thoughts” box on my homepage with the following message: CHANCES ARE YOUR WEBSITE ISN’T A HOBBY — IT’S YOUR BUSINESS!

Think about that for a minute. You’ve spent four or five thousand dollars on a website. You’ve spent money on inventory, on software and systems. You’ve hired yourself some employees. Are you really going to trust your business to a $7 per month web hosting plan? Really?

Your web hosting is the foundation of your online presence.

You need to get into a hosting plan that can scale as you grow. You need regular site backups. You should also put redundant, off-site backups in place in case something should ever happen to the company that you’re hosting with. Hurricanes in Texas, earthquakes in California, etc. You have to be able to move your site to a new host in a few hours’ notice (even if you really like the host you’re with) should (say) the power go out in the town that your host’s servers are located. (I have had to deal with this exact scenario before.)

There’s more than just backup issues to consider. Cheap hosting companies put you on a shared server. If you’re on a shared server, it means that your website shares resources with a bunch of other websites, and this can be a big problem if those other websites require a lot of resources. Your site can come crashing to a halt the moment another site on that same server starts hogging processor power and memory. This is called a Bad Neighbor, and you can’t do anything about it other than to request that your hosting company moves you to a new server. Sometimes they will. If they do, there will be a fee for moving you.

Bad Neighbors can take many forms. Maybe it’s a very popular site with great content, or maybe it’s a spammer who is using the cheap hosting to blow out millions of spam email messages. Maybe it’s a downloads site, or maybe it’s serving up adult content. Regardless of what they’re doing, a Bad Neighbor will cause your site to slow down to a crawl and can also cause certain site functions to time out; functions such as eCommerce transactions. There’s nothing worse than having your online store fail in the middle of customer purchases. If this happens to you, your customers will leave and they will not come back unless you can find some way to make them feel safe again.

End of lecture.

If you’re spending $10 on hosting you’re simply not taking your website seriously. And hey, if your site is a simple blog with very low traffic, you maybe don’t need more than the $10 per month hosting plan, but if your website is a real part of your business strategy, you’ve got to take it seriously enough to partner with a real host.

We Recommend:

Our #1 recommendation is WPEngine. I moved my entire infrastructure over to them in early 2014 and I’ve been overjoyed every step of the way. The technical staff over there knows their stuff, and they are incredibly proactive. WPEngine is as concerned about security as I am. WordPress sees frequent incremental updates, mostly to patch security holes, and WPEngine is on top of those updates. They’ll even send me an email to notify me that a particular plugin that I’m using is no longer trusted, based on a known exploit in the plugin itself, or that the core WordPress environment has been updated and the plugin has not yet been made compliant with that core update. These people are on top of WordPress in a really big way.

I have all of my own business sites on WPEngine’s Pro Plan and I’m paying $99 per month for it. This gives me 10 WordPress installs and a bunch of monthly traffic. They also have a $29 per month plan, which is where most of my customers start out at.

Good news, the customer of mine that almost lost their site is now on WPEngine which backs up their site multiple times daily, and I’ve got a system installed that also backs up their site to a Dropbox account every night, so no matter what happens, we’ve got them covered.

Caveat: WPEngine does not provide email, so if you want to use them, you’ll need to find a place to host your email, and while that seems like a hassle, it’s actually a really good thing. I advocate separating Domain Registration, Website Hosting, and Email Hosting. I never put these things together for reasons that I’ll get into in another post. Incidentally, I recommend Rackspace Cloud Email or Google Apps (Paid Gmail) for your email hosting, should you decide to host your site (s) with WPEngine. Check them out and see what you think.

I hope that this post is helpful to you, and that you perhaps can avoid some of the same nightmares that I’ve seen time and time again resulting from placing one’s bets on cheap web hosting.

 

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