Thu 5 May 2005
Here's a strange story. A few years ago, I wrote some stuff which was useful for work, and put a copy on my personal web site, Because I was also the webmaster/postmaster/hostmaster at work, I took the liberty of donating myself some free web hosting via the corporate servers (with the blessing of management, it must be said.) Then Google started ranking my website. Then I started to feel a bit guilty about freeloading, and I also understood that I had the opportunity to 'experience' various web hosting issues first-hand, instead of just talking to blue-chip customers about their hosting.

Now it's come full-circle, and it's become free again. are now generously hosting this site for me. Shane seems like a nice person, and I like dealing with nice people - it's so much easier than the alternative.

My first foray away from my employer's servers was when I bought myself a hosting package - my first-ever click on a Google advert, as it happens. I interrogated the admins heavily before switching; for one thing, this was my first switch from a server on which I had full root access to someone else's server for a 'real' website (I'd had University,, GeoCities, and stuff like that before, but this was 'my' domain,
I felt a bit more attached to it, and placed a lot of value in the fact that I had root access to the entire network; paying someone cash to give me less than root access was a big step).
Also, at work we were exclusively using Solaris/SPARC; I don't want to get into a religous discussion here (after all, I've been using GNU/Linux on my main desktops and various servers since 1997), but with Sun SPARC hardware, you've got various features which aren't available on Intel-based machines (white-box or branded). Being a Sun partner, I worked every day with these features, lots of trivial little things which add up to a big (potential) difference. Things like OBP settings: boot-device, auto-boot?, and at the OS layer, savecore (this was all before dtrace, IPMP, etc, which Solaris still does better than Linux).
So I was a bit nervous about switching to an x86/Linux server where I don't have root.
Of course, LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) was already a widely-used platform, so I wasn't cutting any new edges, just going with the webhosting flow.

That first move didn't work out too well; admin error (not a technical problem) meant that the wrong kernel had been booted after the patch, which resulted in some customers websites (not mine) being defaced by the exploitation of the kernel vulnerability. Their slowness to reply to any problem tickets beyond an automated "we've received your email" made me realise that I had made a poor choice. I don't expect a small firm to reply instantly, but prodding them week after week should not be necessary.

I also realised that, having accepted that LAMP is more than capable of running a website of my size (very small in the scale of things, but not exactly quiet) and larger (it's just SAMP on an x86, after all) and as I had realised that most of these hosting companies were pretty similar (offering (often 3rd-party) bundled packages on equivalent systems) I could get far better value by shopping around.

If I was going to run a website to compete with Amazon, Ebay or Google, I'd buy my own Sun hardware and do it myself; Ebay run on Sun; Google run on Linux, and they're both much bigger than my site, which, to me, means that business acumen is more significant than choice between GNU/Linux on x86 or Solaris on SPARC. The big guys have made their choices; for my needs, so long as someone else is taking care of replacing any failed hard disks, making sure the internet connection works, etc, the OS choice is a long way down the line of priorities, so long as it's *nix.
For as-is, I do need Server-Side Includes, databases, and various other stuff. I'm used to the way that Apache works, so that's good too... I'm used to MySQL, and happy with its security record, so that basically means that I want a SAMP/LAMP server. SAMP tends to be dearer than LAMP (which is now a commodity).

So I shopped around, and found ehostpros, who have run this site at a very reasonable price for the past year, with no problems, on x86/GNU/Linux systems.
This confirms that whilst the low-cost hosting market is highly competitive, and largely based on x86/GNU/Linux, traditional values still apply. My father, and his father before him, would still recognise the essential qualities of business, even on the trivial scale of a site like mine.
I used two technically equivalent providers, and found a huge difference in the service. They were using equivalent hardware and software, but with no technical differentiators; the only difference was in customer service. The larger firm (ehostpros) had the opportunity of more automation, whereas the smaller firm depended more on specific individuals dealing with specific issues. The larger firm could afford to automate more services because of their higher volume, and gave a better quality service because of it - most issues were dealt with by the website, without involving their personnel directly, whereas the smaller firm had a less-capable website, putting more burden onto a smaller admin team.

I also started playing around with a few content-tweaks on the website - adding Google adverts to cover these webhosting costs and when my employer was looking into various online payment methods, we looked at PayPal, so I used this website as a test site, and blogged the experience.

Now I've moved again, because all this toying around seems to have raised the profile of the website, and someone thinks that enough people will see the WebQualityHost link on the left, to make it worth their while to host the site for me.
What does this tell me about webhosting? I have no idea.

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