Web Hosting Blues

Why is it so hard to find a decent web host?

Way back in 2009, I began blogging on wordpress.com, and by the end of 2009, I was hooked. I took the plunge, and signed up with MediaTemple hosting, a pretty slick operation that had a quite good product offering, with their “gridservers”. That worked well, and apart from some shared Mysql server bog downs, it was a pain free time. The few support issues I had (mostly around my ignorance) were handled cleanly and quickly.

In 2012, at the formation of Southern Arizona Greyhound Adoption, I was drafted/volunteered to create and run their website. They had selected GoDaddy for their domain registration, and hosting. I had heard lots of bad things, but for the basic linux hosting we did, running a Joomla site, and handling a bunch of forwarded emails, it worked well. But what I hated about it was the constant hard sell. “Upgrade to xxxx“, “Buy more yyyy“, “DOn’t you need an SSL certificate?“. As a marketer, I was completely alienated by their hard sell at every interaction. Hell, when I called tech support, they even tried to sell something to me. They were worse than Comcast!

But it worked, and except for about 4 hours of down time, in the 3.5 years I was their web master, it all just worked. Yes, their CEO is an asshat, and the sexist advertising really bugged me, but it was solid, and for $6 a month, it served the Greyhounds well.

All along, I was doing my thing, spinning up web properties, and blogging/experimenting along the way, still happy with MediaTemple.

Then, one day in October 2013, out of the blue I got an email from MediaTemple announcing that they had been bought by GoDaddy. The end was near. Not that I feared the service would go away, but I knew their excellent tech support would be blended with GoDaddy’s troupe of sales people, who could fix a DNS config, or tweak an MX record.

The outcry from the loyal community of MediaTemple customer was loud and swift. I as a hobbyist was impacted by the inconvenience, but a lot of independent web designers had built businesses on the reselling of MediaTemple hosting to their clients. They needed the reliability of the hosting, the scalability, and the uptime that had been the cornerstone of MediaTemple.

I can say I was not alone in re-homing. Since I had done the shared hosting, I was itching to try something a bit bolder. I had been looking at moving to a VPS (virtual private server) on MediaTemple, but the moving costs internally weren’t justified. However, the purchase by GoDaddy was the tipping point, and the search was on.

Doing research, talking to some savvy people I know, I quickly zeroed in on A Small Orange. A smaller provider, they had a lot of positive press, and many independent people were effusive about their service. Their answers to my pre-decision questions were excellent, and I dove in. Bought a smallish (but not the smallest) VPS, and got cracking on moving all my sites. A week later, and I flipped the switch on the DNS, and went live.

There were teething problems. I hadn’t used Cpanel, and the WHM interface was a bit complex, but with the excellent help from the support team, all the wrinkles were worked out in no time.

It was fun, having a full linux installation, having root access, and being able to do what I want.

Fast forward to summer 2015. Life had been good, and apart from some borking of the DNS that required 2-3 reboots a year, it just rocked. But starting in the June 2015 timeframe, there were repeated issues. Networking issues within their data centers. Disk arrays were losing connectivity frequently (it was a virtual private server, not a dedicated box). This lead to some down times.

It was around this time I started digging back into their support pages, thinking I would look at the posts in their support forums. But they were gone. Weird, I used to camp out there, and read what was happening, but at some point, they removed that vehicle for community support. (note: this is a bad sign)

As the summer faded into fall, these events picked up in frequency. It seemed like I was dealing with some issue every other week. In fact in October, I began to get concerned enough to start looking elsewhere (and I was intrigued by the Digital Ocean model of “droplets”) for an escape hatch. However, by this time, I had a quite “messy” VPS, where I had done a lot of experiments. I had some aborted servers, some domains parked, even a friend who I hosted email for, so it wasn’t an easy prospect to move/change. I hung in.

Then the great A Small Orange meltdown over the Christmas/New Year holiday happened. I went down hard. So hard, I couldn’t ping my base IP address. Traceroute got stuck. I couldn’t even login to their “Cloud Command” center to see what my VPS was doing. This lasted for almost three days. The network status update stretched on and on, with endless commitments to “fix it soon”. Yeah, right.

At the end of the second day, I searched @asmallorange on Twitter. Holy hell, was there outrage. Tons of people were griping. Competitive hosting providers were trying to pick up disgruntled clients. People were losing a thousand dollars in trade a day (people with online stores), and web designers were having clients leave them due to the unreliability. I had two support tickets, one from 12/24, and one from 12/30 that got no attention.

I am fortunate that I am merely a hobbyist. I do this for fun, as a diversion. So while it was inconvenient, it isn’t an existential threat to me or my wellbeing (apart from my VPS also being my DNS, so for the downtimes, my email was lost).

Yesterday around noon (January 2) my service was restored. I began moving sites away. So far, scriptsbybarbara, greytbros are moved and live, wordsbybarbara is moved (but the DNS pointers haven’t been made, as I need to do some tidying up), and I have replicated this site, Tralfaz, again awaiting the flip of the switch.

I have moved to Digital Ocean, and have this setup on two droplets (the three lower traffic sites in one, and tralfaz in its own). The google hosted mail is working, the sites navigate. I need to fix some things, but it is working well.

I will end up saving a couple hundred bucks a year on the hosting. I don’t have the Cpanel/WHM walled garden to mess with. The installations are simple, and clean, with little overhead. Digital Ocean seems to have their shit together. But alas, I know it can’t last forever.

This time, I will setup backups to AWS, so that a flaky, or devastated hosting provider can’t cause this much downtime. Fortunately, that is a relatively easy process to automate.

Oh, and the support tickets? Last night about 8:00PM, I got responses from their escalation manager. No shit, this isn’t the level of support or performance we expect.

I would love to know how many people are bolting from A Small Orange in the aftermath.