Buying real(?) hosting

This will be an overly lengthy piece of sort-of technical yadda-yadda, but I’ll provide a

Short version: I switched to DreamHost from… nothing (a home server), paying together with other family members. My monthly web hosting expenses will thus be comparable to the cost of an ice cream cone. DH has very generous, increasing bandwidth and storage quotas, they will give me money or pay my bills for me if people use my referral codes (I’ll have to create a few of those) and they seem geeky enough to have a wiki and to post pictures of disasters on a corporate blog. What I wonder is if this kind of hosting is suitable for dynamic sites with a few visitors, or if I should have invested in a MediaTemple GS account instead. kthxbye.
Now, if feel that you must, go ahead and read what I actually have to say:

For the last six months or so, I’ve had the urge to move my web material to some place where I don’t have to worry about the DSL connection at home and the fact that I don’t have RAID5, backup power etc. for my home server (just an old beige box, I will continue to use machines like this one for local media storage and IRC shells).

My most visited site (actually, the only site that gets any visitors), “Recreational and Medical Internets“, had at some point in late 2006 started to grow out of what is sane to try to host using a DSL connection with only one megabit of upload bandwidth. Some of those stolen/archived images I keep there kept being posted to social sites and IRC channels. Since I have have a tendency to like blinkenlights, it was all fun and games to sit and watch the Apache log scroll in real time as requests came in with “tail -f”, and mod_cband kept my connection usable for other stuff as well, even on weekends when I sometimes served well over 5000 page/file loads a day. In addition to this, my server was already being used as mirror for Keyboards on Fire. Beginning in August, this mirror used tens of gigabytes upload bandwidth per month: hooray for decent ISPs that don’t harass demanding subscribers and provide static IPs.

I noticed the increased demand for sensible storage among family members, too, as their interest in digital photography increased. It’s one thing to store “restealable” music, movie and internet meme collections not properly backed up. Sure, the loss of my music collection would cause a lot of pathetic self-pity, but hey, there are, among other things, last.fm for listening, public libraries and cd-rom drives for re-ripping. But an incident related to nonexistent backups of family photos would be truly embarrassing for anyone who claims to be into technology. Trying to serve full resolution photos with my home connection would be insane, anyway, so at this point there was no other option than finding some suitable hosting plan.

Among all the affordable web hosting out there, a few options really make you raise your eyebrows. A few hundred megabytes of web space and a free domain registration for a few EUR or USD per month is nothing new, but these days at least 1&1, GoDaddy, HostGator, MediaTemple and DreamHost give away terabytes of monthly bandwidth and hundreds of gigabytes of storage for the starting price of… a decent lunch, or in the case of MediaTemple, a very good lunch. MediaTemple’s Grid Server offering actually seems to be a little bit more than regular web hosting. They have some kind of content distribution network, a “cheaper Akamai” (?), so this could be even more bang for the buck. But they cost more, and web hosting is not what I should be throwing money at at all. My hope is to serve potentially popular stuff as statically as possible in the future (more about this in some future post), so performance/scalability might not be a problem just yet.

I ruled out GoDaddy pretty quickly, I’ve heard some depressing things about their control panel (not surprising, their main site is filled with atrocities like javascript menus), and the signup forms look as messy and cheesy as their marketing. And due to my raging loonix zeal, seeing my own expired domains ending up being parked on Windows servers is right out ;). Seriously though, as even the angry gentleman who claims to represent GoDaddy writes in this blog post’s comments, GoDaddy focuses on providing very affordable domain registrations, not nerd friendly, technically brilliant shared hosting. Approximately the same things seem to be true about the other providers I mentioned.

The final choice wasn’t actually that hard. DreamHost’s pricing, weekly growth of bandwidth and disk quota I couldn’t possibly fill up legally, and almost pyramid scheme like system allowing users to get referral bonuses ($97 minus given discounts and extra features like lifetime free domains, free unique ips, extra storage/bandwidth) from promo codes, is in itself pretty tempting, and the fact that they have loads of happy customers hanging out and handing out help on the company’s documentation Wiki and on #dreamhost on FreeNode is also nice, as is their actual list of features. That list contains pretty much everything one would need for web development (I think, I’m not a developer myself), including very lax limitations, if any, on stuff like hosted domains, subdomains, databases and shell users. The control panel is a custom thing, which seems pretty good at this point, no obvious idiocy like crippled dns control.

Even if it is has nothing to do with my previous discussion about finding cheap webhosting, I will, like your average blogger, insert some highly irrelevant opinions about branding and company image here. I must say that I admire any marketing team who seek to create a style of communication dominated by something like DreamHost’s completely outrageous blog, where they most notably posted about their power failure of epic proportions last fall. It’s constantly being updated with confessions about their shameless overselling and other stuff which make them look cool (Photoshop contests anyone?). The company’s front page is dominated by random images of their staff doing pretty silly stuff, and elsewhere on the site they advertise themselves as the kind of people who’d harass employees coming to work in suits. This is, naturally, more pleasant, at least it beats e.g. overly ridiculous tabloid-style sexism. It’s not hard to guess which one of these approaches that works when dealing with the general population who just want to.. “do their mothers“. On the other hand, might people who haven’t grown up on the Internet feel alienated by a pretty informal company blog that by inserting pictures of exploding and crashed aircrafts aims to lighten up serious technical issues and downtime, which is causing customers to loose business? I will refrain from answering as I have no clue whatsoever about marketing.

So far, I’ve been happy with my choice of hosting provider. The last thing I did just today was to create some mailboxes, mainly for redirecting to Gmail accounts. I just can’t imagine not being able to use Gmail’s search, and Google supports custom reply-to-addresses, so it’ll be just fine if DreamHosts e-mail hosting is reliable. If that isn’t the case, I might just switch to Google’s complete email hosting. I am obviously one of those people who doesn’t use email enough to need Thunderbird, and now that proper “offline support” for Google’s suite of web based tools is on its way, getting rid of any need for local mail clients seems like the smartest thing to do.

It remains to be seen just how happy I’ll be with DreamHost, but to be honest it could feel a little bizarre to complain very loudly about issues less relevant than things like disappearing databases, in a product priced like this. Five managed dedicated servers with three sysadmins working 24/7 to keep “my” pictures of funny cats and contentless WordPress posts flowing smoothly over the interweb and guarantee 1000 day uptimes for my beloved irc client would be fun… but I don’t expect that. I believe I have some trivia knowledge about the most basic, obvious security concerns that any kind of shared hosting situation brings with it, and I’ll try to keep my expectations (and file permissions) on a realistic level.

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