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Hosting Advice from Experience

For three weeks, HellOnEarth underwent the odyssey of finding another host and soon finding that this host didn't really perform as expected. This page shares the lessons learned from this ordeal.

>> Go here for an account of HellOnearth's Adventures in Hosting
>> Go here for an account of how HellOnEarth was terminated by HostPro

Read The Policies

Always be aware that by signing up with a Web Hosting Service, you automatically agree to their terms and conditions, which are usually stated in policies of some kind. Never assume these rules will not apply to you -- they will.

Better safe than sorry: Even if you are not hosting any "objectionable" content at this point, that might change. Many Web Hosting Providers even object to hyperlinks to a site with "objectionable" content -- if you inadvertently linked to "Cathy's Pussy Palace", an web-savvy cat lover's shrine, and the domain is suddenly taken over by a Porn Provider, your head may suddenly rest on the chopping block without you even knowing about it.

If you provide your users with a guest book, other people can add "objectionable" content to your site, again without your knowledge or consent. You can react to this in three unreasonable ways:

  1. Don't link to any external web sites (thus defeating the purpose of the web).
  2. Manually check all the external links on your site twice a week (good luck!).
  3. Don't offer a guest book to your visitors (thus stifling what little interactivity the web provides).

To avoid this "Rube Goldberg"-ish situation, you should read (not just look at) all policies applicable to your site.

Look for their acceptable usage policy first, before you become ensnared by the glossy pages with all the features they offer. Then consider whether you are able and willing to abide by their rules:

  • As a rule, look for their acceptable usage policy first, before you become ensnared by their four pages with all the features they offer. Consider whether you are able and willing to abide by their rules.
  • Many hosts have usage rules prohibiting material of an adult, illegal, obscene or pornographic nature. If the Hosting Service states that it will be the ultimate authority on what's adult, illegal, obscene or pornographic, that means that you are completely at the mercy of their judgment (i.e. they own you).
  • If the hosting service's policy states that they will immediately suspend and/or close down accounts which fail to comply with their acceptable usage policy, without any kind of a refund, they really own you. Walk away slowly and look out for knifes.
  • Check out the privacy policy. If you find a clause that allows the host to share your e-mail address and user data with third parties: run, don't walk away.

Update: Even if all the above seem to be acceptable, your host can still terminate you with 30 days notice. This can happen even if you do not violate any terms of service; they can simply decide they don't want you anymore. It's what happened to this site... (in Mid-December 2000).

Remain Sceptical

Don't believe everything you see and read on the site of your prospective new Web Host.

  • When you read a rousing testimonial on their site, written by a Big Customer of theirs, keep in mind that this doesn't ensure that they will treat you equally well (unless you are going to be a Big Customer yourself).
  • When an advertised feature is underlined with a hyperlink, this link may point to an explanation of the feature or to a list of limitations, i.e. conditions which limit the feature or which mean additional costs.

Examine the logos and icons which grace their site before becoming impressed.

  • What do they really mean? Who gives them out?
  • Are the logos linked to web pages with additional information or are they just eye-catchers? Don't trust the latter.
  • Some awards are given by Web Hosting Associations, i.e. trade groups formed by a Consortium of Web Hosting Providers. Basically, they are issuing a medal to themselves.
  • If a logo indicates a magazine recommendation, check whether the full article is on-line and read it. Don't trust that their quotes accurately represent the review as a whole.

Don't just check out their reference customers. They wouldn't be reference customers if the sites and their servers weren't top-notch. (If, of course, a reference customer's site loads slowly or fails to load at all, draw your own conclusions.)

Another good source of information is Usenet, especially the newsgroups for Webmasters-- if you don't have direct access to a news server, visit the archives at deja.com.

Look For Additional Choices

Search the WhoIs Database for the domain names of web sites which have impressed you with their speed and uptime, paying special attention to their domain name servers (DNS). Usually, these entries reveal where the sites are being hosted, which you may take as a recommendation.

Numerous sites on the web offer Web Hosting recommendations. Links to some of these sites can be found below. Use these comparisons and recommendations as a springboard for further research, but don't trust their judgement blindly.

Even if a Web Host is listed as the Top Host on three or more of these sites, this host might still:

  • have intolerable usage agreements hidden somewhere on the site;
  • offer weak privacy guarantees, if any at all;
  • lack efficient technical support, meaning auto-responders instead of actual help;
  • offer sub-standard uptime and customer service;
  • have bought the Top Spot through a sponsoring deal with the web host list.

Finally, ask around. If you know some web masters, web designers or web authors, ask them for recommendations. Be sure to ask also if they get a commission for customer referrals -- if they do, be careful how you handle their advice.

More Advice & Conclusion

Are you looking for a specific hosting solution, i.e. you require NT Servers or insist on an Unix host? Take a look at what your prospective Web Host uses on its own site. If it uses Active Server Pages (ASP) and Cold Fusion (CFM), they are mainly an NT shop.

For almost two years, Hell On Earth resided on a fairly slow server from a small ISP which was occasionally unavailable and sometimes barely limping along, but generally a good sport. Then, the domain moved to a new Host which had been recommended highly in several Web Hosting comparisons, lauded in PC Magazine and commented favorably upon by Usenet posters.

It took them one week to move the domain name. Then, for one week, the site worked. In the third week, the site disappeared for five days from the web due to a DNS failure. (The full story can be found here). During this time, all e-mail to the domain bounced back to the senders.

After three days without any e-mail and the server yanked off the web (the IP address worked, but www.hellonearth.com remained an "unknown host name"), the slow server at the small ISP suddenly looked darn good again. I still stuck with HostPro -- until they threw me off their servers in December 2000 -- for describing my problems with them one year earlier.