After jillmurray started a storm in the Forums with her question “Anyone LOVE their hosting company?” it got me thinking what features are important to me in a host. Every discussion about a favorite is clouded by personal preferences. If all you care about is price, then you’re going to disagree with someone who insists that their server runs on Solaris and has 24 hour phone support.
So, here’s a little discussion on what I expect from a host.
One thing to get clear first: like many people I’m pretty frugal. I think this trait comes out especially in the world of hosting because as soon as you start your search for a new host you get a bunch of advertising for FREE HOSTING NO ADS. So, this is really a basic set of requirements I expect from a budget host. Sure, you can go out and spend a ton of money and get something better, but I’m talking about hosts that are at or under $10/month for a basic hosting package.
For me I expect to be using Linux with Apache and PHP and either MySQL or PostgreSQL databases aka the LAMP stack. There are some blogging platforms that either work with any web server (e.g. CityDesk) or those that work on Windows (e.g. DotNetNuke). However, it’s important to me that I use the best in breed blogging applications. For blogging and community sites – most applications are based on LAMP. I also expect to have multiple domains in one account. I run several blogs and while some are reasonably popular others just don’t get as much traffic. Some are new and, sadly, some are zomblogs. It doesn’t make sense to me to have 5 accounts with a provider when the sites only use 2 accounts worth of resources.
Finally – and I’m going into a new paragraph here because it’s important to me – I want shell access. While this is probably not a huge deal for many people, it’s a deal breaker for me. Using a shell has made me far more efficient than when I just used FTP and Cpanel. I can install, upgrade, and tweak, a dozen blogs in the time that it used to take me to maintain just one of them. Combine that with subdomains and all of a sudden I’ve got my test and production environments on the same server and can easily move code into the live site.
I expect to be able to have lots of email accounts. I find that over time whether it’s for friends who are also blogging on the site or it’s for different generic email addresses it’s nice not to have a limit. I’d like the option of forwarders and the ability to access my email with IMAP. Spam and Virus filtering is a nice bonus but is not necessary. And some mailing lists would be a nice option.
Limits? Who likes them. Well, in the end we all need limits of some sort to keep from the server being a “tragedy of the commons”. Ideally it would be nice to have unlimited everything, but that’s not practical for the host. I do want certain things to either be unlimited or have very high limits: email addresses, domains and subdomains per account, disk space, bandwidth. This is all relative between hosts, but I want something powerful for my money.
Customer Service with a Smile
I don’t expect much from customer service and maybe that’s because my previous experiences with budget hosts. Submitting a ticket may give me temporary happiness that someone is dealing with a problem on my site, but it also makes me worry that the support folks are going to fire back a rude response. Ideally I shouldn’t have to submit a ticket: the services should just work. When I do submit a ticket, I expect a response within 24 hours and ideally within a few hours. I don’t expect a live support phone number, but a group chatroom is a nice middle-ground. For a budget host, that’s about all that’s reasonable.
Well, for a budget host I expect at least some of the services to go down once a month. Whether it’s HTTP or MySQL or IMAP – something is going to break for at least a few hours every now and then. When that happens, all that I really expect is knowing that my host is working on it, resolution within a few hours, and maybe something saying “we screwed up, sorry about that, now your site is fixed” when it’s all said and done.
I think that the growing GMail inbox was the first place that I saw this, but it’s obviously the right way to go. This past February, an old hosting account that I had on autopay I was still paying 1997 prices for 1997 levels of service: upwards of $40/month for 25MB of space. Ouch! I asked them to immediately upgrade my site to their current offering. Not possible they said – I would have to cancel the account and create a new one. I want a host that will constantly keep my plan at the same price and level of service as the best match of what they are currently offering unless it becomes a worse deal for me.
What I Don’t Want
I don’t want a site where I’m a sub-member. Maybe it’s because I fantasize about being a blog overlord or maybe it’s because I want full control over my site, but for whatever reason, services like Blogger or Typepad just don’t interest me.
I don’t want a site to constantly try to upsell me. I’ve got my hosting package – if I want more, I’ll buy it from you! But don’t call or email asking me to buy extra features.
Finally, I don’t want to be resold. If I go through a reseller I feel pretty confident that I’m not getting the best deal and that the people working on my site are only hosting a couple hundred sites. I really prefer to be dealing directly with the people who actually own and run the servers and I want them to have tens of thousands of active domains – just not all on my server!
So – what else? Is there anything else that you like? Anything else that you don’t want?
Once we nail down the list of features that are important we can really get into which host people love (and why).