Web Hosting – Do You Get What You Pay For?

Green Web Hosting! This site hosted by DreamHost.
I’ve recently made a switch from a free web hosting company to paid hosting with Dreamhost, following several days of complete frustration. For some reason (and very likely not the fault of the free web hosting company) I was unable to reach my blog for over a week; either by connecting from my computer at home or even using my phone. Strangely, though, I seemed able to reach it from work just fine. What could be wrong? The story I have to tell is one worth reading by anyone torn between free web hosting and a modest outlay for a paid host. Along the way, perhaps I can explain a few things about how the Internet works, too.

I’d had occasional issues over time with the free web hosting. You get what you pay for, right? Mainly, this means being your own technical support when things go wrong. Over time, I had got used to occasional outages; they usually didn’t last too long, even if they were a bit annoying. The free web hosting provider boasted about their “99% uptime” – but when you think about it, 99% isn’t actually very good. That works out on average as about a quarter of an hour every day. To put it in perspective, if you were reading a book that had 99% of the words spelt correctly, you would dismiss it pretty quickly.

When my site first became unavailable from my home machine, I thought very little of it. It wasn’t like it was the first time; it would return soon enough, surely. It was a busy part of the year, and I really didn’t have the time to dig any deeper. Several days passed, and the situation stayed the same. My wife’s site, at the same web hosting company, was also unavailable; that was more important. This is my hobby, but it’s her business. Finally I decided it was time to look into it. It turned out that our ISP was no longer returning DNS records or routing IP packets to…. what? Sorry. Maybe I should step back a bit.

How Web Hosting (and the Internet) Works

cloud-computing-diagramMost people have a very simple (but workable) mental model of how the Internet works, and what happens when you sign up for web hosting. They imagine that, in some dark room at the web hosting company, there’s a computer with a Post-It note on it saying that it’s the place where your web site is. When someone visits, there’s a connection made with bits of cable, or radio waves, or black magic, that ties the visitor’s computer to your site. Of course, it isn’t that simple – but the mental image is there. Movies, TV, and even supposedly technical books just reinforce this image. You know the ones; they use the word “cyber” to make it sound like they understand this stuff. I have no problem with this mental picture, as long as it’s understood it really is a “lie to children” – it’s not technically true, but it makes the concept easier to understand. However, it’s worth stepping up a level if you have a web site yourself; even more so if you are using free web hosting and are your own tech support.

The Internet is the most advanced piece of engineering created by humans to date; so I’m not planning to elaborate too much on even the tiny fraction of it I understand. But a better picture of the domain name system (DNS) and basic routing is well worth it. Each of these is big enough for an article on its own; so we’d better just have a quick tour. DNS is the part of the Internet which converts that nice human-readable name like ‘loseyourmarbles.co’ into a numeric address that uniquely says where your site is. If this sounds a lot like finding a number in a phone directory, you’ve got the idea. The system is complex, containing entire directories that list other directories, all the way down to your web hosting company, that knows which server is running the site you’re after. Now, it wouldn’t be possible to connect every computer on the Internet to every other, and this is where routing comes in. Any data sent gets chopped up into smaller “packets”, and will pass through very many systems on the way to its destination. Each system doesn’t have to know the route to the goal, but just has to get each packet one step closer. The packets may even take different routes, and arrive in a different order, but as long as the receiving end knows how to put them together, it all works out just fine.

How Free Web Hosting Let Me Down

free_lunchAnyway, at this point you have the idea. DNS lets me find a computer with the data I want, and routing lets me send my requests to that machine, and receive the Web page I asked for. However, there’s something subtle going on here. When most people think of a “web server”, they still have the idea that it’s one per site. That’s rarely true. Do a search in Google, and you could be accessing several machines, in warehouses that may contain millions of servers. On the other hand, small sites such as this blog will share a machine with possibly hundreds of other sites. It makes no sense for them to have a machine to themselves. Shared hosting is the norm for small sites. Dedicated hosting costs more, and you most likely don’t need it.

Perhaps now you’re seeing how this could be a problem with free web hosting. Your site is sharing resources with many others; and, since the web hosting is free, it’s likely your neighbors aren’t exactly too worried about sharing nicely. Free web hosting has a habit of attracting many temporary sites, with dubious aims. Once one of the locals gets a bad reputation – there goes the neighborhood. The systems you hop your data through may simply refuse to pass on the data, or even tell you where the server is. Your Internet service provider may block sites that it believes are taking part in questionable activity. Your provider may talk about “net neutrality”, but may not necessarily follow it. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or not with the Internet being “censored” like this; at the end of the day, it’s their business, and you don’t have much chance getting them to change that.

Finding the Problem

5809433730_5bb83fe518_oOne evening, I eventually settled down to take a look at the problem. This is where collecting as much information as possible, and understanding what is going on, is critically important. Most technical support calls are for relatively simple problems; simple answers like “have you tried restarting your computer?” may sound silly, but they’re usually enough. If you have a deeper problem, and would like some better support, then a bit of background knowledge helps. With tools such as isitdownrightnow.com, or “Fetch as Google“, I could prove my web site was working fine. Everything was OK if I connected from a different wi-fi hotspot. My Internet provider was surely the problem. Once the support technician realized I understood what was going on, instead of giving me a quick five-minute answer, he stayed on the line for over an hour, doing everything he could to diagnose the problem. And indeed, it seemed there was an issue with DNS and routing that was effectively blocking my site. Once I knew that, a quick Internet search found there were others in exactly the same situation, using the same web hosting company. I could wait to see if the problem would go away… or I could move my site to a nicer neighborhood.

Paid Web Hosting is Worth It

So I made the move to paid web hosting, and have not regretted it for a single moment. It’s comforting to know that technical support is there if I need it; but service quality is already so much better than the free web hosting. In the time I have been here, everything has run smoothly; a world of difference from encountering an issue week in, week out.  It’s not all that surprising; after all, my web hosting company is paying its employees to deliver this service, and my neighbors on the same machines are also willing to pay for their web hosting as well.

How much does it cost? In relative terms, very little indeed. In fact, most of us are already paying a decent amount per month to our Internet service provider, and for the machines we surf on. It costs a fair amount to even be a consumer of the Internet. In contrast, high quality paid web hosting is available for a tiny fraction of that. You can get a month’s web hosting for the price of a coffee. For what amounts to pennies a day, you can add content to the Internet, and not just sit there consuming it. It’s an inexpensive hobby compared to some; and, if you’re running a business web site, reliable paid web hosting is essential. If you’re still using free web hosting, I strongly recommend you reconsider.

Internet Cloud Diagram from Computing on Cloud 9 by Andy Meng.
Scarcity Principle Image from The No Free Lunch Principle by Kazza.
Debugging picture by slworking2 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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