The one thing that most of us WordPress self installers have in common is that we’re using a web host of some kind whether it be shared hosting, VPS, or a dedicated server. Web hosting is one of those industries that has a very low entry barrier thanks to reselling. This enables fly by night shops to open up as a web hosting company only to disappear a few months later. This doesn’t happen in all cases as reselling provides a great opportunity to learn a thing or two but I’ve since lost my trust in resellers. Choosing a web host is probably the most important decision you make as everything rests on their shoulders for your web site to stay online. Without further adieu, here is a list of questions and things to consider when choosing a web host. Note: This mini guide is mainly geared towards shared hosting.
Trend spotting: WordPress Centric Hosting – Over the past two years, a new form of web hosting has cropped up that tries to bridge the gap between all the safety nets WordPress.com offers with the freedom to do whatever you want via the self installed version of WordPress. Examples of these types of companies include Page.ly and WPEngine. I’ve noticed more and more of these types of companies starting to open shop while at the same time, long time players in the web hosting industry are starting to create WordPress centric packages. One thing you need to keep in mind is that a WordPress centric host does not make them better than all of the other options.
How Up To Date Are Their Servers? – During the early part of 2010, there were a number of instances where large, well-known web hosting companies became victims to exploits and attacks thanks to outdated software in use on their servers. Before becoming a customer, ask the web host in question what versions they are using for php, MySQL, phpMyAdmin, etc. A good web host will generally always be using the most recent stable version of software.
Reputation Check – Type into Google the name of the web host you’re interested in followed by the word sucks. You should quickly noticed that every web host sucks. What you should really be paying attention to is not only the severity and amount of problems that users report, but how the company responded to those problems. Every web host is going to encounter its share of problems but it’s how they handle those problems that makes a big difference. An excellent resource for all things web hosting that has been in existence for years is WebHostingTalk.com. If you’re interested in hardware, software, all things related to what it takes to make a web hosting company run, that forum will make your mind explode with detailed discussions.
Human Recommendation – If you start a thread on the WordPress Support forum asking for advice on which web hosting company to go with, chances are you’ll get 3-5 different company names as recommendations. If one of these companies interest you, be sure to ask around to get personal experiences from folks, especially as they relate to customer service and up time. However, similar to the Google Research conundrum, it could turn out that all of your friends have had success with a particular company and you turn out to be the bad apple with a bad experience.
Check And Double Check Policies – It’s imperative that you read the Terms Of Service and Acceptable Use Policies for the host you’re interested in using. While many hosting companies advertise unlimited everything, you’ll find out by looking in the small print within their AUP that if your site goes overboard with CPU, space, or bandwidth resources, you’ll be cut off. Unlimited is a great marketing technique but there are always limitations so take the term unlimited with a grain of salt.
DoS And DDoS Attacks – I found this out the hard way early in 2010 when my own web site, WPTavern.com was hit with a denial of service attack. When I contacted support for AnHosting, they basically told me that I must figured out a way to stop the attacks because after the site gets suspended three times in a row for using too many resources, they would remove my site along with my account. Needless to say, this infuriated me as I’ve been a loyal customer for over two years and they failed to work with me to find a cause along with a resolution. DoS attacks are a common thing these days so please make sure that whatever web host you’re interested in using has a firewall or some type of preventive measures in place to help out instead of abandoning the customer as my previous host did.
Support – Probably one of the most important aspects of choosing a web host is their support system. Look for companies that offer a variety of support solutions such as forums, ticket system, email, and a phone number. I’d choose a web host that has 24/7 support versus week days only. Extra points to those web hosting companies that don’t outsource their support to countries/companies that don’t speak English very well.
Redundancy – If the companies website and services go down, do they have a fail-over system in place? Is your data mirrored to that fail-over system? Does it have the same security precautions as their first system? This is not overly important as their are a number of options available specifically for WordPress users to create redundancy of their data.
Communication – This is one area in which I see web hosting companies screwing up the most. You’d figure that by now, they would understand that communication with their customers is paramount but most of them still don’t get it. Ask the web host you’re interested in whether or not you’ll be contacted if maintenance is required on the box your site resides on. Also ask where all such service interruptions and other announcements will be published. Nothing like publishing a post in WordPress only to hit the button and see a site not found error.
Payment Options – Make sure you understand any money back guarantee that is offered. I recommend staying away from purchasing web hosting for more than one year at a time unless the money back guarantee specifically states that refunds can be pro-rated. Preferably at 1, 3, or 6 month periods at the most. This way, you’re not locked into a specific host. You’ll regret it when you’re halfway through your contract and the web host experiences severe technical difficulties that last a week or more but you can’t move to a new web host because you’ll lose money from not fulfilling the other half of the contract. It may seem like you’ll save tons of money by purchasing 3-5 years worth of hosting, but realize this is a very high risk you’d be taking.
SSH And SFTP – SSH stands for Secure Shell. It’s a Unix-based command interface and protocol for securely getting access to a remote computer. It is widely used by network administrators to control Web and other kinds of servers remotely. SSH is actually a suite of three utilities – slogin, ssh, and scp – that are secure versions of the earlier UNIX utilities, rlogin, rsh, and rcp. SSH commands are encrypted and secure in several ways. Both ends of the client/server connection are authenticated using a digital certificate, and passwords are protected by being encrypted.
SFTP on the other hand is the secure version of the FTP protocol. SFTP, or secure FTP, is a program that uses SSH to transfer files. Unlike standard FTP, it encrypts both commands and data, preventing passwords and sensitive information from being transmitted in the clear over the network. It is functionally similar to FTP, but because it uses a different protocol, you can’t use a standard FTP client to talk to an SFTP server, nor can you connect to an FTP server with a client that supports only SFTP.
Sandboxing – Probably the most important question you can ask to a shared hosting company is how they secure/sandbox the user account space. By default *nix systems don’t protect user home directories. Also, how do they secure/sandbox the php processes. By default, php has to run with apache privileges and any code that runs on the server, regardless of user, runs in the same security context. Sandboxing the PHP code to a specific user account is important on a shared host so that user1 can’t write some code that hijacks user2?s site.
While this isn’t the all encompassing guide to choosing a great web host to put your WordPress powered web site on, it does provide food for thought. This is just a short list of things to consider but in reality, having a great experience with a webhosting company is almost like winning the lottery because it’s so rare. In my experience with WPTavern.com, I experienced 2 great years with my previous host and then it turned into a nightmare in just a matter of two weeks forcing me to move. In fact, I moved twice in one week due to the problems I was having with migrating my site. Ultimately, it comes down to gathering as much information as possible in order to make an informed decision as to whether a particular webhost is right for you. Price should not be the only determining factor for hosting your site, especially if you plan on taking things seriously.