Switching Web Hosting Providers

The last several months have been hell as far as getting and sending email, and for a while dynamic pages on this site (like this blog) were returning server errors to our visitors. I finally changed my host for email and I’m about to switch HTTP services as well. Here’s the story.

[EDIT 12/20/2007: It occurs to me that I never did a follow-up to this article. Suffice to say we’ve been on Dreamhost servers for HTTP and MySQL databases for about a year now. They have occasional issues like anyone else but in general they’re outstanding. This blog runs extremely fast, as do our forums, issue tracking system, and other software. For e-mail, Everyone.net has been rock-stable. We don’t hear from them, they don’t hear from us. That’s the way I like it.]

Our first company web host was Your-Site.com. As I recall it was run by a young techie and his wife. They had people working for them. It seemed like a great host at first. The young owner took sick and died quickly and unexpectedly. The quality of the service dropped and after a suitable time to allow them to get their act together I had to start looking for another host.

We transferred everything to a company called PowWeb. They had a public forum (very important to me) with a lot of frequently posting community members who freely offered their wisdom. Service was what one would hope and expect, but over time it erroded. Services would go down frequently and sometimes for long periods of time. Things would change with no notice – suddenly broken and requiring site admins to take action to get working again. After a lot of complaints they got much better about announcing changes. But the announced changes they made still had a way of breaking functionality. Even a basic website like this one seemed to be high-maintenance because I was constantly responding to one thing or another being down.

On the other side, email is very important to most of us. It’s not a guaranteed medium so there is a possibility that things will simply get lost. (I have an answer to this that I really should publish here sometime soon.) PowWeb had a habit of making changes that would cause outbound mail to get bounced by recipient servers, and inbound mail to get bounced back to senders. There were and are many instances of this. The situation became unbearable.

PowWeb was acquired by Endurance International earlier in 2006. From the very beginning it almost seemed like this was a textbook case of a company being aquired for the customer assets. If you click that "home page" link it will take you to their Acquisitions page – what more of a clue does someone need that this company is in it just for the money? Hey, I can’t blame them, I just don’t want to be fuel for their fire.

After the buyout, the PowWeb data center was being moved across the country to new hardware, new servers, new OS, new software – it really was a rehosting effort, the only illusion that we have been doing business with the same company was maintained with the powweb.com domain name. We were assured that migration would be as smooth as possible but for many sites that meant days of fighting with bugs, incompatibilities, code changes, things breaking after migration – and many people simply couldn’t run on the new servers and had to leave. I waited until the last minute to migrate, hoping to learn from the agony that my fellow PW customers had gone through, hoping to see solutions posted to the issues I was bound to face. (Picture people running to the back of The Titanic as it started to sink with the bow pointing down.) That tactic paid off to an extent but the migration was still pretty rough with esotheric code and configuration changes required to get this blog and other software running, and we completely lost the ability to do some small things. (Everyone winds up in the cold water at some point.)

Ultimately the change over itself to Endurance was not a catastrophe, but it wasn’t a good migration in the long run. This host still has the PowWeb name but the service is awful. There are many email server and web server issues, and again, this provider makes a small site very high-maintenance. For example, one issue which everyone faces is spam, and the volume of spam that we and other PW customers are processing has increased over the last several months. For a company as large as Endurance who owns other hosting companies like PowWeb, you’d think the volume of spam would decrease when migrating to their servers. This company is obviously focused on cash and not service, and my experience is that when you’re not focused on the latter you need to focus a lot harder on the former, and that’s a spiral that only ends in tragedy. All told the situation was unbearable so I decided to start looking for a new service provider. I’m not alone, many of the long-time die-hard customers and forum mods have also rehosted elsewhere.

I do want to say that PowWeb had good employees who participated in the forums. Endurance also has good people who truly seem to care about the service. Unfortunately that’s not quite good enough. Management or "someone" isn’t heading off issues before they appear, and post-event problem resolution takes way too long. I blame the management people who aren’t preventing or owning the problems, and I blame their QA people for not testing a great many things before they go production. As a former QA manager for a software company I understand that "Quality Assurance" doesn’t assure or ensure anything, but the QA process certainly should intercept a lot of issues before they get into the field, and the QA for PW and Endurance has always done an awful job of that.

In the past I’ve done a lot of searching for web hosts. I’ve learned that some low cost sites give you what you pay for, but PowWeb originally wasn’t one of those with it’s affordable $7.77 per month plan. It sort of turned into one of those though. I’ve also learned that if you pay a lot you don’t necessarily get better services. It really all depends on what a company does with its money, including hiring competent people who prevent problems and quickly resolve the ones that occur.