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Avoiding web hosting nightmares

Posted Friday, September 19, 2003

You've finished your site and chosen the perfect (or at least the best available) domain name. You think your headaches are over. All that's left is to choose a Web hosting service, upload your site to their server, and you're set -- right? Not necessarily. I am hearing more and more stories of Web hosting nightmares, including situations where:

* the host server is down for extended periods of time
* email is inaccessible for days or even weeks
* FTP access is unavailable
* domain name registration fees aren't paid

These problems can cause irreparable damage to an online enterprise. So, what can you do? First, let's look at how to improve your chances of choosing a reliable hosting service, then we'll consider what to do if, in spite of your best efforts, you get caught in a Web hosting nightmare.

How to Choose a Hosting Service:

Identify Your Basic Requirements

* Do you need a secure server, CGI-bin access, FrontPage extensions, streaming audio or video, database access, or other specific capabilities?
* How much server space and data transfer will you need?
* What are your email needs -- autoresponders, redirects, number of boxes?
* How much are you willing to pay?

Make a List of Expected & Desired Services

* Is technical and customer support available by telephone?
* During what hours is technical support available?
* Are upgrades in service plans available in case your requirements change?
* How long before your account is active?
* Are domain name registration services available?
* Are site usage statistics provided?
* Is access to raw log files available?
* Is online documentation available?
* Is online account access provided?
* Is there a money back guarantee?
* Is server uptime guaranteed?
* Are flexible contract lengths available? (You may want to try the service for a few months before agreeing to a long-term contract.)
* What type of server will your site be hosted on? (UNIX, Microsoft)
* What is the server connection speed and its distance to a major Internet backbone?

Then comes what is perhaps the most important step....

Look Before You Leap

How can you tell if a hosting company is likely to be reliable and responsive? Do as much research as possible.

* Look for companies that meet your requirements and check ratings of their services in Hosting Directories. (Check to see how the ratings were determined on each site.)
* Ask about specific companies or the experiences of others in the Hosting Experiences folder in the Web Design Forum.
* Search the Google newsgroups for references to companies you are considering.

Take Nothing for Granted

After your site is located on a server, it never hurts to keep an eye on it. You may become aware of a problem before it can cause damage to your business. Site monitoring services, such as NetMechanic Server Check or Alerta, monitor your Web server 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at given intervals, alerting you if your server goes down.

What to Do About Hosting Problems

While it would be unreasonable to expect no problems whatsoever (computers and the Internet being what they are), hosting problems should be few, far between, and of very short duration. Unfortunately, once your site is located on a server, quick and easy remedies are often difficult to come by. However, as in dealing with any incompetence or negligence, I strongly urge you to make as much noise as possible.

* Contact the hosting service and ask them to immediately remedy the situation. Ask for a time frame in which you can expect the remedy to be effective. Take notes of who you talk to and when. If the solution or time frame is not reasonable or improvement in the situation simply doesn't happen, escalate the complaint to a supervisor or other manager.

* Move your site if problems are persistent. It's cheaper in the long run. If you are unable to change servers because you cannot receive a move confirmation email, contact your InterNIC registrar. There are solutions available for problem situations. If you are unsure of your registrar, your new hosting service will most likely be willing to help.

* Share your experiences. The Internet is a surprisingly small place for a worldwide entity. The willingness of each of us to share our experiences gives us unprecedented power as consumers. If we share our hosting experiences, we can help each other avoid nightmare situations. The Web Design Forum is a perfect place to do just that -- there's a topic category for discussions of hosting experiences. If you have a horror story of your own, I hope you'll take a moment to post it there. Not only will we all benefit -- but it feels good to vent, too! Likewise, let us know if you've had long-standing good experiences with a hosting company. When reviewing comments (either good or bad) be sure to note the timeliness of any posts -- sometimes bad services can fix their problems and become good services, or good companies can develop problems.


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