Photo courtesy of gypsyschnecke and Pixabay.

I’ve worked with a number of different web hosting companies over the years, but I was with DreamHost the longest. A few years ago, DreamHost started doing some wonky things (I won’t get into the details here, as I’ve discussed them enough elsewhere) and I decided to move. I found WebFaction almost by accident and immediately fell in love. I soon transferred all my hosting there and used DreamHost solely for domain registration.

Alas, nothing good ever lasts forever. At the end of 2018, I discovered that GoDaddy has bought my beloved WebFaction.

A lot of people might think that this is a good thing, because GoDaddy is a big, giant hosting company, and we would have even more access to all sorts of things at an even better price. The fact is, however, that GoDaddy is a terrible company with a horrible reputation (for a lot of reasons that you can see linked to here). As of this writing, we still don’t know whether GoDaddy will leave WebFaction as it is, or whether they will force its users to migrate to the main GoDaddy platform. I’m no clairvoyant, but it’s looking like the latter. Even if GoDaddy maintained the WebFaction service as is, I would still abandon WebFaction. I simply refuse to give my money to GoDaddy. 

And the truth is, even if I were willing to give GoDaddy my money, they very likely (based on their past behavior) would begin to degrade the WebFaction service, as an incentive to move people to the GoDaddy platform. The customer support ticket responses would look something like this:

We’re sorry you’re experiencing problems with the WebFaction service. As you know, that service was deprecated several years ago, but if you’d like, I’ll be happy to migrate you to our premium GoDaddy platform, where you’ll get half the performance at twice the price, and cPanel to boot, which makes us look just like every other web host out there.

Or words to that effect…

And to be fair, it’s not just GoDaddy that does. EIG has a really nasty habit of doing this—in fact, they’re worse than GoDaddy in this regard.

If this were a perfect universe, there would a special circle of Hell just for anyone involved in mergers and acquisitions. I have a sharp stick for these people, and I’m sure they know exactly where to shove it.

So I have spent every spare moment of the last few months investigating potential new hosts and spending a fair amount of money trying them out. I have lost money, time, and sleep over this, and while I love doing web development, I really want to focus on creating some content for a while. (Also I need to not get billed by five or six different web hosts every month.)

These are the things I was looking for in a new web host:

  1. Someone who is not owned by GoDaddy or EIG, for the reasons I mentioned above and plenty more I didn’t mention.
  2. A custom panel as opposed to cPanel. I detest cPanel, partly because it’s a resource hog, but mostly because it makes all web hosts look and feel pretty much the same. I mean, if there are six different hamburger stands in my neighborhood, but they all buy their frozen french fries, frozen hamburger patties, hamburger buns, and ketchup from the same vendor, the only thing that differentiates them is how quickly they can prepare my order and how accurately they can make change. In other words, not much.
  3. Storage limits that actually mean something. Plenty of web hosts offer generous storage limits—20 or 30 GB in the case of a VPS, or even unlimited in the case of shared hosting. This is a great sales tactic, but when you read the fine print, you run into inode limits. An inode is a disk record for either a file or a directory. If you are using a CMS such as WordPress, it’s fairly easy to use up a lot of inodes. (Every single php file, along with the folder that contains them, counts as an inode.) For example, if you upload an image to WordPress and it automatically creates several different sizes of that image (this is actually a good thing), along with a directory to store them in, each of those thumbnails along with the directory that contains them counts as an inode. If you only hosted a single WordPress blog, you would likely never run out of space or inodes, but then their promise of “unlimited domains” is rather meaningless. Most hosts limit inodes to 250,000, which is not a lot. At 20GB of storage, that amounts to an average of 80 kb per inode. Most popular CMSs such as WordPress or WikiMedia consist of a metric crapton of files, most of which are 10kb or less in size. And since these same hosts also prohibit the storage of large media or backup files, you’ll end up paying for storage space on a server that you can never use.
  4. Courtesy of WikiPedia

    Shell access to my account, from day one. The first computer I ever spent serious time with was a TRS-80 Model 3 (made and sold by Radio Shack—I was around ten years old) and you did everything on the command line, simply because graphical user interfaces weren’t a thing yet. I like a good GUI (I drove an Apple Macintosh for a lotta buncha years, even though I’m an Ubuntu guy now), but I can accomplish more via the command line, and more quickly, too. Surprisingly, a lot of web hosts won’t provide SSH access, or will make you jump through a hoop or two to get it. “Security reasons” is the reason they usually cite for not giving you shell access. That’s a red flag to me right there. Either they have other security issues in general, or they don’t like dealing with support requests from customers who get a little too enthusiastic about recursive line commands. At any rate, I don’t just want shell access, I need it. I use a lot of scripts on the backend for maintenance (mostly backups) and when I’m in heavy development mode, I use them a lot. Also, if I’m troubleshooting a website, it’s so much easier to edit a file via the command line, rather than download the file via FTP, make my changes in a text editor, save the file, and then upload the file via FTP, overwriting the original file. Neither solution is necessarily better; it’s just that one is far more efficient.

  5. Unlimited domains and subdomains. For various reasons, I prefer subdomains over subdirectories. (Those reasons aren’t really relevant to this discussion, but I’ll talk about them later. Suffice it to say that WebFaction made this distinction unimportant, and also muddied the waters around it.) The dilemma for me is that I can buy a basic package because my websites are low traffic (if you’re reading this, you probably are alone) but these same packages often limit you to five or perhaps ten domains. I can buy a bigger package, but then I’m buying storage space and bandwidth I’ll never use. i want a host who realizes that the difference between two domains and twenty domains is 18 vhost files and 18 directories (and that really is all that is is). I get that basic packages often only offer a single domain, because there is a difference between hosting one domain and hosting two domains. But there is much less of a difference between hosting two domains and hosting two hundred domains. I appreciate marketing that is based on reality and not just false perceptions.
  6. Reasonable costs. I was spending ten dollars a month with WebFaction and never had any performance issues. I knew going into this that I would probably have to spend more than that, but I didn’t want to spend much more than that. My total collection of websites takes up about 9 GB of storage and are very low-traffic, so I don’t need a ton of memory or bandwidth. Again, I don’t want to pay for storage or bandwidth that I will never need. Most of the hosts I looked at that had reasonable costs also used cPanel and/or limited inodes. I managed to find a few that had considerably higher inode limits that would actually work for me, but they used cPanel and were also ridiculously expensive.

That’s not a huge list of expectations, but it is, apparently, an unreasonable one.

 For the record, I get why so many hosting companies use cPanel. After all, why reinvent the wheel if the wheel you have already works well? The problem here is that cPanel is big and bloaty, and it is aesthetically just plain ugly. (And yes, I realize that the latter evaluation is purely subjective, but c’mon…there are skins available, apparently, but I’ve yet to find the web host that lets you change them. If I have to spend hours a day looking at the damn thing, it needs to be easy on the eyes.) Additionally, the use of cPanel makes all hosts look pretty much identical. Yes, they try to distinguish themselves with regard to pricing or service or uptime, but when you’re logged into four different hosts at the same time who all use cPanel (and I’ve spent many an evening doing exactly that the last couple of months), you quickly realize that the difference between all these hosts is pretty much nil. If they really wanted to distinguish themselves in some way, they would concentrate on developing their own back-end alternative to cPanel.

When I examined carefully what I was expecting in a web host and compared it to what I’d experienced over the past few months, I realized, somewhat reluctantly, that the host I’d left all that time ago was probably the best host for me moving forward. So…back to DreamHost, which ticks all the boxes I listed above.

This was not an easy decision to make. I did send a lengthy support request in first with lots of questions and also a few complaints about specific issues I’ve had in the past. (You can see most of it in this forum post.) I was satisfied with the response I got, so I decided to take the plunge. I went right past shared hosting and set up a VPS from the get-go. I won’t use DreamObjects again, as I’ve since started using an Amazon S3 instance for hosting media files and storing backups. I’ve put in a few support requests, and so far the support I’ve received has been fairly quick—most issues have been resolved in less than 24 hours, and for the one that took longer (it had to be escalated to a developer team), I was kept in the loop. I’m sure I’ll have a few more support requests to put in (server migrations can and should be fairly straightforward; this one was an absolute train wreck; also SSL certificates add a layer of complexity to everything).

I’m not entirely happy that I had to come back to DreamHost (is there a clone of WebFaction out there somewhere?), but I’m not entirely happy that I felt compelled to leave either. They made some decisions based on business considerations, which is their right; it’s also my right to not be happy about those decisions. They also made some decisions based on what seemed at the time to be pure capriciousness, which again, is their right; and again, as a customer, it’s my right to not be very happy about those things. And it’s also my right to take my business elsewhere.

This is, in fact, no different from the relationships I have with local businesses. I have been shopping at some places for years simply because I enjoy the ambiance, even though their prices are higher than their competitors. There are certain things I will only buy at the dollar store because even the dollar store is worn out and messy and poorly lit and it always makes me depressed, I’m simply not willing to pay more than a dollar for these items. The relationships we have with businesses can ebb and flow, just like the relationships we have with other people. All relationships go through rough patches; in the end you either work hard at making it better, or you move on and get on with your life.

The truth is (and I should talk about this more later), I found WebFaction at precisely the wrong time. Had I not found it, I might have stayed and tried to work things out, or I would have been more convinced than ever that moving on was the right thing to do.

So when it comes to DreamHost, yes, I’ve moved on once, but I’ve also moved back. And it feels comfortable. It’s a bit like moving back into your own home after spending too much time away for business. The living room furniture is the same, but the television is new (and larger). Someone painted the upstairs bathroom, but the tap still drips and the resulting rust stain in the basin is even larger now. The second step on the staircase still creaks, but everybody’s a grown-up now, and nobody wakes up when you step on it at three in the morning.

So yeah, I’m back. And it’s a comfortable here. I hope to stay here for a long, long while.