I recently got into what could only affectionately be called a “pissing match” with another 15-year veteran of web development. The basic gist of the argument was this:
I believe it’s perfectly OK for you to use discount (HostGator, BlueHost, etc) hosting if you’re a newbie*
(*you know, as long as you back up your site regularly, have an escape plan, and understand that it won’t be the fastest, most stable hosting on earth)
The other web person didn’t believe in discount hosting under any circumstances, because “they’d been on the wrong host and had cost them big time”. Rather than continuing to duke it out on Facebook, I wrote this post.
I posit to you, any expert worth their salt will have processes in place to avoid getting caught with their pants down if a tool fails ’em, no matter what tools they’re using. If an expert gets hosed using sub-par tools and upgrades their tools, but not their processes, they’re probably not a very good “expert”. It’s like smashing your thumb with an entry-level hammer and then buying another, fancier hammer instead of learning where to put your fingers more carefully (or using a clothespin to hold the nail). That’s not to say that you should ignore when a project calls for a lathe rather than a chisel – just that, until you can afford a lathe, you can probably make a chisel work.
My friend Paul Hummer said, “If you pay $4/mo in hosting, you get to complain about it exactly as much as anything else that costs $4, once per month, and then you’re done.” I agree with him.
At the same time, a good web person knows not every business or solopreneur can afford $20/mo hosting. A great web person knows how to compensate for entry-level hosting with processes.
The value of a good web person goes far beyond cost savings – they’ll not only help protect you in advance from some of the more dire consequences of your choices (good or bad), they’ll also help you out when things do go wrong.
If I had to spring for managed $20/mo hosting when I first started, I’d never have gotten out of my first year. $240 in website hosting costs for a year would have been covered by one client back then, but also – it would have paid for about a month and a half of groceries, two months worth of gas, a third of my rent, or… well, you get the idea.
Evaluating your choices over time and setting up “tripwires” for yourself so you know that there’s a decision to be made makes using entry-level hosting a manageable stepping stone instead of a stumbling block.
So how do you choose hosting?
Almost every entry-level hosting provider is owned by the same parent company. Except for GoDaddy and a few others, your experience will be mostly the same. Trust me when I say that GoDaddy’s hosting is a particular brand of awful.
I’ve had really decent luck with HostGator and BlueHost. Both provide direct cpanel access and FTP accounts, MyPHPAdmin (SQL Database) management, and a few other niceties.
When it comes to discount hosting providers, you just want something with as little overhead as possible. You want cpanel, you want FTP access (without having to make multiple accounts), you want easy email address and forwarder setup, you want easy access to install WordPress or whatever CMS you opt for – and you want something that doesn’t require you to fill in the FTP user and password each time you try to upgrade WordPress.
If your host has custom junkware cpanel stuff, it is probably more trouble than its worth.
Fine. So, so I want to go the entry-level hosting route. What do I need to know?
First, you want to track all your important logins:
- Domain Name Login Credentials
- Control Panel Login Credentials
- FTP username and password (and what to use as the FTP address if it’s not your domain name)
- Database username and password (and where to go to log in, if it’s separate from cpanel)
Second, you want to get your site backed up:
- If you are using WordPress, use UpdraftPlus to backup to DropBox (keep one or two sets of backups).
- If you aren’t using WordPress, there are a number of different plugins you might want to look into. The key is that it backs up your wp-content folder (contains all the unique bits of your WordPress install) and your SQL database REMOTELY so you can recover your site even if your hosting provider goes down.
Third, you’ll want to have a little redundancy in your setup:
I highly recommend using Google Apps for email (or a third-party email hosting provider) for your primary email. That way, if your website server goes down, your email server won’t go down with it. Paying $5/mo or $50/yr for Google Apps is also an easier pill to swallow than $240/year for hosting.
Fourth, you want to make sure you know the process of recovering your site from raw files:
Pay a geek (like me) to create instructions for you in the event you ever have to use ’em. You’ll need to swap settings in your domain, you’ll probably be starting from scratch with your email (if you were using your web host as your email server, too), you’ll need to re-install WordPress, and you’ll need to get your site up and running again.
Also, and this is really important, know where you’re going to switch to IN ADVANCE.
If you can’t do this yourself, set aside $150 for emergency help with your site – it’ll come in handy to get someone’s help to recover your site.
Fifth, know how to analyze whether your hosting provider is just temporarily down or down for a while:
Set a deadline (3 hours? 6 hours?). Know the support Twitter accounts of your hosting provider and ask for updates. Know the support number. Ask what’s wrong and for an ETA on when it should come back up. If you don’t like the answers you’re getting, you know what to do.
Finally, assess whether all this work is worth paying the $20/mo for managed hosting.
This is all a LOT of work, right? It’s probably not how you’d opt to spend a week of your productive time. Managed hosting takes care of all of this for you – but then again, so does a good web person. Both have costs and values which vary wildly from the price tag. Choose accordingly! Low price doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze as much value as possible out of it. High price doesn’t mean you aren’t overpaying or getting too much value that you can’t put to good use – a mom-and-pop 100-visitor-per-week website probably doesn’t need managed hosting yet.
Entry-level hosting is not a fatal choice if you go in with the right expectations and mitigate the risks with good processes.