Choosing a VPS Web Hosting Provider

You would think that many of your worries are reduced when you move from shared web hosting to a virtual private server (VPS) but as my experiences testify, there is are some pretty frightening stories out there.

I have dealt with 3 VPS providers in the past year and this post goes through some of my experiences and offers some advice on what to consider when you are weighing up your options.

Not all VPS providers are created equal!

Preamble

I am not covering the various choices you have of virtualisation technologies (XEN, Virtuozzo, OpenVZ, and so on) or of what package suits what application – there is plenty of help out there already. This posts addresses the company behind the VPS and issues that arise from this.

I am also not covering managed hosting packages – plenty of us are able to manage our own servers – but plenty here is relevant to managed services too.

Links to hosting companies are at the bottom of the page.

Pre-Sales

I originally chose a small UK based company called iFusehosting (no link for reasons that will become apparent!). The pre-sales was prompt, knowledgeable and accurate. They answered their phones and showed a genuine interest in my needs.

At pre-sales this is only to be expected – if a company can’t get that part right then run!

Call their sales line and chat to them.

  • Do they answer?
  • Who are you talking to (is the call outsourced)?
  • Can they provide references?
  • Can you get to ask a technical question?
  • Do they put you through to a support technician?

Call their support line.

These are the guys ‘n’ gals you’ll be dealing with once your payment goes through.
Call a few times at different times of the day and different days of the week.

  • Search through webhostingtalk.com and other similar forums and see what the company’s reputation is like.
  • Make sure you check the terms and conditions and acceptable usage policies.

Your VPS sits on physical hardware and (no matter what you are told of what the aspiration is) shit happens. The real issue is how it is handled (pardon the pun). Many providers are simply selling space on dedicated servers, so they are subject to service level agreements and outages from their upstream provider – often a large data centre.

Ask them about the hardware

  • Where is the physical hardware?
  • What service level agreement (SLA) do they have with their provider?
  • Do they have backup plans (not that you’ll ever trust them 100% anyway)?
  • Do they give you a SLA for access to your hypervisor (you’ll need it when you crash your server!) and for network connectivity?

One of the incidents over the past year involved a company called Dediserve. They offer solutions based on their custom “cloud infrastructure” with “no single point of failure”. A router in the data centre proved them wrong and a VPS I was managing went down.

This kind of thing will happen – nothing is 100%. The real difference was how Dediserve handled things. We were kept informed at all times and received a comprehensive report after the situation was resolved. We were also offered a dedicated server for the duration of the outage to keep us up and running. Top marks to Aidan!

Don’t pay them!

Pay through a third party – PayPal, Google Checkout, bank transfer, whatever. If things do go wrong at least you don’t need to worry about recurring billing!

Post-Sales

Will they be taken over/sold/go bust/get run over by a 46a bus?

Once the company is transferred all your guarantees and SLA’s are > /dev/null. There will be changes (inevitable in a take over) to your terms of service – for better or for worst.

iFusehosting were a small company run by a young group of friends. They had a great attitude and were spoken of highly in web hosting forums. About one month after I purchased, they were taken over by a rather shadowy company called Yomura Holdings. A bit of googling later and I discovered that Yomura had bought out several hosting companies in the recent past.

At first things were acceptable. Yomura appeared to be building up the company and consolidating their servers in a different data centre. (The previous one had had some difficulties.)

My concerns started after they delayed and messed up the transition of my VPS. Once that was complete things deteriorated rapidly – I was given inaccurate information about the location of my new VPS, the hypervisor address was not as advised. The fact that support tickets were not being answered promptly (and when they were the responses were often useless) compounded the situation.

Check out the company’s background

  • How long have they been in business?
  • How many employees are there?
  • Where is the company incorporated (the local companies office will have more information for you)?
  • Do they use stock photography on their web site? (This sounds silly but think that the reality might be too ugly to show in public or even non-existent!)

A small, unincorporated company should signal alarm bells. What surprised me (when looking through www.webhostingtalk.com) was how small and unprofessional some of these hosting companies actually are. Some are companies with established names (at least on the Internet) and a history. Have a look at this forum and see what is being offered for sale.

A look through various web hosting forums is invaluable.

Be prepared!

  • Back up. I backup several VPS’s to each other.
  • Use rsync and do nightly snapshots to a remote server
  • Don’t forget your databases and server configuration files.

WHEN (or IF) it goes pear shaped, make sure you can switch to an alternative server quickly. Using your backups you can restore folders and databases quickly enough, but DNS takes time to propagate through the Internet.

Host your DNS elsewhere (not on your VPS)

It is quicker to update a DNS record than it is to change your authorative nameservers. The procedure for changing nameservers varies depending on what top level domain (TLD) your domain is under. Also your DNS is responsible for more than your web site. If your VPS goes down you still want your email records working.

Hosting your DNS on another machine (ideally at another data centre or provider) allows you to change your records quickly if needed.

Choose a TTL (time to live) for your DNS records that balances the requirements of performance and flexibility.Twenty four hours used to be common but I have seen as low as 1 hour for TTL. The TTL time reflects how quickly your DNS change will propagate through the Internet.

Don’t set this too low as it will cause unnecessary load on your nameservers.

Seven days ago my iFusehosting/Yomura VPS (and the hypervisor) disappeared and haven’t been seen since. Because I had everything backed up everything was up and running again within hours.

Support tickets remained unanswered until last Thursday (at which point I received four auto replies to my support tickets from Tuesday). At the time of writing my server is still nowhere to be found.

I was lucky – my Yomura experience had me feeling uneasy so I already had a replacement ready (from Memset).

From bad and ugly to good

I bought the server from Memset about 6 weeks now and have had 2 post sales calls asking me “if everything was OK with my VPS”. What a change!

Links to VPS Providers

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Posted in Servers, Tech Blog, VPS, Web

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