April 6, 2014

Changing Hosts and Server Locations

I’ve been in the midst of thinking through a web host / server move for vanderwal.net for a while. I started running a personal site in 1995 and was running it under vanderwal.net since 1997. During this time it has gone through six of 7 different hosts. The blog has been on three different hosts and on the same host since January 2006.

I’ve been wanting better email hosting, I want SSH access back, more current updates to: OS; scripting for PHP, Ruby, and Python; MySQL; and other smaller elements. A lot has changed in the last two to three years in web and server hosting.

The current shift is the 4th generation that started with simple web page hosting with limited scripting options, but often had some SSH and command line access to run cron jobs. The second was usually had a few scripting options and database to run light CMS or other dynamic pages, but the hosting didn’t give you access to anything below the web directory (problematic when trying to set your credentials for login out of the web directory, running more than one version of a site (dev, production, etc.), and essential includes that for security are best left out of the web directory). The second generation we often lost SSH and command line as those coming in lacked skills to work at the command line and could cripple a server with ease with a minor accident. The third has been more robust hosting with proper web directory set up and access to sub directories, having multiple scripting resources, having SSH and command line back (usually after proven competence), having control of setting up your own databases at will, setting up your own subdomains at will, and more. The third generation was often still hosting many sites on one server and a run away script or site getting hammered with traffic impacted the whole server. These hosts also often didn’t have the RAM to run current generations of tools (such as Drupal which can be a resource hog if not using command line tools like drush that thankfully made Drupal easier to configure in tight constraints from 2006 forward).

Today’s Options

Today we have a fourth generation of web host that replicates upgraded services like your own private server or virtual private server, but at lighter web hosting prices. I’ve been watching Digital Ocean for a few months and a couple months back I figured for $5 per month it was worth giving it a shot for some experiments and quick modeling of ideas. Digital Ocean starts with 512 MB or RAM, 20GB of SSD space (yes, your read that right, SSD hard drive), and 1TB of transfer. The setup is essentially a virtual private server, which makes experimentation easier and safer (if you mess up you only kill your own work not the work of others - to fix it wipe and rebuild quickly if it is that bad). Digital Ocean also lets you setup your server as you wish in about a minute of creation time with OS, scripting, and database options there for your choosing.

In recently Marco Arment has written up the lay of the land for hosting options from his perspective, which is a great overview. I’ve also been following Phil Gyford’s change of web hosting and like Phil I am dealing with a few domains and projects. I began looking at WebFaction and am liking what is there too. WebFaction adds in email into the equation and 100GB of storage on RAID 10 storage. Like Digital Ocean it has full shell scripting and a wide array of tools to select from to add to your server. This likely would be a good replacement for my core web existence here at vanderwal.net and its related services. WebFaction provides some good management interfaces and smoothing some of the rough edges.

There are two big considerations in all of this: 1) Email; 2) Server location.

Email

Email is a huge pain point for me. It should be relatively bullet proof (as it was years ago). To get bullet proof email the options boil down to going to a dedicated mail service like exchange or something like FastMail, a hosted Exchange server, or Google Apps. Having to pester the mail host to kick a server isn’t really acceptable and that has been a big reason I am considering moving my hosting. Also sitting on servers that get their IP address in blocks of blacklisted email servers (or potentially blacklisted) makes things really painful as well. I have ruled out Exchange as an option due to cost, many open scripts I rely on don’t play well with Exchange, and the price related to having someone maintain it.

Google Apps is an option, but my needs for all the other pieces that Google Apps offers aren’t requirements. I am looking at about 10 email addresses with one massive account in that set along with 2 or 3 other domains with one or two email accounts that are left open to catch the stray emails that drift in to those (often highly important). The cost of Google for this adds up quickly, even with using of aliases. I think having one of my light traffic domains on Google Apps would be good, the price of that and access to Google Apps to have access to for experimentation (Google Apps always arise in business conversations as a reference).

FastMail pricing is yearly and I know a lot of people who have been using it for years and rave about it. Having my one heavy traffic email there, as well as tucking the smaller accounts with lower traffic hosted there would be a great setup. Keeping email separate from hosting give uptime as well. FastMail is also testing calendar hosting with CalDAV, which is really interesting as well (I ran a CalDAV server for a while and it was really helpful and rather easy to manage, but like all things calendar it comes with goofy headaches, often related timezone and that bloody day light savings time, that I prefer others to deal with).

Last option is bundled email with web hosting. This has long been my experience. This is mostly a good solution, but rarely great. Dealing with many domains and multitudes of accounts email bundled with web hosting is a decent option. Mail hosting is rarely a deep strength of a web hosting company and often it is these providers that you have to pester to kick the mail server to get your mail flowing again (not only my experience, but darned near everybody I know has this problem and it should never work this way). I am wondering with the benefits of relatively inexpensive mail hosting bundled into web hosting is worth the pain.

I am likely to split my mail hosting across different solutions (the multiple web hosts and email hosts would still be less than my relatively low all in one web hosting I currently have).

Server Location

I have had web hosting in the US, UK, and now Australia and at a high level, I really don’t care where the the servers are located as the internet is mostly fast and self healing, so location and performance is a negligible distance for me (working with live shell scripting to a point that is nearly at the opposite side of the globe is rather mind blowing in how instantaneous this internet is).

My considerations related to where in the globe the servers are hosted comes down to local law (or lack of laws that are enforced). Sites sitting on European hosts require cookie notifications. The pull down / take down laws in countries are rather different. As a person with USA citizenship paperwork and hosting elsewhere, the laws that apply and how get goofy. The revelations of USA spying on its own people and servers has me not so keen to host in the US again, not that I ever have had anything that has come close to running afoul of laws or could ever be misconstrued as something that should draw attention. I have no idea what the laws are in Australia, which has been a bit of a concern for a while, but the host also has had servers in the US as well.

My options seem to be US, Singapore, UK, Netherlands, and Nordic based hosting. Nearly all the hosting options for web, applications, and mail provide options for location (the non-US options have grown like wildfire in the post Edward Snowden era). Location isn’t a deciding point, but it is something I will think through. I chose Australia as the host had great highly recommended hosting that has lived up to that for that generation of hosting options. It didn’t matter where the server was hosted eight years ago as the laws and implications were rather flat. Today the laws and implications are far less flat, so it will require some thinking through.



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