Who needs to share?

Although today’s post does not directly address technologies most of you will directly manage in your day to day lives, it is a subject matter that addresses some of the unforeseen risks of doing business with a provider that promises “unlimited” services, a subject I briefly touched on in my second post.

Over the past few months in my spare time, I’ve taken to help support my synagogue in matters most technical. Some of these jobs have involved data management, hardware procurement, support… but the biggest job has been taking on and overhauling their website, which had been static page content up until the beginning of this year, and replaced with a decent, but barebones WordPress install by our worship leader that hasn’t had near the content as the original site since going live. For bigger site development like this, I prefer Joomla over WordPress for a variety of reasons, but that’s neither particularly here nor there.

Upon taking on the volunteer job back in April, I had discovered that we were being hosted by Bluehost. I know a few folks who swear by Bluehost and their $8 a month unlimited plan, but that honestly doesn’t happen very often in my experience. The leadership down at the shul didn’t have any particular attachment to Bluehost either as their focus is more spiritual than technical, it was just the best deal they found back in 2008 and they stuck with it. Being the sort who likes to work with what’s given him, I decided to stick around with them and see what happened. After all, even the WordPress site was behaving relatively well from what I’d witnessed, and usually one doesn’t start looking gift horses that appear to be working too closely in the mouth, even if you notice a few hitches off and on with load times over spurts of labor spanning a few months.

That was April. It’s October now, and we’ve been preparing to finally go live with the new Joomla site, which meant finishing loading the database up with content and letting our congregation at it. If I may be indulged: Oy, what a nightmare!

The job quickly turned sour as I was suddenly finding myself having to massage and optimize less than 25MB worth of database tables to make the beta site even remotely usable, we began to also have URL rewrite problems on the subdomain due to a broken Apache mod_rewrite configuration on their end (a trouble ticket that’s gone several days completely unanswered, by the way), load times skyrocketed, stuff broke as SQL timeouts occurred. Suddenly, we have a database bigger than a couple floppy disks and hosting becomes a serious problem. Support wasn’t much help, either, as they copped briefly to the fact that we’re on a heavily used server and ongoing regular daily backups take a lot of server time these days because of it, but then threw it back at me claiming that our databases were the actual problem. Between you and me, the databases are fine… but it’s an easy and technically accurate claim to make when you’re running a server where one out of every 78 SQL connections is timing out, one out of every six served are slow, and the server is handling about 12 queries and 4.5MB of data a second. Not that some of those numbers have to be viewed as horriffic, but at this point, technically everyone’s database is now the problem. As I don’t typically frequent the websites myself unless I’m working on them, I hadn’t noticed how bad things had gotten over the months; but diving through the logs confirmed what I feared most. We had been getting on average about five slow SQL queries an hour on a bog stock WordPress install with no fancy plugins, a 4MB database and about 173 visitors per day for at least the past month.

Just for the sake of curiosity and further research, I pulled up the shared hosting IP address that Bluehost had us on and made a little visit over to DomainTools Reverse IP Lookup page. I found we’re sharing the server with 2,037 other TLDs that have all been promised unlimited storage, database usage, email, and bandwidth for $8 a month. Our company includes such classic domains as 020911.c-m, 02564.c-m, and a long abandoned blog apparently kept by a grunt member of the Foo Flux Flan (all deliberately broken and misspelled, I don’t want this blog to ping in search engines on any of those real terms). One wonders though, can a flansman’s palor turn whiter than a sheet if they find out they’re sharing rackspace with Jews? *cough* Forgive me, I’m digressing…

There it was, though: 2000+ customers all fighting for usage on a single poorly managed server instance and it was time to go. This is usually what happens when you do business with companies that promise you unlimited service: either they put clauses into their terms of service that restrict your usage of unlimited to the point of terminating your service, or they do the equally terrible thing of making good on their claims by providing you truly unlimited usage of a nearly unusable service. Doesn’t really matter which outcome it is, they’re still way oversubscribing their usable assets and you the end user pay for it. This is why I always recommend asking the following three questions when dealing with any service provider before signing up:

  1. If the service is free or the price nearly too good to be true, what’s that deal actually going to cost? (or “What price free?” – a topic on my to-write list)
  2. Are promises of “Unlimited” ever actually unlimited?
  3. Will trying to use this service the way I need to place me in violation of their terms of service, even if they’re not currently enforcing those terms?

Why ask those questions? Because you always get what you pay for, and you never actually get what’s promised by advertisers offering open-ended services.

Ironically, we’re currently testing out DreamHost’s Shared hosting package, which is advertised as being an “unlimited” shared hosting package itself. We’ve also signed up for their generous 501(c)(3) free hosting offer, too. Yup, I recommended using a free and unlimited package to my own congregation… I am such a hypocrite. In my defense, however, DreamHost’s prices are a bit higher than most other providers in the “unlimited” offering space (especially considering they don’t pay the cPanel tax despite having a very friendly back-end management system), and I’ve gone into the arrangement purely on a trial basis with healthy skepticism and an eye on switching them to A Small Orange* (a company that sells limited shared hosting packages with hard limits where it counts) if they don’t work out. I’m pleased to report, however, that DreamHost has been performing admirably so far. I shall keep you posted if anything happens otherwise, however.

Hopefully this cautionary tale can help you better understand the risks on services like MagicJack and StraightTalk before signing up, and why I don’t normally recommend them. There will always be someone out there that swears by the service and even you might think it a good deal when you first start using it, but in the long run? Using oversold services sold at cut-rate prices rarely ever has a happy ending.


*“Why ASO instead of Gandi like you’re using, Daley?” Two reasons: 1) I need to keep their site management relatively noob friendly if anyone else needs to take over my current duties, and 2) I personally appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not sure how our rabbi, elders and shamashim would react to Gandi’s slogan and I don’t want to become “the guy who stuck our website on a host that says ‘no bull (s-word)’ on their homepage.”

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