Seeing the big picture… Why most hosting providers fail.

ServersIt’s no surprise that there are hundreds, if not thousands of new hosting providers that are started every day as there is simply little to no barrier to entry.  Anybody who has $5 to $15 can sign up for a reseller account and be their very own hosting company within minutes and this has some very unfortunate side-effects for the industry as a whole.

Many think that selling hosting is as simple as taking the disk and transfer allocations, splitting them up into their individual plans, and then sitting back and waiting for the money to come rolling in.  This usually ends up in the person who tried to start said company realizing, after a few months, that they aren’t going to get rich quick like they expected and that hosting really is a lot of work.  What happens to somebody who starts a business to get rich instead of because it’s what they are passionate about do you ask?  The answer is simple: the business folds.

Most new hosting companies are operated by individuals who have little to no business sense or experience and many times they fail to plan or to even see the big picture.  These individuals purchase a $5 to $15 per month plan and then expect to compete with the larger providers purely by cost but they fail to realize that in this industry that the less somebody pays, the more they expect from you and your service.  The individual who jumps from provider to provider looking for the best possible price tends to be the person who causes the most trouble and due to the naivety of these new hosting companies they become overwhelmed by cheap customers.

New hosting companies that manage to stick it out more than a year or two have a small chance of actually becoming profitable if they plan accordingly and make all of the right decisions.  Too many times have I seen a provider that appeared to know what they were doing but in reality they had no technical know-how and relied heavily upon friends and others in the industry to essentially run their business for them.  These hosting companies often will go from design to design mimicking as closely as possible, without directly copying, the providers that they themselves see as successful.  What these hosting companies don’t realize is that it’s not just the site design that makes the provider successful but the whole package.

I’ve said numerous times in the past that any company can try to copy what we do but more often than not they will fail to see the big picture and simply copying one aspect of how we operate our business will not give them the reputation and growth that we’ve worked hard to obtain over the years.  You can copy a design, you can copy an advertisement, you can post in the same forums, but none of this in and of itself will lead to success.

At the end of the day if you have a solid business plan, the time, the money, the desire, and the passion for running your own hosting company then you very well may succeed.  If you’re simply starting a provider in an attempt to make some quick and easy money, I suggest you stop now before you damage our industry any more than it already has been by the countless before you.

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R1Soft – CDP 2.0, CDP 3.0, cPanel Integration, Delays, and Poor Support (Updated)

R1SoftLet me start by saying that R1Soft, when it works, is an excellent solution that has on a few occasions saved us from partial or complete data loss in the event of an unexpected hardware failure or other unexpected data issue.  That is about the extent of what I have to say good about R1Soft which is extremely unfortunate.

My experiences with R1Soft formally began on March 12th, 2009 when we first obtained our trial R1Soft license.  I was in contact with David Wells from R1Soft after having faced an issue with some lost MySQL databases due to a mistake made by a technician when performing some maintenance on a server.  When discussing the issue with David he made it clear that with R1Soft backing up the server not only could we have restored those destroyed databases but we would also be protected against total data loss such as a catastrophic server failure.

We used the original trial license until March 30th, 2009 when we purchased the R1Soft Linux CDP starter pack for $500 including 5 Linux CDP agents, 1 MySQL addon, and 1 Archiving addon.  This was an excellent deal and up until this point R1Soft had lived up to every promise and we were very happy with the software.

David at R1Soft mentioned CDP 3.0 was coming out soon and mentioned, if memory serves, within the next quarter.  Promises were made such as faster backups, faster restorations, more reliable operation, cPanel integration, a more streamlined interface, and a lot of other features that surely anybody else running R1Soft 2.0 would love to see.  I’ll cut straight to the point – it was nearly 2 years before the 3.0 version of the R1Soft CDP was released in beta and even then it didn’t include all of the features that were promised and was even missing many of the key features of 2.0.

R1Soft 3.0 beta was released as a “standard edition” which only allowed backing up to the same server on either a secondary disk or network mounted storage.  There was no centralized backup server and when I looked into it no bare metal restoration – both features that had been available in 2.0 for over 2 years.  When the “enterprise edition” was finally released in beta, years after it was promised, it did not include bare metal restore or cPanel integration.  You are reading this correct – basic 2.0 features were totally absent from the 3.0 version of the R1Soft CDP even with it having been released nearly 2 years after it was originally promised.

With version 2.0 over the years and 3.0 the short period that we’ve been using it – we’ve always had strange issues that we’ve reported that have been entirely ignored.  We’ve had issues where 2.0 would cause kernel panics, would simply fail to back up, or would fail to restore that support either stated they could not replicate, that they claim don’t exist, or that they claim will be fixed in “the next release” or “sometime soon” that still happen.  We’ve had tickets where we gave them full and complete access to a server to diagnose and reproduce the issue, view and download logs, or anything else they needed to do and gotten back canned responses telling us how to do things on WINDOWS R1Soft backup servers or agents when we run exclusively Linux and made it clear in the ticket.

One issue that we, as well as several providers I network with, have faced with CDP 2.0 is when an end user starts a restoration and does not select the “overwrite files” option and “overwrite failed” errors cause the agent to fail on the restoration.  Now it wouldn’t be quite as bad if the agent just failed out and quit – but it actually fails “on” and consumes a full CPU core indefinitely until an administrator manually kills the restoration process.  There are several valid reasons to do a restoration without overwriting such as if you wish to replace any deleted files inside of a directory tree from a backup without overwriting any files not deleted – this error makes this impossible.  One provider I speak with opened a ticket about this on or around April 9th, 2009 and this issue has yet to be resolved.

Right now R1Soft 3.0 is extremely unstable on OpenVZ kernels, and has been since it has been released.  I know of approximately 5 kernel issues that R1Soft 3.0 has on various CentOS, CloudLinux, and OpenVZ kernels that cause the backups to either simply fail, or worse, for the entire server to hang or lock up.  Not only are R1Soft agent licensed extremely expensive, but they will take your production servers OFFLINE which is unacceptable.  I’ve gotten word that these issues have been resolved and will need to go through 10 business days of QA testing meaning, at minimum, 2 weeks before these serious kernel incompatibilities are resolved assuming all of their testing goes well.

With what R1Soft charges for new licenses, charges for maintenance, and the number of licenses they’ve sold, I simply do not understand how they cannot have a solid development team that can resolve issues in a timely fashion as well as building the new revisions of the software that have been promised.  Why does it take R1Soft 2 years to go from 2.0 to 3.0 when it was promised and why is the software so ridiculously unreliable, buggy, and incomplete when it finally makes it to the market?

Update 02/17/2011

R1Soft 3.0 has some “kernel” issues that occasionally causes a server under specific circumstances to lock up entirely forcing a reboot.  Their development team apparently has recently just finished finding and fixing all of these issues however the next step is to push those updates through “Quality Assurance” and then they’ll be available to those using the software.  While I am all for “QA”, I’m more for us not having to reboot servers twice a week due to the backup process causing the server to hang.

Last night the R1Soft process killed one of our servers at around 5 AM EST and unfortunately it occurred during a period of time that did not have staff coverage. The staff member who was supposed to be watching the process that decided to go awol which meant that bringing the server back online quickly fell onto my shoulders.  Coincidentally, knowing that we had staff coverage, I set my phone on silent for the first time in over two years and it just so happens that this is the night that R1Soft causes the server to hang up, while a staff member is not working like they should, and my phone is on silent.  I’m not trying to make excuses as the staff member should have been doing their job and that is definitely a failure on our part.

It is however a bad situation that should never have happened – if the R1Soft CDP Agent and Kernel Module would work like they’re supposed to the server never would have crashed and been offline.  While yes, the staff member certainly should have been doing their job which would have involved rebooting the server within minutes and avoiding extended downtime, ultimately the failure is due to the R1Soft Software.  I hope for R1Soft’s sake that no competitor brings a quality product to market although I dream about it every night.

It’s bad that a backup system that we rely on to protect our customers’ data also causes us to have to make sure we have somebody awake and watching in case the backup system takes one of our servers offline.  Hopefully R1Soft will have the fixes for these issues pushed out within the next two weeks although I won’t be holding my breath.

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Comcast – EXTREME Lack of Customer Service

Comcast Bill showing $50 "Unbilled Activity"

Let me first begin by saying that I’ve had Comcast Internet and Television service for well over 4 years and for the most part I’ve been satisfied with the service itself.  I’ve rarely had to use customer service as generally I’ve not had issues with any of my services and when I did for the most part Comcast fixed those issues in a timely fashion.  I’m not entirely sure what has changed over the last year or so, but things have gone seriously down hill when it comes to customer service.  I’m going to do my absolute best to detail exactly what happened, how it happened, and why it happened so that you can hopefully make an informed decision as to whether you wish to go with Comcast, to continue your existing Comcast service, or to shift to/choose another provider.

On September 27th, 2010 my wife and I moved in to our new apartment a couple of minutes away from our old apartment and we had previously called to schedule Comcast to come out and perform a transfer of service to get our DVR Box and our Cable box online in our new apartment.  Comcast came out and performed the transfer of service free of charge and since we were moving into a larger apartment we opted to go ahead and get another digital box for one of our bedrooms while we were at it.  The technician that came out explained to me that this was his first installation where he was on his own and apologized ahead of time if it took longer than we expected.  I told the technician that I understood and that it wasn’t an issue. Continue reading

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From Leasing to Owning and Colocation

Dual 5620 ServerFor over three years my company has always leased its hardware from the facility in which our services were located.  For a long time we felt that it was better to pay a little more over time for the hardware in exchange for not having to make the large initial investment, not having to recycle old hardware when we upgrade, and not having to cover the parts and labor for replacing failed hardware.

Not too long ago we decided to re-evaluate our decision to lease our hardware and ultimately decided to obtain our own fully owned hardware and to colocate that hardware in a data center facility.  The initial cost is one of the largest barriers to get over when going from leased to owned and as an example we’ve spent nearly $25,000 in new equipment alone.  We’ve bought server chassis, processors, motherboards, RAM, raid controllers, hard disks, power distribution units, and switches in order to bring our systems online at a new facility.

There is a lot that goes into deciding which facility you’re going to go with and it requires a lot more research and time than choosing a leased provider.  When you’re leasing you can simply order new servers somewhere else, cancel the old servers at the old provider, and shift your data over.  When you colocate your own hardware it’s not so easy to make a change like this.  You either have to double your hardware to do live transfers or you have to take the sites and services offline to physically transport the hardware from one facility to another.  All of this makes it very important for you to make sure that you’ve chosen a facility you can trust and one that you plan on doing business with for a very long time.

We researched facilities for several months and looked at the pricing, power, cooling, transit providers, locations, redundancy, and remote hands and ultimately settled upon HandyNetworks LLC based out of Denver, Colorado.  This is going to be a learning experience for myself as well as those who work for me so I’m going to do my best to post my experiences, expectations, and any surprises we face along the way.  The hardware will be online on or around November 15th, 2010 and we’ll begin transitioning customers over to the new facility starting on November 18th.

If there is anything particular you’d like to know about the process of choosing the facility, the transfer process, or anything else having to do with obtaining hardware and colocating – feel free to comment this post or any future posts on the subject and I’ll do my best to address your questions.

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You should always conduct yourself professionally!

Sometimes you just have to vent, and this is one such situation.  We recently had a customer who decided to make some derogatory posts on our forums accusing us of “pissing somebody off” resulting in us being a “target of DDoS attacks” when in reality it was simply a client we were hosting that was the target of the attacks.  One of the downsides of DDoS attacks is that they’re a carpet bomb and they affect all sites on the server, and not just the intended target.

The client was warned via private message and their warn level on the forum was increased and then they decided to make another reply yet again re-iterating their original post and going far enough to make a public threat against us on our forums.  We at this point disabled the client’s forum account and opened an abuse support ticket with them which you will find below.  The client’s identifying information has been removed as our privacy policy protects the client’s identity and personal information but the contents of the ticket itself is not personal.

MDDHosting – Abuse on Forums

Ticket ID: [Redacted]
Department: Abuse
Creation Date: 09/26/2010 20:28
Last Reply: 09/26/2010 22:47
Status: Closed
Priority: Medium

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Avoid “Hotlink Protection” feature in cPanel 11.25, 11.26

In cPanel 11.25 and 11.26 (not tested earlier versions) when you add “Hotlink Protection” in cPanel it will add the appropriate mod_rewrite code to all domains, subdomains, add-on domains. It looks similar to this:

Code:
RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://test-cpanel.com/.*$      [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://test-cpanel.com$      [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://www.test-cpanel.com/.*$      [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://www.test-cpanel.com$      [NC]
RewriteRule .*\.(jpg|jpeg|gif|png|bmp)$ - [F,NC]

It actually checks for the line “RewriteEngine on” and does not add it a second time into the .htaccess which is smart… The problem comes when you remove hotlink protection.

cPanel goes through all domains, subdomains, add-on domains once again this time and removes the code but it removes all instances of “RewriteEngine On” in every .htaccess. The problem that comes with this is that if you’re running something such as WordPress, vBulletin, IPB, or any other script that uses mod_rewrite, as most do, suddenly all of your rewrite rules no longer work. Continue reading

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Jonathan Burdon – Apparently posting facts is a “Smear Campaign”

Jonathan Burdon of AlreadyHosting.com
Jonathan Burdon

I have written a pretty in-depth review of Jonathan Burdon and AlreadyHosting.com concerning their affiliate fraud campaigns here. I even discovered that Jonathan Burdon is directly using cookie stuffing to obtain fraudulent affiliate commissions.  You can watch a short video demonstrating the cookie stuffing for MDDHosting, BlueHost, HostMonster, and WebHostingPad in this video.  If you’re not very familiar with how affiliate systems work, the basic premise is that sites will use outbound links to the provider that place a cookie on the user’s computer to identify the referral so that the affiliate can be paid.

In an article about Jonathan Burdon [which is likely written by Jonathan] it is claimed that “There is one *unnamed* company on the web that refuses to pay Jonathan for his contract so they have launched a smear campaign against him, please ignore their comments,” and the article goes on to say “If users will take a few moments to visit Jonathan’s sites they will soon realize that his site is a great resource and that the individuals writing the slanderous posts about him are simply incorrect.” Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/branding-articles/jonathan-burdon-webmaster-2848333.html

It seems that Jonathan Burdon believes that I’m personally launching a smear campaign about him and goes so far as to claim my posts are slanderous.  What I find particularly interesting, is that I have only posted verifiable, factual information and even the email communications with Jonathan Burdon.  I’ve not posted or said anything that wasn’t simply true and verifiable.  To be entirely honest, I don’t care about Jonathan Burdon or his reputation but only that he doesn’t continue committing affiliate fraud and, as such, stealing money from other hosting providers.  I publicly challenge Jonathan Burdon to disprove any of the information I’ve posted about him or AlreadyHosting.com.

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Sales Ticket with an [Interesting Character]

At MDDHosting today we received an order which our sales department reviewed and determined was likely fraud and marked the order as such.  We shortly there after received an email from the individual who will hence forth be known as “Interesting Character” to protect their identity.  While they may not actually be a fraudster – their order details and actions all indicated that they most likely were.

The individual signed up using a first name and last initial only, their mailing address was a mail forwarding address, and many other red flags were sent up when this individual attempted to order services.

Here is a complete view of the email conversation with all personally identifying information redacted and by all means read it over and let me know what you think in the comments.

Interesting Character
Potential Client
03/31/2010 20:39
hello,
it seems like there is an issue with my order. can you please review it and approve it?
thank you
[Interesting Character]

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Beware of “Web Hosting Review” and “Top 10 Web Hosts” Sites

As many readers of this site may already know I own and operate MDDHosting, LLC – a web hosting firm based out of Franklin, Indiana and we have been in business for over 2 years and 3 months as of the writing of this post.  Over the last 27 months I have seen just about every type of fraud, scam, and lie and in my personal opinion affiliate scams have to be one of the larger issues facing web hosting consumers today.

Anybody with enough experience in the industry knows that most “web hosting review” and “top 10 web hosts” type of sites are simply affiliate link farms where the goal is to pull in as many visitors to click on their affiliate links as possible.  Someone experienced in the industry who has “been there, done that” will often see through this and knows to conduct their own research and won’t fall for these tricks but someone new to the industry and turning to Google for advice won’t.  While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, what bothers me is when the site makes commission in a misleading way.  Some sites actually do write up a decent review of the provider and provide links to sign up which is entirely understandable but some are not so honest and straightforward in their dealings.

One such site that is operating in a misleading way is “AlreadyHosting.com” which is operated by Jonathan Burdon of Murray, Kentucky.  While going over our affiliate sales I noticed that one particular affiliate had an extraordinarily high conversion rate and to be honest I wanted to know what they were doing to achieve a conversion rate of 9%.

MDDHosting "Review" at AlreadyHosting.com Their site “reviews” as of this writing 111 companies which is not a lot when you look at the hosting industry itself as having thousands of individual providers.  When you look at any one of their providers that they review you may be surprised at the utter lack of any content or reviews (I certainly was).  I have pictured the page that I found was sending the affiliate referrals to us and commented directly in the image as to how their methods are misleading. Not only does every host that they “review” offer links to “Promo pricing” and “Coupon Codes & Promotional Links”, but every one of these links goes directly to the provider dropping the affiliate code without giving any promotional codes or pricing.

I contacted Jonathan (read entire conversation here) and explained to him that we felt that he was misleading his visitors by offering links to coupon codes and promotional pricing when those links actually just dropped them on the affiliate URL where no such information can be found.  We let him know that we were doing so pro-actively and that while we could have let him continue sending us visitors and simply refused to pay him any money at a later date but that we simply were not that type of company.

AlreadyHosting.com uses it’s SERP power to be seen for “[Hosting Company Name] Review” which means that the customer isn’t simply browsing for a list of providers but is looking for specific information on a provider that they are already considering.  At the time of this writing I did a Google search for “GreenGeeks Review” and in 9th place is “GreenGeeks Review & Coupon Codes | AlreadyHosting.com”.  Upon visiting this URL you will see that there is no review but there are links promising promotional pricing and coupon codes which anybody that is already considering that provider is going to click on.  As soon as the visitor clicks on the link they are taken to the provider’s site and should that visitor continue researching the company before buying – AlreadyHosting will obtain commission on the sale due to the visitor having been interested in coupon codes and promotional pricing.

In my conversation with Jonathan I explained to him that we were more than happy to keep him on board with us as an affiliate as long as he was willing to modify the page to actually link to the content it claims to link to (i.e. promotional information or coupon codes) or to simply not claim to link to such content if it isn’t doing so and rather than editing the review page to modify or remove the misleading hyperlinks Jonathan decided to respond with a threat:

If you do not reconsider we will keep your
review active and will tell our readers how you treat affiliates and will
directly recommend that they sign up for another company. I will also
invest a lot in SEO for that page to ensure that it ranks high for all of
your keywords.

Upon visiting the “MDDHosting Review” on AlreadyHosting.com after this email exchange I found that he has updated the page with an “Important Note” stating that we had discontinued his affiliate account with us, which we have.  I have no particular problem with this but what I do find interesting is the site claims to be a site containing the “BEST WEB HOSTING REVIEWS” which would lead the average hosting consumer to believe that they either have tried and reviewed the services they “review” directly or they have input from third parties who have done so and as such list them based upon their quality of service and support which is obviously not the case.  Should any of these “best web hosting providers” find that AlreadyHosting.com is misleading their potential customers and committing affiliate fraud by using misleading hyperlinks AlreadyHosting.com may end up having to place this notice on more pages than just ours.

At the end of the day I don’t suggest trusting any of the “Web Hosting Review” or “Top 10 Web Hosts”  sort of sites as they are all affiliate driven and a vast majority of them are simply misleading.  If you do happen across a site offering coupon codes or promotional codes and it turns out there are none to be had make sure to clear your cookies so that you don’t pay these crooks for misleading you.  I highly suggest a resource that is not affiliate driven for researching hosting providers such as the WebHostingTalk.com Forums.

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Jonathan Burdon – AlreadyHosting.com – Archive

This page originally contained an complete email conversation between myself and Jonathan Burdon however due to legal issues (copyright) I’ve been required to pull down those emails.  Fortunately this doesn’t stop me from speaking about Jonathan’s less than ethical actions including cookie stuffing as well as “reviews” lacking any sort of content or value.

Feel free to read about Mr. Burdon and AlreadyHosting.com’s less than ethical strategies to obtain affiliate commissions:

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