The Pain of Shared Web Hosting

The company that hosts my site, DreamHost, has been experiencing some serious problems recently. Hardware dying, power outages, and just general instability has caused this site to blip up and down a few times, and has caused more outages for The House That Dewey Built. DreamHost does a nifty thing and has a little bit of transparency into the process through their status blog, where they attempt to keep folks up to date with what’s happening on the hosting side. It’s a really great idea, assuming you have the stomach to expose yourself to the world.

Having worked in the shared web hosting industry for about 10 months now (not at DreamHost), I can relate to the troubles they’re having. No matter what you do, hardware dies in unforseeable ways, and when that happens, occasionally backup hardware goes down too. Or one problem masks another, and you peel back the layers until you get down to the main issue.

In a dedicated hosting environment, this usually means you take down a server or two and have a couple of expensive customers mad at you. It’s usually a manageable situation.

In a shared hosting environment, each problem means potentially thousands of customers have an issue, and it means they come looking to you for answers.

This DreamHost Blog post is a pretty good example of what can happen when you expose yourself to your customers. You get the good:

The thing that Dallas didn’t say, is how smooth DreamHost is taking it, I had my doubts about the company before I signed up, but this week has proven that I made no mistake, and that the admins know what they are doing.

Good job DreamHost, lets hope next week brings better luck.

And you get the bad:

My clients are frying about the recent reliability issues. I am loath to move them (over 100), but clearly DH needs to spend more of its profit margin on hardware!

Can we all say, together, “R E D U N D A N C Y” ! !

And, if your landlord can’t seem to get its power systems stable maybe they need to be sued for non-performance.

We’re using DH for business, not for play. It’s got to be more reliable

Maybe Dreamhost will be nice enough to cover all of the ad sales I’m losing off my website. Now it’s JUST my ad server database that’s down… they’re really sticking it to me…

Again, I love transparency, and I think this is just some of what you have to deal with when things go wrong. I wish the company I worked for was more transparent sometimes (and, the reason I’m not being transparent about where I work is because, as a corporation, I don’t think they’re ready to be transparent just yet, which is unfortunate).
And, again, you’d think that I’d be right there griping with the rest of the masses, given that this has affected *my* site.

But I’m not.

Because I’ve seen the other side. I’ve *been* on the other side. I’ve been the guy trying to explain to a customer why their site was down, or why it’s still down, or why it may not be back up right away. The customer never sees the planning side–they just assume when something goes wrong that it was preventable and someone’s fault. Sometimes it is.

Sometimes, however, it’s the customer’s fault. Let me explain …
DreamHost is a shared web hosting provider, and a low cost one at that. They spread a bunch of sites out across servers, to better utilize the resources of the server, and they make money off of the folks who barely use their sites. The 5% of users who completely pillage the servers are money losers, but they’re the price you pay for bringing in all of the less active users. It’s all about economics and economies of scale.

Here’s where customers are to blame. They expect that the slice of the server they’re renting for $7 a month is *theirs* and they should be able to do whatever they want to it. If they want to run a CGI script that uses 100% of the processor, why not? If they want to move all of their binary data into their MySQL database so that they can pretend that they’re not really using any web space, who are you to argue that they’re killing the database server? They’re the customer, they’ve paid for their chunk of the server.

Well, yes they have. But it doesn’t give them the right to kill things for the rest of the folks on that box. Unfortunately, most shared web hosting customers don’t think about things in those terms, in terms of a community. They just think about the site they own.

This is what leads to problems. The 5% of customers complain that they want to use cron, and 5% of a big number (total customers) is a big number, so you give them cron. Then they bog down the server, so you spread them out to other servers, which they then bog down. Replace cron with anything (unlimited databases, unlimited bandwidth, multiple websites on the same account, etc.). All propositions that lose the host money, but are done with hopes of attracting a large enough clientele to make it a winner.

But all of the additions occasionally come with the cost of downtime, or instability, or whatever. It certainly sucks, and it’s not excusable, but it’s shared web hosting.

So I say to the fellow complaining about his ad revenue: why the HELL are you on shared hosting if it’s so important to you? Spend the money and get a dedicated host.

If your site is so important that it can’t afford downtime, you should be paying for a dedicated host. It’s that simple. The 5% of customers who cause server problems are almost inevitably the same ones who should be on dedicated hosting. Remove them from the mix and things would be far more manageable.

The flipside is that you can’t drive them away. You can’t afford to. They’re the advocates. They’re the folks who pimp the hosting (and get their affiliiate kickback) and bring in the other 95% who make the money. It’s a double-edged sword, and one that’s made all that much tougher when a company like DreamHost takes an admirable stance and tries to be transparent. It’s the same thing that Jason Calacanis has been discussing with his offer to pay DIGGers to post stories on the new Netscape DIGG-alike–your most active users tend to be partially responsible for the success of your product (even if they often cost the most).
Shared web hosting is a fun, exciting, and often stressful biz. Doing it naked can sometimes bring the pain, and I can relate to what the folks at DreamHost are experiencing.

Now please make sure my site stays up.

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