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Noemi Millman: Triopter: A Freelancer's Web Host

A Freelancer’s Web Host

One thing every freelance web developer needs is a good web host. But there are two sides to this requirement: one needs a reliable and speedy host for one’s own web presence, and at the same time one needs a great deal of space and flexibility in order to set up staging environments for clients to review in-progress projects. I’d additionally like my development host to provide a centralized location for version control, as well as a few other functions. Since it’s not easy to find an inexpensive host that covers all of these bases, I’ve decided to separate these two functions out.

Development Host

For the client projects and a whole bunch of other useful functions, I’ll be using Dreamhost. Dreamhost provides what for most people’s purposes works out to unlimited space and data transfer for a very low monthly cost. Lots of space is extremely useful to have when staging multiple sites, but it’s not generally a good formula for reliability (and indeed, in my experience, Dreamhost’s servers are very slow for dynamic sites, with comparatively poor uptime), which is why I’ll be keeping my public web presence elsewhere, as I’ll describe below.

Dreamhost is by no means the only host out there offering absurd amounts of space and bandwidth for an absurdly low price, but they have other advantages over the rest of the “massively overselling” hosts, which made this a very easy choice.

For one thing, they’re reputable. They’ve been around for 10 years, and I’m pretty darn confident that they’ll neither take my money and run, nor collapse into bankruptcy tomorrow.

For another, they offer a whole lot of features besides the space and bandwidth. The most important to me as a developer are:

  • Shell access
  • A Subversion (SVN) repository for version control (this makes it extremely easy to synchronize one’s work across multiple computers — e.g. host, laptop, desktop — and to roll back changes if one makes a mistake)
  • Support for Ruby on Rails and Django
  • Sandboxed hosts and FTP accounts (i.e. I can create staging sites with completely independent user logins and root directories, and separate FTP drop-boxes for each client)
  • The ability to remap directories between the filesystem and web server
  • The ability to choose PHP 4 or 5 on a per-domain basis
  • Unlimited domains and subdomains
  • Direct access to update DNS
  • Database access from outside the network
  • Cron jobs
  • A very powerful control panel

My Web Presence

I need my own public-facing site to load quickly and be up as close to “always” as possible. As I’ve mentioned, Dreamhost’s servers aren’t the world’s snappiest or most reliable, especially for dynamic sites. Worse, their support is not particularly responsive. So the plan is to host my main site elsewhere.

I’ve had experience with a number of pretty decent hosts over the past few years. While my inclination is to lean towards the slightly more expensive hosts, with somewhat better uptime and support (there are exceptions, but in hosting you often do get what you pay for), I’m on a pretty strict budget.

My hosting requirements are pretty simple, and very straightforward: around 500MB of space and 10GB bandwidth; PHP/MySQL (preferably PHP 5); email; cron jobs; at least two domains (preferably more); good support; great uptime and performance. More features would be great, but aren’t necessary.

I’ve narrowed down the field to three candidates for the moment Verve Hosting, Fluid Hosting, and A Small Orange. Each of these has a pretty inexpensive hosting package that meets my needs. I currently have personal domains hosted with Verve and Fluid, and I’m very happy with both. I’ve also used ASO for a client site in the past. Here’s my take on the pros and cons of each:

Verve Hosting

I am very fond of Verve, and have hosted with them for around 5 years now. They’re my first personal host, and have hosted friends’ sites and an online community that I’m active in. As far as I can tell, they’re a very small operation, possibly even a one-woman show (and although I would never choose a host based solely on such a criterion, I do feel a sort of solidarity with any woman involved in a technical, male-dominated field). Support is very personal and very responsive, and they’ve saved my butt on a couple of occasions when I’ve done supremely stupid things like asking them to delete my account because the domain the invoice mentioned an old domain. They are, however, a basic cPanel host, with no additional services as far as I can tell.

Pro:

Good support; fast-enough servers; 5 domains, with unlimited subdomains and parked domains; already have one of my domains there, which helps minimize setup effort

Con:

CPanel control panel (user-friendly for less technical types, but I find it a bit limiting); no shell access; no information on site about software versions; uptime has occasionally been spotty (although generally good)

Fluid Hosting

Fluid is a very professional outfit with a long history in the industry and a great reputation, with a slightly more businessy target audience, as far as I can tell. When I was at Sanky, we moved several of our clients there and were very pleased with the service. Their servers and network are extremely zippy, and support is very good. On the other hand, they very strictly limit server access, which is great from a security standpoint but a potential pain in the rear for a developer.

Pro:

Excellent support (includes phone support option); extremely fast servers for dynamic sites; H-Sphere control panel (more capable than cPanel and with a much better layout for virtual host document root directories); shell access can be had; take security seriously

Con:

Require a justification for shell access; PHP 4 only; only two domains on the account level I’m considering; access from outside network severely limited

A Small Orange

ASO has also been around for several years at this point, and generally has a positive reputation. Sanky had a client hosted with them briefly. That did not work out particularly well, but I hear so much more positive than negative about them that it may just have been bad luck. I’m under the impression that they’ve grown fairly quickly, but the founder is still involved in a somewhat hands-on capacity, and they have a sort of “family” feel, and an excellent user community.

Pro:

Good support; unlimited domains; shell access available upon request; support for SVN, Ruby on Rails, and Django; excellent user community with tutorials on setting up various services; PHP 5 available

Con:

CPanel; spotty performance and uptime in previous experience (granted, a very small sample)

Conclusion

You know, the word “conclusion” makes me feel like I’m typing up an 8th grade lab report, but anyway… right now, the balance seems to be tipping towards ASO, knowing that if performance isn’t up to my standards, I have a couple of alternatives available.

  1. COMMENT: by Rob R, January 16th, 2008

    Don’t know if you still check this site but consider this a blast from the past. Think Oklahoma about ten years ago.

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