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Roasting in Hosting Hell - Tales from the Server Side

After more than three weeks of utterly mind-numbing, "what could possibly go wrong next!?" web hosting hell, Themebot is finally back online!

Okay, here is a rundown of what Themebot has been up to over the past few weeks, in case you were wondering what was going on. An honest account of my experience with four different hosting providers is given. Warning, this is not for the web master who is faint of heart. What ensues is a chronological account, written after emerging from the dark recesses of the web hosting twilight zone.

2006-10-16 thru 2007-09-22 | The Site5 Hosting Hell Realm

You may have already read the Site5 review posted earlier: Site5 Web Hosting Review - 3rd Time is a Charm. To recap, the first few months of hosting were fraught with downtime and performance issues. During the last few months, before embarking on this journey, the hosting on Site5 was superb with minimal downtime and great performance. However, it happened again. Another hardware failure accompanied by two days of downtime, no access to emails and lost data. Only one or two days of data were lost on the last hard drive melt-down. This was the third drive failure in less than a year and Themebot decided enough is enough.

2007-09-22 thru 2007-10-06 | On to the HostICan Hell Realm

After doing a considerable amount of research on shared hosting providers, I decide to sign up with HostICan. Not only do they have great hardware, including Dual Opteron CPUs and Raid-10 arrays, they are also one of the few hosting providers that has mySQL5 and PHP5 installed by default. I was a little concerned about migrating from PHP4 and mySQL4 to the latest versions, since Themebot is a complex site with many scripts. However, the transfer went flawlessly and Themebot was up and running on HostICan.

Four days later I get an email informing me that my account has been suspended due to "Resources overusage". I figure this is probably due to the testing I was doing and also the fact that all of the Gallery images had to be recreated. They agree to unsuspend the account and everything is working great. I manage to move all my stuff into my new apartment and I'm also ready to go on a family camping trip for a few days. In the process of moving, I remember to pack everything for the camping trip except the hiking boots. All I have is my sandals. No choice but to drive all the way back to my apartment and pick up the boots. After that I drive to my aunt's house and spend the night. The next day, I get packed and I'm ready to go camping. It is late in the afternoon and right before I leave I decide to check in on Themebot.

SUSPENDED! No warning or anything. I assumed that since I hadn't heard back from HostICan, everything was fine. I call in to HostIcan tech support several times. Nobody is answering the phone and I keep getting the HostI-canned voicemail message. I send an email support ticket and wait. My mother is getting anxious to leave because it is getting late. I wait and wait. Finally there is a response. I let them know that I need the site unsuspended for at least the next couple days and then I will make a decision about purchasing a VPS. What is confusing is that Themebot was getting twice as much traffic on Site5 just a few months ago and never had any problems with resource overusage during those months. And, I know for a fact that Site5 suspends accounts. Themebot had been suspended a couple of times before installing IRCmaxell's PageCache and sh404SEF two indispensable Joomla components that greatly increased the performance on themebot.com.

Interlude

Anyhow, it is time for a much needed vacation and I decide I'll figure it all out when I get back. We head out to pick up some last minute supplies. After the first stop we get into the car and I hear a strange sound coming from the engine. We look at the temperature gauge and the car is extremely overheated. After a couple of hours at the nearest mechanic, they diagnose that it is the head gasket along with two other things. This is a two day job and very expensive. Prospects of camping are looking rather bleak.

We call AAA and forty-five minutes later the tow truck driver shows up. He appears on the scene just to inform us that he can't tow the car right now because there is another car on the freeway and that dangerous situations get priority. Screw that! Well, nothing we can do about it and we watch him drive off. My mom and I come to the conclusion that this car is nothing but a money pit and it is time to get a new one. "Let's just drive back and the worst that can happen is it overheats again and we have to pull over," I say. We take our chances and luckily make it home. I spend the next few days running around helping my mom find a car to buy. I also use my spare time to completely overhaul the Download section on Themebot.

So much for camping. We didn't even get a hike in, other than hiking around the car lots. I drive back to my apartment and arrive late. Themebot is suspended again. This time, there isn't even a suspended page. It is just a server cannot be found page. I can't even get into the control panel to create a site backup. I do more research and after an extensive phone call with HostRocket I am convinced that they will be able to handle the Themebot load. I get a hold of HostICan tech support and assure them that I am going to keep the site offline until I transfer it. The backup is created and downloaded to my computer.

2007-10-06 thru 2007-10-09 | A Brief Stint in the HostRocket Hell Realm

Now, the thing about a Themebot site backup is that it currently takes 9 or more hours to upload the entire archived backup on a decently fast high-speed internet connection. I begin uploading the backup. The internet gets diconnected. I start over. Several hours later the internet is accidentally disconnected again. GRRRR! I try resuming the upload and it seems to work. I leave the upload going overnight.

The next morning I attempt to unarchive the backup. The backup is corrupt. HOLY CRAP! I've got to start over again!? Yep. So, I get the upload going again. Later in the afternoon I head out to run some errands. When I get back I check the upload. 1.5 hours left. I try to get some stuff unpacked in my apartment and then check back on the upload.

For the LOVE OF GAWD! Inexplicably, the upload had started over again at the very beginning. I get some work done for clients and pray that the upload will be finished when I wake up in the morning.

The next morning I check the upload status with squinted eyes. Upload Successful! I then shell into my account and unarchive the backup. SUCCESS!!!

Time to get the site reconfigured for the HostRocket server. I get everything configured properly but I'm seeing some errors, and none of the pages load on the frontend. After some digging around, it appears that none of the required directories are writeable by Jooomla. I do more research and find out that HostRocket is running PHP as a module (mod_php), rather than through CGI. Most shared hosting providers use either PHPsuexec, suPHP or FastCGI to run PHP due to the increased security. Running PHP through CGI allows users to run scripts with their user account, rather than having to make the scripts and directories world writable/executable. The only upside to running PHP as a module that I could gather is that it is faster and consumes less system resources. The thought of chmodding directories to 777 is not appealing to me, but I decide to give it a try. I get all of the recommended directories chmodded. Still not working!!! At this point I am seriously losing my patience. I begin hunting around for a different hosting provider that does not run PHP as a module. I find Lunarpages and I like what I see. I spend more time on the phone with tech support asking all sorts of questions and sign up for an account. I especially like the fact that they are semi-local, a California company. At least they are within driving distance if I need to strangle somebody ;)

2007-10-09 thru 2007-10-14 | The Lunarpages Hell Realm, Fastest Suspenders in the West

The upload process begins again. Ten hours later the upload is complete. Backup unpacked, site configured, "Damn! I'm getting fast at this!" Oh, I need netPBM installed. LunarPages says they will move my site to another server that already has it installed. I say, "Hell no!" After a bit of cajoling they finally agree to install NetPBM. Themebot seems to be running faster than ever. Ahhh, time to relax a bit.

One day later I receive the email. "Script disabled - excessive usage" I begin wondering, "Is Site5 really that good? Do they really have uncrowded servers?" Well, I'm not going back to Site5 so I contact tech support and get them to reactivate the account. I take drastic measures to optimize the site. I remove all of the live gallery thumbnails on the homepage. I remove the links to the latest gallery entries. I turn on the built-in Joomla cache, in addition to PageCache. I revert the site back to PHP4, just in case there is some sort of compatibility issue going on. I then flip the switch and Themebot is back online. I keep my fingers crossed. I go to sleep.

The next morning the birds are chirping and the sun is out. I fire up the computer and check my email... "Script Disabled" o_O

I am also warned that if they have to disable the site again, it will be moved to a stabilization server and I will be charged to re-enable the account. "This requires something drastic. This requires a Virtual Dedicated Server." I can't afford a dedicated server right now, but I find a credit card with some space left on it and bite the bullet. I knew I'd have to upgrade to a VPS hosting account sooner or later. It is just frustrating that I have to do this when Themebot is only receiving half of the traffic compared to just a few months ago when everything was running smoothly on Site5. After some more research I go ahead and order the Lunarpages VPS.

Lunarpages does not transfer the site for you. Guess what??? Time to upload the backup again! Since I had gotten a lot of work done during the brief time Themebot was on the Lunarpages shared account, I decided to make a complete site backup. A couple hours later I receive an email notifying me the backup is done. WTF!!! It is 4.8gigs. The backup I originally uploaded was only 1.6 gigs. Okay, so I clear out all of the caches and create the backup again. CRAP! It is still 2.8gigs. That would take forever to upload. I decide it is best to just upload the old backup I already have made and download the databases and changed files from the shared account later. HERE WE GO AGAIN! Wee, another nine hour upload. I go to sleep.

The next morning I wake up. Upload Successful! I unpack it. I log into my old shared hosting account to get the databases. "Wait a minute! Where did the databases go? I log in to FTP. Nothing is there! I've got so many FTP accounts for previous hosts at this point that I think maybe I loaded the wrong one. Nope. There is nothing there! I call tech support. It turns out that there was a hardware failure on the Lunarpages shared hosting account. Oh yes!!! Another hard drive failure. But wait, it gets even better. All of their daily backups were corrupt. The earliest backup they had was from nine days ago, before I even created my Lunarpages account. !@#$%@#$%

I try to remain calm while I ask the tech support person if there is any possibility that the data can be recovered from the old drive. He tells me to submit a support ticket. I submit the ticket and wait... and wait...

2007-10-14 thru 2007-10-18 | The Lunarpages VPS Hell Realm, Plesk Pain and the Unending Downward Spiral

Well, waiting to find out if they can recover data off the old hard drive is holding up the process. I decide to get started with some database backups that are a few days old. Over ten themes would be lost, as well as all the changes I had made, but there was no telling if they would get the data back.

I get to work on the VPS. Let me tell you, perhaps Plesk has some benefits but if you are used to Cpanel, Plesk is a pain in the patootie. I finally get everything configured and register the name servers with my registrar. After some time it appears to that new name servers have propogated. But, I'm getting a "Server Not Found" message when I try to visit the site. I call in to support to see if there is something wrong with the server. The bonehead tech support guy tells me to ping themebot.com. Of course it doesn't ping. He says to wait for the name severs to propagate, despite the fact that I'm convinced it is a server issue. I wait all day...

The next morning, I get an email from tech support, "Hi, The hani server issue was resolved, and everything should be back in working order. You can login to your account on the shared server and retrieve the files and folders that you require." I log into my old shared account and nothing is there. The bonehead technician who responded to my ticket didn't even bother to actually read the ticket. Nothing had been recovered and nothing had been restored because the hard drive was completely dead and the earliest backup was from nine days ago. O_o

I call into dedicated support again. Luckily the new support guy I talk to is familiar with the issue that is affecting the DNS on my VPS. There was some strange fluke when my server was set up. So it was a server issue afterall! Bonehead! He fixes this. Hurray, let the debugging begin! I also convince Lunarpages to upgrade my account to managed hosting for free, as compensation for all the troubles.

There are a few security warnings in the Joomla Backend. I call into tech support and they take care of it. The site seems to be working...

Oh no!!! The server is running PHP as a module :(

I go ahead and get all of the necessary directories chmodded to 777. The site kind of seems to be working. However, when I go to the gallery, it says that Gallery2 needs to be reinstalled.

I clear the PageCache component of cached pages and then continue testing. Nearly every page creates a 404 error. The site seemed to be working but that was just because it was drawing from the cached pages that were in the old backup. I spend all day researching on PHPsuexec and suPHP. It turns out that Apache would have to be completely recompiled to get suPHP installed on the POS Lunarpages VPS.

At this point I have two options:

  1. Find another VPS and hope that I can get it configured properly.
  2. Put the site back on Site5.

After some serious consideration, I decide to put the site back on Site5. I'm also curious to see if they are going to shut it down. At the very least, I will get a benchmark for how low other hosting providers cap their resource limits... Here comes another 10 hour upload. I get to bed around 2AM. I'm getting used to not sleeping.

For some reason I wake up at 5:20AM, just in time to watch the last ten minutes of the upload. It is a glorious upload morning. The LCD screen is brimming with colors. I have the site configured in no time and go downtown to work with a friend on another project.

2007-10-18 1:25AM - The Present

This article is coming to a close. I spared some of the nitty gritty mind-numbing details because this post is way too long already. Here we are at day two of being back on Site5. There was a minor service disruption earlier that made me nervous, but the server came back online in no time. It will be interesting to find out if Site5 suspends the account. This will indicate whether something changed at some point after I moved the site off of Site5 or if the other hosting providers just cap resource usage lower. If there is no suspension over the next two weeks, I think it is safe to say that Site5 is true to their claim that they do not overcrowd their servers. Perhaps I just got an unlucky server and Site5 is actually an outstanding web host. Time will tell. Having the site back on Site5 affords some breathing room to find a VPS that will meet all of the requirements for Themebot. I think I have found one that fits the bill.

At this point, I have quite a bit of experience with various shared hosting providers. All told, I've had accounts with nearly fifteen different providers. I currently have sites on five or six different hosts. In future articles, I will be writing a mini-review of each web host I currently use and I will also start providing uptime statistics for them. This should be useful to anyone who is looking for a host because there are just so many to choose from. Fortunately, I've already done quite a bit of research and have some valuable first-hand experience. Stay tuned...

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