A while back, I talked about legacy hosting providers and the value they hold (or in many cases, don’t). I touted the benefits of procuring your own Virtual Private Server (VPS) or if you only have one or two sites, finding someone like me that can host your stuff reliably with all the bells and whistles for cheap. These old legacy guys bank on you being too lazy to move your stuff so they can continue to charge you like they did in 1997.
I still contend that VPS is the way to go, but as mentioned above, reliability is key. Your site is no good to you if it is down all the time and if you run an eCommerce site, no amount of sales prices, SEO, and great product can contend with not being up. This is where we started running into problems with our old host and I’d like to share the last year with you to explain why I moved and why you should too if you’re having the same issues with your VPS provider.
I would also like to note that I will be critical of the old provider and name names, and I am not receiving anything from the new provider to write this. I am writing to share my experience as a customer of two competing services and show you that it is not hard to migrate VPS services, even for a non-server-admin like myself.
About three years ago, I tagged onto a friend’s VPS and DNS services for a split MX record on myTooq.com. As things progressed and I started building sites, I essentially took over his VPS with him running a few projects there still. This VPS was with A Small Orange based out of Atlanta, Georgia. They were excellent as far reliability and customer support went. I mean, I was (am) an idiot when it comes to a lot of this stuff and I could send an email and get their help on anything. They wold respond, usually within minutes and things would doing what I needed them to be doing in no time. Roughly two and half years ago, my buddy was looking at their site pricing and found that he was being charged about 25% more than the current rates for a more powerful VPS. When he asked them about it, he was basically told that it was his duty to ensure that he kept his eye open for better pricing (which I agree with).
We discussed things and migrated to their “Cloud VPS” service and things were pretty great for a while. We had a faster rig, lower price, and ASO migrated everything for us with no major issues. Then, in January of this year, I received an email from a client that his site was down along with his email. This was on a Friday afternoon, and a quick check showed that everybody was down, which I think at the time was a total of 32 sites, of which about 26/27 were externally facing client sites. I fired off an email to support as I had done several times in the past and didn’t hear back for a little longer than normal. To make a long story short, ASO had farmed out this part of their business to another company (I think HostGator), and they had a massive failure. I woke up Saturday morning to an email stating that all backups had been lost along with the data on the server. We relied on their backups for our data (I know now this is very bad practice). I did an inventory of the locally stored assets I had (I had a few full site backups and a lot of content backed up) and started contacting customers to share the bad news. I was essentially going to have to rebuild thirty sites as a fast I could and I was devastated at the prospect. By Saturday night, I had a few site back online and was stressed out and exhausted. Sunday resulted in a call with the possibility that they would be able to recover at least some of the data and luckily by Sunday evening, almost all of our sites were back up and running (the rest restored overnight). Not all of their clients were so lucky.
As it turns out, ASO had built their own system and had planed to start migrating customers on the Monday and had the failure happen a week later, it likely would not have affected more than a handful of people. I talked with a few of the ASO execs and decided to give them another shot (and commended the grace under fire of their support staff). I also provided some feedback on communicating more openly about what was happening. Obviously, they don’t want to announce that kind of failure to the world, but they were not thorough with their email lists and important communications were being missed. Our sites had been deployed to the new in-house cluster on the Sunday night and we were set to go.
Fast forward a few days and things are down again. Turns out there was a hardware failure of a non-destructive kind (I could go check my emails to see what it was, but the specifics aren’t huge here). They get things fixed and things are up and running. Then a couple of weeks later, something else goes. Then again, and again. Downtime is not usually massive, but anywhere from 5 minutes to half-an-hour at a time every 10-15 days is still unacceptable (and this is when I or a client would notice). I installed Copperegg for monitoring and found that things were down far too often to be considered reliable anymore and it was time to change. I set up an account at BigBrainGlobal.com after reading reviews on a web hosting forum and seeing many reviews. They migrated everything for me, but I wasn’t ready to make the full switch. I developed new sites there and left the old sites with ASO for several months. The BBG VPS also had better specs (2x cores, 4X RAM, 3.5 X storage, & more monthly bandwidth than I can dream of using) and an easy to find lifetime 25% off deal.
Since the summer, I have not seen an unplanned outage on BBG. There was a maintenance outage with a few minutes of downtime, but it was done late at night and well communicated and literally 5 minutes long. They sent an email warning about Hurricane Sandy and that they had prepared as best they could, but their data centre was in the storm zone and may be affected. Luckily, their preparations prevented any issues and all was fine (staff was safe too). During the storm, they sent out one or two updates. When the danger had passed they sent out an email. I knew what to expect while they were in the middle of a hurricane.
Last week, I remigrated all of the sites from ASO to BBG in an afternoon and with no major issues (had to remigrate to catch changes made in the 5 months of BBG running next to ASO). I had a few things to fix up with some certificates and site references, but essentially it was pain free. Things are now running on a much beefier server for a lower cost and I don’t have to field calls every ten days about things being down. I will say that BBG’s support does not respond quite as quickly as ASO’s does, but it is certainly still something I’d consider reasonable (fast by most company’s standards). They also seem to know how to solve things quickly and permanently.
I think that A Small Orange is undergoing some growing pains and suffering their own success. Their infrastructure is not matured and reliable, communication procedures are going more corporate (cautious and worried about legal over accessible, timely, and direct), and lots of new support staff aren’t yet as knowledgeable as their senior peers. I will still say to this day that ASO support, even newer staff, are some of the best support agents when it comes to speed, empathy, and taking ownership of a problem. I wish them, and ASO, the best as they figure out this growth spurt. As to Big Brain Global, I look forward to reliable service and growing my business with your services.
Migration is pretty easy. If your host isn’t cutting it, make the call and make a change. A small amount of pain to migrate offers a chance to receive better service and uptime, but you can also find better pricing and juicier servers in the process.
It is, as usual, pretty busy around here. I’ve personally been working on a contract for a Fortune 1000 client in the Silicon Valley for a good chunk of the year. We’ve got a couple of other projects on the go, a new server setup and migration, potentially a cool new build for a new client coming up, a couple of internal projects and the list goes on. But instead of telling you about those, I thought I’d give a quick update on a couple of tools I’ve come across and started using lately. I’ll write-up proper reviews on these a little later, but if you’re a small business owner, these may find themselves to be very helpful for you and your business.
1. IFTTT – If This Than That (Free)
This clever tool allows you to “program” actions based on triggers without having to know a lick about code. It is currently set up with a bunch of services (gmail, tumblr, SMS, phone, bit/ly, rss, etc) and it revolves around the trigger (the If this happens, then do this thing logic). Want to automatically post you latest blog post to your Facebook Wall? Easy. Send a text when an event happens on you calendar? Done. You can browse through “recipes” others have made or create your own. There’s still some other services that would be cool to see, but this tool is pretty slick.
2. Fancyhands.com ($25 per month – $585 per year, see site for details)
Ever felt like you’re getting bogged down with simple tasks? Feel like you could get more real work done if you had someone to do those tasks for you? Ended this train of thought when you did the quick math in your head that tells you a full-time personal assistant is not in your budget? Enter Fancyhands.com, This service offers a virtual private assistant service that is easy to use and is staffed by well-trained folks based in the US. You can use the service to complete tasks that need to get done, but don’t specifically have to be done by you. Send flowers for someone’s retirement party, research hotels for your next business trip, call and make your next doctor’s appointment, research an aspect of a blog post with supporting links, and all kinds of tasks similar to this. You purchase via monthly or annual subscription a certain number of tasks per month and depending on the pricing you choose, tasks will cost between $1.95 and $5.00 each (I went with an Annual Basic Plan with 5 tasks per month for $225). I have had one task completed and another underway and so far, I’ve been really impressed with the quality of work completed and it is indeed saving me time.
* Link above is a referral link and get a $10 credit if you sign up. You could type in the URL manually if you prefer.
3. Fitbit $99.00 USD (Same price in CAD at Amazon.ca)
If you hit the gym and eat well all the time without trying, then maybe this isn’t for you. If you get bogged down in work from a desk and don’t make time to get active, then Fitbit might be what you need. In all fairness, I’m on day three, but so far I love it. Over time, mainly the last 10-12 years, my diet and exercise habits have slowly degraded. It wasn’t an overnight thing. I’m aware of this and that I need to change something. Fitbit is a small hardware dongle (I have the Fitbit One, there is an older model called the Ultra, and a lesser featured version too) that you wear on your body all the time. It tracks your steps, number of staircases you climb, distance traveled and calories burned and reports it back to the web where you can log in and see how you’re doing against your goals. You also wear the Fitbit on your wrist at night and it tracks information on your sleep patterns. On the site, you can track your food intake, sleep, exercise, weight, and even join groups and add friends. Fitbit does a good job as motivator and making things fun and challenging. The hardware is beautiful. It is small, unobtrusive and sleek and I barely notice it is there. It syncs within 20 feet of my computer or with an iPhone (there are both iPhone and Android apps, but the Android app unfortunately does not have all the features of the iPhone app. Get on that Fitbit!). My wife and bought them for each other as early Xmas gifts and as long as we stick with it, Fitbit will help us gain the exercise and diet balance that has waned over the last decade.
As I mentioned, I’m pretty new to all of these, and I plan to write proper reviews when I’ve had a bit more time to experience them, but early on for all three services, things look very promising and I recommend you check them out. Hopefully, in the next several weeks I’ll get some more updates out on what we’re doing and a couple of posts for small business strategy and tools . We have a couple of site launch announcements coming up too that we’d like to share. We recently signed up as a member of live-local, so we’ll talk about that too. Lastly, I’m hoping to move the blog to our site (also re-designed lately), so I have to figure out how to point you there from here.
Thanks for reading.