A bad day – Web Hosting

I have been hosting my websites for the last 4 years or so on a premium provider, MediaTemple. They have been efficient, no hassle, and have offered great service when I needed it. I have 7 domains hosted with them, and their basic hosting package has served me well.

I have sung praises to them, and have recommended them, even though they are not the cheapest supplier out there. For me, the $20 a month has been worth it for the support, the reliability, and the high quality tools they have offered.

To compare, I use GoDaddy for one of the sites I manage (for a non-profit that I donate my time to). Their support is OK. Their tools are crappy to manage the hosting, the data bases, and other administrivia. But what I hate most of all, is the constant upselling they do. They continually try to sell more domains, more services, addons. It is enough to make me loathe logging into their website unless I have to.

I had been plotting how to move that site to Media Temple when the prepaid period was up.

Then today I got the email from the founder and CEO of MediaTemple. Since he wouldn’t know me from Adam, I was worried.

I was right to be worried. He was announcing that Media Temple was being acquired by GoDaddy. A million voices were crying “Nooooooooooooo!” in my head. Of all the sleazeball, scummy webhosting providers to sell to, they had to pick the bottom feeders. The shit-birds at GoDaddy. Of course the email was full of assurances that the MediaTemple experience wouldn’t change, and that it would be autonomous from the GoDaddy. Their posted FAQ was about how GoDaddy was looking to improve their relationship with web developers, and professionals, and that acquiring Media Temple was a path forward there.

Yeah, and pigs will fly.

If GoDaddy wants to improve its image and reputation among the serious web developers and professionals, they should probably stop being scum of the earth, marketing bloated, pushers of mediocre products. Furthermore, they should improve their infrastructure, and tools on the back end so that I don’t have to navigate 10 pages to figure out how to set a CNAME.

Reading the comments on the FAQ was about 99-1 against this move, and how a lot of people will be looking for new hosting. I know I will be moving completely off them.

Perhaps it is time to go VPS.

Battle of the Simple Website Creators

I have been working on a fun project lately, creating a website and online personas for my adopted greyhounds. Since I started the bit of an advice column for how to create a website, and what tools to use, I figured that I would try one of the simple builder sites.

The two I played with are Weebly, recommended by my friend David Kendall Grant, and Virb, a spin off of the hosting I use, Media Temple. They both are simple to use, intuitive, and pretty straightforward website creation package. Both are attractive, and have pretty complete components to place and drop. Naturally, they both do all the hosting and back end maintenance.

Weebly, is a startup, VC funded. They have a free offering, and two tiers of paid services that add capabilities. It can connect to an ETSY store, it can create static pages, blogs, and even simple discussion forums. It automatically connects to Facebook and Twitter to alert the world that you published something. There are a pretty extensive collection of templates that offer some customizability, and flexibility of the design.

Virb is fairly new. It is still under development, and you can see some rough edges. Their collection of templates is smaller (but growing) and some of the goodies and components that are available on Weebly are not yet implemented. But their bits and pieces that are done work well. Additionally, they have a blog that keeps you informed of what they are developing and when to expect it. I did like the facilities for customizing the CSS and getting some access to the bits and pieces, but naturally, once you go there, you are on your own for support.

What I liked:

It was really quick and easy to get a site up. Adding pictures, posts, quotations, and connections to social media were easy peasy. Modifying the templates on Weebly was hit or miss. Some elements were easy to figure out how to edit, some were a bit harder.

Virb had great controls that let you alter almost anything on the templates, from fonts, to colors, and background images. I thought this was a bit better thought out than Weebly.

Both give you quite a bit of flexibility for your free or trial period (Virb offers a 10 day trial and then it is $10 a month, Weebly has a “permanent” free offering, but sells you features and very expensive domains).

Both seemed to have solid hosting, and while I am not sure about Weebly, I have always been really happy with the hosting at Media Temple. Great uptime, speed, and access, as well as just awesome support for when shit goes wrong.  And it does go wrong.

What I didn’t like:

While I am not a pro web designer, I do like having flexibility at my fingertips to get in and muck around. I also like having some control over the plugins and extensions that I use. With both Weebly and Virb you are at the mercy of what they offer.

I also like to take standard templates and modify them.  Edit the CSS, change classes, and alter the layout to my whim.

These things are a lot easier if you roll your own.

Who should consider these services?

If you are creative, but not web savvy. If you have an idea of what you want it to look like, but the whole idea of buying hosting, installing software, and customization is scary. If you want to get something up quick and easy, without headaches. Then these two offering fit the bill.

A note on the “Fremium” model by Weebly. First, I am not a fan. Since if you are a “free” user, you are not really a customer to them, they spend a lot of time trying to get you to buy one of the paid tiers. I literally get one or two emails a day from them prodding me to upgrade. One today was offering me the paid tier at 33% off. Virb was up front and said that you get ten days of trial, no restrictions, and then $10 a month. That is one reason why I am a fan of Media Temple. They don’t try to sell you crap everytime you log in.

So you want a Website – let’s get started

I get a lot of people asking me how to create a website.  They see this page, or the site I run for the Southern Arizona Greyhound Adoption group, or my professional site, and wonder what they need to do to play. It can be confusing to a neophyte, but hopefully I can clear the confusion.

First, you need to honestly assess your technical ability. Do you view yourself as a bit of a nerd?  Are you comfortable with supporting yourself on your computer, do you like to tinker?  Then you might want to look to hosting and running a site on your own. But if you get nervous when you hear terms like FTP, SSH, linux, apache, PHP or the like, you might want to go with one of the completely managed solutions.

Second you need to decide what you want to publish to the web. Most common is the blog format. This is a series of articles that can be arranged by category, and give you flexibility on what you want to post (text? photos? videos? all of the above). Or do you want to be a bit more formal, run a site that is more of a portal or a magazine or newspaper.  The Greyhound site that I run is like this. Most of the content is static, but there are dynamic parts of the site.  Additionally, there are tools to help less skilled people contribute without giving them access to the back end. Do you want to do e-commerce?  Integrate ads to help offset your costs? It is best to get this down on paper up front.

If you are a neophyte, and you are scared of terms like FTP and PHP you can go with one of the hosted solutions. Both Blogger (a google property) or WordPress.com will be able to get you up and running very quickly. Both sites give a reasonable service for free, and are very simple to use and setup. Both can host your own domain name (your address on the web).  The wordpress service is what I am using here, and it is pretty solid.  One downside is that they will constantly try to get you to buy extra services (custom typography, custom templates).  Still, for many people, this is the best path.

If you are curious, and not afraid of computers and technology, you might decide to roll your own. Typically you buy hosting from one of the major hosting services (Hostgator, GoDaddy, MediaTemple) and then setup your site. Fortunately, it isn’t too geeky, as you can easily FTP your files over, create a database, and run the built in installer and you will be up with a basic site.

There are some terms to learn. The software that runs on the host to deliver your website to the visitors is called a CMS (content management system).  A content management system (CMS) is a package that provides the logic, the maintenance behind the scenes, and utilities for adding content. They typically have a front end (what the public sees) and a back end (where you add articles, posts, or pages).

Templates are sets of files that alter the look and feel of the website. The packages typically have a couple of default (read: ugly) templates to get you started, but you are probably going to want to use a different template. Don’t worry, you don’t have to create your own, there are tons of free and paid templates for all the major packages.

Plugins/components are additions to the web CMS that extend and enhance the experience. Things like a tag cloud, or a twitter feed, or archive access are common. But there are other plugins that can be used. Perhaps you want Disqus for comments to your posts. Or you want to have Facebook “Like” icons. You can add these and more and not have to know anything about HTML.

All the major CMS platforms have some common attributes – they store their content and settings in a database (typically MySql), they have some type of hierarchy or taxonomy to arrange and group content, and they are typically built on PHP code that creates the HTML and styles that are seen by the public.

The major CMS’s

wordpress logoWordPress: The most used CMS. It is very simple to setup (I can get a new site up in about a half hour), and straightforward to manage.  It doesn’t require a lot of skill to keep it going. There are an amazing number of plugins that gives you infinite flexibility in layout and pizzaz. Additionally there are thousands of templates to give you a site that stands out from the riff-raff. I started with WordPress.

Joomla! logoJoomla!: The second most popular CMS software, Joomla! is quite flexible.  It is what I use for my tralfaz site, and the Greyhound site. It is more of a general purpose CMS, unlike the “blog” focus that WordPress takes. There are lots of automation options for contributors, and a very rich user management environment that allows you to have many different access groups and control who sees what (I don’t really use this, but private sites, and member sites are trivial to setup in Joomla.) Joomla also has a very powerful ecommerce option, called Virtuemart that is pretty easy to setup, but very powerful.

Drupal logoDrupal: Drupal is probably the least friendly CMS that is commonly used. It is more for web professionals, and keeping it up to date is a pretty hefty job. The basics are easy to get up, and built in are things like forums, and some great content bits built in. But the major sites that use Drupal have a lot of customization, and a full IT staff to keep it going. One site that does use Drupal, is the Economist. It is a good example of what can be achieved with Drupal.  I have played with it a little, but it really is not for a hobbyist.

In the next article, I will discuss how to choose a hosting company, and the basic steps required to get online, and sharing your passions. I will also touch on maintenance and how to avoid being hacked.