Web Hosting: This Host Has The Most

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted February 13, 2007

For a small e-commerce business – or a big one for that matter – the company that provides your Web hosting services is your most important supplier, bar none. You look for reliability, connection speed, scalability (the ability to increase capacity seamlessly as Web operations grow) and responsiveness. Did we mention reliability?

Sportsguys LLC, which operates Footballguys.com, a news-and-analysis site for fantasy football geeks, says it wasn’t getting any of those things from its previous supplier, a company that remains a major player in the hosting industry. When Sportsguys went looking for a new hosting supplier four and a half years ago, The Planet.com popped out pretty quickly as the best bet.

The Planet claims to be the biggest privately-held hosting company, second only to publicly-traded IBM, and the fourth-largest host of Web sites with 2.8 million. The company serves 22,000 businesses worldwide, with six data centers containing more than 40,000 servers that it monitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It also claims to have one of the industry’s fastest, most robust networks, connecting to the Internet at 100 gigabits per second (gbps).

Best of all, its prices were a lot lower than Footballguys had been paying – $299 a month per server versus closer to $2,500. “Given what they’re offering and the price, it was kind of a no-brainer,” says Sportsguys owner David Dodds. “We made the jump, and we’ve never looked back.”

Fantasies Do Come True
Dodds runs an unusual business, to say the least. He quotes data from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association showing that an amazing 15 to 20 million people play fantasy football – and that's just football. Add fantasy baseball, fantasy basketball, etc., and the numbers get even bigger. Players start their own leagues, pick teams from real NFL rosters, establish a scoring system that awards points to players and sometimes coaches based on their performance in real games. The fantasy roster with the most points on game day wins the fantasy match.

Footballguys.com provides exhaustive NFL news and expert analysis that fantasy team managers use to make decisions about who to “field” for their next fantasy game and who to trade, to trade for or to acquire as a free agent. The site kicks off in March, providing its information to visitors for free. They can also sign up for a free daily newsletter. Then in July, with the NFL season looming, the fantasy football market kicks in to high gear. From that point on, only paying subscribers get access to the Footballguys site.

The company’s revenues topped $1.2 million in 2006. It has 80,000 subscribers to the free newsletter and 38,000 paying subscribers to the site. Footballguys.com has a few full-time employees, including Dodds, but mostly uses freelancers. It’s a team of about 56 writers and support staff altogether.

A Host of Trouble
In its last year with the other hosting company, there were a few straws that broke the camel’s back. That year, Footballguys.com suffered three virus infections. Not one, not two, but three. “So everybody who visits the site gets the virus,” Dodds grouses. “Great!” That’s when he started looking for a new supplier.

Even worse, the site’s one server had a hard disk crash – something that has never happened with The Planet in four and half years – and the other company at first refused to rebuild the site from the backups it had supposedly been keeping. Dodds was furious: “Are you kidding me! What have we been paying for all this time?”

He believes many of the problems with the other company were attributable to its security-challenged Microsoft server environment. Dodds speculates that it wasn’t keeping the servers updated with patches to plug security vulnerabilities. As he learned more about the technology, he concluded that Footballguys.com would be better off if he changed both programming languages and operating system environments.

PHP, an open source programming language for creating dynamic Web sites, replaced ColdFusion from Macromedia (now part of Adobe), which the company had been using. And when he went looking for a new hosting service, Dodds insisted on managed servers running under Linux, the open source operating system generally acknowledged to have fewer security problems than Microsoft. The Planet offered the full package.

Maximizing Uptime
Footballguys.com currently leases six managed servers, each with 2 gigabytes (GB) a month of transfer capacity. They’re owned by The Planet and sit in one of the company’s huge data centers. It takes care of the servers, keeping them up to date with security patches and the latest operating system software releases. The Plnet also guarantees that no power or Internet connection outages will disrupt service.

That doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong. Servers fail for a variety of reasons. “They’re always up,” Dodds says of The Planet, but then adds, “Of course, there are always going to be hiccups. But with these hiccups it usually just means the server needs rebooting. We haven’t had any serious issues.”

The Planet sometimes catches server failures itself and reboots before Footballguys even notices. But sometimes Dodds has to use the company’s online trouble ticket system to report a problem. There is no telephone support, although technicians responding to trouble tickets sometimes phone him back. That is one ostensible shortcoming in the service. His previous hosting company provided telephone support and a dedicated support representative – the only reason it could possibly justify its prices, Dodds says.

But in reality, The Planet’s reporting system works as well or better, he says. “Sure we had a hotline number [with the other company], but it could take a day sometimes for them to get back to us. With The Planet there’s not necessarily a phone number, but when you submit an online ticket, they’re often back to you in 30 minutes.” He estimates he’s had to use the system 25 times in four and a half years.

The Planet also offers self-managed servers that sit in one of its data centers but are managed remotely by the client. Dodds wasn’t tempted. “You have to have real IT gurus on staff to do that,” he says. “If you’re not doing all the patching, and doing it the same day [the patches are released], you can get in trouble.” He’s more than willing to pay extra for the management services.

Fast Page Displays
He was also never tempted by the idea of hosting his own servers. One big reason not to do that, he says, is the speed of the network connection. The Planet data centers are so massive that they’ve become major hubs on the Internet backbone. That means higher connection speeds and immeasurably faster display of pages for site visitors than Footballguys.com could ever achieve with a server on its own premises – and quite a bit faster than smaller, less-directly-connected hosting service providers such as the one it was using before could provide.

The other thing Dodds likes about The Planet is how easy – and cheap – it is to to add capacity and performance. Every year the company offers new deals on the latest hardware and increased storage capacity. Footballguys almost always upgrades, but rarely sees much increase in its bill from The Planet, except when it adds a new server.

“If a company is constantly growing, like ours is, if it constantly needs more storage and more bandwidth, you sure don’t want to get stuck with a [hosting company] that can’t meet your needs quickly,” Dodds says. The company he was using before could never have provided the same smooth and continual scaling up of performance and capacity, he says.

The Planet does offer other services besides straight Web hosting, including message, database, social media and gaming hosting, collocation, private racks, SSL certificates, domains, special anti-virus protection and more, but Dodds relies on the company only for Web hosting. It’s a simple transaction, but absolutely vital to his business. And he’s thrilled with the service.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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