Need a Web Hosting Provider? Try the 3 a.m. Test

Tips on critical criteria to consider when selecting a new Web hosting provider, include availability of tech support, bandwidth and scalable hosting solutions.

Among the ample fodder for comics and satirists served up during the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton's "phone ringing at 3 a.m." commercial stands out. The legacy of the 30-second spot, unveiled before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, is a rich trove of parodies that by now are much easier to find on YouTube than the original ad that inspired them.

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Yuks aside, it turns out Clinton's communication people may have unwittingly aired an ad that's pitch-perfect for senior technology managers in charge of selecting a Web hosting provider for their companies. Consider how Chris Paino, CTO of Atlanta-based eVestment, made his decision back in 2001.

"Basically, I did the 3 a.m. test," says Paino. "We had a list of hosting companies we were interested in, and I woke up at 3 a.m. and called them. Most of the calls rolled over to voice-mail boxes or you got someone who was at an answering service."

However, in the case of INetU, the hosting provider Paino eventually selected, a trained technician picked up on the second ring. Paino asked a few questions and was pleased that tech's answers showed a goodly amount of server savvy. Today, Paino remains happy with his choice, adding that even though INetU's offices are 800 miles away in Allentown, Pa., calling the hosting provider "is like we're calling our server team down the hallway."

Paino's well-intentioned ruse seems a good way to at least begin to differentiate the crowded field of hosting providers. It's an industry segment that remains hopelessly cluttered by firms ranging from Fortune 500 stalwarts to a raft of much smaller companies serving mostly local and regional markets.

Generally, the bigger the hosting project, the bigger the hosting vendor, and time was when there was no shortage of stories about hosting heroics of U.S.-based tech multinationals. In a press release issued after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, IBM included a somewhat breathless quote by Tom Furey, then general manager of the company's worldwide Olympics technology, that building and managing the technology infrastructure for the Sydney Games was the "largest, most complex information technology challenge in the world."

So large and complex, perhaps, that IBM hasn't had a lick to do with hosting official Olympic websites ever since. To handle the website for the Beijing 2008 Games, the International Olympic Committee contracted Suhu.com, a sprawling Chinese entertainment and communication company that likely is obscure to many U.S. CIOs. Suhu.com, which also offers proprietary search technology that competes directly with Google, will deploy more than 600 servers running quad core Intel Xeon chips and will maintain a reserve of 300 additional Xeon based servers as backups.

Just as it's no longer a fait accompli that the most challenging hosting projects will go to a pedigreed company that's a fixture in the technology industry, so too is it true that these same big companies no longer automatically eschew the website needs of small businesses. Indeed, perhaps the most significant hosting story of 2008 is Microsoft's relaunch of Office Live Small Business (OLSB), which focuses on the Web needs of small businesses, including the 70 percent of sole proprietorships in the nation that haven't yet hung out any sort of virtual shingle.

OLSB, with no-coding-required tools for designing and hosting a site, e-mailing customers, and conducting e-commerce, provides free website hosting with 500MB of storage. And the new OLSB shows an openness that's unusual for Microsoft. It's now easy enough (and also free) to set up an online presence using Firefox and to use custom website designs rather than Microsoft's canned versions. The New York Times tech columnist and author David Pogue writes in a Feb. 14, 2008, article that the tools show that "innovation still thrives in pockets" at Microsoft.

Of course, at a certain scale, businesses simply outgrow any just-click-here approach to hosting. And while low-/no-cost options are bound to attract attention, it's shortsighted to consider only price when making a hosting decision. At first blush, the incremental cost of moving from a $200-per-month dedicated hosting arrangement (you lease the server from the hosting company, which will provide minimal support) to a $600-per-month managed hosting arrangement (you lease the server and get extensive maintenance and support guarantees) seems expensive and perhaps not worth the additional $4,800 annually, especially given the sour economy. But the cost-benefit analysis may change when you consider the cost of downtime in terms of lost business and diminished reputation.

Beyond price lurk a collection of concerns, including the long-term stability of the hosting vendor. Be wary of notable personnel churn or frequent changes of ownership. Another concern is data center redundancy, both in terms of connections to the Internet and to the power grid. Due the ever-escalating arms race against spam, it's a good idea to ask whether the host has any blacklisted IPs—addresses from which other networks refuse e-mails. And insist that you never be distributed from any such tainted IPs, particularly if you plan any extensive e-mail campaigns.

"Bandwidth is the most important thing; my site gets about a million unique visitors a month and I get occasionally daily spikes if I write something a lot of people link to so I need to make sure I'm not tripping over some bandwidth limit," says blogger and author John Scalzi. "After that is server space: I've been running Scalzi.com for 10 years and in that time have acquired a lot of files; after that is access to analysis software and server logs, so I know where people are coming in from, what they're looking at, and how long they stay."

At least according to Paino, the biggest consideration is the level of authentic customer concern and service afforded by the hosting vendor. Of course, a perceived lack of authenticity was among the many nagging questions about Clinton's campaign. The 3 a.m. ad may have contributed to Clinton's April 22 victory in Pennsylvania, but six weeks later she was out the race.

Paino, however, remains happy with hosting provider, seven years after his own 3 a.m. test. "I was thinking of one-liners to summarize hosting and came up with this one: 'Good hosting feels like an extension of your business,'" he says. "Once I knew they could handle a 3 a.m. call, it was really easy to trust them with our business; it sounds corny, but it's true."

Science and technology writer Geoff Koch can be reached at koch.geoff@gmail.com.

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