In the modern, competitive Web Hosting market, one of the top priorities for all hosting companies is to attract new customers. Before paying for, and setting up an account with a specific host, most people like to email the company’s sales department to ask a few questions, and find out exactly how good the sales advice and response times are.
Yesterday, under the alias of Dave Jones, I emailed 39 of the top Web hosting companies with one message. My objective: to measure how good their response times were, and how helpful the advice given was. I posed as a personal homepage owner who didn’t know much about the Internet, mainly to see whether they explained things in a way that site owners at all levels could understand.
In my message, I told the various hosts that mine was a personal site that attracted only 30 to 40 visitors each month. Despite this, I told the hosts I used a MySQL database for news management. I also said that I used the site primarily to manage my email. After I received a reply from each vendor, I then sent another message with a few more detailed questions, to find out how they responded to those. I set a response timeframe of 24 hours from the point at which I mailed the first message. All companies who had not responded within 24 hours would be given a “No Response” rating.
The results of this survey were very interesting. Here, I’ll explain the various types of replies I received, but at the end of this article you’ll find a chart that shows the response times for each host.
At 11:10am yesterday morning, I sent an email to the sales departments of 39 hosting companies. I acquired the list from the UK Top Hosts Website, and the classifieds section of .net magazine. I then send this message to each host:
"I am currently investigating moving hosting companies for my personal Website, and was wondering if you would be able to provide hosting for me. My site is very small, only a few pages, but uses a small PHP script and a MySQL database to allow me to post news. I don’t have many visitors, only about 30-40 a month, so it is a small site. I use it primarily for my personal email account (I’m using my work one now).
Could you advise me about which account I should go with, or whether you could create something special for me?"
I sent this email from one of my own domain names, under the alias of David Jones. I then waited for the responses to come back. As each reply came in, I sent back the set of extra questions, as follows:
"Thank you for your quick response. I have a few questions. Could you answer them for me please?
- How many people do you have available to provide support?
- What access speeds can I expect from the Website?
- What kind of redundancy do you have available if the site goes down?
- What happens if I exceed my diskspace/bandwidth allowance?
- Do you offer backup on your servers?
- Can I transfer my domain name in?
- What happens if I want to leave?
I am relatively new to hosting, so any additional help you could provide would be excellent!"
These questions received various responses.
Responses To The Initial Message
As you might expect, the level of information provided in the reply to my first email varied for each company. For example, I received a one line reply from SupaNames:
"From the sounds of your requirements our Value Host account should be suitable for you."
Not very informative, nor does this message explain why that account would be good for my requirements. CWCS also sent me a 1-line reply, while Virtual ISP sent me a 2-liner.
I was very impressed with the response from ‘Scott’ at Rackspace. It was probably unfair to include them in the survey, as Rackspace don’t provide shared hosting, which is what I required. However, Scott said that I would require a shared hosting account, and though Rackspace couldn’t provide this, I could purchase a dedicated server from them if I wished:
"After reading your email, it seems to me that you are looking for a shared hosting solution. I think what you are looking for is a low cost solution that offers some Webspace and email accounts. Although you could host your site at Rackspace, I think we are a little larger scale than what you need."
I responded to his recommendation with the standard questions, which he answered well. He even gave me a URL to trace route to, so that I could see the real speed of the connection, which was impressive. He also sent me a 6 page PDF all about RackSpace and how I could benefit from their services. Although this is not what I needed for my small site, it shows how they deal with their potential customers.
The response from Hostway UK was very good. Before I had sent the 7 questions, I was told exactly what features were included in the plan they recommended to me (Linux Gold), and the cost of it. Paul also picked up on the fact that I wanted to use the account for email, and said that I could use their Webmail facility and manage email accounts via their control panel. However, this plan was probably a little too much for what I needed, and, at Â£14.95 per month, quite expensive for a simple personal site with email. Also, their Linux Silver account only comes with 1Gb of bandwidth, which might be a problem. But overall, very good service.
Positive Internet replied second-fastest to my enquiry, with a useful amount of information. They also picked up on the fact I wanted email, and told me that I could control all my mailboxes via their control panel. They mentioned that I could use either their Webmail, or my own email client. They also provide very good support: a maximum response time of 3 hours, as well as an emergency SMS service. But I’d expect that for the price they quoted me: Â£250+VAT. Way too much for my needs! I was also offered a direct contact number to speak to Darren if I wanted!
9NetAvenue told me I needed to buy their corporate service just to use MySQL ,even though I only needed a small site. This was a huge Â£39.95 per month, although if I paid up front, I could get the second year free. That price is, of course, too high for a personal site.
VI told me that:
"Our standard VI Host would be perfect for your requirements. This costs Â£120.00 a year with no set up costs. You get 25 Mb Web space, 12 pop 3 accounts, PHP and MYSQL as standard. You would also get a VI control panel to create pop accounts and manage any mail or Web forwarding you may require."
They even offered me a free .co.uk domain name as well, unless I had my own domain name I wanted to transfer in!
Easy Space sent me a huge email, which almost told me about every package and service they provided! I was disappointed to see that some of their accounts come with banner adverts, which is not ideal for a paid service. However, the reply to my initial email was good and included links to examples of a few Websites that were hosted with them, which I could check out.
Datex UK went out of their way to help me. Steve offered to create a special account for me as my needs were minimal. He offered me their ‘Level 1’ plan for Â£185 per year if I prepaid, and said he would throw in PHP and MySQL for free! This is what I wanted to see from the companies I emailed! Even though they have set prices, it’s nice to see that they’re willing to create specific plans for specific requirements.
Purple Paw, who I’d never heard of before, replied the fastest, in an astonishing 4 minutes! They recommended their Small Business package at Â£45 for one year, which includes MySQL. They also offered the Personal package for Â£25 per year, but I would have to pay an extra Â£5 per year for the MySQL database.
Mistral provided a disappointing response, saying that they didn’t support MySQL on any accounts, unless I purchased a managed server, which was definitely not what I wanted for a personal account! Of the companies that responded, they were the slowest, taking almost 24 hours to reply.
Responses To Additional Questions
After receiving the response to the initial query, I sent out some more questions in an effort to obtain more detailed information. The responses to these were mostly good.
1. How many people do you have available to provide support?
Most companies had people available 24/7. Rackspace had the most, with 300 employees, 2/3 of them being ‘techs’. It is obvious that there would be fewer people available in the evening, although Donhost provided the very literal response of:
"We have 4 people available."
This made it difficult to work out if they were available 24/7. Joshua Internet provided the best response to this question:
"Sorry, that’s commercially sensitive information I’m afraid."
Virtual ISP also decided not to answer this question fully:
"We offer support to all our customers mon â€“ fri, with out off hours cover being via email."
2. What access speeds can I expect from the Website?
Most responses to this question were that it depended on my connection, but a few provided specific connection details, such as who their data carriers were and the speeds of their Internet backbones. As mentioned earlier, Rackspace even provided an address so I could trace route it.
3. What kind of redundancy do you have available if the site goes down?
As expected, the respondents had multiple connections to the Internet in case of failure. Positive Internet carry spare parts for all their servers. Datagate have mirror servers ready to take over in case of the main server failing, which is a very good feature. Joshua Internet gave an interesting response again:
"As these are budget hosting accounts, sites are not load balanced or mirrored across multiple servers (it would double our prices). But our servers are carefully looked after, so such an event would be rare."
Dziner Solutions gave a detailed reply about how their drives are hot swappable for extra redundancy. Virtual ISP do not appear to have any kind of redundancy:
"It’s very rare that we loose servers for long period of times."(sic)
4. What happens if I exceed my diskspace/bandwidth allowance?
The general view on this was that most hosts didn’t mind if you exceed your allocation by a small amount, but arrangements would need to be made if this occurred frequently. Only Aventure Host said they might close your site if you went over your bandwidth limit.
Host Supreme appeared to be very generous with their allowances:
"If you exceed your diskspace allocation, simply notify us and we’ll increase it at no extra charge. If you exceed your bandwidth, you will be notified but your site will not be shut down."
This is one of the main things to look out for with hosting — will they shut your site down if you exceed your bandwidth?
5. Do you offer backup on your servers?
Generally, the data on the server was backed up, but only for the recovery of data in case of failure. Most hosts said I’d have to backup my own data. Aventure Host did not provide any form of backup on the servers at all for privacy reasons.
6. Can I transfer my domain name in?
This obvious answer to this was yes, for all hosts concerned.
7. What happens if I want to leave?
Again, there was no problem with this for any of the hosts.
Total Response Times
Of the 39 hosts contacted, I was disappointed to see that only 20 of them responded! The table below shows the response time for each host. Note that NR = No Response.
How Do They Stack Up?
It’s obvious from the chart above that Purple Paw responded the fastest. However, the best response has to go to RackSpace. Even though they couldn’t provide what I needed, they had the best response and answered the questions most clearly and comprehensively. A close contender was DZINER Solutions. Datex UK are highly commended for creating a special package for my needs, even if it was reasonably expensive.
This survey has provided some very interesting results, which I hope you can use to your advantage next time you’re assessing hosts!