Don't scrimp when you pick a Web host unless you want your greeting to be "Site not found."
For a four-week period during last summer's travel season, customers of FriendsTravel.com were met not with a choice of cruises, tours, or hotels, but with an error message and a blank E-mail form addressed to the company's founder. Friends Travel, a West Hollywood, Calif., site specializing in vacation arrangements for gay men and lesbians, was the victim of a Web-hosting disaster. Its Web host, a small provider in Toronto, was reselling services from a larger company. When the two providers engaged in a dispute, the larger company pulled the plug, stranding Friends Travel in the process.
Unreliable Web-hosting services, which are all too common, can cost your company in a number of ways. For Friends Travel founder Jess Kalinowsky, the cost was a month's worth of new business. During the Web-site meltdown, "we had zero communication with potential new clients," says Kalinowsky.
No one can afford to lose customers or revenues or credibility. Here's how some CEOs have handled their inhospitable Web hosts, plus some advice on avoiding such traps altogether.
Things That Go Thump on the Net
Martin Berda owns Berda CompuGraphix, a $300,000 T-shirt printer in Aliquippa, Pa. Last summer a Web-hosting outage downed Berda's site (www.berda.com) for nearly 24 hours, and he spent more than an hour trying to reach someone at the hosting company. "This type of 'service' is ridiculous," Berda says.
Ridiculous -- and yet familiar. Berda has changed hosts six times in the past three years. The first time, his company's site had simply outgrown the provider. But when Berda looked around, he found that the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world were charging $150 a month to host a small company's Web site, while lesser-known Web hosts were asking just $30 a month. Berda opted for economy. What did he get? What he paid for, of course. "You're helpless," Berda says of his relationships with small Web hosts. "You're at their mercy."
After one provider slowed the T-shirt company's Web site to a crawl, Berda's Webmaster got an idea. The company would test each prospective new host by running a test site at a dummy URL before saying good-bye to the current host. The plan worked. Two or three companies knocked the dummy site off-line and in the process knocked themselves out of contention. But even after a trial run, "there's no guarantee that the service will remain good," says Berda. (One host that had passed the trial was crippled by the Code Red virus, so Berda had to switch again.) But the test "does prevent you from hooking up with an obvious loser from the beginning."
That may not be enough, says Jay Slattery, an analyst at Technology Business Research, a marketing and consulting company in Hampton, N.H. Slattery argues that Berda will never get far using bargain hosting companies meant for brochureware sites. "Thirty dollars a month is just not going to provide you with the level of uptime needed for continuous E-commerce and business-to-business transactions," he says.
Unfortunately, major improvements in Web-hosting services aren't coming soon. The industry has been in turmoil for about a year. During the dot-com mania, host companies built out their infrastructure and in the process accumulated crushing debt. And the market shakeout isn't over. So is this the time to think about bringing your Web hosting in-house? Think twice, says Ed Silver.
Silver is cofounder of Lodging.com, a discount hotel-reservation service based in Boca Raton, Fla. Silver runs the company's Web site on an in-house server, and as recently as two years ago, the company was using five T1 lines. But as its Web traffic grew, the company suddenly discovered it was using 60% of the site's bandwidth. Soon the first complaints about slow response time began trickling in. Silver called his Internet service provider, WorldCom's UUNet, and put in a request for a T3 line. The ISP gave him an estimate of a 90-day turnaround.
HOSTING HORRORS: Disastrous telecom service almost pushed Lodging.com's cofounders, Ed Silver and William Marbach, over the edge.
What followed was about as much fun as a night at the Bates Motel. Silver discovered that even though UUNet could provide him with high-speed Internet service, the local phone company -- in this case, BellSouth -- would have to install the requisite fiber-optic lines on Lodging.com's street. "This was back in the time when dot-coms were going through the roof," Silver says. Silver called BellSouth almost daily for a service update, and as the months went by, Lodging.com's customers were devouring more and more of the site's existing bandwidth. As a stopgap, Silver had an antenna installed on the roof of his one-story building and paid another local provider some $3,000 a month for wireless Internet service. That provided a big chunk of bandwidth, but because the wireless service was new, "it frequently conked out. I was fighting with the wireless provider and fighting with BellSouth and UUNet to get the T3. It was everything I could do to stay alive."
After eight months, BellSouth finally came through with the fiber lines, but that still wasn't the end of it. Says Silver: "When they brought the fiber to the end of the street, they said, 'We don't see a pipe. Where's the pipe?' And I said, 'What pipe?" That's when Silver learned that it's the building owner's responsibility to lay the pipes that carry lines in from the street. Lodging.com's leased office space had no such pipes in place. Silver called the landlord, who declined to bankroll the work. So Silver found a contractor who would bore a hole from the street to his building (cost: $5,000). As his staffers stood outside watching, 10 men drilled a tunnel that broke through the floor of the company's phone room. Electricians then wired the BellSouth fiber to the company's office suite.
In October 2000, 10 months after his first call to UUNet, Silver flipped the fiber switch. Today he pays about $14,000 a month for his T3, a fee that's typical. But the whole experience ate up time he could have otherwise spent growing his company. Perhaps nothing could have hastened the phone company's agonizing pace. But Silver does have a few choice words regarding the landlord: "When we leave, we will put cement in this pipe so no one can use it. The pipe is ours." Silver's advice to CEOs bent on hosting their own sites: choose an office building that comes equipped with fiber capabilities, and order bandwidth well before you think you'll need it.
Of course, many small-business owners lack both the expertise and the budget to host their own sites. For them, analyst Slattery recommends shelling out a couple hundred bucks a month for a decent service agreement with a stable company, perhaps a national telco like those that Martin Berda researched, or an IBM or EDS. When it comes to Web hosting, the devil you know may be the way to go.
Jill Hecht Maxwell is a reporter at Inc.
Need Hosting Help? Be Their Guest
It's bad enough that there are thousands of Web-hosting providers to choose from. But the Web offers hundreds of online directories for such services, too. So where's a CEO to go for impartial information? Try these sites:
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