Just about six weeks ago my life on the internet came crashing down.  Today having a web presence, especially for a business, is absolutely necessary.  A website not only serves as an electronic storefront open 24 hours a day 7 days a week, but it can also serve as a virtual business card, information repository, classroom, and about a million other things all depending on what intent the website owner has.  A website has international reach as well, giving you the ability to communicate anything to almost everyone worldwide.

However behind all the glitz and glamor of being an international internet star, a website is nothing more than a collection of computer files written in obscure languages that relatively very few of us understand or even know how to “speak”, HTML, ASP, PHP, CSS and the list of acronyms goes on.  Add to that the responsibility of maintaining a website and updating it often with new content for visitors and the job becomes almost monumental.  The last thing a webmaster wants to deal with is a downed website.

Now a website, this collection of computer files, has to sit somewhere on a computer’s hard drive, after all it is their only existence.  In fact they must be in at least two physical places, the computer where the files were initially written and the computer that hosts those files and serves them up when requested.  Now I suppose they could be served up from the same computer that they were written on but more on that later.

Now in order for those files to appear in an internet browser window on your computer, just like this journal entry appears on yours right now, your internet browser had to make a request for those files to be displayed.  The process of how that happens rests on another acronym, the URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, also known as the domain name.  The URL is essentially an address, much like the mailing address of your home, only in this case the address is to the location of where the computer files you wish to see are located or “housed”.  The typical example of a URL is http://www.organiclightphoto.com.  Only computers do not do well with written words that we can understand, but rather are much more comfortable with numbers.  So every URL translates into a set of four three digit numbers separated by periods, as in this example, 72.249.5.10 known as the IP address.  Each number can take on a value from 0 to 255.  Every computer that has access to the internet will have this set of four numbers assigned to it.

Computers that house websites and serve them up for viewing when requested are called servers.  Servers come in two varieties, those that run Microsoft Windows as an operating system and those that utilize UNIX as the operating system.  One is based on free open source code and the other is not.  The majority of servers, about 60%, are machines running the UNIX environment.  Each operating system “speaks” and “understands”  a different language and this is where I believe my WHOAs started.

Eight years ago, a friend of mine called me up out of the blue and asked me why I did not have a website showcasing my photography.  I had dabbled a bit in HTML but really did not know what I was doing, and asked him how I should go about getting one.  He then offered to build one for me!  About 6 months later www.organiclightphoto.com was born.  He designed the website to be what is known as dynamic, that is the webpages responded dynamically to the requests made and content was delivered via information stored in a database rather than all statically present in an HTML page.  It was cutting edge stuff at the time and he wrote the pages using ASP, a dynamic coding script developed by Microsoft.  At the time very few servers were able to host such a website and my friend found an outfit that could provide the service we needed.

As the years went on the service of that company went from good to worse to nearly non-existent.  Two years ago I decided to start this web journal, aka blog, and started to download the free code from the WordPress.org site.  My next Whoa was about to turn the corner.  PHP what’s that?  Well it was another scripting language used to deliver up dynamic websites much like ASP did but was built up and around the UNIX operating system and was Open Source and free.  I contact my hosting company and asked if they could help me install WordPress.  They had a very difficult time doing so and had an even harder time maintaining and troubleshooting errors associated with it.  I was naive and the hosting company gave me little in the way of educating me on the trouble.

So I begin the search for a hosting company on my own, without the help of my friend who by now had moved on to medical school and left me with an ASP website and a Sam’s Teach Yourself ASP 3.0 text book to take care of and update the website.  I was doing a pretty good job of keeping the site maintained and even wrote several new pages confidently.  So I find a hosting company, claiming that they could host both ASP and PHP with direct specifications that WordPress was supported.  I sign up with them and upload my website files to their servers and trouble shoot the pages to make sure they work properly on the new servers.  “Whoa!  You mean each server is different?  You mean I have to go through tens of pages to change paths pointing to the files – your kidding right?”  “I use files all through out my pages to bring up photos, and buttons, and graphics.  That’s thousands of lines of coed that I have to re-write just to get them to work on your servers – that’s not right!”  I complained to the technical support for about a week, and finally a straight answer from a top level technician – “no you only need to change the path where you specifically use an ‘include’ statement to bring in code from another file”.  Phew, what a relief that was, but Whoa, was that a shock.  I finally get the website working on the new server and now I have to cancel service with the old host company and have the IP address of my site changed to the new server which can take some time, because as I found out it is not generally the host company who has control over the website URL.

Whoa!  Hold on a minute who owns my website name?  When a website URL is chosen it used to be that when it was registered it had to be done through another company that just registers and maintains URL’s and they may or may not actually host the website.  In my case the first hosting company did not handle domain names.  The problem early on was that domain name registrars sometimes placed the ownership of the domain with them rather than the actual site owner.  Luckily my friend had enough smarts to chose a reputable registrar and it was just a matter of contacting them and having the address to the site changed to the new server.  And not only that, but the domain name has to be registered to you, and you have to pay yearly to keep control of that name.  Let your registration expire and your domain name could be up for grabs.  Whoa!

So now the site is on the new server and the blog postings are rolling out and everyone is happy.  Suddenly May 6th, 2010 rolls around and my new host company sends an email informing me that they are migrating all the websites hosted to new and better equipment, a server upgrade.  Within 24 hours my website starts to act very funny.  The pages don’t load as fast anymore, images take a long time to download, and HEY! why do I keep getting a CGI error when I try to view my blog?  Whoa!  My site is not working!  The host company assures me that once the migration is done, these anomalies will go away.  Four days pass and nothing is any better, no response from tech support other than the issue is under review and a resolution will be found shortly.  This was not acceptable!  For now, the website was not just a place to showcase my photos, but it was how I communicated with my patrons and customers.  I was in the midst of my yearly Open Studio Exhibit and I was running a promotion and needed the site to be functional, for now my livelihood was on the line.

I finally got a sliver of hope when one response from one tech support person sent me a message that highlighted how he had changed a line of my code in the homepage of the site alone and said the issue was now resolved and the support ticket was closed.  Gee! Thanks for fixing the one page of many that I have on your server.  You are just too kind!  I spent the next couple of days going through my multitude of pages fixing paths again.  You would think tech support could have at least told me that was the main problem.  Once I had the website back up and running, I then turned to the problem of the WordPress blog not working.  They kept beating around the bush on this one for about two weeks.

Finally one night I was surfing the internet and happened upon a page ranking website and I was trying to find my website’s ranking.  In the process I discovered that my website was actually housed on servers that belonged to a company with a name other than the host company I thought I was using.  I visited that company’s website and although they did say they provided hosting services, there was no mention of what plans they offered or any way to contact them, other than a page that listed the top managers of the company.  I found the email link to the VP of technical support.  I wrote him a brisk email and that I needed this hosting problem resolved.

The next morning I had an email from him apologizing for all the trouble and he informed me that the company that was hosting my website has gone out of business and they were taking over.

So just to let you all know, that if your hosting company ever tells you they are upgrading to a new server and / or they are migrating your site to new servers, you can be pretty sure they have been bought out and you are now working with a different company.  Yeah, Whoa!

So the VP puts me in direct phone contact with the lead tier 3 technician, who graciously explains to me the problem.  So get this.  This new company is using a new sophisticated hosting architecture where they have several redundant servers working back to back so if for any reason if one server goes down then another will automatically take up serving websites.  This way they can guarantee 99.99% uptime.  In addition, in order to speed up the serving of pages, they are using a new clustered CGI pool which again allows pages to be served up from any available server with out having to wait for a CGI connection to be freed up.  The problem as he explained it is that with my site written in ASP and the blog written in PHP the CGI cluster is having a hard time translating bwtween the two codes, ASP and PHP, being that PHP is native on UNIX systems and ASP on Microsoft systems.  Huh!?  Whoa!  You mean…?  But wait it gets better.  On the old servers before the ‘migration’ each domain name was treated as its own domain.  Now however with this new architecture, the domain is now under the account name and not under the actual www.organiclightphoto.com.  So when trying to resolve the differences between the ASP and PHP under the same “domain” it is getting confused.  His conclusion was that he felt the new servers would never be able to serve up both the ASP site and the PHP blog with any more than about 50% reliability, that is 50% of the time the blog would not load properly and his only real suggestion was to find a different hosting company that still used the old architecture, but warned me that it would probably end up being a small “mom & pop” type shop.  I tried to come up with other solutions for them to try but in the end, decided that it was time to find some other company.  Whoa!

So in the meantime I asked that they return my website to the old servers until I could find a new host.  They gave me about three weeks before the old servers were to be turned off for good.  And so a mad rush started to find a new hosting company that could handle both ASP and PHP on the same server and deliver both my website and the WordPress blog.

I found several, and they all sounded good, the price was right and I finally made a decision on a small company out of the Midwest, that offered dedicated IP addresses for a domain name.  Whoa!  I discovered that most hosting companies when they assign an IP address it is assigned to a server rather than an individual domain, and then software resolves the final calls to serve up a site.  Its called shred hosting.  This is fine, except what if other websites housed on that server using that same IP address deliver X-rated material or has been black listed for spam or malware, then the entire IP address and any website under that IP address will be blacklisted and not show up on search engine pages.  Yeah Whoa!  So I signed up for a free 30 day trial at this one host, only to find out a day or two later that customer complaints were a mile long with complaints about sites being hacked repeatedly, little or no technical support, and lots of server down time!  It really is Caveat Emptor!  Once I discovered these issues I quickly canceled my service and the search went on.  I quickly discovered web hosting company review websites where each company was reviewed but there were conflicting reports until I discovered that some of the review sites were owned by some of the very web hosting companies themselves.  So I turned to the Better Business Bureau website and discovered which companies had the best track records.  The original host from 2002 had a D- rating!  The second host I used had an A+ rating, but with over 135 complaints in the last 36 months.  The new host I found, but quickly canceled, also had an A+ rating but again with over 100 complaints in the last 36 months.  Almost all the hosting companies I found were riddled with customer complaints, except for one, the company I am with now.  They have an A+ rating, and only 1 complaint, that is correct, 1 complaint in the last 36 months.  No matter where I looked I could not find any disfavor with this one company.  The final Whoa!

So here I am now with my website, www.organiclightphoto.com, as well as two more sites that are in development hosted with this new company.  So who are they, you ask?  3Essentials.com.  I have only been with them for about a week or so, but so far so good.  Everything seems to be running smoothly and I hope I will not have to move my site anywhere else for a very long time.  If you are looking to host a website, or a blog either on a Windows server or a Unix server for a resonable price, I would check out www.3essentials.com for your self.

So what am I going to do now?  Well I do plan to slowly switch my website over from the ASP scripting language to the PHP scripting language.  This way my entire site will be written in PHP and I can better choose if I want to host my website on a UNIX or Windows server and allow for better portability if the need ever arises again.  So be careful out there as the woes of maintaining a website and finding a reputable and dependable web hosting company can have you saying ‘Whoa!’ quite a bit.

Peace