For the longest time I had been a fan of HostGator for my web hosting needs. They are cheap, reliable, and surprisingly fast. They also have plans which allow unlimited domains, which is perfect for my sidestrapper needs. I had recommended them to everyone I knew…until a few months ago.
Earlier this year, HostGator got bought out by their now parent company EIG. They own a bunch of other cheap web hosting companies, such as BlueHost and HostMonster. During this transition they decided a great way to cut costs was to move from their Dallas, Texas datacenter to their own facility in Provo, Utah.
This decision to move datacenters was a disaster for two reasons:
1) They have to move all of their customers’ websites to new servers. This means copying all the files, server settings, databases, etc. Then switching the DNS to point to their new servers. Then hoping there was no data loss, server errors, or other screw ups. This means downtime and headaches for ALL of their current customers.
2) They’re changing from a datacenter run by SoftLayer, an extremely reliable network provider, to one run by themselves. They’re new to this, and they made mistakes which resulted in lots of downtime.
It started with the dedicated servers
I first learned of this move at my full time job. We had been on dedicated HostGator servers for years, and we got the dreaded notice saying they’re going to transition our servers in a few days. WAIT! We have a realtime system which must be up at all times and not lose any data. We did not trust HostGator to move our servers reliably (they don’t know how our system works), so we had to spend a couple weeks of our own time setting up and transitioning to new servers in their new environment. Who paid for that time? Not HostGator. Then after the migration there have been countless time when we were down (thankfully we had backup servers on another network). There was one time we were down for over 3 days. That’s just not acceptable! We have since moved to another provider at work.
What about my side projects?
For my personal side projects, I also had a plan with HostGator – a shared one that got migrated later in the year. The migration went well – I saw no downtime so I do give them kudos for that. But for the next few weeks after every once in a while I noticed my sites being unable to connect to or very slow.
While investigating things, I came across this graph in Google Webmaster Tools:
Wow that’s a huge difference, and it started EXACTLY on Sept 16th, the day HostGator completed my hosting transition. No one likes a slow site, but Google especially doesn’t like a slow site (slow page speed can hurt SEO), and we know Google’s seeing my performance drop since these are their stats!
I contacted HostGator support to bring this concern to their attention:
Dear HostGator Support,
My websites load much slower after this migration happened. Can you explain why? The spike in the graph below happened on Sept 16th, the EXACT day my sites were provisioned to a new server. I’m paying the same amount but getting less quality. What’s going on?
They usually took 2 days to respond (yes, their support response times got worse too), and when they did they provided a canned response. But I kept at it, continuing to bug them and escalate the issue until I got this response:
We are happy to help you with this concern.
I think a large part of the issue here is that while the page load times may appear slow when compared to previously, they are still quite good. I did some research on what page load times Google considers when ranking sites, and found the following article by Google Analytics themselves to be extremely informative:
What this article tells us is that the average load times for web sites as seen by Google range between 3 and 10 seconds. Given that all tests on your site are showing consistent page loads of under one second, these load times can hardly be considered slow. They are slower than they were before, yes, but page load speeds of less than 100ms is certainly considered top notch however this doesn’t leave much room for improvement. This is why a slight slow down is considered acceptable, as getting page load speeds of faster than 1/10th of a second will be extremely difficult. Beyond this is the fact that Google will not lower your rankings over page loads that increase by a few tenths of a second. They look more for 5-10 second page load differences, and even still it is only one of several hundred other factors that go into how Google ranks sites.
More details on this are also on:
As for the hardware itself, the server your account came off of was considerably less performant than the one you have been migrated to:
Old – 12 core CPU, 24GB RAM
New – 32 core CPU, 64GB RAM
The other hardware remained the same, except storage which has been redesigned to solve common issues we dealt with when using the older servers, mainly regarding data redundancy, automatic fallbacks, and raw I/O speeds.
Feel free to reply with any other questions or concerns.
Linux Administrator / Monitoring Department
So their new servers are a big upgrade in hardware over the previous servers (well that may be, but did you overload them?). But regardless don’t tell me what my speed is allowed to degrade to before I should worry – I had a fast site before and I want to keep it fast! I asked them to check resource usage on other accounts on my shared server, poked and prodded, but the only suggestion I could get out of them was to update my DNS name servers, which did nothing.
The final straw
At this point I was considering moving to a new host. It’s usually a pain in the butt and you never know what you’re going to get until you try it. Plus maybe HostGator just had some growing pains and I needed to be patient. Until one morning I couldn’t reach any of my sites for several hours. HostGator reported no downtime, but it was obvious there was an issue when I saw this in Google Webmaster Tools:
So that’s when I decided to find a new host. I researched a few different hosts, and the folks over at WebHostingTalk were a great help. Eventually I decided on StableHost and started migrating my sites.
Why I chose StableHost
It ultimately came down to a few reasons:
- They claimed stability and performance, which is what I craved. Their servers run the Lightspeed web server, which is supposed to be 6x faster than Apache. Their drives are also solid state (SSD), and the distribution of MySQL they used is Percona, which prove to me that they know about optimizing for speed.
- They are honest. They publicly state that they do oversell instead of skirting the issue. And the reasons they give make sense and calm my fears about it.
- They allow SSH access and dedicated IPs. The inner nerd in me always wants to have a way into the server other than FTP.
- They were responsive in my support tests. Whenever I emailed them, I got responses within about 3 hours. That’s adequate for me. Additionally, I had posted a thread on WebHostingTalk about measuring server speed, and Mike from StableHost was the first to respond.
It also was nice that they would transfer your sites to them for free as long as your previous host ran cPanel. That means I didn’t have to copy files, dump and import databases, or re-setup my cronjobs and htaccess settings. Lastly, they offered a 45 day money back guarantee just in case I wasn’t happy after the move.
As my sites were transitioning I had a copy of my sites on both HostGator and StableHost’s servers. This is a prime opportunity to run a few speed tests to immediately measure the difference in speed with the exact same content on both servers.
Have you ever used WebPageTest.org to measure your site’s speed before? It’s awesome, and free – everyone should know about this tool!
In short, I noticed the performance was about the same as HostGator, but there were some server tweaks that StableHost has optimized for (in the links below compare the F grade before with the A’s after). Here are the detailed reports if you’re interested:
- Static HTML site: HostGator vs StableHost
- Database-driven site: HostGator vs StableHost
- PHP themed site: HostGator vs StableHost
More proof that StableHost screams
After those first tests I was confident that StableHost would be just as fast as HostGator, and hopefully more stable. I had to wait a few weeks for results to be gathered on Google Webmaster Tools to see if Google noticed a difference.
Awesome! My page times from Google’s point of view have gone down to the 100ms level, and are consistent! Thanks, StableHost!
But that’s not it, those optimized server settings also show that I’m using less bandwidth now too:
All of the graphs so far have been on a site of mine that doesn’t use a lot of resources (minimal graphics, small pages). But let’s see the server difference on a site that uses a lot of power, such as a wordpress site:
It went from an average time of 1300ms down to 350ms. That’s huge!!!
A happy StableHost customer
You’ll never find me recommend a product or service on this site that I’m not proud of. Since my web host transition over a month ago, StableHost continues to be very fast, reliable, and kick ass in every way. If you’re looking for a host, or if HostGator has screwed up with you too, give them a try!
Oh, and I didn’t mention the best part! Load times aren’t the only thing that went down as a result of this switch – so did my cost! I was paying $15/month at HostGator, and I’m now down to $5/month at StableHost. Awesome!
And if that’s not cheap enough, use this coupon exclusive for my readers that gives 40% off your first month: ‘shanelabs’
Anyone else have a great experience with StableHost? or a shitty experience with HostGator?