How to Contact Virtual Domain Hosts
To Contact Virtual Domain Hosts, it is not only important what you ask, but how you ask it. Your concern is not only with what hardware and services they offer,
but how they will deal with you on an ongoing basis. Remember, this is a service, and you are a customer—make sure anyone you think of dealing with appreciates this.
Being in the Internet business, we have the opportunity of dealing with hosts all over the country—many good, and some downright awful. They sound great when you are signing up and sometimes turn out to care less after you’re on their service. Though there is no absolute way to avoid this, there are some steps you can take to reduce your chances of signing up with an inhospitable host. This is one of the most important decisions you have to face in developing your site. After all, it doesn’t really matter how fabulous your design is if nobody can access it.
We have developed a way to deal with this challenge. Through a six-step process, we eliminate the bad apples and, hopefully, end up with a winner.
This small study is by no means meant to be applicable to the population of ISPs as a whole, or as a referral to any specific provider. This is only as a guide on how to conduct your own virtual host study.
Round 1: For our study, we visited the USA Nationwide as well as the California listing at http:www.thelist.com (see Figure 5.1).
Figure 5.1. ISP resources at http://www.thelist.com/misc/ALL-USA.html.
We choose 60 ISPs at random from the two listings, and fired off an e-mail to each of their “human” e-mail boxes. We didn’t ask all of the questions we pointed out earlier in this chapter because we didn’t foresee the need for all of the services we mentioned. Our e-mail looked something like this:
Hello- We are comparing Web Hosting services. It would be very helpful if you would take a moment to answer the following questions. This will enable us to determine if your services will fit our needs as well as our budget. Do you offer the following, and if so how much do you charge: 1. Virtual hosting of my existing domain name: 2. High-speed (T1 or faster), redundant connection to the Internet: 3. Access logs (online, via email, other): 4. Netscape Secure Commerce Server (if not, do you have an alternative?): 5. Server hardware on site (you are not a reseller): 6. 5 megabytes (MB) of storage space: 7. Unique cgi-bin directory: If applicable give more details of your cgi system (support, free scripting, etc.): 8. 5 e-mail addresses under my domain: 9. Auto-responder e-mail system (please comment): 10. Mailing list program (such as majordomo or listserv): 11. FTP access (direct, secure access to WWW directory): 12. Technical support (by telephone with a real person): 13. 800# technical support (this is a bonus): 14. Discount Set-up fees for having an existing domain name and doing the InterNIC domain name modification ourselves: Do you have a package which includes all of these services? Anything else you feel is unique about your service: Additional comments? Your name: Your Email: Company name: URL: Phone: Street Address: City, State, ZIP: Thank you for your cooperation, we look forward to hearing from you, Kim and Brad Hampton
What we got back was alarming! We received seven form letters (they either did not even attempt to answer our specific questions, or had their “human” mail routed to an autoresponder), six e-mail error messages, five replies that either had the wrong information or did not answer our questions fully, and one that did not arrive until seven days later. We received only 11 responses out of the 60 that even answered our questionnaire correctly, and 50 percent of our questionnaires went totally unanswered.
Wow! Now you can see why we’re putting you through all this.
Out of the eleven acceptable responses, five were very expensive, and two did not have the services we required, so we tossed them off our list. Luckily, four respondents fit our price range and needs. Although two respondents did not offer a Netscape Secure Commerce Server, we kept them on our list, since they appeared to have an alternative. We crossed our fingers that our four possibilities would pass the test, so we wouldn’t have to send out another mailing.
Here is a sample of a response we found acceptable:
To: Hampton & Associates <email@example.com> From: "Martin G. Bayerle" <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Re: Web Hosting Services >Hello- > >We are comparing Web Hosting services. It would be very helpful if you >would take a moment to answer the following questions. This will enable >us to determine if your services will fit our needs as well as our >budget. > >Do you offer the following, and if so how much do you charge: > >1. Virtual hosting of my existing domain name: Yes, $150 first year, $85/year thereafter. (If we process your request for an original domain: $250 first year), with monthly charges of $35/month, 5mb storage. >2. High-speed (T1 or faster), redundant connection to the Internet: Yes, one step removed from backbone. >3. Access logs (online, via email, other): Real-time on-demand customized demographic analysis of your web-site. For an actual example, try our "Some Data for our Advertisers/Customers" button from our home page http://www.imagixx.net. See also our on-line info kit at http://www.isiah.com. >4. Netscape Secure Commerce Server (if not, do you have an >alternative?): Yes, with Enterprise Server. $20/month additional for order page within our secure directory. >5. Server hardware on site (you are not a reseller): We run BSDI 2.01 and NT on several hardware platforms. >6. 5 megabytes (MB) of storage space: Included. >7. Unique cgi-bin: Yes, but self developed CGI is first reviewed by our staff. >If applicable give more details of your cgi system (support, free >scripting, etc.): We offer several stock scripts which we can modify for your personal requirements. Any CGI scripting outside of our stock scripts comes at an extra charge of $45/hour. >8. 5 e-mail addresses under my domain: Four aliases are included. They filter into your actual mailbox. Additional private mailboxes are at $10/month. >9. Auto-responder e-mail system (please comment): One included. Additional are at $10/month. >10. Mailing list program (such as majordomo or listserv): $35/month >11. FTP access (direct, secure access to WWW directory): Included. >12. Technical support (by telephone with a real person): 10a - 8 p M-F, By web pager access at other times. One-hour response if after normal hours. >13. 800# technical support (this is a bonus): Yes, as well as e-mail. >14. Discount Set-up fees for having an existing domain name and doing >the Internic domain name modification ourselves: See above. >Do have a package which includes all these services? Visit our web site. For more info, and to see how an autoresponder works, send an e-mail to email@example.com. >Anything else you feel is unique about your service: We are flexible and innovative. Just e-mail any of our other customers for their opinions! >Your Email: firstname.lastname@example.org >Company name:Imagine Communications Corporation ("Imagixx") >URL: http://www.imagixx.net, http://www.isiah.com >Phone:800 562-4499 >Street Address: Network Operations Center, 2567 University Avenue >City, State, ZIP: Morgantown, WV 26505
We visited the prospective ISPs over a period of time, noting their access speed. We were sure to visit during different times of the day (especially during peak usage times, like the lunch hour), and from different dial-up accounts (so that it wasn’t our own dial-up server we were testing). Knowing that different factors affect access speed, we used another site, which we know runs consistently, as our benchmark. We did these things to make sure our prospective hosts’ servers were consistently fast. They all passed the test.
Round 3: We found our prospective hosts’ client list and visited some of their sites.
One of our prospective ISPs did not list any of its clients at its site, so we e-mailed asking for references. The ISP stated that for the privacy of their clients, they did not give out this information. We told them we respected their point of view (which we do) and asked them to please forward our questionnaire (Round 4) on to five of their clients for us. They told us they would try, but we never received any questionnaires back, so we crossed them off our list.
We noted the speed of the server (we were making sure they didn’t run their own site high speed and run their clients on bogged-down servers). They all passed this test as well.
We e-mailed a random selection (five each) of our ISPs clients, asking them for comments regarding their host.
Our e-mail looked something like this:
Hello- My name is Kim Hampton, I am considering using host_name as a Web Site host. Before committing myself to their services, I wanted to get an idea of what some of their clients think of them (yes, your honest opinion :). If you could, please help me by reply to these questions: 1. How long have you had host_name hosting your Web Site? 2. Is host_name's technical support accessible and helpful if you have a problem? 3. How many times do think your WWW service has been "down"? Have you had any complaints from people accessing your system? Do you consider your Web Site host reliable? Have you ever needed a programming service which your host could not provide? Any other comments? Thank you very much for your time. Any help is truly appreciated.
We lost two more prospective ISPs at this point and were now down to two.
Round 5: We thought of an annoying question and gave the finalists a call on their technical support phone numbers. We chose a question to which we already knew the answer, but we acted absolutely clueless. It’s a question we get from time to time: “If I turn off my computer will people still be able to access my Web site?” We noted how long we were waiting on hold, which was not long. They were both friendly and helpful and treated us with respect.
We picked our favorite. At this point they asked us for our billing information and a password. We needed information from them as well, such as:
- The necessary server and technical contact information, so we could modify our domain registration with InterNIC ourselves. (See Chapter 3.)
- Their mail server information, to set up our mail program. (See Chapter 14, “Mail Delivery Systems.”😉
- Where our FTP directory would be located.
- Where to access our logs.
We let them know which mailbox names we wanted under our domain and wished them a good day, and that was it.
At this time we told them that we were writing a book on Web development, and that the site we were discussing would provide updates for our readers.
Connections to the Internet
You will need access to the Internet in order to transfer your pages and test them on your server, as well as to keep abreast of the WWW. The minimum type of account you want is a PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) or SLIP (Serial Line Internet Protocol), and not a Shell account, which limits you to text-only access.
Ultimately, you’d want to have a dedicated T3 connection to the Net, but this is too expensive for most people to consider. Since price is a consideration to all (well, most) of us, you’ll probably settle for a modem connection, or maybe an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line.
Although some companies offer dedicated modem line service (meaning you are always connected to the Net), there really isn’t much advantage to this. You probably don’t want to spend the whole day online, and if you do, you’d want to be accessing the Net at faster speeds than a telephone line allows. The dial-up services we’ve seen that offer “unlimited hours” are generally slow as molasses.
If you can afford about $150 (current market price at the time of writing this), you’ll definitely want to get a 28.8Kbps modem (as opposed to a 14.4Kbps, the minimum). Almost any access provider will now support 28.8Kbps for the same price as 14.4Kbps, so you’re getting twice as much service for the same cost (to say nothing of waiting half as long to transfer anything). While there are now faster modems, even a 28.8Kbps modem will start to experience errors on a standard U.S. phone line, and it’s probably best to go for an ISDN connection if you want to increase your speed.
How to Use FTP to Post and Update
So, how do you set up your system to post and update your site? For a while now, we have used an FTP client, called CuteFTP (CUTFTP), which is very simple and intuitive. Remember that we are not posting any files yet (since we haven’t even started them); we are just going to set the connection between you and your virtual host so it is ready when the time comes. (See Figure 5.2.)
- If you don’t have your FTP software, install CUTFTP from your CD now. (Installation instructions are in Appendix I.)
Open the FTP program.
- Open the site manager from within the program (in CUTFTP it’s in the FTP drop-down menu).
- Choose Add site.
- Enter the required information. Don’t forget to enter your password.
- That’s it!