https://www.nearlyfreespeech.net/I’ve never formally written about NearlyFreeSpeech.net until now, even though I’ve always had good things to say. Even after some extended downtime I’m excited to say I’m still on the bandwagon. The reason is their transparency. I’ve worked with many hosts before, and none are as honest or transparent. Even the Rackspace Cloud gave glossed over responses to their problems. A few of my NFS sites went down just about all of yesterday because of a server failure. I logged into the control panel (proprietary, but I actually prefer it over cPanel or hsphere) and looked at the sticky support note left for all customers.

I half-expected to see “teh service is dwn!! were trying to fix it! sry lol!” as with most hosts. Instead, there was page after page of updates with details and explanation. After this, I was able to rest easy, because I had a good idea of how long it would take to get everything back up. Whenever it didn’t go as planned, they’d post another update.

I cannot stress how awesome this was. Yes, they made my downtime awesome by treating me and the other customers as if we were techs in the server room. I didn’t really care about my sites being down, because I knew they were working really hard on it and probably wouldn’t go to bed until it was fixed.

This brings up another point though: transparency makes your customers wet. I know it’s been discussed time after time, but it really is true. People don’t like “Our apologies, our service went down,” as much as they like “Our service went down from 6:30-8:30 UTC today when lightning struck main Big-IP load-balancer, and our failover didn’t switch the backup on.”

What’s a Big-IP? What’s “failover?” It doesn’t matter…treating your customers as equals and letting them decide if information is relevant or not will make them wet.

In my three years experience with NFS, this is the first downtime I’ve experienced. Their support was amazing enough to update every customer with detailed information about the problems they were experiencing and how they were fixing it. I cannot recommend them more. For larger sites that require custom services running, you’re out of luck. For blogs, informational sites, paypal-driven shopping carts (no SSL, yet), etc this is the best shared host I’ve dealt with, ever. They’re dirt cheap, and the only host I know of who won’t disable your site without a court order or copyright violation.

After being a customer for the Rackspace Cloud (formerly Mosso) for quite some time, I’m happy to say that my business and anyone who listens to our advice will never be using this hosting service, ever again.

Rackspace is an amazing company. They are know for having great servers, great support, great everything. You can’t beat them. Mosso was a side project that was swallowed up by them which aims to run websites in a real, actual cloud. This is a valiant cause. To be able to upload a site to one server and have it scale infinitely over however many servers their datacenter has without ever having to touch it…that’s a miracle. It’s a great idea, that unfortunately just doesn’t work.

Mosso has repeatedly let us down, again and again. Their service is always going down. It’s hard to find a month where one of our sites hosted on the “cloud” hasn’t seen at least an hour of down time. I’d expect this from a shoddy “HOST 100 SITES FOR $2.99/mo!!” host, but not from someone charging a base rate of $100/mo. Here’s what it boils down to: you’re paying Mosso a lot of money for the privilege of beta testing their cloud architecture. Great business model.

And while Rackspace is known for fanatical support, the Rackspace Cloud is known by us for support that is fanatical about ignoring or avoiding the issues plaguing them on a week-to-week basis. Questions go unanswered, support requests ignored, etc etc.

So all in all, it’s been a terrible experience. And yes, we have been using them for more than a month…a little over a year now. Yes, we stuck it out and payed outlandish hosting rates for horrible service. Why? Because I really do wish it worked. I wish I could put a site on it and have it be up 100% of the time. That’s the point of a cloud, no? To have >= 99.999% uptime? I really wish I could put a site on there and let it scale with demand as it grew without ever having to touch it – and I can do this – but the price is my site goes down for long periods of time at short intervals (oh, plus the $100/mo). We tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, and tried to believe them every time they told us that this was the last downtime they’d be having (yes, we heard it a lot). I just can’t lie to myself any more though. Mosso sucks.

So please save yourself some time and realize that it’s too good to be true. The Rackspace Cloud is the most real and cool cloud hosting you’ll ever see, but as far as I’m concerned they are still alpha-testing it, and your site WILL go down. Want hosting that scales automatically, is zero customer maintenance, always up, and has amazing support? You won’t find it anywhere.

Mosso comes close, but they just can’t get it right. Save your money and learn how to scale on a good VPS provider.

So after hours of searching and tweaking, I finally got the answer I never wanted: it’s not possible to have apache serve mod_fastcgi requests through it’s own reverse proxy (ie load-balance mod_fastcgi). I know this is incorrect. But it had taken me so long and wasted so much time getting to the point where I was almost as clueless as when I started, that I took drastic action.

I installed lighttpd. I already had the FastCGI setup running, not to mention I got a new Linode for testing remote PHP. The only problem was that I couldn’t load balance between my slack box (web server) and my new linode (debian app server). BTW I chose Debian because the image was smaller and from what I know, it’s essentially the same as Slack. I really haven’t had ANY problems moving to it yet, and let’s face it, Deb is a lot more standard. Installing PHP was a bitch, but that’s what apt-get is for (no, I compiled PHP…but I’ll be damned if I’m going to hand compile all the stupid dependencies).

Anyway, within 20 minutes, lighttpd had PHP running through FastCGI load balanced between two servers. Needless to say, I fell in love. Not to mention all the information I was inundated with along the way about how small and lean lighttpd is swayed this choice a little.

So as far as I know, beeets is running great on both of its “new” servers and loving it.

There was a bit of trouble getting used to the new URL rewriting scheme, but generally instead of doing apache’s

RewriteCond blahblah !-f

You can just do url-rewrite(‘(images|css|js)’ => ‘$0′)

(this is a horrible oversimplification, but you get the idea)…you write the URLs you DON’T want to be rewritten to $0. Works wonders.

All that’s left is some cache-control headers (I’m crazy about them, if you can’t tell yet), and some speed testing. I’m excited to see if lighttpd is actually faster than apache under ab.

Next up, Capistrano.

Amazon S3

Very cool service. I updated beeets to pull all images from images.beeets.com, an S3 bucket. Also, all css files now go through

/css/css.php/file.css …which rewrites

url(/images/…) to

url(http://images.beeets.com/images/…)

And guess what, it all works. I had some bad experiences with the S3Fox firefox plugin in the past, but it’s since been updated and I’ve been using it regularly.

Also, using S3.php, all profile images now go directly onto images.beeets.com. Wicked.

So what does this mean? A few things:

1. Less bandwidth & work – beeets will spend more time serving HTML, CSS, and JS than images.

2. Safer – We were backing up profile images to S3 indirectly before, but the chances of S3 going down VS our hosting are slim.

3. Worse image caching – Before, I had .htaccess controlling all the caching for static files. I liked it that way. S3 doesn’t do this very well at all. Apparently it’s configurable, but I don’t know how…any ideas?

All in all, it should be better for beeets. Maybe we’ll actually let users have images bigger than 10×10 now ;)

Thumbs up to S3 (and probably all other Amazon web services).

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Linode VPS

I gotta say, even though Linode is the first provider I’ve had a VPS through, they kick ass.

Their control panel is boss, and adding units is apparently very easy (haven’t messed with it quite yet). I’m excited to have beeets on there.

Having full control of the environment (and the fact that it’s Slackware!!) gives me a boner. I’m on there tinkering too much. I almost hope the site never gets big, because once it does I can’t fuck with it anymore (or I’ll have to have a test machine, I guess).

Anyway, there’s not enough positive information about these guys on the net. It was between them and Slicehost, but I ended up going with Linode because they were a) a bit cheaper, and b) not as “hip.” I tend to shy away from trendy companies.

Good work, Linode. Keep it up. Oh yeah, and thanks for offering Slack ;)

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