It’s been many years since I’ve been able to run any of my own websites on a shared hosting plan, which is both a blessing (hey, who doesn’t want tons of visitors and the ability to do anything they could ever want with their server?), and a curse (as in… I’ve spent more on hosting in the last decade than on buying a new car).
While I’ve left shared hosting far behind me for my own sites, my friends, family, and web development clients often ask me to refer them to a good shared hosting company. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with shared hosting in recent years, since most clients already have some kind of hosting account for their existing site. This experience has tended to teach me that shared hosting and words like good, quality, fast, and reliable don’t often go hand-in-hand. Most shared hosts I’ve worked with for friends and clients have been pretty bad (and don’t worry, I’ll be reviewing them too so you’ll know who not to choose).
I should probably define what I mean by a good web hosting company. To some people, good may mean “cheap”, and there are countless cheap hosts out there. Usually you get exactly what you pay for. To me, a good web hosting company is one that offers up to date versions of Apache, MySQL, and PHP. They have to permit at least 64MB or more for PHP’s memory_limit setting. Their servers must have a balanced number of accounts on them and are not overwhelmed. They must allow SSH access. They must not oversell their resources (if the word unlimited appears in regard to bandwidth or disk space, they are trying to trick you and they’re not a good host). They must have reasonably fast and helpful tech support.
So, instead of relying on only the hosts I come across during projects with clients, I’ve asked around in places like Web Hosting Talk and asked for references from web development colleagues. I decided to sign up for accounts with these hosts myself, install copies of some “actual” CMS-powered sites (the live versions of which run on VPS/dedicated servers), and see how well they can handle it. One shared host that came well recommended was Hawk Host.
Sales and initial tech support
Before signing up, I checked the comprehensive list of features the hosting account would have. Hawk Host’s list of features is quite comprehensive — I always appreciate when a host is up front about as many details as possible; I’m an advanced user planning to use advanced web applications, and need to know every detail, including versions of Apache, MySQL, PHP, memory limit, InnoDB support, etc). I was able to find answers to most of my questions here, and a few more in Hawk Host’s knowledgebase. A few other questions remained unanswered, so I connected to the online sales support chat (at about 8pm). The support rep quickly and courteously answered my questions, and I was ready to place my order. I usually search for coupon codes when signing up for online services, and was pleased to find a 40% off coupon for Hawk Host. The order process was quick and painless, and my site was processed and activated within about 15 minutes.
The next task for me with any new hosting account is to have SSH access enabled. If a host doesn’t allow SSH access, I consider it inexcusable, and they are immediately placed on my blacklist and I discourage friends and clients from choosing them (even if the friend or client doesn’t need SSH themselves… I need it “for them”, or whoever helps them in the future with a tricky website problem will need it). I sent in a quick support ticket to Hawk Host, and in under 2 minutes, received confirmation that SSH was now enabled.
After connecting to the server with SSH, I first checked the server load using the w and top commands. Load average was around 1.5 to 2.5 points. CPU utilization was at about 10%, about one half of the server’s 12GB of RAM was in use, and the hard drive was not swapping at all. Not bad at all. For comparison, Bluehost shared hosting (which is a bad host) has a load average around 30 (sometimes 60+) points, with CPU utilization at 60% and higher, about 100% of their 16GB of RAM in use, and the hard drive was swapping about 1GB of data. In case those details are bit over the top for you — what it means is that Bluehost’s servers are overloaded and website performance will be dismal (not the case with Hawk Host).
Service Level Agreement (SLA)
A good host should be willing to stand behind and provide as close to 100% uninterrupted use of their service — and be willing to pay you back when they fail to do so. Hawk Host does just that. Hawk Host’s SLA guarantees 99.9% uptime, and will credit your account for service failures on their end (they’ll cover your full bill if uptime drops below 99%). In contrast, bad hosts like Bluehost, GoDaddy, Network Solutions, and others, have vague, deceptive, or altogether nonexistent (for instance GoDaddy’s SLA only covers network outages, but not server problems, and Network Solutions’ SLA is vague and doesn’t explain what they will do for you if their service fails).
I definitely recommend Hawk Host if you are looking for a high quality shared hosting provider.