The Switch To MediaTemple

I find choosing a web host to be one of the most excruciating decisions to make. They all make big promises and most hide their downsides. The decision is fraught with uncertainty.

This site does not use or need a lot of bandwidth. My traffic needs are quite low. It can live on an economical shared hosting plan with the only downside being occasional downtime. But the project my wife and I have going, indiaphile.info, in another story. In the month of may it has exceeded 10,000 hits, and grows by several thousand each month. On top of that, photographs are an important feature of the site and we have to be careful about how much bandwidth they use.

Google has made it clear that page loading time is very important for two reasons. The first is for the user experience. Visitors that have to wait for things to load tend to leave. They want to feel like everything happens instantly. The second reason is the google search algorithm is designed to punish slow sites and reward fast ones. Google’s reasoning for this? See the first reason. When users are happy with the site they end up on, they are happy with Google.

With the rapid growth of Indiaphile, we knew we had to get off of shared hosting. This site gets to piggyback on whatever choices I make for indiaphile. We aren’t yet ready for a vps solution, as fun as that would be for me to play around with, we can’t justify the cost.

MediaTemple has an interesting solution which they call a GridServer. Traditional hosting puts your website one one computer physically out there wherever your host resides. Shared hosting means you share that computer with many other websites. But what media temple calls a gridserver many other hosts would call “cloud hosting.” It means your website is not on one particular computer, but on many computers, yes, redundantly. This redundancy is great because if one computer goes down either because of a network problem or because the computer breaks, your site almost always gets to stay online. It also means if your site sees a sudden spike in traffic, it’s no big deal. That spike in traffic is easily distributed across many host computers.

This is important to Indiaphile because it has been known to have sudden spikes in traffic. The biggest came early on when our post for Puffed Rice Brittle was pinned by the mother of the founder of Pinterest. She has over a million followers. We know that it brought over 1,000 hits in one day, but we do not know how many people tried to visit but were turned away because the site went down. At the time 1,000 hits was more than we were used to in a month.

I have lots of experience with shared hosting plans across various hosts. Each one has its quirks, mainly disabled features or features that don’t work right because of security protections. Shared hosting plans tend to be configured in a way that assumes the user does not know what they are doing. For this reason they are configured to prevent hacking as well as allowing for any choices a user might make that could create bugs or resource hogging. They have to be configured this way, that is why they are so inexpensive. Our previous host was configured in such a way that BackupBuddy couldn’t work right and neither could a plugin called Smush.it by Yahoo! that losslessly compresses all of your image files. Many hosts disable gzip, or have it configured in such a way that it doesn’t work when it should. Gzip is such a simple and obvious module. If a person is using a browser that can handle compressed files, gzip will send them a compressed version of the file. This speeds up file transfers and reduces resource hogging seamlessly.

But Media Temple is known to have a drawback. Since a website lives on multiple servers, when a visitor comes to the site, at that first moment the visitor experiences a slight lag. Media Temple’s servers have to do a quick calculation to determine which server should serve the site up to this person, it also has to check to make sure the files served to that person are the most up to date. Fortunately, Media Temple has a cacheing system in place that is supposed to work great on a site that gets lots of traffic. But this still made me nervous since I really don’t trust web hosting companies to live up to their hype.

But what pushed me over, was when I ran a page speed test on a friend’s site who I knew was on Media Temple. Indiaphile was scoring an 83, hers made a 91, and is not a high-traffic site. On top of that, grid hosted sites come with Cloudflare with Railgun. Cloudflare is a free cdn and security system that takes bandwidth pressure off of your webhost by distributing static files across their network and serving them geographically closer to your visitors. While doing this, it also ensures that any traffic to your site is legitimate and not some form of attack. Railgun is a premium add-on to Cloudflare that is supposed to speed up dynamic content as well.

My previous host could have worked with Cloudflare, but there was a weird message about it being in a testing stage and not working without www. at the beginning of web addresses. With indiaphile.info we had long ago decided to omit the www., it’s normally an arbitrary decision and my preference. Why add a www. when it doesn’t accomplish anything? Well, I didn’t want to chance screwing anything up with our long-fought search engine rankings by changing all of my links to using that www prefix. With Media Temple it works as it should.

Now, the reason I was inspired to do a post on this is not because I wanted to advertise Media Temple. Far from it, I still consider this to be in the experimental period. But I was inspired because of how easy the transition over turned out to be.

The critical period in switching hosts happens when you change your nameservers. There are many nameservers out there across the internet that are all talking to each other. They do little else but keep and share huge tables of domain names mapped to ip addresses. When my web browser looks for a website, it first asks a nameserver (dns) where to find the site. What it gets back is an ip address, which you can think of as looking up a person’s name and getting back their home address. Then the browser is able to find the site and get the content it wants. The only problem is there are many dns’s out there and you and I may get our information from different ones. When there is a change, it can take up to a day for the dns I’m using to match the one you are using. During that limbo period my website is on two different computers, operating in parallel.

But that’s not the real problem. With many hosts, it isn’t easy to have your site ready for the switch. Instead there is usually some downtime for your site as you wait for your new nameserver to take over. Only then are you able to install your site. But with media temple, I was able to set up my site and then change the nameserver, and it was super easy. That is why I was so happy with the switch to media temple. Because of the size and complexity of Indiaphile, I was expecting a frustrating afternoon and instead everything was all set and easy within 10 minutes. In fact, my e-mail switched over to Media Temple so seemlessly I didn’t even have to make a single configuration change to my e-mail client.

So that all important measure, Google Page Speed, did it improve? Yes, it definitely improved, although I find the number to be pretty inconsistent from test to test. But the number is always at least 5-10 points higher than it was on my previous host, usually scoring above 90, and there are a few more tweaks I can still make. I’ll have to wait and see about the downtown issue, but I have little doubt media temple will be a big improvement there.

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