Finding the Right ISP

Remote hosting is a very popular option as a large number of companies—probably the vast majority of Webhosting today—offer PHP-enabled Web sites. These are some basic pros and cons to keep in mind.

Outsourced hosting has a lot of advantages. The ISP will (in theory) handle many of the crucial technical and administrative details necessary to keep a site running, such as:

  • Hardware
  • Software upgrades
  • InterNIC registration, IP addressing, DNS
  • Mail servers (POP/IMAP and SMTP)
  • Bandwidth
  • Power supply
  • Backups
  • Security

There’s no cozier feeling than the one you get just before you fall asleep, knowing that some poor schmo at your ISP will be getting the pager message in the middle of the night if something goes wrong with your site. Lurking crackers, downed power lines, munged backup tapes—all that is your host’s headache now.

Especially for developers who have little experience with system-administration issues, outsourcing can be a major time saver. Web hosting is also extremely cost effective in most situations. PHP on Linux or one of the BSDs is almost ridiculously inexpensive and widely available. Currently, only a few companies offer PHP on an NT server platform, and some of them can be pricey. As the Miracles so eloquently urge, “You better shop around (shop, shop ooh).”

Of course, there can be some serious disadvantages to Web hosting. Most of these have to do with control. When you go ISP, you’re basically a guest in someone else’s house and have to play by his rules. Maybe you’re a welcome paying guest, a veritable parlor boarder—but the fact remains that when you live in someone else’s establishment, you can’t just strip down to your undies and lipsync your way through a high-volume version of “Proud Mary” on the dining-room table whenever you feel like it.

People are trying to eat, pal. A few years ago, the most central issue for PHP was module versus CGI. PHP runs best and fastest as a module (in other words, built into the Web server itself rather than running as a separate process). Almost everyone prefers to use the module version if possible. Some ISPs prefer to run the CGI version of PHP, however, because it’s much simpler to administer safely on a shared Web server.

Thankfully, as more Web hosting services set up shop, it’s much easier to find one that will give you the module. Currently, the biggest problem with outsourced PHP hosting is the nonavailability of other programs. Obviously, ISPs have a strong incentive to control the programs you are allowed to run on their servers. However, a lot of a PHP’s value comes from its job as a glue between various services and protocols.

It can be extremely frustrating to be prevented from running a common and useful utility, such as ImageMagick or HTML Tidy, because your Web host won’t allow you to run unauthorized binaries or link to libraries outside your home directory. Also, ISPs generally are not going to give you a choice of which version of PHP to use.

Sometimes they can be quite strict in which extensions they’ll build for you, and sometimes they can be very slow to upgrade to a new major release. Therefore, some PHP packages— even potentially some of the code in this book, if your host is a late adopter of PHP5—will not run for you unaltered. A good rule of thumb is: The more common your needs are, the more possible and appropriate it is to outsource your hosting.

The more oddball and/or bleeding-edge your needs are, the more you’re going to be pushed to host your own whether you want to or not. Of course the unspoken realpolitik addendum to this is: The bigger you are and the more money you have to spend, the more weight you have available to throw around. A few factors will make it considerably more difficult for you to find a hosting service:

  • Generally objectionable content (hate, porn)
  • Unsolicited mailings (aka spam)
  • Content that attracts crackers (security info)
  • Potentially legally actionable content
  • Need for unusual server-side hardware, OS, or software
  • Need for super-high bandwidth, especially if unpredictable

If you’re in one of these categories, you need to mention it up front—you’ll just get the boot anyway once they find out. Chances are good that you won’t get to do much shopping around—if you can find any hosting situation, grab it before they change their minds and look for a better deal later.

Finally, we must mention the most important negative factor of all: the frustration and anxiety caused by a bad hosting experience. Words cannot describe the teeth-grinding, stomachchurning, scream-suppressing state of existence caused by your site crashing just when you’ve been featured on Slashdot, thereby making you look like a total technoposer as well as losing all the good pub you so richly deserve.

That’s not even mentioning more common problems such as lost e-mail, disappearing DNS, unexplained site outages, deleted databases (this actually happened to us once), lack of backups, suffering through an hour-long telephone wait just to talk to some tech supportie who’s never been within ten feet of a server, never getting a response to your polite e-mails, and being overbilled for the privilege (not that we’re bitter, and anyway our lawyer says we can’t name any names).

Bottom line: If you choose hosting, you do so at your own peril. Always be ready to make a quick getaway, which might entail eschewing the cheapest or most fully featured deal in favor of one without long-term contracts and/or prepayments.

Conversely, don’t be an utter jerk when you deal with the employees of your hosting company. If you’ve never outsourced hosting before, take the time to understand the difference between things you can legitimately blame on the Web host (bad tech support) and things that are basically Acts of Fate (Internet traffic in your entire metro area goes out).