Hosting Horrors!

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The development team has spent 3 months night and day to get a beta version of your product ready for testing. The COO wants to know when the customer will be able to see the product. The Venture Capitalist wants to see results for the $3 million they've invested. You just want to get everyone off of your back for 10 minutes. This is not the time to hastily pick a Web Hosting Company.

As an ASP your application is not a standard off the shelf product. Months and possibly years have been spent perfecting how your application operates. ASPs are creating applications that a few years ago would only be found in a LAN environment. These applications have similar components to their LAN brethren, and operate in a similar fashion to their LAN counterparts. It's this uniqueness that can cause problems at the hosting level.

Know what your needs are!

As simple as this statement is, you might be surprised by what actually goes into your application. Think about your needs: server capacity, storage space, multiple NICs and TCP/IP addresses, Firewalls, etc. Think about your application at the processes level and how the different components interact, look at how the different servers work together. Then draw the whole server farm out and document everything. This map and specification sheet will be your guide to the hosting company and a reference for everyone when things go wrong.

The map will also come in handy at the office. I posted a copy on the wall outside my office; it's amazing who refers to it. I knew development would use this map, but a few days ago I caught our Director of Marketing using the diagram to explain our product to someone.

What to look for in a Hosting Company

As critical as it might seem to just get the site up and running, it is best to take your time and research the companies you would like to use. The best place to find out information about Hosting Companies is though their web sites. For obvious reasons, Web Hosting Companies will have plenty of information about their services on tap. The first thing to keep in mind is that this is marketing material; this information should be used as a starting point not as the final place to make your decision.

When you look at the different companies you'll notice similarities. Everyone has secured facilities; they all have backup power sources, and enough bandwidth to play the ultimate game of Half-life with 10,000 of your closest friends. Not to say these are not important issues, but they are so common they should be part of the standard configuration of any hosting facility.

Most hosting companies will have different levels of service depending on your needs. These can range from just rack space and a connection out to the Internet, to where the Hosting Company has full control of the boxes and gives you access on a limited basis.

Consider if you need to get into the box. Does your software need special access to the operating system? If so, then you would want to have root control so that you can make the security setting personally.

Once a box is built, do you need to change anything? If not, then consider using a lower level of service. This is more of a cost savings than anything else; why pay for more service than you need. Check to see if they have specialized products that fit your needs, remember the diagram? Usually if a hosting company has a special service, they are not going to hide it.

As soon as you have a short list of Hosting Companies call them and talk to a sales person. Do they know the company's products? Have they worked with an ASP before? What is their background? Do they work with a project manager? Don't be afraid to ask questions! This person is here for your benefit, not just the Hosting Company.

If the Hosting Company has a facility in your area ask for a tour. During the tour take a good look at the place. Is it well lit, clean; Are the cables in the rack run neatly? Look for consistency in the way the racks are setup. The condition of the facility will tell you a lot about the staff maintaining it. Talk to the system engineers. What are their backgrounds? Do they know your operating system? Are the engineers trained on the latest installation and maintenance procedures?

David vs. Goliath

No, I'm not talking biblical prophecy here. What I mean is do you go with the big established Hosting Company, or the smaller newcomer to the industry? Being a good Web Hosting Company has nothing to do with size. Not to say that the established companies cannot meet your needs.

The best of the Hosting Companies will understand what your needs are, and can provide the resources you need. Remember the ASP industry is only 4 years old. It is still a young industry. We are all trying to figure out how to do things. Don't be afraid to look at what the newer Hosting Companies have to offer. It never hurts to look. You might find exactly what you need from a David.

SLAs and Confidentiality agreements

Service Level Agreements are a way of life for the ASP. We make our customers sign them and we have to sign the Hosting Company's SLA. This is so everyone knows where the boundaries are. But, have you thought about how the hosting Companies SLA would affect your SLA?

I'll give you an example.

In your SLA it says that files can be restored from backup within 4 hours. A major customer calls; the file they downloaded off of your system 3 days ago is corrupt. Your customer has to have this document or it will cost them thousands of dollars. You say sure, not a problem and call the Hosting Company. They say, "Yes Mr. Smith, we will restore that file and we'll let you know as soon as it's done." The time passes and no file, one of your best customers is now threatening to sue. The Hosting Company is saying that the SLA that you signed sates that they will restore a file within 24 hours.

This is just one reason why you should make sure that the Hosting Company's SLA doesn't contradict your SLA. Make sure the Hosting Company can provide the services that you are promising your customers. If they can't, then either look for a Hosting Company that can or think about taking that service out of your SLA.

Make sure you get a signed confidentiality agreement from your Hosting Company. This may seem trivial, but the Intellectual Property could be worth millions. The last thing you want is for some low-level systems engineer to pirate your application and become the next Bill Gates. Your Intellectual Property is the real value of your startup.

What's Next?

Once you've narrowed down your choices. Send a copy of your diagram along with a list of your needs to each sales team. Ask for a detailed breakdown of cost by one-time charges and recurring charges. Your sales person will give your diagram and needs list to a pre-sales engineer to review. Ask how long the turn around time is to receive a quotation.

When you receive all of your quotes, compare them closely. Make sure that each quote covers everything on your list. It seems each hosting company has it's own slang for different items. If there is terminology that you do not understand, ask the sales person to clarify it. It is important to get things figured out now, before anything is installed.

Time to choose

Now for the moment of truth, time for you to pick a hosting company. Ok, you've decided what you need for hosting, and created a diagram. You've visited the sites and received your quotes. If there are differences between the quotes, chart them out and go with the best of the lot. If everything is equal, then flip a coin. Seems simple? Remember, it took me almost two and a half pages to get to this point and I haven't even talked about cost.

Now that you have picked a Hosting Company, it's time to get the financial people involved. Don't kid yourself! A hosted server farm is expensive, One hundred thousand dollars or more to setup and Ten Thousand dollars a month to keep operational. I'm just talking about a small farm of a dozen systems and one location. If you are building a multi-site network with hundreds of boxes, it could cost millions.

Don't panic; remember that it is your job to make sure everything is setup properly. ASP's use cutting edge technology to it's fullest. Unfortunately cutting edge technology costs money. Hopefully lots and lots of customers will share that cost, so that you can make a profit.

After the finance people are through moving bits of paper around you can finally sign the paperwork to install your server farm. Speaking of paperwork, make sure you get a confidentiality agreement signed by the Hosting Company and a copy of the original document signed by all parties involved.

In conclusion

All of this breaks down into the few simple things:

  1. Know what your needs are before you start looking.

  2. Research Hosting Companies before you make the first call.

  3. Ask Questions, it's better to ask a stupid question than to pay to change something later.

  4. Eliminate any Hosting Company that doesn't fit your application.

  5. Give each Hosting Company a diagram and breakdown of your server farm needs.

  6. When the quotes are back compare and question everything.

  7. Get copies of all signed documents.

We are a part of a brave new IT world. The applications we are making today will change the way everyone works tomorrow. We are here for the challenges, and with some luck we'll be successful. Good Luck!

About the author

Bryan Gobiel is the eManager for's first product "LegalForum" provides the legal community with a method for secure document collaboration in real-time. Bryan is designing the company's next generation server farm. He is also responsible for the day-to-day management of the company's IT department. Bryan's work experience spans the public, private, and educational sectors. His experience includes network administration, installing VPN and remote access solutions, design and installation of computer classrooms and new facility installations. Bryan is a Microsoft Certified Professional; he also has a Certificate in Project Management from Boston University. Bryan has 7 years in various computer support and Network Admin roles, and is a member of the Information Systems Security Association. He is currently enrolled at Cambridge College pursuing a Master degree in Business.

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