I’ve been a happy customer of DreamHost since May 2006. That’s quite a long time! I’ve endured server failures and dreadful nightmares as 100+ websites hosted here suffered all kinds of catastrophes. I endured service upgrades that rendered sites unavailable until I managed to fix them to run again. Nevertheless, and in spite of all those troubles, I persisted as a faithful customer. I’ve blogged about DreamHost and the reasons I stay with them quite often (one of the many reasons is the technical support, who more often sends full reports with suggested performance tweaks instead of simple, automated answers). I’ve recommended it to several customers. I’ve compared performance and services with many other providers, and while sometimes they beat DH on some things, it’s hard to beat them on price and performance simultaneously — and hardly anyone else has such a great backoffice with so many features, nor the kind of support that DH has.
Years ago, I started beta testing several bleeding edge features for DH (the last of which was DreamObjects). As a consequence, I was among the first hundreds to benefit from “unlimited” access — unlimited users, unlimited domains, unlimited websites, unlimited disk space, unlimited traffic. At the time, such services were quite unusual and very innovative.
This encouraged me to add even more websites to my account. I host mostly non-profit organisations with very limited budgets and a handful of personal websites for me and a few friends. Occasionally I also develop “demo” sites for potential customers. And often, even if the customer goes away, I keep them around anyway, since there might have been some custom programming that I might use elsewhere. My WordPress plugins, some of which sponsored by customers, were all first tried and tested on DH.
I was also a user of DH’s streaming server solution. Aye, I know it wasn’t a big deal. But it was quite useful while it existed. It also allowed me to do things for potential customers and non-profits that weren’t possible on “other” professional video streaming solutions, namely, the ability to select videos for specific registered users. Of course you can use high-end video services for that, at insane costs. DH was so much cheaper.
A year ago or so, I built a WP-based training site, which offers educational videos for a selection of registered users for a tiny non-profit. There are really just a handful of students. But the non-profit required a very simple way to upload the videos (you cannot use WP’s Media upload feature for that, since it’s limited to a handful of MBytes), as well as a way to restrict certain users to view just some sets of videos/audio/files but not others. This required a rather complex setup, but I managed to get it working. It had little traffic — as said, this was just for a non-profit with a handful of users — but, because videos (and other multimedia files) are huge, this meant they would take up a lot of disk space.
In more recent times, DH has updated their terms of service and acceptable use policies, without my noticing. I know that’s my fault, not DH’s. Now it’s strictly forbidden to make backups. But flagging something as “backup” instead of “content” is at the discretion of DreamHost’s technicians.
The support team is also unavailable to discuss their interpretation of what is a backup and what is not. I mean, a content-less website running from WordPress is probably not a backup. But as soon you store some multimedia files there — images, for example, to be shown with the content — those media files might be considered “backup” and that website deleted.
I thought that the main issue was just that the videos took hundreds of GBytes of hard disk space, and their servers might be running low on that. Ok, I can accept that argument. So I moved them to the competition — these days, for the monthly cost of what DH asks for shared hosting, you can get your own unmanaged hardware (no, I’m not talking about VPS — these always have restricted disk space and metered traffic. I’m talking about real, physical hardware connected to an unmetered Ethernet port. Aye, it’s that cheap these days. Much cheaper than DreamObjects, in fact. Of course you don’t get any management and no nice control panels. But you can install them).
But DH did not stop at that. They started looking at all my websites, and yes, you guessed it, they flagged one of the WordPress wp-content directories on another website for a non-profit as “backups”. In this case, there were no videos, just a lot of images. Quite a lot of them. So, once again, this meant pushing yet another website away from DreamHost.
I suddenly realised that DreamHost can do that for all my sites, if they wish. You see, I have really survived many nightmares with DH. Most of them were fixed after a few days — once it took a week, sometimes a month, others were never fixed — and I rely on some WordPress tricks to be able to successfully restore those websites and continue to offer the service. Now it appears that I’m not allowed to do so: all that is now seen as “backups” and, as such, might be deleted at whim.
On websites with little content and just a few images, DreamHost might not care. But as long as those images start to populate the wp-content directory, there is a real danger that it can be considered a backup and deleted.
Needless to say, this makes me have serious doubts about how I can continue to use DreamHost’s services in the near future. My issue now is that, unlike before, I cannot sleep safely any longer — at any moment, I might get yet another site flagged as “backup” and terminated. It means that, except for low-traffic, low-content websites, with few (if any!) multimedia files — which should be safe to keep around — all the others are at risk of being deleted.
I’m actually quite glad that the only corporate customer I have is my own company, which has few customers and even less traffic. It means that the non-profits, at least, will understand things like temporary deletion of all their content — it’s not as if they are actually paying anything. But I can imagine that other DreamHost customers, who are used to hosting their clients’ websites here, might now suddenly be at risk from preemptive deletion, without appeal.
Note that I’m not complaining about DH’s terms of service, acceptable use policy, or their interpretation of what is “backup” and what is “content”. When signing up to an American service, I’m aware that companies can change the rules at will and demand customers to comply or have their service terminated. This is acceptable in terms of business in the USA. If you dislike that kind of policy, you should avoid hosting in the US. I host with DreamHost for so many years because, so far, I have only seen technicians being very reasonable about their demands, and very helpful in explaining how to fix things. In return, I have been quite tolerant with service interruptions and catastrophic failures, and patiently remained faithful to DreamHost. And will continue to do so.
But I’ve learned an important lesson: it’s time to make sure that any website with a lot of content, and which requires a reasonable guarantee that it won’t be deleted at whim, cannot be hosted at DreamHost any more. I had no choice but to move them to Europe, where consumer protection laws disallow such behaviour (aye, it also means poorer access for US visitors…).
Not so long ago, I already had to move a few selected sites out of DH just because their technicians weren’t willing to fine-tune the physical server where they were hosted, and performance was a nightmare. After all, DH does not guarantee any kind of performance on their shared services — that’s why they offer VPS as an alternative. Ironically, I just found out recently that one of the major reasons for poor performance was that a lot of sites on that server still ran PHP 5.2. Just upgrading 30+ of them to PHP 5.4 FastCGI brought the CPU load to single-digit load average. Astonishing, but true.
The lesson learned, to recap:
- Don’t host large sites on DreamHost. “Large” means anything with lots of multimedia — videos, music, PDFs, even lots of images. Stick to low-content sites with minimalist design and images. Then you should be safe.
- Always use PHP 5.4 FastCGI.
- Forget backups. Forget, in fact, anything that DH offers as backup services. It’s simply too expensive. Just get a cheap hardware server (not a VPS!) with a couple of 0.5TB disks somewhere in France, UK, Germany, or the Netherlands and install something basic on it (it could just be a humble SFTP server…). It’ll cost little more than a DH account, but you’ll have your full-fledged server for that amount. Of course it will be unmanaged for that price.
Why stick to DreamHost, then?
- Managed service. It’s awesome to have someone around to do the dirty work when everything fails.
- Technical support. Except for discussions about their policies, DH’s support is beyond extraordinary. You don’t simply get answers to your requests; you get complete performance fine-tuning instructions, often step-by-step. It’s an education on its own!
- Awesome control panel. The more control panels I see from their competitors, the more I like DH’s. It’s still unbeatable in terms of ease of use and incredible flexibility and options.
- No billing fusses. In almost 8 years, I had not a single billing issue.
- Hilarious newsletter. Ok, I know most people won’t care for that, but I truly laugh every month or so, when I read it!