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"Bulletproof" Hosting?

"Bulletproof" Hosting?

November 17, 2004
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" The idea is to not wait until it's too late to formulate a contingency plan when things go wrong. "

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As an adult webmaster, that message should bring a chill to your bones, and have you reaching for your security blanket. Yet on Aug. 28 thousands of webmasters woke to find this message glaring back at them from their computer screens.

It started off as a normal day for some, and for others a complete nightmare. Some were beginning to wake up out of bed, have their first cup of coffee, and settle into their desk, only to see that their server was no longer responding. For others, it was a page in the middle of the night, that would leave them guessing for answers, most of which have never been received. Everyone eventually realized the horror as a fallen hosting company reared its ugly head, and quickly went into hiding. Rampage broke out in several large hosting communities as clients scraping for answers learned of others with similar problems. The host, quickly jumped to defenses, blaming others for poor management, and failed business plans, assuring people through a quick resolution. The previous year, the same company had gone through additional problems with another data center, and effectively moved its operations to greener pastures.

Servers Pulled
After building up a solid reputation, suddenly things were not adding up; the excuses grew longer and longer. The first wave of servers had been pulled, but some began coming back online. Around the same time however, their control panel software went on suspension, which for the quantity of servers and licenses being reported as suspended, one could only turn to nonpayment as the answer. Soon enough, the host's other datacenter, also pulled those servers for nonpayment, and hundreds of servers remained offline without a response from the provider other than empty promises and blaming tactics being used to ultimately cover up the simple fact, the bills were not paid. While it may seem unlikely that this sort of occurrence happens, it unfortunately happens on a smaller scale — more often than most would like to believe.

This scenario has been thought to have taken offline anywhere from 400 to 1,000 dedicated servers. At an average rate of 100 sites or domains per server, those numbers could equate to nearly 40,000 to 100,000 domains offline for as much as one or two weeks. The damaging effect is clear to all of us. A website offline for that period of time would certainly bring to an end all of the years of hard work and slaving away it has taken to become profitable in this industry.

There are other factors, more common than situations like unpaid server bills. Servers are hacked daily, and Distributed Denial of Service attacks can bring down the healthiest of servers; hard drives are corrupted, seized and unrecoverable. The question is, what can be done about it to prevent these catastrophes from affecting us? The answer? Almost nothing. Eventually, hard drives fail — they're just mechanical devices left spinning for hours.

Many assume that hard drives are recoverable, which to some extent they are, but it will take approximately two weeks with no guarantees and an average price of $5,000 to retrieve the data.

Going Out Of Business
Web hosts go out of business all the time, unfortunately. As we live in a world of emails, instant messaging, ICQ, IRC, forums and public bulletin boards, we often don't know the people directly that we're working with, yet we put the fate of our financial security with those "handles" we've grown accustomed to. Granted, there is nothing wrong with this approach to business relations, as it has worked for the Internet for years, and is the most widely accepted method of communication we have. The important thing is to be prepared.

While reading this article, I'm sure the thought has crossed your mind that you feel secure, and that it could not happen to you. Just indulge me for a moment, though, and think if it did happen to you.

What if you woke up to a support request from your data center, letting you know your server was the recipient of a DDoS attack, and it has been pulled offline for a violation of their Acceptable Use Policy, or AUP, or it was maliciously hacked, and all data wiped?

Minimize Downtime
There are many ways to ensure that you are fully prepared. The key here is minimizing your downtime, and reducing the impact of disasters on your business. Data centers can go offline, network equipment fails, and power problems occur, but those should be few and far between.

An average website uses approximately 1 gigabyte of space, assuming it uses adult content, updates, forums and videos. With the start and stop method of FTP from a home PC, the upload could take from hours to days depending on your connection. Though a home backup is always a good idea, keeping copies on disk as well as local hard drives ensures that you always have available files for a fully updated website.

Another solution, more common in today's hosting world, is off-site backups. Through various control panels, you can simply select an off network or off server FTP location, which will alter your files and send them off to a storage location for you to use at a later time.

Most datacenters have begun to realize the importance of these backups, and many offer the solutions at an average of $5 per gigabyte of storage space used. Additionally, you can ask for on-site backups off your server, which will allow you to easily restore services from within the facility for the fastest upload speeds. Services such as tape backups, NAS storage devices, or simply an on-site storage area, can significantly reduce the downtime incurred and have your services back and running in no time. Server setups including RAID arrays with hot-swap hard drives, are available, but come at a premium price. The benefit of RAID5 with hotswap hard drives is that you can replace a downed hard drive if the hard drive fails without causing downtime to the site or service.

The idea is to not wait until it's too late to formulate a contingency plan when things go wrong.

The hosting industry is not perfect and there is almost no way to ensure 100 percent reliability on all accounts. But you can take steps to avoid maximum downtime and recover faster. If you do not have a plan set in place, think about getting one.

Home PCs with years of content, websites, personal information and everything else, should also be backed up so that you're not spending weeks trying to recover when your hard drive finally decides to die. The data you value the most should be backed up. It only takes a short while to create a system for backing up your valuables, but a lifetime to recreate everything once it is lost.

Handling Catastrophes
Think of the utter catastrophe you would endure if suddenly everything you've worked so hard to accomplish came crumbling down around you simply because of an additional few hours a week and $50 a month.

Many people I've spoken with over the years have agreed at some point or another that their PCs, websites or servers have endured some data loss at one point or another. For some it was a breeze to recover, while others simply could not recuperate.

The choice is yours to make and is something that every responsible business owner should take notice of. No one except you can make the choice of acting upon these warnings, but the peace of mind and benefit of knowing that no matter what, you are secure, should be worth every drop of sweat and every penny.

Josh Ewin is managing director of Florida-based web hosting provider, H2oh Hosting. Ewin can be reached via email at josh@h2oh-hosting.com.


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