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Personal: Hotmail Clones

aka: Good tips for newbie website owners

Ok, this is more of a “Work/Techy” entry than a personal entry, but it’s more of a rant/”get off my nerves” sort of post and I try and keep my “letting off steam” style posts in the Personal section.

Recently at work, we’ve launched a new web hosting solution for our customers that offers them the minimal acceptable technical support possible (if the server is down, we’ll kick it: that’s about it(!)), but with oodles and oodles of bandwidth available for an extremely low price (gambling on our calculations of bandwidth vs techie time). So far, it’s been quite successful and reasonably popular, with no major difficulties so far, but the low bandwidth cost/price ratio has attracted a certain “type” of customer (i.e. we’ve had more than 2 enquiries about it).

The type of customer who sees “Hmm, unlimited email addresses and bandwidth at dirt cheap prices: I’ll buy it and set up a Hotmail clone”. Is it wrong not to have the heart to tell them that setting up a proper web mail client is a lot harder than they think? First, find an appropriate script – yeah, there’s plenty of free ones out there which will let you read your email online, fewer that support “on the fly creation” and fewer still that support all the “whizz bang features” you don’t realise Hotmail has (such as the continual “Mailbox space” updating, Messenger integration, quite good spell checker, multi folder support, reasonable interface etc etc).

Secondly, these people (who sound like they wouldn’t even know how to register a domain name by themselves): are choosing the “unmanaged” service. These means that if they can’t figure out how to install a CGI script, use the MySQL databases etc – then we just won’t help them. Sounds cruel, but we’ve got to make our money somewhere and if they wanted “hand-holding”, then our other hosting service will be more than willing to take their money (although they will get much less bandwidth, disc space and easy to use scripts).

You want a good script to do the job properly? You’ll be looking to pay a programmer to write one especially for you!

Thirdly: They are choosing an “un-guaranteed service level” service. Yep, whilst we do aim for 99.99% uptime (it did drop to around 99.6% a month back due to various problems: now fixed and monitored) we’re unwilling to guarantee it for the low price we charge. Here’s a good word of advice: if you make, or are planning on making, a substantial amount of money from your website – you really need a guarantee. Whilst my new web host doesn’t have a guarantee, I’m willing to gamble that not all of it’s internet links, redundant power supplies etc etc will be down at one time: but if anything goes wrong, I’ve only myself to blame. If you’re in a shared hosting environment with no service level guarantee: then it should work, but don’t come crying to use if it’s costing you thousands of pounds worth of business per hour (if it is: why the h–ll didn’t you think of spending a bit more money on such a ‘mission critical’ item?).

Fourthly: Shared hosting. As I practically just said – it’s a big no no for mission critical systems. You want to know you can trust something – install and maintain it yourself. If a security patch we apply to the server breaks one of your scripts: then bad luck – if it breaks 25% our more of our customers scripts we may investigate… Of course, these means spending big bucks not only on the server, the bandwidth and the time – but employing someone who knows what they are doing. I’m reasonably competent (a good techy will always admit their weaknesses: a bad one will believe they know everything) and I’ve worked with systems that cost over £60,000 per hour in downtime (and try fixing that sort of system in a rush knowing that if you make a mistake you corrupt over 3Terabytes of data and bring the company to it’s knees!), but stick me in front of an Oracle box and it’ll take me a while to orientate myself. Even longer for me to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.

Fourthly II: Ok, the last bit didn’t make sense, so here it is again: Get your own box and get your own trained/experienced (the two are not necessarily the same) techie to look after the box and the applications you need. If you are running a single site, you don’t need the Ensim or Cpanel control panels, but if you’re running Shared hosting, then you don’t really need Oracle installed.

Fifthly: Income. Yeah, it’s all well and good thinking of becoming the next Hotmail/Yahoo clone: but have you ever thought where your income is going to come from? My own small business looks like it’s going to be making it’s first profit from online advertising within the next 30 days: and that’s after 4years+ of building up a good reputation, finding good advertisers, providing good content…. If you’re looking to start from scratch and “make money now!”, then I advise you don’t give up your day job as it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work.

Finally, the thing you should remember is: Know what you are doing! If you’ve got to ask your host if you “can set up a site like Hotmail”, then the answer is NO! You should know what you are looking for and ask them “Can you provide a Redhat Linux machine with dual high speed processors, at least 140Gb of RAID storage and over 1000Gb bandwidth per month?” – if they say “Yes” or “Let us have your number and we’ll call you back with a quote in ten minutes time: but just to check: did you want that managed or unmanaged, with or without a control panel suite (if so, which one) etc etc” then they (and you) know what’s needed – you also know a “ball park” figure that you are expecting them to quote you for. If it’s too high or too low, ask them why – if they say “I dunno, it’s just the figure I was given”, then think again about your choice of web host: if they say “Well, we get a good deal on the bandwidth available from our providers and have over XXXGb/s available and only use 65% of capacity – plus since we have servers available in bulk we can make cost savings there, we already have the man power on site… etc etc”: then they know what they are talking about.


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