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Free Web Hosting: How to protect yourself?

By asn in Internet
Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 04:45:30 PM EST
Tags: Round Table (all tags)
Round Table

We run a small collaborative fiction website (Prosebush: http://www.prosebush.com) and have just been offered some free web hosting from one of our users. Our current web hosting provider is brutal: lots of downtime, terrible service, old versions of RedHat, MySQL, Perl, etc. and we have been looking to switch to someone else in the near future.

The problem is that the person offering us this free hosting runs a site within the same market as ours -- a writing/literature discussion site. All he wants in return is links between our sites so we can help each other build, but I'm concerned that 1) he may have to take his server down without notice 2) that we may find ourselves suddenly locked out of the server one day and unable to get access to a backup of our site 3) there is no guarantee of any kind. So I put it to you: Is there any way for us to protect our rights on a free server like this without drawing up detailed contracts? Is it worth the hassel for free hosting? Are there better alternatives?


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Free Web Hosting: How to protect yourself? | 27 comments (26 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Free services (3.00 / 1) (#1)
by Defect on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 10:24:20 AM EST

I've never expected many rights when i use any free service. I'd assume that the user offering the space is an acquaintance (online, i gather), right? If i had to guess, i'd guess that as a non-paying user you have no rights that can be bound by a contract, at least traditionally, so the only thing i can suggest is just to get some sort of verbal agreement, of what, i don't really know.

Anyway, i don't think i'm stepping out on a limb by saying that if you have something that you want hosted on the web, it's a not a bad idea to pay for a good host.
defect - jso - joseth || a link
exactly (4.50 / 2) (#18)
by rongen on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 05:18:29 PM EST

This is exactly ou dilemma. The fellow offering us this oppourtunity (who is probably reading this!) is a nice guy and everything... We just know him online but his site is pretty cool as well... We were just talking alternatives so Adam thought he would post here to see what people think.

We are currently paying for service and it's a pretty good deal but the quality of service could be much higher... We would also like to have a recent GCC, etc (they are running a stock installation of RH 5.2 for instance) so we are considering alternatives. Because of our low cash flow, though, what we have is as good as we are going to get unless we get a free service from someone. We are interested in some aspects of throwing in with others but aprehensive about others. We worked hard to get Prosebush looking and acting like it does, we are not sure how much of that autonomy we want to give up for better (i.e. free!) webhosting, despite the positive intentions of our benefactor....
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]

Web Hosting (4.33 / 3) (#3)
by mattyb77 on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 10:41:14 AM EST

I heavily suggest that you subscribe to a commercial hosting service. If you go with a US provider, many out there charge $20.00 or less for pretty decent service.

I'd do some shopping, of course, because there are tons of companies out there. I'd ask questions about their servers, including OS, uptime, backups, etc.

Furthermore, big providers out there are likely to have better redundancy (load-balanced clusters, more bandwidth, etc.), but can be very impersonal on the customer service end of things. Smaller providers are going to mostly have standalone Web servers and possibly better customer service.

"I bestow upon myself the `Doctorate of Cubicism', for educators are ignorant of Nature's Harmonic Time Cube Principle and cannot bestow the prestigious honor of wisdom upon the wisest human ever." -- Gene Ray, the wisest human ever
There are alternatives (3.00 / 2) (#4)
by finial on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 10:41:48 AM EST

There are several low/no cost cost alternatives. I would think very carefully about risking my enterprise by this sort of exposure. If you are truly worried about #1, then you should not move there. Period. If there is *any* doubt in your mind that this might happen, this must be the deciding point. For #2, you should have a backup at all times. For a "programmed" site like yours, that is not possible, but you should have a nightly backup in any case. As for #3, no one else will give you a "guarantee" anyway, so this is a non-issue.

Here are my suggestions:

No cost solution:
Put your site a geocities and use a domain pointer. Geocities is the least offensive of the free sites. It has the little bug up in the right corner, but it doesn't have those god-awful popup windows like tripod. The sites never go down and have a good response time. There is no programming available, however, so this may not be a solution for you. For domain pointing, use either mydomain.com, zoneedit.com or granitecanyon.com

Low cost solution:
There are several very good low cost hosting services that will cost you less than $100 per year. I can recommend two: esosoft.net and jumpdomain.com I have had very good service with both. Esosoft is $7/mo but it has no database, Jumpdomain.com is $8/mo and has MySQL and several very nice mail and mailing list features.

So for the price of two hand-crafted pale ales per month, you will have a professional hosting service and not have to worry about it.

we need CGI (5.00 / 1) (#17)
by rongen on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 05:10:44 PM EST

Our site is all about CGI (I am part of the Prosebush team). Users collaborate to write works of fiction, poetry, etc. and we have discussion forums, etc. so we can't really take advantage of this... Low cost IS the name of the game though! :) (being a student is a drag!)
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]
Actually (none / 0) (#19)
by scriptkiddie on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 06:35:36 PM EST

there are a couple free services that do run cgi. For example, Netfirms seems to have set up a stock Red Hat server and forgot to turn off CGI - though you do get a banner on every page. I ran a site like this until somebody noticed and took away my account. But they still haven't disabled CGI, I checked. Perl and an old version of Python are both available.

[ Parent ]
database? (none / 0) (#20)
by rongen on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 07:09:01 PM EST

We need database, cron, pop-mail and so on... If you see a free host like this let me know! :)
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]
School? (none / 0) (#22)
by finial on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 09:57:20 PM EST

What sort of school? College? Talk with the CS and/or English departments. They might be interested in sponsoring something like that on the school machine.

[ Parent ]
Some Options (5.00 / 5) (#5)
by Seumas on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 10:43:44 AM EST

First, let me plug my current host (hurrah). I switched my hosting to them, not only because they are friends of mine and I know them in real life, but because they know what they're doing. They didn't just throw a machine up on their DSL one night and decide to become a webhost and ISP. They're hardcore linux geeks who enjoy their work and take pride in keeping things running. They're also very affordable.

Now, as I mentioned, there are a few things in the above plug that you have to keep in mind. The first is that the people must be doing it as a business -- not a hobby. The second is that the people responsible from the head of the company to the guy who tweaks the server must be hardcore techies. They have to not only know what they're doing, but love it. Preferably, have someone who is well-rounded watching after the servers.

Make sure you find someone with a promised Quality of Service. I'm not sure how big your site is, but this is a very important item. Unfortunately, the host I suggested does not offer one and neither does their internet feed provider. Still, it is imperetive. If your site goes down for four days, whatever the reason, you need to be compensated for it. The reason you need to be sure their internet feed provider also has a QOS is that if your host is going to be reimbursed for any down time imposed due to the stream provider, they are going to be more likely to quickly and fairly reimburse you, too.

Along those same lines, make sure that the stream provider themselves connects through more than one place. Let's say your host has his server co-located with an ISP. That ISP connects through, for example, Verio. That's great. But what if Verio goes down? What if some ditch-diggers are out tooling around with their machines and cut some lines underground that send them into oblivion for a day or so. They better have a second and possibly a third place to go through.

Find out how much bandwidth you expect to need and how much storage space. Strike a deal based on that with your host, rather than taking some pre-formed one-size-fits-all solution.

Also, sign a contract. No matter what the terms of the agreement are, have them send you a physical copy of the agreement that is signed by both of you. It must include the QOS terms, as well.

Of course, another option is to co-locate a server somewhere. The problem with a colo service is that you're probably talking $200 to $300 per month, and you're still limited to your bandwidth. Also, if you're like me, you don't have the time and patience to handle both your server and your website. I'd love to, but the time simply doesn't exist for me to take care of both. So using a host (as opposed to colo or anything else) takes the server care out of my hands.

You could also just spend $100-$150 for DSL (in my area, I'm able to get 768/768) and run the server from home. Thankfully, I use easystreet which is not only affordable, but run by a bunch of guys who know what they're doing. I've worked with some of them in a past tech-life. They're not uptight about how many static IP's you can have, how many machines you can run, how many servers or what kind of servers you can have. Granted, if you run a major commercial site, you better get a business account -- but in general, you can use their enthusiasts account and run a couple webservers, email servers, muti-player servers, ftp servers and whatever else. You can serve quite a few pages to quite a few people through a DSL connection and still have very responsive service for your own internet uses. And if you need more bandwidth, get a second DSL line. A problem with this, though, is that you have to prepare for power outages, system problems, server issues, maintaining everything yourself, securing everything yourself (again, some of us don't have the time for this even if we want to) and there is no QOS. If the DSL service goes down for hours or days at a time, there's really not much you can do and no recourse to makeup for the money, time or user-base that you lost due to that outage.
I just read K5 for the articles.

Do the contract thing (3.00 / 1) (#15)
by nstenz on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 04:02:52 PM EST

You have to draw up some sort of contract... You have to be guaranteed hosting space, a connection to the 'net, access to Perl, MySQL, PHP... whatever you use. I also strongly agree with the QOS guideline. My web host, Mavweb.net, has no uptime guarantee that I could find... My site goes up and down constantly, several times a day... I can ping their servers, but they won't respond to requests for web pages. It almost looks like they're rebooting IIS when something gets hosed up (they're an NT shop, and I have no idea how much experience they have). Their upstream provider also had a cable cut a while back, and they were down for days... No backup lines. I stick with them because I don't really care (my site is just a little plaything), and I didn't think $15/month for 100 MB with unlimited traffic was a bad deal. I can't say I'd recommend them to anyone though... Get the contract, and get a host you know is good.

[ Parent ]
Why bother (3.00 / 1) (#6)
by GreenCrackBaby on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 10:45:55 AM EST

Don't put your company at such a risk. This may very well be a genuine offer with no malice intended. However, just think what could happen if this wasn't the case.

Depending on how active your site is, why don't you hook some cheap Pentium up to a cable modem or DSL line, and host your own site. I do this with my ADSL line, and my site is capable of handling 5000+ hits per day and 100 Megs served up per day. Not exactly big stuff, but if need more firepower then chances are you'll be able to afford a better hosting service.

The postives of this approach is the low low cost (<$500 for the computer, most software free), the fact you can install whatever software you want, and near-unlimited disk space.

The downsides are that you'll need to provide security and backups.

Doesn't that violate (none / 0) (#7)
by porkchop_d_clown on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 11:45:39 AM EST

Doesn't that violate your terms of service agreement? Private DSL users are usually prohibited from putting a server on the line and, for most people, a commercial hosting arrangement would be a lot cheaper than a business DSL line.

People who think "clown" is an insult have never met any.
[ Parent ]
Same argument (3.00 / 2) (#9)
by Anonymous 7324 on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 12:32:39 PM EST

by the time they pull the plug for AUP violation, you should have enough supporters / money / whatever to switch to commercial hosting

[ Parent ]
DSL AUP (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by finial on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 12:41:20 PM EST

Generally it does not violate your agreement, but it depends on your provider. It *does* generally violate Cable Company's AUP, but not generally one from a DSL provider. However, most DSL providers nowadays assign dynamic IPs, so you'll have to address the problem of people "out there" being able to find the right IP. You can handle that by using a DNS service like mydomain.com or a dynamic DNS service like tzo.com

[ Parent ]
Nope (3.00 / 1) (#12)
by GreenCrackBaby on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 02:26:40 PM EST

As people have already pointed out, it depends on your provider. When I had my cable modem, it specifically stated in my TOS that I could not run a server. With my adsl line, I have no such restriction.

Besides, to upgrade to a commercial dsl line is a difference (in my area) of $60 per month. While maybe not cheaper than a hosting service, you have to decide how much compelete control over your site is worth to you.

[ Parent ]

terms of service (5.00 / 1) (#16)
by rongen on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 05:06:26 PM EST

Hi, I am part of the prosebush team... The answer is "yes" running a server would violate the service agreements of all the Prosebush guys (or which I am one). We don't get crazy traffic but we probably get enough that it would be construed as a problem by an ISP (given the stories we have heard locally) if they clued in. Odds are they would never know but it would be nice not to have to worry about this!
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]

editing stories? (4.50 / 2) (#8)
by asn on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 11:59:30 AM EST

Is there any way I can edit the copy for this story? I didn't realize that URLs wouldn't auto convert to links when I first posted... Having a link would let people more easily see what we are all about....

We run a collaborative fiction website where one person starts a story and anyone can continue them. The stories can branch off in as many different directions as you want after each entry and all the entries are ranked according to popularity to guide your rankings.
Any way you want it, that's the way you read it.

Hrm.. (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by Qtmstr on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 12:36:46 PM EST

Auto conversion of URLs would be a good idea, actually, in both comments and stories.

Kuro5hin delenda est!
[ Parent ]
Auto-conversion of URLs (3.50 / 2) (#14)
by nstenz on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 03:52:57 PM EST

I agree, auto-conversion of URLs would be nice. But there's one small problem- What if you want the URL to have a different title than just its plain old address? I suppose URLs inside <a href="..."> tags could be left alone, and only bare links would be auto-linked... But we don't want to get Kuro5hin in trouble for people's signatures linking to DeCSS mirrors, now do we? You know that's illegal and all... (Thanks Google... *grin*)

[ Parent ]
Don't do it... (3.50 / 6) (#13)
by skim123 on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 03:02:58 PM EST

I was offerred the same opportunity with another company for my online business two years ago. I didn't move over for those same fears that you have listed, and I think I made the right move. The best solution, obviously, would be to leave your current Web host and move to another one, a more professional one (which will probably cost more, hence the catch 22 situation you're in...).

If you want to do the linking/"help one another grow" thing with this other guy, do so, but keep your site on machines you (or a professional Web hosting company) controls. Best of luck, I wish you well.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

Been There (5.00 / 4) (#21)
by Captain Derivative on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 07:30:59 PM EST

Since I've actually been in a situation very close to the one you're describing, hopefully my two cents will be worth something. About a year ago I had been having my site hosted on FortuneCity (my advice: don't). My site is pretty much just a reference guide for Windows programming, and it's still largely static content. Anyway, about a year ago I got an offer from a company that hosts a large site vaguely similar to mine.

After careful consideration, I accepted the offer. Generally, it's gone pretty well. The free hosting servers were notoriously unreliable and were a source of frequent problems. The servers that my benefactor provides are more reliable and have allowed me to do pretty much anything I want scripting wise. They also give me e-mail service off the server. In exchange, we split the banner ad revenue.

The benefits of this system are that there's no out-of-pocket expenses for me -- they were assuming all the risk financially. Also, since they ran another larger site, they were able to get a better deal on banner ad service than I would have alone (generally, the CPM they'll give you for an ad will increase with number of impressions). I had been doing research on paying for hosting, and I couldn't be sure of breaking even on the deal. And of course, I got more reliable web hosting and e-mail service than I had already had.

One concern of course is getting screwed on the deal. In my case, since I had been running the site for free anyway, I didn't stand to lose anything -- I still had the free web space and e-mail elsewhere anyway if they double-crossed me or the deal fell through. I made sure that they agreed to let me retain my copyright on the content, so they wouldn't be able to steal my work from me. I also made sure I maintained complete control over the content. (If it weren't for the fact that I mentioned on the site who I have a hosting deal with, there'd be no way to tell.) With those safeguards in place, I didn't have much to lose. (Of course I kept multiple backups of the content anyway, both for development purposes and as a fallback.)

Of course, my situation's a bit different than yours is. My site mainly was (and still is, essentially) a bunch of static content which I update. With dynamic, user-generated content, additions could be lost if the hoster decides to double-cross you or change the terms midway through. Also, I started it as a non-profit site, so losing profits wasn't much of a concern. (The worst-case is that they didn't pay me my share of the ad revenue, but since FortuneCity required me to put ads on the pages that I didn't make a cent off of, it wasn't a huge danger.) Potential loss of revenues may be a bigger concern for you. Also, since I'm just a poor college student, I didn't want to have to worry about finding hosting, paying the fees, etc. without any certainty I wouldn't be paying out of my own pocket regularly.

My recommendations? Don't be too quick to decline the offer, but be cautious anyways. By all means, make a written contract. Make sure it stipulates that you retain ownership of all your content. Make sure you agree to a peaceful means to end the agreement, and how much notice either side needs to give before ending the agreement. If your potential benefactor has given this deal to anybody else, ask that webmaster or site operator how the deal has been. See what problems they may have had. Also, in my case, the people making me the offer had been operating a site I had already known about and that was already well-established. In other words, they were no fly-by-night operation. And of course, make sure you'd have access to anything on the server that you'd need to use.

Ultimately, you need to decide if accepting the agreement is worth the risks if something goes wrong. Have a backup plan by all means in case things fall through or the deal turns sour. Decide if you would be better off paying for dedicated hosting instead of accepting this person's offer. And if there's no guarantee of any kind (as you mention in your article), stay away.

Hope this helps you make your decision. Regardless of what you decide, don't be hasty and be sure to explore your options.

Hey! Why aren't you all dead yet?! Oh, that's right, it's only Tuesday. -- Zorak

Be careful (4.00 / 3) (#23)
by substrate on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 08:47:24 AM EST

Hindsight is 20/20. A few years ago we were offered bandwidth for a project, we took up the offer. I actually wasn't involved at the time but came on board between the move from the old location to the new location. We supplied our own machine, an IBM AIX box. The offer was negotiated through one of our users. Things were good at first, we had decent bandwidth and good uptime.

This didn't last all that long unfortunately. Soon there were uptime problems, the machine would mysteriously disappear from the internet, it might take weeks or upwards of a month to get a response. We should have taken measures to get our equipment and code back at the first example of this. The end result probably would've been the same but I'd feel better from a due dillegence standpoint (I'll elaborate later)

Eventually the machine disappeared from the internet, the person providing the connection, Chris Kuivenhoven, disappeared off the face of the earth. He quit his previous job, they didn't even know any forwarding information. Eventually we even got messages from concerned friends of his.

He reappeared briefly to say that the machine would be shipped to us within a week. He was just "really busy" and apologized. It sounded like BS, it was BS (about 8 months had passed) but maybe, just maybe we'd be getting our resources back, including a lot of lost code.

Weeks passed, which turned into months and the machine never showed up (we had an ignored cell phone number and email contact information). I took it upon myself to track him down and eventually found his new place of employment. He promised the machine again, a couple more weeks passed, no machine. I contacted him again and the response was pretty lame: "We couldn't find any packing materials". I shipped packing materials (not really expecting this to resolve anything) and still no machine.

He's disappeared again, its been a couple of years now. I don't know what caused him to steal his machine (sorry, I won't mince words. He's a thief) or the other projects machine which he stole.

In summary unless you really know the person I'd advise spending the cash and getting real access, or I'd advice doing it over a cablemodem or DSL (I'm not sure if this is feasible, I don't know your bandwidth requirements). Given the nature of your project maybe you could make a deal with a local university.

I think you're asking the wrong question. (5.00 / 1) (#24)
by Pseudonymous Coward on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 09:51:35 AM EST

[We] have just been offered some free web hosting from one of our users....

Is it worth the [hassle] for free hosting? Are there better alternatives?

Three words for you: "gift", "horse", and "mouth".

Your concerns are all legitimate, but keep in mind that this is free disk, bandwidth, and CPU you're receiving. If you're in a position to peel back the lip of this gift horse, you're probably in a position to drop twenty clams at llamacom or the like.

Either you trust your host or you don't. If you can afford to draw detailed contracts and enforce them with lawyers, you probably can budget yourself a couple of bucks for hosting. If not, and you just want a piece of paper to wave around at this person and bully them, you should consider not accepting the offer.

Keep in mind that someone is offering you these resources gratis. Your concerns all boil down to "what if my host screws me?" and can be easily addressed with a cron job, mysqldump, tar, and some mail. A technical solution is a lot better, and more polite, than implying bad faith on the part of someone offering you a free service.

not suspicious.... (none / 0) (#25)
by rongen on Tue Jan 16, 2001 at 08:29:29 PM EST

Welll we are not assuming this guy is a bad guy, in fact he's a pretty cool guy as far as we know. We are more worried about the things that neither of us can control... Like what if his access to this server space goes away without notice... Or whatever. This is just a way to see what others think and how the community has dealt with this sort of thing in the past.
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]
In regard to backups... (3.00 / 3) (#26)
by Anonymous 6522 on Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 08:36:18 PM EST

Shouldn't you keep them on a machine that you control directally. If the guy decides to lock you out, you should have your own backups not him.

As for his offer, If you don't have provide you ownr server, take it. If it doesn't work out you can right it off as a loss and go back to your old provider.

Be thirfty... (none / 0) (#27)
by rinkjustice on Wed Feb 07, 2001 at 08:14:25 AM EST

Sometimes, spending a little money can get you better value than for free. I suggest visiting ISPcheck.com, where you can research the best web hosting value for your project. There are hosting accounts as inexpensive as $5 a month (my account is only $10 CDN), which included a decent suite of administration and server tools. You won't get everything you want (you'll probably be pinched for space - as i am), but you can always upgrade accounts later when you need it.

Secrets of getting stronger, faster, leaner - ZerotoSuperhero

Free Web Hosting: How to protect yourself? | 27 comments (26 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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