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16,000 Web Sites Go Dark - Web Hosting Gone Bad

By pgrote in Op-Ed
Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 09:57:19 AM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

Cyberwings is a hosting company based in Maine that has been operating for close to a year now. They started off dependable, but seem to be suffering. Suffering the pains of growth or the pains of inexperience or the pains of business gone bad? No one knows and finding out the truth has been as hard as cracking an ancient lobster's shell.

My personal 6 month experience with Cyberwings began in January of this year. I found the need for additional hosting capacity to handle sites I was developing. My rock steady normal host, Hosting Matters, was a bit expensive for the playing around I wanted to do. They are the gold standard in virtual hosting, but I didn't need gold standard. I needed cheap.

I first heard of Cyberwings on the WebHostingTalk forums. This watering hole of hosting suppliers and users makes you feel like you're in an intergalactic bar. People from all over, with varying backgrounds and goals meet to discuss hosting. It's also the only site on the internet that you'll find frank, honest and advertising free reviews of web hosting companies. It seems to draw people in like a huge gravitational force and never lets them go. Add to this that hosting companies routinely show up to advertise their services and mill about and you have an extremely lively forum.

The owner of Cyberwings, Shawn White, posted to WebHostingTalk under an advertising forum. I decided to follow-up with him and learn more about the reseller accounts he was offering. Through our emails Shawn and I developed a friendly relationship and he was extremely customer service focused. He worked with me to help me understand not only what a reseller account encompassed, but how to work the control panel called Plesk that I was unfamiliar with. On the control panel front he assigned one of his crew to work with me on it.

From the first day I was with Cyberwings two things struck me. The first is that I knew Shawn was trying to grab as much of the market as he could. My email box was filled weekly with new sales, new add-ons, etc. that were usually under market prices. Not one to dismiss good offers, I even availed myself of one of them. As my first month drew to an end I ended up with one gigabyte of space and 20 gigabytes of bandwidth for $27.00 a month.

The second thing that struck me was the promotional Cyberwings juggernaut. Shawn wasn't the only cheerleader for Cyberwings. There were people so fervently pro-Cyberwings that it bordered on cult status. What Shawn said was the word. If you have seen the new Men In Black movie these folks were like the aliens in the locker.

From what I came to understand my account was on a Plesk based server hosted by Rack Shack. At the time Cyberwings also had Cobalt servers, but I am not sure where they were based. Support was handled by this distinction and by all accounts things were rock solid and support was swift and efficient. I had all of three trouble tickets that were resolved in a quick and efficient manner.

In March Cyberwings lost SMTP services from their upstream provider on the Plesk servers. This was a pain, but a workable pain. Cyberwings indicated that seven different spamming incidents caused this to happen. To bring back SMTP services Shawn setup a page for donations. I thought this was odd, but then again Cyberwings was extremely community based where the one for all and all for one attitude was in full force.

As time went on I noticed that chatroom sales and specials offered by Shawn became a way of life. In May I attended a couple of chatroom sales and saw incredible prices for reseller, all you want and lifetime accounts being sold. I popped onto WebHostingTalk to ask other web hosting owners about the viability of these offers and almost everyone indicated that it'd be close to impossible to make money off those prices.

At that point my referrals to Cyberwings stopped and I began letting people know that you get what you pay for in web hosting. It's a golden rule I learned while a customer with CiHost and seemed to be extremely fitting with Cyberwings.

Of course, I didn't follow my own plan. I was supposed to be using my Cyberwings account for developing sites and then moving them to another host when they were live. I didn't do that for two sites I worked to get up and running and it came back to bite me.

In the beginning of June my server was down. Hard. You couldn't ping it and it was off the internet. My tickets went unanswered at Cyberwings, so I ventured into the chatroom. Experiencing the chatroom is much like attending a MLM sales meeting. Everyone is positive. Everyone believes in the product. Everyone wants you to believe in the product. You feel a little uncomfortable if you're the only person in the room swimming against the tide.

I pressed for information on the issue and very little was forthcoming. No Cyberwings employees were chatting with the communication left to the Cyberwings zealots. Eventually I was able to chat with a Cyberwings employee who indicated that the accounts on the Plesk servers at Rack Shack were down due to a technical issue.

Being the technical kind of guy I am I proceeded to find out what was the exact issue and what was the root cause. I prodded, probed and communicated. What I found was that it wasn't a data communications issue as other Rack Shack servers were fine, it wasn't a hardware issue as it affected all the Cyberwings' boxes at Rack Shack and it wasn't a data center issue as Rack Shack's other customers were fine.

Jumping back into the Cyberwings chatroom I learned that there was an issue with Rack Shack and that Shawn would fix it tomorrow. The issue wasn't technical in nature as Shawn had to talk to Rack Shack customer service and that department was closed. It wasn't a good feeling knowing that I had to wait over overnight to get my sites back up.

What really irritated me about this situation was the lack of communication and professionalism by the Cyberwings crew and Shawn. I felt like I was putting them out asking them for details. It was so bad that any attempt at nailing down real information was met with defensiveness. I can deal with servers being down. Tell me how long and why and communicate updates to me. Leave me in the dark and you have an irritated customer.

The sites did come back up the next day after Shawn spoke to Customer Service. No one really knows what the issue was with Rack Shack and the only communication from Shawn was that his lawyers were preparing something, but for the time being it had to be kept confidential. He promised to keep us in the loop. Unfortunately, no further updates ever occurred. I have no idea whether the issue was caused by lack of payment, bad hardware on only the Cyberwings boxes or a misunderstanding between companies, but the lack of information was key to my making a decision to move.

After the Rack Shack issue I began to look at other hosting companies to limit my exposure. I bought an account at another reseller site for more money and proceeded to make the changes necessary to move my site. Over the next few days I moved my sites and by the time the first week of June was over I had moved all my sites. I sent Shawn a nice message letting him know why I was leaving, but I never heard back from him or Cyberwings outside of receiving two automated invoices.

In the beginning of July the topics concerning Cyberwings started to heat up on WebHostingTalk again. Having been out of the Cyberwings loop I wasn't sure what was happening, but it did resolve around the servers in Maine being unavailable. To me this was odd as Cyberwings had their own datacenter in Maine, so any issues should be correctable by them. I read the posts further and was surprised to see that it appeared that the Cyberwings data center was in actuality collocated servers at Lightship.

Some people spoke about Cyberwings owing money to Lightship, but Shawn indicated that it was a confidential matter and that the decision had been made to move their data center in Maine and to Virginia. After this decision was made dates were set and plans set in motion. All during the time those with accounts on the unavailable servers had no access to their accounts or more importantly their data. Imagine not being able to access your data or your customer's data going on two weeks. Everyone knows they should back up their data regularly, but it takes something like this to really force you to realize that.

As it was now Saturday I decided to pop into the Cyberwings chat room and see what was up. I am no longer a customer, but have the same pull to watch what is happening as you do when you pass an accident on the highway. You want to see the blood, the guts, the wreck. It's a primal feeling. It didn't take long before I was actually laughing out loud at the posts. I was able to find out through a status page that there was a delay in getting the new servers up and running. The status page was put up to communicate to customers as the main site was down. At that point I really started to feel for the customers. Delay after delay with no hard information or dates to go on. A few apologists were still hanging the Cyberwings banner high claiming that getting new servers online could take weeks, but the more technical savvy in the crowd knew it wouldn't take that long. But this was a darker, more cynical crowd in the room tonight.

I stayed and watched and laughed. Someone decided to check the Wayback Machine for copies of Cyberwings' old site and that was interesting.

Someone else decided to check Google groups for posts from Shawn's email address. Who knows if this was Shawn or someone using his email, but the posts are here.

Two that stood out included:

1: Shawn attempts to sell you the Golden Fleece that promises to make you $10,000 a month.

2: Shawn would like you to lose weight and make money with The Ultimate Diet.

Checking on the WHOIS for myultimatediet.com you'll find it is registered to Shawn White of Cyberwings. Again, it could be someone else using Shawn's information.

As the night wore on I had to get a few things done around the house and when I checked back around 9:30pm CT the chat room was switched to moderated posts only and a new update was posted to CWSTATUS. The update didn't have any new information, just a thank you for patience and support.

What happened to Cyberwings? Why did things go from being great to being not so great in a short time? The only person who knows is Shawn White and he's not effectively communicating.

It's sad to see this situation develop on multiple levels. The first is that Shawn had a great community and a good start on a business. I was a Cyberwings booster and would have liked to have continued with them. The second is that there are many people whose sites have been down for going on two weeks and that is the real heartbreaker here. One hopes Cyberwings makes it back to the form that made it so popular.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o Google
o Cyberwings
o WebHosting Talk
o advertisin g forum
o Plesk
o close to impossible
o chat room
o status page
o Wayback Machine
o posts are here
o Golden Fleece
o The Ultimate Diet
o Also by pgrote

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16,000 Web Sites Go Dark - Web Hosting Gone Bad | 26 comments (19 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
just an opinion but... (3.50 / 2) (#5)
by khallow on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:07:15 AM EST

I have yet to run into a company less than a year old that was truly "rock solid". OTOH, the unfolding of the tragedy is too delicious. Think it'll be +1 section when voting time comes.

Stating the obvious since 1969.

I changed it to dependable. (3.00 / 1) (#6)
by pgrote on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:10:44 AM EST

Thanks for the feedback. I changed rock solid to dependable.

I would agree with you that rock solid may have been too much..

Thanks again.

[ Parent ]

Rock Solid (3.00 / 3) (#12)
by duxup on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 01:52:33 AM EST

I worked for a marble, tile, and stone company once.  They were pretty solid.

[ Parent ]
Ouch (4.57 / 7) (#7)
by greenrd on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:20:00 AM EST

Note to self: Always do a bit of Googling around before signing a web hosting contract. I can be forgiving but I won't trust a "former" spammer.

"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes

Best webhosting bargain: (2.50 / 2) (#9)
by tpsl2 on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 01:08:33 AM EST

Have others host your sites for free :D

This is not the place... (2.50 / 2) (#11)
by thelizman on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 01:41:05 AM EST

...to air your dirty laundry, but it's so well written, I had to vote for it.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
Not Dirty Laundry (3.00 / 1) (#13)
by pgrote on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 01:54:16 AM EST

Thanks for the comments. I didn't write it to air my dirty laundry. I am not out any money and only experienced a day of downtime.

I wrote it as a look at how a company that was hosting 16,000 web sites could go dark.

Thank you for voting for it.

[ Parent ]

This is unusual why? (4.33 / 3) (#15)
by Miniluv on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 11:50:39 AM EST

Companies go out of business all the time, their customers get left high and dry. Companies pack up in the middle of the night, deciding to liquidate their assets and just disappear, it happens all the time. Again, customers get left high and dry.

In fact, I would venture to say that it happens more with companies doing business primarily via the internet than with brick'n'mortar businesses. It's a lot easier to disappear from the 'net than it is to flee a storefront, though the latter isn't even terribly difficult.

Perhaps you should've done a bit more research? Besides which, those customers shouldn't be that stuck, if they bothered to keep copies of their sites. There are plenty of other hosting companies with low prices and decent service.

"Too much wasabi and you'll be crying like you did at the last ten minutes of The Terminator" - Alton Brown

Unsual because ... (3.00 / 1) (#16)
by pgrote on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:03:30 PM EST

... the company is still telling the customers that it is a day away from coming back up. They are stringing people along missing deadline after deadline. This isn't a case of a company liquidating. Add to that the fanatic factor and you have an unusual situation. There are people who have been without hosting for four weeks believing that any minute now their sites will magically appear. I can't argue with you on the backing up.

[ Parent ]
Maybe (2.00 / 1) (#17)
by Miniluv on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:13:22 PM EST

However, in my experience it is pretty clear that your average consumer is fairly stupid, and the Internet doesn't change that. These people believe it'll come back up because they want to believe it for whatever reason. I'm guessing they want to believe it because its easier to believe that than that they were deceived into thinking they could get more for less.

This isn't such an unusual happening in the world of fanatical customer bases. Take a look at what Amway members, a.k.a. ambots, will do just because their overlords say to. Same thing goes for Mary Kay to a lesser extent. Hell, I bet there are fanatical Alex Chiu customers who are quite convinced they will indeed live forever.

"Too much wasabi and you'll be crying like you did at the last ten minutes of The Terminator" - Alton Brown
[ Parent ]

Not a Good Enough Job (3.00 / 1) (#18)
by pgrote on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:34:49 PM EST

I guess I didn't do a good enough job explaining. With Amway and Mary Kay those are companies that are still providing service to their customers.

Cyberwings has been dead for four weeks and there are still people who believe they will see their money or their hosting, because they are being promised they will be.

I'm trying to find a way to make you see the difference, but evidently I can't. I understand where you are coming from, but in this case it's different than how you see it. They have customers, but no product. :-)

[ Parent ]

Or so you'd think (3.00 / 1) (#19)
by Miniluv on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:39:28 PM EST

Sure, Amway and Mary Kay vaguely provide service, however they're also quite a bit worse in extorting their customers.

I see the difference you're driving at, however I don't really consider it relevant. I certainly don't consider Cyberwings to be a great example of free enterprise, however I also don't think they're some horrible entity. Without knowing the motivation, or real cause, behind the service interruption how can we leap to judge? Besides, even if they are scam artists, it sounds like they did pretty well for themselves, without violating any laws. I consider that pretty sucessful tactics.

"Too much wasabi and you'll be crying like you did at the last ten minutes of The Terminator" - Alton Brown
[ Parent ]

You're right ... (3.00 / 1) (#20)
by pgrote on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 12:59:57 PM EST

... and I have enjoyed this discourse.

That is the key component. By evading and not communicating no one knows what happened.

Thanks again for the comments! I even learned to use the

in my comments :-)

[ Parent ]

I had a data center (5.00 / 5) (#21)
by xtremex on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 05:05:56 PM EST

And I knew when I started I wouldnt stay in business by being as cheap as the other hosts out there (CIHOST). I started as an ISP back in 95, went to webhosting a little later, then a full fledged data center. It is inconceivable that I would make back my money doing $99 colocation or $10 a month webhosting. T3's cost a "a porsche a month". Even WITH 1,000 users, the numbers don't add up. I used to have argumants with about 50 other companies with them saying "people wont pay alot for hosting"..that may have been true, but I wasnt doing it out of the kindness of my heart. I WOULD if it was possible, however, my upstream didnt care that people wouldnt pay. How much do you think it cost to build a fully-redundant data center, with staff to run it (I was running the entire operation myself until I burnt out...I payed for everything myself as I couldnt find enough investors). So, after building everything from scratch, adminning over 500 physical servers, and you hear someone bitch because $25 was too much money for 100 MB of space with 5 GB of transfer, with a database, Sendmail , PHP, JSP, shopping cart and control panel, you can see why I flipped. So, after being broke, and seeing my baby crumble I had to sell for pennies to a competitor who was selling accounts for $10 a month. Of course, they went out of business not 4 months later. I still cry over the fact that I lost my dream. 5 years of busting balls and have nothing to show for it. The worst period was during 1999 when "cheap" was "good". Very few people have ANY idea what alot of these companies used to do. Cram 400 people on a Pentium 200, but each one THINKS they're paying for a dedicated server. Very few clients complained about our service, just that we were too expensive..So I threw in more features...free COldFusion Server, free Oracle (Really), AND a free NT server account for web professionals.Free Real Player, so I slowly upped the price because I was seriously in the red. Then, I decided to give away FREE dedicated servers if you paid a year contract of $100 a month...peole complaiend that $100 a month was too expensive! Then I tried marketing to the Corporate world.....didnt work because my name wasnt out there (i had a couple, and those 3 that I had kept me afloat for a while). I was trying to offer what I felt people needed. I scaned the NG's and people wanted these features, but they wouldnt PAY for them. I'll agree that my marketing skills sucked...I didnt lie enough..I was being ethical. If people paid for a dedicated server, they GOT one! I would tell people "you odn't need 300 MBs of space for a 1 page home page"...so I would adjust their price and alot them lessspace giving them more if needed. Then they would leave saying "This company is giving 300 MB of space with UNLIMITD bandwidth for $5 a month!!" I wouldnt fight for them back....it wasnt worth my time with them bitching about EVERYTHING. like "My site doesnt show up in netscape...YOU have to fix it!!!" you know..the one they built with FrontPage? and loads of animated gifs and java applets everywhere and a WAV file set to load on startup. Maybe I went in expecting too much from people. That people would pay for a good product and friendly helpful staff...I was wrong..

:-( *sigh* (none / 0) (#22)
by neXXes on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 05:24:04 PM EST

I'm sorry about the loss of your baby.

[ Parent ]
Shit happens (none / 0) (#24)
by xtremex on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 04:26:02 PM EST

What can you do? Maybe I'll try it again in 10 years or so :)

[ Parent ]
unlike (3.00 / 3) (#23)
by turmeric on Thu Jul 25, 2002 at 10:42:04 PM EST

"It was so bad that any attempt at nailing down real information was met with defensiveness" unlike the rest of the computer industry? especially open source?

You get what you pay for... (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by AgentGray on Fri Jul 26, 2002 at 04:46:16 PM EST

but I didn't need gold standard. I needed cheap.

Get what you pay for.. (none / 0) (#26)
by darkonc on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 11:13:17 PM EST

Yes. He wanted cheap. The cyberwing site was intended for development, not production. As such 'cheap' was fine (as long as you have a backup of your data -- which he didn't at first).

I tend to do initial development on my home box and then upload to my service provider (who is also a friend of mine). That way, -- even if his site gets blown up by terrorists, I still have the ability to (mostly) reconstruct the site from data I have at home -- and it's not even a commercial site.

With the exception of two sites that stayed on cyberwing until after the first outage, he claims that he did not keep production sites on the 'cheap' cyberwings hosts.
Killing a person is hard. Killing a dream is murder. : : : ($3.75 hosting)
[ Parent ]

16,000 Web Sites Go Dark - Web Hosting Gone Bad | 26 comments (19 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
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