12 Hacks for Picking Web Apps

The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.

You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.

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Hooray for crude solutions

The good folks at GigaOm take note of a study that shows how web pages have increased in size:

…The HTTP Archive charted the growth of the average web page and found that average web pages have grown from 726 KB a year ago to 965 KB now…

And a graph:


GigaOm’s main point is how this growth impacts usage by people visiting sites via mobile. People will bump into their data caps sooner, thus you should make a mobile-friendly site. Fair enough.

My own take on this is if your pages are getting fatter, then they will be slower to download in all cases. This annoys visitors, and negatively impacts your search engine optimization — since Google penalizes slow sites.

The elegant way to address this problem is to clean up your design, tidy page markup, consolidate style sheets, etc.

A cheaper solution may be to throw hardware at the problem. Two weeks ago, I upgraded the server that hosts a number of client websites. Some sites got remarkably more responsive. Here’s the average page load time of one (lower is faster and thus better):


My incremental expenditure was $50 per month. That’s cheaper than just about any page optimization effort.

Three more to go. Goodbye Mediatemple.

helicopterOnly three more sites to migrate before I am free of MediaTemple’s deeply troubled Grid hosting service.

Their customer service is fine, but their phone system fails more often than the Detroit Lions, and the server outages come too frequently and occasionally for days at a time. Here’s their status feed.

The last straw was when a few of my pro bono sites got hacked with a code injection, via what was probably a systemwide vulnerability. Many others were affected.

I had seen this kind of attack at another host, and that time had the opportunity of breaking the news to the sysadmin.

For the record, most of my sites are now at Chicago-based WiredTree. They have a nice VPS package and answer tickets promptly.  And they sent me a coffee mug after I tweeted a haiku:

a ticket opened

michael fixes dns

a ticket closed


UPDATE November 25, 2009: 

MediaTemple has sort of fessed up, with this email:

Recently we witnessed some malicious activity on our (gs) Grid-Service platform where a hacker redirected some customer websites to a 3rd-party advertising website. This attacker appears to have illegally obtained some older customer data, which included usernames and passwords stored in clear text.  Our newer systems now have this same data encrypted. An investigation into this illegal activity is ongoing, with full details forthcoming.

More here.

UPDATE October 2010:

Nearly all my websites are hosted at WiredTree in Chicago. Solid uptime, and the support team answers the phone! I’ve never been as happy with a hosting service.

Web hosting highs and lows

UPDATE November 2010: MediaTemple’s Grid system continued to be very flaky in 2008 and 2009. Downtime and a security problem drove me away, into the capable arms of <a “href=”http://www.wiredtree.com”>WiredTree.

The majority of the websites I maintain are hosted at MediaTemple in LA. They came recommended by Komra at Design4Results, answer the phone, and are big enough to give me a secure feeling. In September they had some problems with their clustered web hosting service, called the Grid service. Some latency, duplicate emails, and the resolution process lingered on a bit. The Grid has never seemed rock-solid, and so they’re on a shorter leash with me.

But I write here not to bury MediaTemple, but praise them. During the problems they sent out updates consistently, via trouble ticket, blog thread, and RSS. Good for them. Hiding such obvious problems from well-networked buyers — who are skilled searchers — is asking for trouble. And after the system got back to normal, they sent out a credit via email.

As per the last incident update on (mt) Media Temple’s incident tracker system, 24 hours have passed and we have seen no further latency issues on (gs) Cluster.2
(mt) Media Temple is issuing 1 month’s credit to customers affected by this issue (INC# 285). We would like to take this opportunity to once again apologize for the unexpected access problems. We understand that our customers run web dependent businesses on our systems and that slow or inaccessible websites or email are simply unacceptable. We would also like to convey once more that this incident has spawned numerous internal reviews, new monitoring points and new adjustments to our cluster growth formulas. The primary aim for (mt) Media Temple is for this to never happen again.
We thank you for patience and your continued business. Regards, Demian P. Sellfors CEO (mt) Media Temple, Inc.

The blog post reads a bit differently. Including the CEO’s name in the email had a cooling effect.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, I present the final communication from Web Wide Media. They are a Texas-based budget host I inherited for one of my pro bono projects. In the highly probable event their service announcement disappears with their business, here is the relevant bit.

Ahoy! Like a modern day pirate, I am assuming command of an abandoned ship….
Let me introduce myself. My name is [name redacted by Andrew]. I own and operate DoorCountyHosting.com, and previously DoorHost.net until it was sold in April of 2006.
I’ve been working with WWM.net as a support tech, and a client, for almost a year. In recent events, I’ve had contact with the owners of WWM.net only on three occassions since June of 2007. One of those times was a two way communication. The others were one sided quick notes from [name redacted by Andrew] , and nothing further.
I’m assuming WWM.net to be an abandoned company, and taking control of it in an effort to ensure the clients with the hosting services and support they have paid for. Why is it assumed abandoned? As you can see – the cPanel licenses have gone unpaid, as well as the servers. Neither myself, nor the data center have a reliable method of communication to the owners. Have any of you heard from anyone but me since June??
However, there are many complications with this take over.
First, I’ve told [name redacted by Andrew] in an email, just moments ago, that I will give back the company if/when he wishes within the next 30 days. I am not out to hurt him, his income, or his company. If 30 days pass with no contact, the company will continue to be assumed abandoned. And any attempts to regain control will be denied without legal order to do so.
Second, I need to work out a time frame with the Data Center on how long I can keep these servers online before payment must be made. I will assume no responsibility for payments due before todays date. Whether that will be acceptable to the Data Center is unknown at this time.
Third, DO NOT EXPECT MIRACLES. I will need time to assess how many clients are left, and how to best organize the clients on the servers for minimal expenses and optimal server performance for the clients’ web sites. This means that you should likely expect some of you to have IP changes and custom DNS name servers to need updating. Feel free to post questions and comments in the general support forum. I will answer/update as soon as humanly possible.
Fourth, I’ve assumed control of the billing system. As of 12:20am CST (-6 UTC) all credit card processing, and PayPal payments are being handled by me. Any payments made before this time on 10/26/2007 are out of my control and refunds are impossible. There are a select few that appear to have already been set into a batch for processing, that I can not stop or access. So billing date for those will show up as after this date/time. If a refund is requested, and you fall into that category, you will be notified at time of refund request.
Lastly, THIS IS NOT SET IN STONE. Again, I need to consult with the Data Center and/or [name redacted by Andrew] may show up in the next 30 days. Think of this more as a letter of intent….
That is all for now. Expect things to turn around a get better in the near future.
Cordially, [name redacted by Andrew] WWM.net

The ensuing thread is a guilty pleasure — but only because moving my site from WWM won’t be a problem.