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Guide to Web Hosting: Part 2 – The Uptime Game

April 25th, 2008

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Uptime – for some people it’s the most important factor to consider when choosing hosting, but how much faith can you really put into these guarantees? What does uptime actually mean? Is it really worth paying attention to the figures that hosting companies give you?

Failure *is* An Option
“100% uptime” does not exist. I’ll say it again, “100% uptime” does not exist. Offering “100% uptime” is like offering a “100% life” guarantee – it doesn’t make sense.

Nothing lasts forever, and in the world of technology, we as consumers are probably doubly more aware of that fact. Things can and will just stop working for no reason at all, and web hosting is no exception. Every web host on the planet will, at at least one point in their lifespan, experience some form of downtime. When you’re dealing with hardware it’s an inevitability. Hardware aside, there are numerous factors (some even beyond the hosts control) that can occur, making websites unavailable.

To promote and offer the concept of “100% uptime” is very misleading and essentially false advertising. What we need to look at here is basically the small print.

How do they offer or guarantee 100% uptime then? What is it?
“100% uptime” is a concept developed by try and indicate to the user that “your site will never go down” if you use their service. The problem here is that your definition of “down” and the hosts definition of “down” are usually two very, very different things.

Offering “100% uptime” is theoretically possible, if nothing does go down, but this can only last for so long. There are multiple points of failure for any web hosting company, and it’s only a matter of time before one of these points makes itself known.

The real issue with the “100% uptime” claim is that as a user, you will rarely know what it’s actually covering.

Server or Network Uptime?
Here’s something that most customers won’t know or realise…The “uptime guarantee” that the majority of web hosts refer to is actually based upon the network uptime and not the server uptime. You won’t find this in any small print within the terms and conditions, because it’s left deliberately vague.

What’s the difference between network and server uptime? Providing the network that the server is connected to remains fully functional and accessible, anything can happen to the individual server and not be covered by this guarantee. That’s right, if (for example) the disks in the server die and it takes 24 hours to replace and restore your website, this may not be covered by the guarantee.

Because it is notoriously difficult to ensure or guarantee the uptime on a shared server, particularly when hundreds of users may be sharing it, it is therefore easier (and more logical from a marketing point of view) to stamp the uptime guarantee on the network itself. Unfortunately, in the real world, it’s a pretty much useless guarantee if the server is dead.

How do you actually define uptime?
When monitoring a server, there are various things you can monitor:

Ping – Is the servers network active and online (generally used to determine if the server is powered on and
receiving network requests)?

Web – Is the web service open and accepting connections?

Web Page Display – Is the server actually accepting connections and displaying static (HTML) pages?

Web Page Dynamic Display – Is the server actually accepting connections, and displaying dynamic (PHP/MySQL) pages without errors?

As you can see, “uptime” is a very sketchy definition. Whilst the server may respond to pings, be online, and serving up webpages… if MySQL is down and your site is spewing out database connection errors, you and I would both consider this downtime. Your host, however, probably wouldn’t.

The definition of uptime is ultimately down to your host, and not you. Hosts offering “100% uptime” are generally referring to the network and not the server or services on that server. If in doubt, contact them and get it in writing. It’s important to establish just what uptime is to see if the guarantee actually means anything.

Uptime Monitoring – The Facts Don’t Match
The problem with providing the guarantee on network and not server uptime is that it’s relatively impossible from a client perspective to distinguish between the two. Even when the network is legitimately down from your end, your web host could claim that it isn’t, and it’s the server that is down. You have no real way of verifying or proving this to them.

Occasionally, web hosts will have their own uptime statistics or service monitoring utilities on their website. These are, for all purposes, completely biased and should be totally ignored unless they come from a trustworthy third party source. Most of these tools will be reporting incorrect statistics either because they’ve been hard-coded to lie and say services are up when they’re not (who really wants to tell the world they’re experiencing downtime?), or their tools are run locally and don’t identify network issues.

Because everything on the Internet travels across different networks, maintained by different people and stored at various different places on the planet, these links can sometimes go down and cause problems for specific groups of people. For example, your web hosts network may use a particular link that goes down, causing your site to be inaccessible to all US AOL customers. If your host is monitoring network uptime on a server that is also on the same network as your existing server, this problem will not be detected, and everything will appear to be fine. Whilst network uptime is in most cases not your hosts fault, and is the fault of their bandwidth provider, their statistics will prove inaccurate and will conflict with your own.

To gain a true representation of network uptime, you need to monitor servers from several remote sources. This will identify any potential network issues from both ends, and you can get a much clearer picture of what’s really going on. There are a few services out there on the Internet that provide this, so I suggest if you’re interested, you Google around for some research. I don’t really want to recommend any individual services here because I believe in others making their own minds up based on the information they find.

Unfortunately, the majority of hosts will only rely upon their statistics when dealing with any type of guarantee. This is quite logical in case the monitoring site or source is experiencing issues and is misreporting downtime, but it can make it very difficult as a client to receive your guaranteed refund or account credit.

Another thing to consider is, how often is uptime actually monitored? Every 1 minute? 5 minutes? 15 minutes? Most hosts that I’ve encountered will perform monitoring every 5 minutes at least. 5 minutes can be a heck of a long time if your extremely popular website is down. What if you experience an issue within that 5 minute timeframe, and the server automatically restarts the failed service before the next monitor? This would essentially mean the server or site was never down. Not according to your host anyway.

What about the 99.9% guarantees?
This, again, is tough to comment on. What exactly does the uptime cover – server or network? Does it cover services? How is it monitored exactly?

0.1% downtime equates to roughly 43 minutes of downtime in any calendar month. 43 minutes is more than enough time to restart services and fix/solve basic issues, but anything more severe may require hours to resolve. If, for example, any significant hardware fails – then 43 minutes is not going to be long enough to replace them, test them, and get everything back online. If anything significant occurs, will they honour their guarantee and admit the downtime? Will they refund or credit you? Try to find out from existing or previous customers if they do.

Who cares, as long as they fix any problems?
As with the overselling, it can be a question of ethics. Do you want to host with someone who promises you something they can’t deliver, and misleads you with guarantees that don’t cover just what you think they cover?

If you were faced with choosing 2 hosts; one who offered “100% uptime – guaranteed” and another who offered “95% uptime”, which would you choose? Most of you would naturally choose the 100% host because not only does it seem like they’re more reliable, you’re also drawn in by the fact that if it does go down, you can get something out of the deal. But if you can’t get something back because it’s network uptime they guarantee, what’s the point? You may as well have gone with the honest “95% uptime” host after all.

Hosting companies don’t like to admit downtime. We know it happens and they know it happens, but it’s almost taboo to mention it. In a “100% uptime” marketed world, anything less makes you seem inferior than your competitors and that can lose you business.

Offering a “100% uptime” guarantee is basically like writing a blank check, and that’s not something most people in a normal state of mind would do. For a business to do that is almost commercial suicide, especially when selling a service so potentially unstable.

The real concern though, shouldn’t be with uptime figures and guarantees, it should be with how your host handles and responds to any downtime it experiences. Will they publicise their downtime and admit to the issues they experience? Will they keep you informed (time permitting) when they expect the service to return? Customer service and communication is key here. Remember, when you’re faced with downtime the last thing you really care about is the guarantee. Getting your site back up and running becomes the priority.

Four Comments

  1. Mac Tips

    April 26, 2008

    Thanks for this info. I’m planning on buying some new hosting soon and all of the tips you have given is great. I can’t wait for the next parts in the series. Keep it up. The more background and shady tactics the better.

  2. Paul Fraser

    April 26, 2008

    You make some _very_ valid points, things i wouldnt have concidered before. Goes to show some people know what they are talking about 🙂

  3. George (McHow2)

    May 19, 2008

    I just wrote an article on my blog when i found you on Digg, so i’ve added a trackback from my article to yours.

    Not all webhosting companies are like this though. There are some companies still offering 99% server uptime and keeping their promises.
    And with the ever growing hosting accounts and transfer rates we will have to be very careful what hosting company we select. That is if we don’t want to move our accounts every couple of years to another host.
    Size does Matter! In this case i choose smaller numbers though!

What do you think?