Selfhosting your blog. Or not?
In a previous post I touched on the subject of selfhosting in a series about selecting the blog platform suited for your needs. The subject is important enough to elaborate a bit more.
When you start a blog, you have the choice of either using your blogservice to host your blog, or to rent server space yourself. Of the popular blog softwares, WordPress.org and Movable Type allow you to use your own server. Others, WordPress.com, Tumblr, Blogger and Typepad don’t give you that option, and will run your blog on their servers.
Intuitively, organisations, and the more “independent minded” bloggers would be inclined to choose for selfhosting, but the choice often is made uninformed. Let me share some of my personal experiences.
For the past two years, I used blogs hosted by WordPress, Blogger and Tumblr. In my experience, their services are reliable, fast, trouble-free, and allowed me to concentrate on writing, on blogging (apart from an occasional hiccup where Blogger thought my blog was spamming). And above all, their hosting is free, offering unlimited disk space for blogposts and unlimited bandwidth. I thought it was a natural progression to move to self-hosting but gradually I started to discover the differences.
I am a blogger, not a hosting expert
When you decide to selfhost, the choice of a hosting service is just as critical as the choice of your blogging platform. There are plenty of cheap hosting services around. Little did I know. I had good experiences with GoDaddy for my domain hosting, so I went with them for my server hosting. But, aaah, I had choices to make..:
- Linux or Windows hosting..? Beh.. Went with Linux. Don’t like Windows anyway.
- Which type of service? Economy (10 Gb space, 300 Gb bandwidth per year, at $4.74/month), Deluxe (150 Gb space, 1,500 Gb bandwidth at $6.64/month) or unlimited (at $14.24/month)? Beh, went with the economy plan.
- What I did not realize is that these prices are for a shared virtual server. Meaning you are using the same server with hundreds of other hosting users, and the load on the server depends what those users do. If you want your own virtual server, prices go from $26.99/month to $105.44/month (10 Gb disk space/500 Gb bandwidth to 50 Gb/2,000 Gb). Quite steep. And then you can also have your own physical server with prices up to $383.92/month..
- In my experience, for about 9 different selfhosted sites, I hit the jackpot: performance on a shared virtual server was good. Only one of my sites was clearly slower than the others, and showed a significant decrease in performance during the US office hours. Several emails and calls to the support centre did not resolve this issue. I am pretty much stuck.
So what is the best hosting service? I would have to ask the experts, but it looks like the opinions are largely divided, if not really subjective.
I am a blogger, not a system expert
If you select a hosting service, check if they offer an easy install package for your blogsoftware. I know blogs. I know my way around HTML and CSS enough to make a blog look nice. But God forgive, I am not a systems expert. Neither am I a programmer. I don’t know my way around the backend systems (PHP and MySQL for WordPress). Even if it is not rocket science to install blogsoftware from scratch, I would really like to concentrate on blogging, and not hacking my way around MySQL databases, wouldn’t you?
Even as GoDaddy offers a ‘one click install’ for WordPress, there are still quicks, I guess you find with other hosting services too. After I removed a WordPress site from one of my servers, I found out that the SQL database was deleted, but the files were not. I found the problems and the solutions, but wouldn’t I rather spend that time actually writing blogs? You bet!
So when you choose a hosting service, make sure they have a control panel where you can install your blog software with one click. If not, you will have to do a lot of stuff manually, with mistakes easily being made. In that case, start reading “MySQL and PHP for Dummies” !
After you installed your blog software, the real work starts. Just as with blogs hosted by the blogplatform, you will have to choose a theme, or layout template. By itself, that is easy enough, BUT you have much more choices. And choices are curses. Which template to choose?
Most people make their choice based on the looks of the template, but forget there is more than that. How easy is the SEO (Search Engine Optimization)? How easy can you integrate your scripts for Google Analytics? Can you plug in your meta-data for Google Webmaster and the like? How easy is it to customize your template? How well structured are the style sheets? How easy is it to change the banner picture? How good is the documentation of the theme? Is there support, and a user forum? Are there known issues with popular plug-ins and widgets?
Speaking of which: Widgets… In my case, I used WordPress hosted blogs before, and always cursed the limited choices of widgets they support. Boy, once moving to a selfhosted blog, was I glad with the choices I had. But only for a moment… As “choices are curses” again… Which plug-ins to take? Which work well with the theme, and don’t conflict with others? Support? User forums? Documentation?
Even after you installed it all, you might find things are pretty slow. On blogs hosted by popular blogplatforms, all issues related to performance are taken care of by the host. Using selfhosting, you have to do it all yourself. That includes caching to optimize the blog’s loading speed, and keeping an eye on your hosting service’s performance.
There are people who enjoy building their house themselves, or refurbishing it by hand. They enjoy fiddling around in the weekends repairing broken pipes, repainting doors and window frames. I am not one of them. Nor do I enjoy the fiddling around with blogsoftware trying to solve one problem or the other, which is unrelated to the contents of my blog.
A few months I started BlogTips, a new version of WordPress came out with an urgent security patch. I don’t know about you, but upgrading WordPress is not one of my favourite pass-times, even if WordPress makes it as easy as “a click of a button” (Kudos for that!). I first had to check if all my plug-ins and my theme would work. It turned out some were not. The security upgrade was that urgent, I decided to disable the plug-ins I suspected problems with, and to upgrade anyway. Luckily, the upgrade went fine, but boy, I had cold sweat in my hands when I clicked that “Upgrade Now” button.
I can not imagine what trouble I would have to go through if my site did not come up.
On my WordPress blogs, new releases of widgets and plug-ins come out every week. For the 10 widgets I always use on my blogs, I get an average of 5 updates a week. On one hand, this shows the widgets are well maintained, and kept up-to-date, but on the other hand, each time I click on “Upgrade”, I keep a hand on my heart. And my eyes closed. Swift prayers are always at hand, hoping no error messages come up on the screen.
While I only use pretty well supported and popular widgets, there were times where all went haywire and my blog came up all hooble-de-boob. I had to hack my way through to disable the widget, and try to restate all as was before the update.
I can say that for the four selfhosted WordPress blogs I have, I spend at least two hours per week on the maintenance.
Break glass in case of fire
And as a conscientious blogger, you of course back up your blog. Right? Right?!?! Euh… While blogs hosted by your blogplatform, backups are taken care by them, once you go selfhosting, you will have to ensure you distribute the fire extinguishers, and keep them filled with foam: You need to back up your blog, and learn how to restore it, in case of problems.
Luckily, there are some plug-ins that help you with that, but you need to find out which. And learn how to use them.
The moment you decide to move away from blogs hosted by your blogplatform, and decide to follow the road sign “Selfhosted blogs”, you will need to keep in mind it is not as easy as a switch. You will have to invest time to choose the right hosting service. You will have to invest time in building your blog with all its widgets and you will have to invest time to maintain it all.
Is it worth it? That is a really subjective matter. I would say, for the serious blogger, with a certain level of technical knowledge and savvy, it is worth to selfhost a blog. If -on the other hand- you can not stand the sight of HTML, CSS, and get a rash by the thought of having to tune a cache plug-in, I would advise you to think twice.
Picture courtesy GoGrid