(Ping! Zine Issue 58) – Isn’t shared hosting dead already? In hosting conferences and forums this is a question we’ve heard all too often. But despite all the dire predictions in the past decade, shared hosting is still alive and flourishing.
Every web host on earth has a shared hosting plan, and all website owners start hosting with a shared space. It is a market that just cannot be ignored, and is still the most competitive market.
What does it take to succeed in this market? There are companies which keep growing year after year, and there are companies which stop growing after they get about 10 servers. Here is a quick overview on what the winners do right, and thus ensure their brand keeps attracting new customers.
Ensure fair share to everyone
One of the major disadvantages touted against shared hosting is the poor performance and poor reputation through abusive neighbors. To be known as a reliable shared host, you should be able to quarantine abusive neighbors and negate any threat to security/reputation.
Resources that are misused the most are I/O, Memory, CPU, Disk space and Bandwidth; in that order. There are several resource moderation products now available which can do this for you in your servers. Choose one that closely integrates with the control panels you have, and establish an upgrade path to VPS for customers who constantly exceeds the limits. Examples of resource moderation products are CloudLinux, BetterLinux, 1H, etc.
Malware traffic from your network can be controlled by deploying hardware or software filters on FTP, HTTP and SMTP traffic. Examples for software filters are CXS, Linux Malware Detect, Atomic Secured Linux, etc. Examples of hardware filters are Cisco Anti-X devices, Fortinet Fortigate series, Barracuda Web & Email firewalls, etc. Additionally, make sure that your Acceptable Usafe Policy is enabled with zero tolerance for accounts spreading malware as you can cite them when taking action against defaulting accounts.
Lend a prompt hand of assistance
Legends are made at the time of distress. How you assist your client when he is in need will make or break your brand. Building a support system which has the following qualities will build your brand.
• Easily accessible over phone/chat/email
• Knowledgeable and confident
• Friendly and empathetic
• Available 24/7
Support is the single most time consuming element in running a shared hosting business, and finding the right crew for this job is one of the most important decisions you would make. You can either have a crew of in-house support staff, outsource the whole process, or run a combination of in-house and outsourced techs.
Watch your farm like a hawk
Establish an effective monitoring system. If there is trouble, you should be the first one to know. You should keep checks on your IP space reputation, network health, hardware health, and the health of services being delivered.
Additionally, your monitoring solution should be able to give you a trend graph on how the different farm metrics are performing. This should in turn help you plan on how to grow your farm. Open source software include Nagios/Zabbix for alerting and Munin/Cacti for trend display. Commercial solutions include Monitis, iHwak, Datadog, etc.
Insure against single point failure
Achieve redundancy on as many farm components as you can. If you are in a decent data center, you would already have network and power redundancy. Aim for achieving redundancy in individual server components like PSU, hard disk, network card etc. Enable health checks on your hardware devices, so that you will be immediately alerted when the performance starts to degrade. Eg: SNMP has capability monitor hardware parameters.
If your budget allows it, get a cloud solution. In any cloud solution implementation, the standard design recommends multiple redundancy points.
Be prepared for the worst
Disasters happen. It happens at the most unexpected time, and despite all precautions. Web hosting owners understand such is the way of life. But a “legendary” web host will be able to bounce back from a crushing blow within a matter of hours.
Your customer’s data is your strategic asset. Store it in an offsite backup, and check its consistency periodically. Establish contingency reaction procedures, like how to contact customers, who to do what, etc, and TEST them periodically. Keep a fail-over mirror for your company website so that your customers can reach you at any time.
This process is your life line. You wont need it every day, but when you need it, there is nothing else to replace it.
Empower your clients
Establish a rich self-help portal. Customers would ideally like to use a system where everything is intuitive and self-explanatory. Establishing a self-help portal which tells him or enables him to easily manage his account will help you save precious support time, as well as increase customer satisfaction rate. Eg: “Support knowledgebase”, “Server status monitor”, “Billing management”, “Domain management”.
Advertise a unique capability
Define your Unique Selling Proposition and target market. Cheap hosting is no longer a crowd puller. The market is so big that website owners look for specialists in what they want. You will need to establish a unique identity in the market of shared hosting. What do YOU offer that your competitors does not?
A few examples are: “SMB optimized hosting”, “Wordpress hosting”, “Bullet proof secure hosting”, “Anti-DDOS hosting”.
Once you have identified your strength, define a profile of your ideal client. List down all his possible requirements, and work towards being the best in providing solutions to those requirements.
Enforce the rule of the land!
Define the Acceptable Usage Policy for your hosting based on market behavior analysis. Chances are that there are other hosts competing in the same specialty area as you are. Do a research on how their target market behave, research their AUP, and define your hosting policy.
More often than not, a potential customer is likely to see someone cribbing about your company before he sees something good about you, and more often than not, such flames are posted by those who test the limits of acceptable usage of your service. When trouble starts brewing, if you can show the perpetrator that you have proof of abuse which violated the agreed terms of service, such individuals refrain from posting flames for fear of loosing face.
A well defined and comprehensive AUP will help you save time in making decisions, and enable you to defend your reputation against online flames.
Set your mind on constant progress
Establish company performance metrics, and do regular reviews. Determine what are the measurable points in each department of your company in which you want to see progress. Set targets for the long term, medium term and short term. Follow through rigorously, and make sure that you are making progress. Eg: “Support response time”, “Sales conversions percentage”, “Service uptime percentage”, “Customer satisfaction percentage”.
One important metric is your flexibility in adapting to the market. Sales queries and market trends should be monitored to see what customers are asking for, and your change management protocols should be initiated once you know the market it changing. Eg: “Raise of Ruby-on-Rails demand”.
Once you get into the habit of monitoring and improving metrics, your high performance metrics can even be a marketing edge against your competition. Eg: “Average resolution time”, “Satisfaction index”
Build a community around your brand
Encourage your customers to build their dreams along with yours’. When you help people build their dreams, you earn brand loyalty. It isn’t just good business, its also good karma.
(a) Establish a mailing list which will send in major updates of your business, and how they can gain from it. Invite feedback, negative or positive.
(b) Share your passion for a better internet with your clients. Post regularly your views and efforts on how you are making things better. Encourage them to visit your forums, Facebook, blogs, etc to share their experience. Invite them to present their ideas on how to improve things. Follow-up on that.
(c) Encourage people asking questions in forums, and if you think the solution can be applicable to all, post the solution there itself. You can divert complex issues to the support desk. Encourage culture of mutual help where one user helps another.
I have listed the qualities as per the priority of impact. Yes, attaining all the above is a tall order. But once you set your mind to this plan, and slowly hack away at it, before you realize it, you would be one of the top shared hosts.