Netfirms has the last word

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I had a run-in with a crappy hosting provider (Netfirms) that resulted in me blogging a lot of bad (yet completely true) stuff about them, and them letting me out of my year-long contract with a refund of the unused months. That finished in mid-November when I moved the site in question (my wine-tasting club’s site) to GoDaddy.

Just after I left for Europe in mid-December, more than a month after I moved the site off Netfirms, I receive a nice email from their technical support:

Thank you for your inquiry.

We have made some changes to your configuration and can currently see an improvement in the speed with which your site is currently loading. We will continue to monitor this and will make any tweaks or changes as necessary to ensure that the site continues to load quickly.

We would like to ask that you monitor your site as well and if you continue to experience any issues, please contact us.

Thank you for your patience.

I was going to email back to them and let them know that the speed improvement was because I’d moved off their skanky hosting a month before that, but they should have to figure that out for themselves.

Talk to Phil

I had a call a couple of days ago from Phil in customer service at Netfirms. Apparently, someone noticed that not only did I move my wine club’s website off Netfirms after only 2 months of a 12-month contract, but I documented the entire debacle on this blog in language that was not at all complimentary to Netfirms. Phil called, he said, to give me someone human to rant at about this; to give him a ton of credit, not only was he very calm and professional about the entire thing, but he didn’t try to make excuses as to why their performance sucks. He even expressed some frustration over the permalinks issue (which was a functionality issue, and not my main reason for leaving), saying that it had been fixed about a year ago, but now is no longer working.

I explained that I was really looking for some sort of refund, since I believe that they misrepresented themselves in terms of their server performance and stability, especially around MySQL and WordPress. He thought that probably wasn’t possible since we were past the 30-day refund period (which I hadn’t even known existed, or I would have exercised it), but promised to have a chat with the billing department. I asked for the name of the VP of customer service (it’s Sandra Yick, based at their Toronto headquarters) and said that I’d be writing her to help resolve this.

Whether invoking the threat of escalating to the VP, or whether Phil just did a great job of acting as my advocate, he called me back later the same day and said that they were providing a refund for 10 months of the contract. Today, a credit came through for an amount that is apparently 10 months worth of hosting less two domain registrations (one for the year extension on my existing domain when I transferred to them, and one “free” domain that they encouraged me to register when I first joined, without explaining that I’d be stuck paying for it if I left even though I didn’t really want it in the first place). It’s about 65% of the amount that I paid, but considering the lower cost of hosting at either 8i or GoDaddy for a year, it’s enough to cover my hosting elsewhere. This doesn’t pay me back for all my own time and frustration that went into this, of course, but paying for the alternative hosting provider that I was forced to switch to is probably the best that I could hope for under the circumstances. Thanks, Phil, for being so helpful with all this — you were a star.

So if you’re a Netfirms customer and you’re unhappy with things, I have three words for you: talk to Phil.

The last “Netfirms sucks” post

Oh, did I mention that Netfirms still sucks? The entire site for my wine club was down for at least an hour today, on the day that we announced the ticket sales for our next event (which are sold through the website). I also couldn’t get onto email or even the hosting control panel. That’s it for me and Netfirms; next, I get my stuff off there, and start writing letters to try and get some of our money back, since we’ve so clearly been ripped off through their lack of ability to deliver a stable hosting environment.

I’ve already started the domain registrar transfer back to DomainsAtCost, where I previously had it registered (although not hosted); this way, I can choose either a Canadian host like 8i or a U.S. one like GoDaddy in the next step once the domain transfer is done. I know that if I pick a Canadian host, it would be cheaper to let them be my domain registrar as well, but I fell into that trap with Netfirms and now it’s taking me longer to get moved off them, so I’ll keep them separate for now.

I did get a response to my email to 8i, and it was not that encouraging:

At the present time, we do not have any websites running wordpress on our servers that I can refer you to.  I would like to mention the fact that Apache is compiled with AllowOverride on all our servers. As far as testing the response time of our MySQL servers, you can take a look at couple of the following sites that are running phpBB. phpBB uses PHP and MySQL for its database.

[ list of websites omitted]

If you decide to signup with 8i Networks, your hosting account will be placed on one of our newer servers with fewer than 10 accounts. Obviously with time, the number of accounts will grow, but rest assured we will not fill our servers to the brim. Quality is our number one priority, not quantity.

I’d really like to buy Canadian, and I’ve read some good reviews here, but the fact that they don’t have anyone (that they know of) running WordPress on their servers is a bit disconcerting. However, I suppose I can try them out for a month on a month-by-month plan, and ditch them for GoDaddy if they’re not up to snuff.

Later the same day, Netfirms still sucks

Netfirms sucksNetfirms sucks, did I mention that? Several hours since my last post, I now can’t get access to my email via my Outlook client, either inbound or outbound. Problems with the SMTP server are rampant, and often I give up and just use my DSL provider’s SMTP server, but this is a first for the POP server crapping out, too.

Although I was able to access my webmail at a few times during the day, there has been no email arriving all day, which is more than a little suspicious; I’ve just sent email to that account and the webmail reports no new email, so I imagine that they’ve somehow buggered up inbound email altogether. Hopefully any email that is delayed will eventually show up, rather than being sent to that big bit bucket in the sky.

I’ve sent a message off to 8i Networks based on the great reviews that I read about them, and I’m waiting to hear back. In particular, I want to see a WordPress site that’s hosted on their servers so that I can check the response time, and I want to be sure that they support AllowOverride on .htaccess, which will allow me to use pretty URLs in WordPress, a final step to getting the entire site (not just the blog) switched over to WordPress. If I don’t hear from them, then it will be south of the border to GoDaddy for me, where this blog is hosted with many fewer problems.

And now for something completely different… oh, wait, Netfirms still sucks

Netfirms SucksIt’s been a few days since I last posted about how Netfirms sucks, not because they stopped sucking, but because there wasn’t anything new to report. Today, they rise to new heights of suckage: I haven’t been able to get into my webmail for some time now this morning.

I’m quite sure that calling their technical support will have the same result as last time: they walk me through the process to recreate the error, put me on hold for 10 minutes, then come back and ask me to try again. Since their servers act fairly erratically, chances are that sometime in that 10 minutes (when you can be sure that I’ll still be trying to do whatever it is that isn’t working), I’ll be able to connect at least briefly, and then they can close the issue. They refuse to deal with the bigger issue of the servers being either grossly undersized or incompetently managed, and experiencing frequent outages.

I’m still not getting on the first page of Google results when I search for “netfirms sucks”, I’m way down on page 3, but I’ll keep trying.

Netfirms suckage quantified

I know, I’ve got this stuck in my craw and I’m not letting go, but just wanted to share some hard data on how much Netfirms sucks. When you load the admin dashboard screen in WordPress, it helpfully provides the load time for the page at the very bottom, right beside the WP version number. Here’s how my three hosts stack up:

  • GoDaddy, 3.95 seconds
  • Yahoo, 5.71 seconds
  • Netfirms, 19.15 seconds

Yup, it’s almost 5 times slower on Netfirms than on GoDaddy.

If you move from the dashboard page to the “Manage posts” page, we’re looking at 1.39 versus 3.01 seconds for GoDaddy and Netfirms, respectively — still over twice as slow on Netfirms. The “Presentation” page, which displays thumbnails of the themes available, is 0.88 versus 3.75 seconds, more than 4 times slower even though the GoDaddy-based site has three times as many themes to display.

Out of interest, I googled “Netfirms sucks” to see if I was getting any hits from this yet, and found many other people with the same problems (apparently even in other languages). I saw the reviews on HostSearch and decided to add my own to the mix.

In looking for Canadian-based hosts with good reviews on HostSearch, I came across 8i Networks, which has some solid reviews across the board; I’ll be investigating further.

More on how Netfirms sucks

Did I mention that Netfirms sucks? Oh yeah, I wrote about it a two days ago. This morning, I couldn’t get on to my webmail, and pages from WordPress were taking 15-30 seconds each to load. When I tried to go to the WordPress admin pages, I would get part of the main dashboard page, and then a big blank.

Although I had an idea that it would be a useless endeavour, I called Netfirms support (at least it’s a local number) and explained the problem. The tech support person had me retry things several times, during which time I don’t think that she actually did anything, just tied me up on the phone, which I think is their general ploy to wait until the system gets past its current hiccup. I started to rant a bit about the service, saying that I didn’t expect to have constant site outages and performance problems, and she recommended that I upgrade to one of their enterprise plans. Riiiight. First of all, the site in question is for a non-profit wine club that I help to manage, and we don’t have either the budget or the requirement for the bigger hosting plans. Secondly, what possible confidence could I have in their ability to run an enterprise hosting plan when they fuck up the “Advantage Business” plan so badly?

She said that she would open an “interaction” for this, and I asked to have it escalated, but I’m not hopeful with the outcome.

The best part was when I asked her for the name of the head of customer support — presumably her boss, or her boss’ boss’s boss — and she said (after a long pause) “I don’t know”. I burst out laughing and hung up.

In addition to my rants here, I’ve put a review up on Epinions with all the details, so hopefully will keep some poor sucker from going down the same road in the future.

A note to the kids over at CommandN: having sponsors whose products suck are not good for your image.

WordPress hosting woes

I’ve never found the perfect ISP, and not for lack of trying. Moving all of my blogs (except for my business blog, which is hosted on an integration portal site) to WordPress a few months ago just highlighted a few of the problems with the ISPs that I do deal with, a point that I was reminded of this weekend when I upgraded — in one case unsuccessfully — to WordPress 2.0.5. Here’s my rundown.

Yahoo Small Business

This is the host for my corporate website, including my email hosting, and holds the archive of my business blog up to the date when it moved onto the integration portal site. I chose Yahoo primarily for the email capabilities: 2GB email boxes, the best webmail client that I have ever used, and excellent spam filtering.

Prior to my WordPress migration, I published my business blog onto my own site using Blogger and ftp publishing; however, Yahoo allows me to create a WordPress (or Movable Type) blog easily, without having to copy the files and set up the database myself. This sort of functionality is becoming more common with some of the hosting companies, and is great for those who don’t want to play around with MySQL and PHP files themselves. I moved my business blog archive over to WordPress, but noticed that in spite of the fact that I had “automatic upgrades” for WordPress enabled on Yahoo, my version was still 2.0.2. Since this is just an archive rather than an active blog, I never bothered to do a manual upgrade until today, when, emboldened by the success of the other upgrades, I attempted the upgrade to 2.0.5. Several attempts later, using by a clean install via Yahoo and a clean manual install, I gave up and went back to the 2.0.2 version.

My conclusion: Yahoo’s MySQL installation, besides being out of date, is somewhat screwed up; this, in turn, seems to be impacting the ability to do a WordPress upgrade or even a separate WordPress install. My advice: avoid Yahoo Small Business hosting if you need anything but the exact WordPress version that they’re offering, which is currently 2.0.2. This likely won’t be a problem until a major WP upgrade occurs and you really want some new feature in the new version.

If this were my primary blogging site, I would not be using Yahoo as my host any more, even if it meant giving up the webmail.

Netfirms

I recently started using Netfirms for my wine club’s website and blog, and I have to say that I’ve learned my lesson about taking hosting advice from a faux-technical, slightly ditzy blonde with a popular video blog. Yes, I listened to Amber Mac on her weekly CommandN video blog about their latest sponsor, Netfirms, and how great they are; unfortunately, it’s a load of crap.

The only benefit that I can think of is that they are a registrar for .ca (Canadian) domains, so are able to provide both domain registration and hosting in one package; that plus the plug from Amber made me take a look at them. Although I didn’t have upgrade problems with WordPress 2.0.5, they do have two very serious problems.

First of all, performance and availability, particularly of MySQL. There have been occasions where the site has been down completely, and others when the blog was down due to WordPress not being able to connect to the database. Although the interruptions only last for a matter of minutes, this is a low-volume e-commerce site where we sell tickets for our wine-tasting events and having outages is just not an expected or acceptable occurrence. File transfers and other operations on the site take forever; coupled with the outages, I’m guessing that they have some very under-powered servers that are having frequent overloads. The last time that this happened, I called while the MySQL database was actually down and I couldn’t connect to the database; the tech support just dithered around, claimed to not be able to reproduce the problem, and kept me on the line for long enough until the database came back up. He never provided an suitable answer as to what happened. As I’m writing this, I just browsed to the blog and it took at least 15 seconds to open the main page after resolving the address, which is completely unacceptable.

This is one reason that I haven’t moved the main web site to WordPress, although I redesigned the site so that I could do that: a MySQL outage would take the entire site down, since WordPress sites are all dynamically retrieved from the MySQL database on command.

The second major problem, and this will sound a bit obscure if you’re not into WordPress configuration, is that they don’t provide AllowOverride for .htaccess. There’s a long thread about it on the WordPress forums, specifically talking about Netfirms, and after much run-around, I had this confirmed by Netfirms support (via email), who first sent me to their general information on configuring .htaccess (which I’d read, and was way past), then told me that I was using directives in the file that they don’t support (which isn’t true), then finally admitted that they don’t provide AllowOverride after I asked them the question directly. What this means to non-WordPress geeks is that I can’t get “pretty” URLs for my blog posts; the URL has to include “index.php” in order to use a format other than the default (ugly) WordPress permalink structure. So my post URLs look like //aws.ca/blog/index.php/2006/10/winemakers-blogging rather than //aws.ca/blog/2006/10/winemakers-blogging. Not such a big deal on a blog, although I’m offended by the aesthetic, but a huge deal if I wanted to make the entire website run on WordPress: that would mean that all of the page URLs would have to include the “index.php”, so our About page, for example, would have to be //aws.ca/index.php/about rather than //aws.ca/about.

My conclusion: Netfirms sucks. Their servers are underpowered, and they’re not supporting some basic things required for the proper operation of a WordPress site, in spite of the fact that they provide the same sort of one-step WordPress installation as Yahoo. If I hadn’t prepaid for a year, they would no longer be the host for my wine club. Unfortunately, since we’re a non-profit group with a tight budget, I can’t justify just abandoning the investment, however small, and signing up another host.

GoDaddy

I use GoDaddy to host this blog, and have a few domain names parked here as well. In general, I like GoDaddy, although I find some of the administrative interfaces a bit clunky sometimes (and lacking in a file manager capability for moving files around on the site). I’ve recommended them to various people who have set up their own domains or business email, and there have never been any problems. I’ve had no outages on this site, and although I have to do the WordPress installation myself, the MySQL interface works fine.

Unlike the other two hosts, however, where I have a MySQL super user account and can create my own databases directly in phpMyAdmin, GoDaddy doles out my allotted 10 databases one at a time, creating a user with all permissions for that database and only launching you into phpMyAdmin under that user account. Since there’s no permission to create a new user, that means that that user is the only one for the database, so any security would have to be built into an application rather than using different MySQL logins with different permissions. I need to think more about the ramifications there before I start building any of my own applications, but applications like WordPress manage their own user tables internally rather than relying on MySQL IDs directly. And, to be fair, I mentioned previously that the Yahoo MySQL implementation is pretty screwed up: although I supposedly had super user login access, and could jump around between the different databases, there were a lot of things that I couldn’t do that I should have been able to, so I think that MySQL on Yahoo would be much more problematic than on GoDaddy.

The only problem that I’ve had with GoDaddy is when I tried to setup a direct blog posting link from Flickr. In order to do this, Flickr needs to access one of the core WordPress files (xmlrpc.php) on GoDaddy, but it always returns an error when trying to set it up. According to Flickr tech support, who were very helpful, the error message being returned is empty, so I went back to GoDaddy tech support, who were pretty useless in getting any sort of resolution. First, they told me that they don’t provide support for Flickr or WordPress. Duh. Then, when I just referred to it as an “external service trying to access a file” and asked them to provide error logs so that we could trace the actual problem, they tried browsing to the page themselves, saw the standard message about how the XML-RPC server only accepts POST requests (which is the correct behaviour) and told me that this was clearly an error with my WordPress installation. I told them that this was not an error message, and asked again for the error logs to try and trace the error, at which point they told me that they could not provide the error logs, that shared hosting accounts do not allow remote connectivity (huh? Is this their explanation for why the xmlrpc.php access failed? If so, it’s bogus), and tried to sell me dedicated hosting services. So on top of the actual problem, I now have a really bad taste about their technical support.

My conclusion: this is probably the best of the lot, although I’d be reluctant to start hosting any serious applications here based on the crappy technical support. Works perfectly for WordPress, however.

Late breaking update: After I posted this, I retried the Flickr setup, and it appears to work now. They must have had more complaints than just mine, and fixed the problem.

I know that there’s no perfect hosting solution, but going through three different ones has really highlighted some of the things to look for with any new hosting provider. Unfortunately, most of these things can’t really be determined until you’ve actually started using it, so I’ll likely only consider a monthly hosting plan for any new provider in the future until I figure out if all these things will work okay.