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Dec. 11, 2008, 6:04 a.m.

RappVoice gets knocked offline; Don’t let its fate befall you

Jim Gannon is, in many ways, a model new-school journalist. After decades in newspapers (including high-level posts at the Des Moines Register and the Detroit News), he decided in retirement that the area around his home in Virginia wasn’t getting enough news coverage. So he used the instant-publishing powers of the Internet to start The Rappahannock Voice, a local news site that covered the heck out of Rappahannock County. “A techno-dummy like me can do it,” Gannon told AJR. “I was amazed at how easy it was to get started and how virtually almost cost free compared to starting, well, any sort of business.”

So why did RappVoice.com yesterday look like this?

Because Gannon appears to have fallen victim to a threat a lot of local web sites should be worrying about: The coming wave of web-host shutdowns.

“I had absolutely no warning,” Gannon told me. “Just bang, out of the blue. I go to my web site and it’s not there.” His site had been replaced by a page saying his domain “may be for sale.” The two years of news he’d created had disappeared.

He’s working to track down where he hopes his web site’s database might still live, on some server in a city he doesn’t know, belonging to some company he doesn’t know. His hunt may work out (I certainly hope it does); it may not. But hopefully it can spur some journalists-turned-entrepreneurs to do the checks that can help prevent Gannon’s fate from befalling them.

(I first heard about Gannon’s problem because our sister publication, Nieman Reports, features a story by Gannon about his experiment in its next issue. You can read a sneak-peek PDF of it here.)

Web hosting is a really easy business to get into, thanks to the idea of reseller hosting. That’s a setup in which someone appears to be an actual web host, but in reality is only a middleman between the customer and the actual company with the servers. Anyone can start a web hosting reseller; as Wikipedia helpfully notes: “Reseller hosting does not require extensive knowledge of the technical aspects of web hosting.”

While there are many, many completely legitimate resellers — I don’t want to tar the whole sector — it’s also an area where fly-by-night (or, at the very least, financially unstable) operations can flourish during good times. When things go bad, they’ll sometimes just disappear — a phenomenon that can happen to non-reseller hosts too, since hosting is a highly competitive business with comparatively small profit margins.

Gannon told me he doesn’t yet know the details of his hosting arrangement; he let a more tech-savvy area resident handle those details. But he said he did use a reseller to host RappVoice.com, and that he thinks it’s the reseller that suddenly disappeared off the Internet.

I asked my friend, the tech journalist Glenn Fleishman, about Gannon’s situation. Glenn saw this sort of thing coming last month when he launched ItDied.com, a site dedicated to chronicling the shutdowns of web sites, web hosts, web applications, and all the other entities up in the cloud we rely on to do our daily work.

One of the things that I think is probably most disturbing here is that there is no good way, except for a financial reporter who wants to dig, to determine anything like the actual fiscal health of any hosting company, even those publicly traded. Many of these companies offer crazy loss-leader services that are designed to attract recurring revenue and upsold services. As the upsell disappears or customers fail to renew, they’re going to go cash-flow negative very quickly.

But the bigger firms have enormous retained value and good will, and if they were to hit a cash crunch or file for Chapter 11 or 13, they’d have every possible motivation to maintain their service at a high level to maximize the return to a buyer of those assets. Smaller firms, those with maybe thousands of customers, might not have enough cash flow or business savvy to run a firm under bankruptcy in such a way as to preserve value.

What can you do to avoid this fate? Here’s Glenn’s advice on how to make your hosting situation more secure:

First: Anyone who isn’t hosted at a major service like Pair.com or even (shudder) GoDaddy should check and see who actually owns their hosting.

If the company that they’re using for hosting is publicly traded, great — check the financials. But there are tens of thousands of other hosts, many of which are resellers. In those cases, because the reseller isn’t paying fees to the host, even if the reseller disappears, the host relationship should remain the same.

For those hosted by smaller firms, like Gannon, it’s worth checking out what you can find out about the company. If there’s no way to find that out (no personal contact info, no company history, etc.), it might be worth taking the pain now to migrate to a larger hosting firm with a long track record and no particular publicly bad decisionmaking that might lead to their demise.

Frankly, it’s possible for any hosting firm of any size to go bankrupt (bigger firms) or disappear (smaller firms) with the current credit crunch, which has disproportionately affected smaller businesses. I’ve been reading how small businesses can’t get credit for short-term needs on reasonable terms even with a superb balance sheet. And with home equity drying up, they can’t turn to their own homes as a cheap source of credit, either.

Second: Make regular backups. This is crucial — just as your local PC or Mac needs backing up, so does your web server. Most hosting companies will make some sort of regular backup of your content in the event something goes wrong — but if your problem is that your host has gone out of business, having a backup on their servers won’t do you much good.

Make sure you have a complete nightly backup of any changed files. Most FTP software that’s any good offers scheduled backups to another location. There are scripts that can dump the current contents of MySQL databases to a file and then that file can be backed up, too. (If those last two sentences don’t make any sense to you, ask your local web geek.)

It might even make sense to pay $10 a month to a firm like Pair.com to have a relatively live backup that you could switch to.

Third: Consider having a third party handle your DNS hosting. DNS stands for Domain Name System, and it’s the mechanism by which a domain name (like niemanlab.org) gets tied to a specific server address (like 216.92.13.127). That connection is maintained on a DNS host, which is also called a nameserver.

Generally, your nameserver duties are handled by your web host. But again, if your web host goes out of business, you’d be forced to work with your domain registrar to repoint your DNS to a new site on a new host. That’s beyond the complexity level of most folks. I wrote a book on it (Take Control of Your Domain Names), although it’s slightly out of date.

It’s probably always better to have a separate, dedicated DNS registrar and/or host from where your stuff is hosted. I use easyDNS, which charges 2 to 5 times more than the cheap competitors, like GoDaddy — but they don’t try to upsell you, and they just do DNS registration, DNS hosting, mail forwarding, and the like. They’ve been very reliable, and they have a lot of customers like me. I gladly pay them $25 or $35 per year because they are easy to deal with.

For what it’s worth, this site is hosted on Pair, and I’ve had no problems with them. When, some months ago, I asked around to my nerdy friends about what host to use, Pair was the overwhelming recommendation. And, as they promote on their site, they’re profitable.

And a final update: As of Wednesday afternoon, Gannon had relaunched his site with a fresh installation of his blogging software — archives still missing: “In the meantime, we are starting up this ‘reborn’ RappVoice, to explain this unexpected interruption in our operations, to to have an outlet for new reports and information.”

POSTED     Dec. 11, 2008, 6:04 a.m.
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