Zen and the Art of Website Maintenance, Part 4: Uptime

Backups? Check. Security? Check. Updates? Check. We’ve achieved website Zen, right?

Almost. How can we sure that our site is healthy and running strong right now? Right. this. minute?

Uptime monitoring is the process by which an automated service continually checks to make sure our website is up and running, before a potential (and potentially lost) customer discovers it for herself. This last article in our Zen and the Art of Website Maintenance series is ostensibly about uptime, but in actually, it’s about webhosting in general. How do you know what you need? And how can you tell if the hosting provider you’re considering is reliable?

Number 9… Number 9

There are a slew of webhosts out there, from cheap, few-bucks-a-month options to hundreds-per-month webhosting Goliaths. While different hosts offer different bells and whistles (which we’ll get into further on in this post), reliability is often a determining factor in choosing a host.

In webhosting circles, reliability is measured in terms of nines. How many nines a provider has indicates their reliability. If your website is up 99% of the time, then it’s down 3.65 days out of the year. Yuck. However, add a couple of nines onto that number so that you’re up 99.99% of the time, then your website will only be down, on average, less than one hour per year.

As WordPress expert Chris Lema once put it, there’s no such thing as 100% uptime, not at any price you’re willing to pay. So the price of your webhosting is going to be driven, ultimately, by how many nines you can afford. Many webhosts are willing to guarantee 99.9% uptime, and may in actuality achieve greater than that, but more nines will start to cost you.

If something seems to good to be true, it probably is, right? That’s as true for hosting as it is anything else. Pay $4/month for a hosting provider, and you really have no room to complain when your site fails for minutes, or hours, at a time. If your business depends on your website to be up and running, that’s serious trouble. And likely, your hosting provider won’t tell you when your site is actually down; you’ll have to find that out for yourself.

Kinds of Hosting

Shared server hosting is by far the most popular form of webhosting out there, especially amongst small businesses and personal bloggers. One webserver powers dozens or more independent websites, usually in an environment where the owners of those websites have no idea who else is on that host. Sound a little problematic? It can be. If one of your webhosting “neighbors” installs a resource-hungry plugin or leaves his site vulnerable to attack, your site might suffer the consequences in terms of a sluggish site or hacking attempt.

Virtual Private Servers (VPS) operate on a similar concept, but with a significant difference: one physical machine can house dozens of “virtual” machines, each sandboxed in such a way so as one neighbor’s bad habits can’t affect his neighbors’ sites. That’s because each virtual server is allocated its own share of resources that the others can’t touch. Usually, this option offers the best balance of economy and reliability.

Dedicated servers are what they sound like: you have your physical machine that houses only your site, and no one else’s. This is great for large ecommerce sites and other complex and high-volume web applications, but is usually overkill for small businesses, not to mention the most expensive option most webhosts offer.

Aside from those general, mostly structural categories of hosting, some webhosting providers offer different degrees of specialization in the types of websites they cater to. WordPress managed hosting, for instance, is a subset of hosting that is specifically geared towards (you guessed it) WordPress sites. They will often manage at least the core software, and may provide their own caching and/or backup mechanisms included in their plans. Compare these sites carefully, because different hosts will provide a different array of included services.

Lastly, there are boutique hosting providers out there that often provide hosting for a very particular specialty. While not as cheap as the mass market, bare bones providers, boutique hosts often can provide a level of personal service that The Big Guys™ can’t.

“Give Me a Ping, Vasily”

So we really came here to talk about uptime monitoring. Services like Jetpack and Pingdom will continually monitor your site to make sure it’s responding. These checks (also called “pings”) occur in frequencies of every few minutes, and will usually originate from servers all over the world in case there’s a bad connection somewhere down the line that causes the check to fail, rather than your website being down. Once it’s determined that it is actually your website that is down, the service will notify you through a variety of possible means: email, text, push notification from an app, or even Twitter.

However, once you discover that your site is down, the impetus is on you to work with your hosting provider to figure out why. Is it a failure of their equipment, or are you (or one of your shared hosting neighbors) the victim of a denial of service attack? Uptime monitoring only lets you know that there is a problem, not what that problem might be.

As with hosting, what you get will often depend on what you pay. Free services, such as Jetpack, will only ping your site once every five minutes, and will only notify you via email. Pingdom, on the other hand, will ping your site once per minute, and offers a greater choice in notification options. However, their service will cost you at least $100/year.

What Goes Up Should Stay Up

Let vigilance be your watch word. Just as you need to be sure you’re doing all the other things to keep your website working for you—backups, good security habits, upgrades—you should be monitoring your site’s availability at all times. At the very least, you want to know if your website is down before your customers do.

Need Help?

Have a website, but need someone to help you keep an eye on it? Taupecat Studios can help. We offer monthly maintenance plans to take the tasks of backups, security monitoring, software updates, and uptime monitoring off of your plate so you can focus on your business. Get in touch and let us know how we can help.

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