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6 Reasons I Chose A2Hosting

FTC Disclaimer: I’m a satisfied, four-year customer of A2Hosting and a proud member of their Affiliate Program. I’ll make a buck or two if  you purchase hosting via my site,  so if you have a moral objection to helping me pay my monthly Netflix subscription, then by all means don’t click my links. Either way, check out A2Hosting.

Anti-Disclaimer: My blog has had a long and proud tradition of sounding off about products that suck. Just this once I decided to get behind a product that I’m truly proud of and tell you all why I recommend A2Hosting’s Shared Hosting package above the competitors.

Introduction

If one goes searching this vast Internet of ours for recommendations about cheap web hosting, one will be sure to drown in oceans of fake ratings and user reviews, not to mention affiliate links from folks who have never actually sampled a company’s services or those of any of their competitors.

I’ve dealt with several cheap, shared web hosts from the largely unknown Global Internet Solutions (name intentionally left unlinked for your protection) to Danika Patrick’s host-of-choice GoDaddy.  But when I have the choice, I host with A2Hosting.com.  This personal choice and my recommendation to my readers comes not from the promise of affiliate payments, but from four years of positive experiences with this company. Below are 6 reasons why I stand behind A2Hosting.

6. A2Hosting Watches & Listens

Up until just a few months ago I was running a now-defunct personal project called Sudoku Madness.  This marginally-popular website was hosted on A2Hosting and hosted hundreds of thousands of unique Sudoku puzzles in a PostgreSQL database. My site became a small hit (especially with my sister’s seventh-grade math class), which turned out to be a problem for other users who shared my server:  my scripts were opening a new database connections on each request and not returning them for use by other users.  A2Hosting didn’t knock me offline as they had every right to do, but they immediately notified me that my PHP was running amock and proposed a fix.

A2Hosting solved a problem of my own creation and suggested a solution that kept me and their other customers online and happy. Plus they kept me earning literally tens of cents per week in affiliate income from that project! (Look for my money-making infomercial coming soon to QVC!)

5. A2Hosting Supports PostgreSQL

Many shared web hosts support only the typical LAMP development stack; but in addition to the traditional Mysql offering, A2Hosting also supports PostgreSQL.  Attempting to debate the pros and cons of the two platforms is both out of this article’s scope and risks inciting a religious war, but suffice it to say that Oracle’s purchase of Sun Microsystems leaves MySQL’s future uncertain so a choice in open database platforms can’t be a bad thing.

I chose to use PostgreSQL on several of my projects, most notably on my Sudoku Madness site.  That particular database housed hundreds of thousands of records and used home-brewed PGSQL procedures to speed up searches and puzzle creation. The site ran for several years largely unchanged, and speed and storage never became a factor.

My one complaint: A2Hosting’s automatic backups include your MySQL databases, but at least as of a year ago, not your PostgreSQL databases. To the best of my knowledge, you’ll need to set up your own backup schedule if you choose PostgreSQL (a good idea regardless).

4. A2Hosting’s Server Rewind Feature

Whether you only host your own projects or resell hosting to clients, the day can and will come when you’ll need a backup. There is nothing more embarrassing and damaging to your credibility than losing a client’s site or database and not having a recent backup.  Nobody is perfect. That’s why pencils have erasers and decent web hosts provide backups.

I’ve tested A2Hosting’s backup system on numerous occasions.  The first was when my account was migrated to a new server and one of my databases was missed during the restoration (again, darn that lack of PostgreSQL backups!). With the help of A2Hosting’s support department I was able to recover one of my manually created SQL dump files from the Server Rewind app and quickly get my site up and running again.

More recently a site which I inherited from another developer was hacked.  The code for this site only worked when a certain directory under the web root had full write access by the Apache process and the client refused to pay for a rewrite.  Suffice it to say, they eventually got theirs.  I was able to recover both their site and their back-end database  using Server Rewind, available through my management panel.

3. A2Hosting Supports Subversion

The day comes when a developer outgrows manually updating their websites via FTP.  Fortunately A2Hosting supports Subversion over SSL, which provides you with secure version control of your code.  They also offer CVS and Git hosting if Subversion isn’t your thing.

I personally use A2Hosting’s Subversion hosting for all of my projects that aren’t based on another project (WordPress, etc), even development projects that aren’t hosted on A2Hosting.  After committing my code to Subversion I SSH into my server and run a script that pulls the latest changes from the repository. Using version control to manage your sites saves you time and bandwidth by only uploading changed files, and it gives you the power to quickly undo a bad update.

2. A2Hosting Has Never Eaten My Domains

Granted, I’ve never given them the option. I’ve previously lost domains to other shared web hosts who offered me cheap domain registration but refused to release my domains after I became disgusted with their service and wanted to move.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve transferred a number of domains to A2Hosting and they’ve always offered assistance in this frustrating process when they can.

1. A2Hosting’s Support is Unmatched

I can’t begin to explain how helpful A2Hosting has been to me over the past few years.  They’ve always responded quickly to my support requests no matter how inane, and they’ve saved my ass from embarrassment and lost clients on a number of occasions.

When I developed my first site using PostgreSQL, I uploaded my scripts to A2Hosting only to find that they had not enabled the pdo_pgsql extension which my code was completely dependant upon.  Their support people had the issue resolved within hours, which I consider more than acceptable for a shared host, when other hosts have rejected my requests across the board for common PHP extensions in the past.

More recently I had an issue with mail from my domains being rejected.  This is the sort of issue which truly tests a company’s metal because there are so many possible points of failure. Many companies will play the blame game for days or even weeks with email issues, insisting that the problem is “on the other end.” A2Hosting has never been afraid to dive in, and resolved this issue by the end of the day.

Summary

Though A2Hosting remains competitive in price, speed and options, their edge comes from their fanatical support.  Though I award them zero points for originality by naming their support wing the Guru Crew, those are the folks who have made me a committed and loyal customer of A2Hosting. Choosing a web host is a lot like choosing car insurance:  you can pay your premiums for years and have no concept of a company’s quality.  You find out when it’s too late, and that’s when A2Hosting truly shines.

First Impressions of Windows Deployment Service

A few months ago we decided to deploy Windows Vista in two recently renovated labs at SUN Tech. Originally I used Symantec Ghost Solution Suite to image the labs.  If you’ve ever done imaging, you’ll know what a “bad image” looks like: sometimes they don’t boot at all, other times they seem stable until weeks later they begin to blue screen for no rhyme nor reason. This was my experience with Symantec Ghost and Vista and the reason I forced myself to learn Windows Deployment Services. I may later chronicle my entire journey, but here are a few quick observations.

1. Windows Deployment Services Setup is More Complicated than Ghost.

While I applaud Microsoft for releasing a lot of wonderful deployment tools free with  (or at least bundled into the price of) Windows Vista and Server 2008, as always they provide very little free assistance with those tools.  You will not be off the ground running with WDS as fast as you can be with Symantec Ghost. Though installing WDS is simple (add the Deployment Services server role, configure the Boot Server Host Name option #066 on your DHCP server), making it useful takes some time.

You need to add boot images by locating the boot.wim file on your Vista or Server 2008 installation media. You need to add installation images using the source.wim from the same disks.  You then have to assign the appropriate boot files and images for each architecture (x86, x64, and Itanium). At this point you can network boot to deployment services and run the installation over the network, but you can’t do “ghosting” in the classic sense of the word. You still have to create a “capture image” from the boot image you loaded previously and then use it to capture your customized installation.
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Ghost installation is significantly less complicated. You install the software from a wizard. You create a floppy, CD, or network boot image using the Ghost Boot Disk Wizard, then you use it to boot to the machine you want to ghost or use to create a ghost image. You set up a session on the server, type the session name on the client, and off you go. Getting up and running with PXE booting in Symantec Ghost can get a bit tricky, but you can literally start creating ghost images within five minutes of inserting the installation disk.

2. Image Creation is Slower in WDS than Symantec Ghost.

When I was creating my images with Symantec Ghost, I was always pleased with the time it took to create a ghost image. After creating my reference machine (and running Sysprep) I would boot into the DOS boot client and it would upload 15GB drive image in about 15 minutes. This includes a full install of Windows Vista Business Edition, Microsoft Office 2007, Adobe Creative Suite CS3, and a few other applications critical to our organization.

Windows Deployment Services, on the other hand, takes about an hour to create the same image. This gets aggravating when the upload completes and you realize that you forgot to include an application, or find some other issues with the image that requires you to recreate it. Nothing is more aggravating than recreating an image because you forgot some critical tweak needed by your end users.

I don’t know for sure, but I think the difference in image creation speeds lies in the difference between Symantec and Microsoft’s imaging formats. Symantec’s images are an entity unto themselves. That is, they are a byte-for-byte clone of a hard disk.  Because they work on a byte level, they can often be difficult to work with when you need to add something to an image.

Microsoft’s WIM (Windows Imaging Format) is an altogether different beast. A WIM file can contain multiple Windows installations. In fact Windows Deployment Services stores all of it’s installation images in a single WIM. WIM is a file-base image format which remains aware of the files that it contains. It will never store the same file twice.  So if you have twenty images hosted on WDS, all with Windows Vista Business and Office 2007 installed, you will save significant amounts of space because the redundant files will not be stored multiple times. While this conserves a lot of space, I tend to think that the checks necessary to search a monolithic WIM file for matches may cause the considerable slow down in ghosting speed.

3. Image Deployment is Slower on WDS than Symantec Ghost.

The same criticisms of the WIM format apply during image deployment as well. While Symantec Ghost simply dumps bytes directly back to the hard disk, Windows Deployment Services formats, expands the image, installs the image’s files, and even goes out to Windows Update to download and install system updates before rebooting.
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I also noticed that after the reboot into the new operating system that the Vista version of Sysprep takes significantly longer to complete than on Windows XP.  However this can’t really be blamed on Windows Deployment Server, but on some of the structural changes and improvements Microsoft made with the Vista Architecture. Which leads me to my next point…

4. Sysprep is a Whore, but She is my Mother.

The above quote, adapted from the words of St. Augustine, perfectly reflects my feelings on Sysprep.  This tool, provided by Microsoft as a way to make a Windows image “generic” and thus usable on multiple computers, has caused me seemingly infinite amounts of pain and frustration, yet its the best tool that I’ve got.

On Windows XP you could avoid dealing with the quirks of Microsoft’s Sysprep utility by running Symantec’s Ghost Walker utility after deploying an image. This would recreate the security identifiers on each destination machine. When I moved to Vista I found that I couldn’t work around Sysprep because there are other processes that must be run and other identifiers that need to be recreated, such as those generated by Microsoft Key Management Services and Windows Server Update Services. With Vista, I haven’t been able to avoid Sysprep on Ghost or Windows Deployment Services.

Having said that, Sysprep on Windows XP was a cinch. You used the Setup Manager to create an unattend.ini file, you ran sysprep, and you rebooted. The Vista version of Sysprep provides a level of customization long sought after by IT workers like me, but while the platform has grown more powerful one’s chances of screwing something up have grown exponentially. The unattended.ini file has turned into unattended.xml, and while you could edit it by hand you certainly wouldn’t want to.

Instead of the user-friendly, wizard-based Setup Manager that we once used to use to create our unattended setup configurations Microsoft now provides a tool available for download called the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) as a paltry 180MB download. At least the tool provides a “Check for Errors” option, because you’re going to need it. Unattended Vista installations are complicated, error-prone, and problems are difficult to diagnose when you inevitably run into them.

4. Windows Deployment Services Finally MultiCasts.

I avoided WDS and it’s previous incarnation known as RIS mostly because it has never supported multicasting, which is critical when you are ghosting more than just a handful of machines. When you install the Deployment Services Role on Server 2008 it also installs the Transport Server supporting role, which allows you to select an image for multicasting within Windows Deployment Services. You can configure the multicast session to begin at a certain time, after a specific number of clients connect, or when you explicitly press the button to start it. The multicasting feature is what made me finally consider WDS as an alternative to Symantec Ghost.

5. Windows Deployment Services Delivers on the Promise of “One Image to Rule Them All.”

More a feature of the WIM imaging format than Windows Deployment services, you really can deploy the same images to a variety of hardware. Though often promised and long sought-after by IT professionals, deploying an image to hardware different than that which it was created on has never worked particularly well; and using the same image on a desktop and portable was simply unheard of.  However the new version of Sysprep and the WIM format finally make this dream a realty. Vista’s version of Sysprep removes the HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer) which prevented images from working on both desktops and laptops.  The WIM format makes it simple to add drivers to an installation image using the commands “Imagex” and “Peimg” provided by the WAIK.

Sysprep also makes it simple to store all your drivers in a single location which can be searched during the hardware detection phase.  You can even provide a UNC path to a network share and credentials for access.

6. Windows Deployment Services Updates Your Computers Before Booting Them.

Though this feature can be turned off in your Sysprep configuration, Windows Deployment Services will actually go out to the Internet and install available updates to your PC before it reboots into the downloaded image.  It ads a few minutes to deployment time, but saves you the bother of updating your images when a new patch is released by Microsoft.

7. Windows Deployment Services Just Works Better with Vista

Maybe this isn’t a selling point for the Vista-haters out there, but I’m a fan of the operating system. The fact I couldn’t create a single Windows Vista image in Symantec Ghost that didn’t blue screen or have other unexplainable issues really hurt my confidence in their product and convinced me to research and consider Windows Deployment Services.

8. Symantec Ghost is Expensive.

I’m not sure what the price is today, but I know we were paying several thousand dollars annually to keep our version of Symantec Ghost current and legal for our 300 computer network. If you have a license for Server 2008, you already own Windows Deployment Services, and all of it’s supporting tools are available as free downloads from Microsoft.

Summary

In a perfect world there would exist a program that acted much like a hybrid of Ghost and WDS. Ghost wins hands down in the speed department, both for ease of installation and speed of imaging operations. Ghost has, however, always been lacking in the realm of image customization. The WIM image format used by WDS gets a gold star for its extensive configurability, and for the tools that Microsoft has made available to make this possible. Symantec needs to play catch-up and make their software work better with Windows Vista.  They might even consider using the WIM format if they can do that and still keep their edge on speed. All things considered, the prices and feature set of WDS is what I need right now, and I won’t be switching back to Symantec Ghost any time soon.

No Media Center on Vista Business Editions?

I wanted to write a positive article about Windows Vista.  I really did. In fact I’m disappointed that this article didn’t turn out that way.

I Kind of Like Vista

For the past five days of my life I’ve been taking part in Windows Vista training courses (5115A and 5116A) working towards my MCITP Microsoft certification. Every day I walk away liking Microsoft’s pariah operating system more and more, thinking that if they had only tried to market Vista’s features rather than compete for the hearts of individuals Steve Jobs-style, it just might have had a chance.

I get back to my hotel room with grandiose plans of using Vista to simplify and organize my life, and maybe even give my computing experience that personal touch that Mac users are so fond of casting in our rank-and-file, robotic Microsoft borg faces. I was going to use Media Center, a fantastic application that centralizes all your videos, pictures, and music into a single, organized interface. As trivial as this sounds, I was excited to see what Media Center could do not just for me, but for the school that I work for as well.

But Media Center Center Doesn’t Come With Vista Business or Enterprise

Umm, what? Microsoft tempts me all day by training me on how to use and secure Media Center on my customer’s machines, only to find out that neither me nor my customers even have this software.

I suppose in Microsoft’s defense I did learn this in my last class when I was forced to memorize the differences between the various versions of Windows Vista. However I can and will give you a strong argument as to why they should provide Media Center with Vista Enterprise Edition.

Public Displays and Kiosks

My first thought for Media Center was to integrate it with my Netflix account on my laptop, which is obviously not a business case for providing me with Media Center. My second thought, however, was to use it to retool an old SmartBoard that has fallen out of use  by sliding it into a large showcase in our lobby and using as a promotional attraction loaded with the hundreds of videos and pictures that our school produces annually.

And a school is certainly not the only environment where such a setup would be useful. What about a business showroom? A photography studio? There are plenty of reasons why a networked, enterprise-grade machine would also need quality media capabilities.

Of course I understand Microsoft’s decision not to include it in Vista Enterprise. If it did, there would be no reason to buy Ultimate Edition, except for that “free download” of Texas Hold’em Poker.  The more Microsoft changes, the more they seem to stay the same.

Evaluating Online Backup Services

As a followup to my previous article recommending the use of an online backup service versus hardware based solutions such as external drives, I plan on reviewing several online backup services. In the interest of fairness I believe that all these services need to be judged on the same criteria. Here is what I’ve come up with for my reviews.  If you have features or requirements you would like to see evaluated, leave your thoughts in the comments section.

1. Ease of Installation

The service should be simple enough for non-technical users to register and install. I’ll document the registration and installation process and note any problems that arise.  A successful, hassle-free setup awards the service 10 points. Each hassle I encounter during the setup process will result in the loss of a point. Failure to get the service installed results in 0 points.

2. Platforms

Platform support earns the service 10 points. I will be testing all products on Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, but each service must work on all versions of Windows XP and Vista, including both standard x86 and x64 editions. For each operating system that is not supported, a point will be docked.

3. Speed

For fairness I will re-image my test machine with a clean install of Windows XP Professional x64 Edition before I test each product. I will upload the same batch of test files and will track the length of time it takes to upload the files to each service. The service that uploads the quickest will be awarded 10 points. The service with the worst speed performance will be awarded no points. All other services will be awarded points in between based on their relative performance.

4. Storage Space

The service with the highest storage capacity on their free service is awarded 10 points. The service with the lowest capacity is awarded no points. All other services will be awarded an amount in between the two extremes.

5. Automatic Backups

The service must have a method of doing automatic or scheduled backups. Ten points are awarded for 100% automation, no points for manual backups, and partial points for any level of automation in between.

6. Reliability

I will test each service for 5 days. Each day backups are finished without error the service will be awarded a point.

7. Unique and Notable Features

Up to five additional points may be awarded for features that make the product stand out from the competition. Such features include file revisions and HIPAA compliance.