Saturday, March 15th, 2008, at 10:43 am

Changed hosting providers (aka why Dreamhost sucked)

Dreamhost is awful. They were always a bit slow, but hey, they are cheap (cough, inexpensive).

As you probably know if you’ve visited my web site, one of the primary reasons I keep a site is to have a place to upload my photos. Sure, I could use Flickr, or Picasa Web Albums, or even SmugMug like Elizabeth does.

The issue of image ownership and usage rights aside, the bottom line is that I’m a control-freak. I like doing things my way. This means that I want full control over the display, linking, searching, protection, and usage of my photos. Though the set up of my photo gallery is far from perfect, it’s my own.1 I’d eventually like to build my own photo gallery software, but that is a bit speculative right now.

Back to the point, on my previous host my photo gallery crawled. In a large collection of photos, say over 100–which is small by my photographic tendencies–it would often take 10+ seconds to load a single page. At first, I thought it was just because of the sheer number of photos. When I paired down the galleries, I noticed that it was still quite slow. It was almost embarrassing to send out links to something I should take pride in–a gallery of wedding photos for a friend for example! The performance would get even worse with more users.

As I had done a number of customizations to the gallery software, I immediately assumed I had made some mistake somewhere that was causing slow performance. Though I can hack my way through code and make customizations, I’m a product manager, not a developer. Thus, I set about doing some tests. The first test was to remove all customizations from the code–I reverted it back to an “out of the box” installation. There was a slight performance increase from doing this, but the site was still very slow. I then slowly added back my customizations one by one, first my overall appearance, then my custom breadcrumbs, then Google Analytics. Finally, I added back the (rather large) scripts that controls the “Lightbox” effect. Ah ha! There was a noticeable performance decrease in using these scripts.

My first assumption was that it was purely the size of the scripts at play. Thus, I set about one more test: I disabled the Lightbox scripts, but left an exorbitantly large quantity of unused scripts embedded in the page. My theory was that if the size of the scripts were at play, there would be little to no performance increase. I was wrong. Clearly, something else was at play here. At the time, I probably should have also realized that file transfer from my site had always been speedy–something anyone that had downloaded a straight file (ie, music mix-tape) from my site could attest.

This left me one conclusion: the extra database queries required to make the Lightbox effect work were slowing things down.

Sometime later, I realized that it was not just my gallery that had performance problems. After installing a blog, a wiki, a project management tool, and other miscellaneous open source projects and scripts, I realized every application that depends on the database was slow. Mind-numbingly slow. Dare I say, dial-up slow!?

Finally I bit the bullet and contacted Dreamhost’s customer service. I always prefer to figure things out on my own rather than dealing with the hassle of customer service channels–I like the learning experiences involved–so this was a rather big deal. After a quick response, they immediately tried to place blame on the software, on me, on anyone other than themselves really. They even had the audacity to try to up sell me! I figure that as a web operator that has a “peak” of 50 users in a day across ALL sites, there was no reason I should be too big to fit in a shared hosting package.

Dreamhost has grown too fast for their own good.

Why not, they are offering one of the cheapest packages in hosting around? I finally decided to bite the bullet and switch providers. After a fairly exhausting search, I settled on GeekStorage. They don’t offer nearly as much space or bandwidth for the price, but I like working with the owners. I worked with them 5 years ago and up until they were acquired by a less than reputable company.

The experience with GeekStorage has been pleasant (barring one customer service snafu with a friend I recommended them to). Migrating websites is not a fun task, but the head geeks at GeekStorage have been accommodating and helpful. The performance increases alone have been well worth it! Their pricing is also not bad. Not nearly as much space/bandwidth as some other hosts, but I value performance and working with people I trust much more. Plus, at those rates they are not likely to oversell their resources.

So please, enjoy the improved performance around here. Browse around some photos without wanting to poke your eyeballs out with a big stick. And watch for some improvements to the site coming in the next few months.

1. The software is actually the open source and very powerful Gallery 2. I mean that I have total control over the display and organization of my photos.