hosting Review technology

Cloud Storage Comparison – 2014 edition

You’d think you had this all figured out – there’s your Dropbox and Google Drive and OneDrive and… wait, that’s one too many already. Recently I have noticed that my paid-for 100GB of Dropbox space is over 80% full. There’s a folder with PSD images from my photography thing, there’s backups of web sites, both live and gone, there’s documents, receipts, some e-books I am reading, a few backups of software I may or may not need. I keep getting more and more of these – mostly photography, but other stuff as well. Backups of forms from our laser hair removal business. Clients’ backups. Clients’ digital assets and raw files. Clients’ photography – both RAW and edited. It looks like I’m gonna need a way bigger boat.

Before I started looking I had my own ideas and desires. First of all – I wanted to minimize the hassle of moving, so I was really looking forward to either stay with Dropbox or at least retain it in some form. I also have a huge collection of clients’ images on Picasa (including a lot of embedded ones) and I wasn’t looking forward to moving them around in any way. Last, but not least, I really wanted to like OneDrive – primarily because Microsoft bundles online versions of Office applications with it or grants additional 20GB of space should you subscribe to Office 365. Not everything came through, but I still was in less trouble than I thought.

First of all – I was not looking at free tier offerings. Given that I need to move around almost a terabyte of data I needed something better than a couple of gigs here and there. I also looked for a storage solution that won’t limit the size of the file – at least to a reasonable level, have been around for a while, allows sharing of files and whole folders, works on mobile and PC (I cannot imagine having another Mac in my household or business any time soon, so no iAnything for me as well) and allows multiple clients to work simultaneously (so I can upload stuff from my laptop in the field and get files on my home workstation – and vice versa). This eliminated most of exotic solutions (sorry, Unfortunately, had to go as well due to their weird file size limits. Amazon S3, RRS and Glacier didn’t make it because their usability depends solely on the quality of the client you are using (and what happens when it gets discontinued?) plus their pricing is so through the roof I wasn’t even thinking about them. Some of the services I tried and ran away for various reasons – mostly because their client software lacks sanity, usability or both. What was left is in the table below. All prices are taken from each vendor’s web site on 6/4/2014.

Click image to enlarge

In order to compare these providers I got all their plans down into a single table, then calculated the lowest price per gigabyte per year. This way the comparison would make the most sense to me: if I were to buy a single gigabyte of space for a year at a most favorable price – what would it cost me.

The first place is shared between Google Drive and Bitcasa. No one comes close to their 12 cent per gigabyte. Additional benefits for Google Drive include easy sharing of photos from Picasa or Google+, small size images (under 2048×2048) don’t take up space, tight integration with multiple OSes and mobile systems and automatic upload of images from mobile device. With Bitcasa it’s a bit more complicated – although their pricing is just as good as Google’s – their support section is nonexistent and while I see a lot of happy reports on their services I have not seen them around long enough to put my files there (we’re talking about investing a lot of time to backup large amounts of data). They are also the only two providers with officially published prices for storage over 1TB – Bitcasa offers 5GB for $49/month and Unlimited for $100/month while Google doles out 10, 20 and 30GB for $100, $200 and $300 per month respectively. The only concern for Google’s storage is their uncertainty towards Google+ and the fact that Picasa hasn’t really been updated much.

Next in line, surprisingly, is 4Sync – not another big IT name, but these guys have been around long enough and their services make sense. They allow sharing of images and files, including direct link (although only for paid users), their sync client isn’t too complicated (although not without issues) and they are pretty generous on their free tier, so you can test the hell out of them. One the con side I’ve read about some issues with reliability and that does cast a shadow on their otherwise interesting offering.

Third place is (again) shared – between Microsoft’s OneDrive and SugarSync. Pricing is so very close that I decided that both deserve this position. OneDrive works pretty much the same way as Google Drive or DropBox, can sync across computers, backup current computer configuration and pull mobile device’s photos. The only (huge) problem with OneDrive is its inability to provide direct link to images for embedding – instead you’re getting an iFrame to embed and to click on. This, of course, is unacceptable for photo sharing and publication. SugarSync appears to be in the same boat, however, their advantage is that you can sync folders anywhere on your computer – not just a designated “dropbox” folder.

Runner-up to first three places is DropBox. Their $1 per gigabyte is one of the highest prices on the market. Embedding is possible, although requires some poking around links and features and, therefore, totally unacceptable if you want to publish a post with multiple images or if you want to build a gallery (and Dropbox’s own gallery view is extremely poorly designed which makes it practically useless). The sad part is that Dropbox has become a really robust and powerful solution, so it’s sad to see it losing the game due to price alone. Given that they are the least generous on their free tier offering I can see them losing out fast to many other providers.

The conclusion is rather simple, as far as my personal use is concern. In my case instead of 100GB for $100 that I am paying Dropbox I will be able to get a terabyte of storage for $120 from Google. My DropBox account expires some time in November so I expect to fully migrate all assets into Google Drive by then. It’s rather convenient that I won’t have to move 200+ albums of images to another provider, but everything else (all 80-something gigabytes) will have to be moved. I would still take advantage of OneDrive by migrating my documents there to be able to edit them using Online Word, but it’s a tiny chunk of a pie anyway.


Netfirms does not want you to quit

Beginning this year I grabbed couple of special hosting deals with Netfirms. I was attracted by low cost and ability to run PHP4, PHP5 and .NET all under same account. As I spent more and more time trying to figure out why the heck a bunch of familiar and well-worked out scripts wouldn’t run on Netfirm’s hosting platform I came to know how messed up the whole deal was. Tech support responded to my e-mail after 4 days (I already forgot I filed a ticket). Performance was iffy at best – sometimes on par with my home-run server, sometimes way slower. ASP.NET application that runs without any tweaking on my company’s internal server failed to start in seemingly similar environment on Netfirms. You think I could use their tech support? Yeah, right.

So couple of days ago, as both my domain and account were reaching expiration date, I decided to move out. Transferring domain was the easiest, so I did this as soon as I have made the decision. Canceling account, however, is a much more difficult task. First of all – there is no way you can cancel from your control panel. And, there is no way of canceling via e-mail request to support. The only way to cancel the account with Netfirms is to call their toll-free number (I don’t want this idea to really get out, but I was expecting a 900- number) between 9am and 5pm EST and request the cancellation over the phone. Let me check what year is this? Right, still 2007.

Generally, I wouldn’t go over such a routine task as canceling some online service unless there was some incentive. Well, the incentive is as follows – nowhere on Netfirms’ web site nor in their knowledge base does it say how to cancel the account. While doing the digging I stumbled upon some blogs that describe exactly same problems with Netfirms I was facing – poor service, non-existent customer service, hard-to-find cancellation procedure.

However, I don’t see anyone at Netfirms to care. They seem to be overly busy taking new sign ups.

hosting services web

On servers, hosting and other things

Last weekend I was quite busy. Busy waiting. The main server went down some time around 10pm Thursday. At least that’s when we noticed. I went to our web hoster’s help desk to file the ticket, but the helpdesk was down too. So, it would seem, was the e-mail of the web hoster. Then I went to WebHostingTalk (WHT) – the popular forums, where most hosters and their direct clients hang out while datacenter reboots their servers.

The thread on the provider being down has already reached 4 pages when I joined in. Looked like all the servers managed by the same company went down. People were upset, angry and aggravated.

The guy who was answering my e-mails sounded very apologetic – little recourse knowing that our main site is down. Thankfully most of our clients were on another server, so they were only affected in a way that their communications with us was temporarily impeded.

Around 10:45 AM on Friday I found out that the issue seem to be at the data center, not the servers. Our web hoster informed me that they are changing providers. The reason was not, however, clearly communicated, although several people on forums had asked. I was assured that “we expect everything to be working today anytime soon”.

Knowing how annoying the e-mails could be when you really have nothing new to report, the next time I contacted the hoster was around 3:45 PM. Again, I was assured that “Some of our IPs are already up, your server should be up soon”. Future just looked a little brighter.

At 5:35 PM our hoster announced on WHT that most of the servers are up. However, none of the WHT members save one confirmed that. Their servers, as well as our, remained down. By 11:00 PM I inquired (on WHT) what servers have been brought up, so myself and other WHT members could see that the progress have been made. No response to that, though. Just regular “go back to your tickets, we’ll update you there”.

Saturday, 1:01 PM – another inquiry. The hoster replies that “we only have few machines down left, yours is one of them”. Great news! Not only I got in the game last, I’m about to leave the game last. However, by 3:45 PM hoster posts on WHT that there is another problem with some of the servers that refuse to boot. What happened to “you will be updated in your tickets”?

At 4:00 PM I am promised that “By midnight CST we should have your HDD in new hardware and sites online”. Great, it’s only 1:00 AM by EST, so I can cut on sleep again, tomorrow’s Sunday anyway. However, the server was up at around 4:00 AM with cPanel licenses and other minor things yet to be resolved. The whole thing seem operational as of Sunday, the e-mails started to come in and the rest of the dust eventually settled down.

Now, a bit of reflection. The team seems nice and the tickets are responded to properly. However, the constant lack of communication suggests that in critical cases like this one we will not be able to rely on the responses of the hoster’s team. A lot of questions went unanswered, for example – we still have no idea why hard drive from our server failed to boot in others. Why the system failed to boot at all in the first place. What was the reason the servers were down for more then 48 hours? And, ultimately, why have all these questions went unasnwered while they were asked? For example – I explicitly asked for the reason the system didn’t boot three times – and all three times my question was ignored.

By this time the quality of service doesn’t matter much, as well as price and server features. You can get roughly same deal from various hosters, give or take. What matters – is the quality of communication, the quality of customer service, the responsiveness of the whole team – server admins, customer service reps, techicians and even billing. So I don’t even count the past events, I am not saying I am upset because I had to ask for root password 4 times because they kept changing it right after I asked. I am not saying I am upset because I have found several high-traffic web sites left on my server, although it was supposed to be clean install. What I am upset about is that people I trusted with my client’s data and services failed to deliver up to the promise – several times. This – not the downtime – is the reason for leaving.