Before you move, evaluate why you should so you avoid making a costly mistake.

As a business grows and/or its needs change, it isn’t unusual to begin to ponder changing hosting companies and/or even the topology of the arrangement.  However, nothing comes without drawbacks, and it is useful, and less costly, to ponder those before making a decision.

I’ve previously outlined what I believe to be an evolutionary journey in the growth of a business blog or website, but I want to repeat it since it was on the old website:

  1. When you first start out with that blog or website, perhaps you used either Blogger.com or WordPress.com. It got you up and running quickly with all sorts of neat features, but it was restrictive as to what you could do or see.
  2. So, you moved to your “own” web space. In reality, you are renting space on a shared server maintained by others. The theory is that they would be responsible for providing appropriate access to the software needed to run the site while maintaining common software and the associated hardware. Access is still limited, although not unduly so. As long as there are no issues, this can work out, but if the site grows and/or develops problems, only people with access can see what is going on.
  3. So, you then move to an environment where you have full control over the software, even the operating system. You have full control for troubleshooting, but the downside is that now you have the extra expense and more importantly the responsibility to keep things going.

I want to preface this by stating that a given move from one of these to another may or may not even be appropriate for a given company or circumstance.  This is why it is important to think about why you want to move and whether or not it fits.  This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it should work as a good starting point.

The third option might lead you to purchase your own servers and do the hosting yourself, but that is pretty cost-prohibitive for most small businesses.  Also, even a midsized business isn’t likely to want to take the leap from shared hosting to full-blown full-time IT required of maintaining its own hardware and software.

That’s why DigitalOcean has become so popular.  Instead of shared hosting, and instead of purchasing your own hardware, you create a virtual private server (VPS) in the cloud.  This allows you the freedom of maintaining the OS and software, being able to troubleshoot with full rights, and yet not have to purchase expensive hardware.  It’s no wonder, then, that WP Tavern posted that “DigitalOcean Is Now the Third Largest Hosting Provider, WordPress Droplets Account for 23%“.  They are still aggressively expanding, so follow the referral link to DigitalOcean, and you will get $10.00 credit while the special lasts.

However, we need to backup a bit and ask why should you leave where you are at currently.  WPBeginner has a handy list of “When Should You Change Your WordPress Web Hosting (Top 7 Key Indicators)“.  I would caution you, however, that they state:

Most beginners are afraid to switch hosts.

Why? because it requires technical knowledge to move a website without any downtime.

They offer advice for moving your site without downtime, but I want to warn you that you should come up with a plan for when not if you lose connectivity at any stage along the way.  In theory, it should be straightforward enough, but I ran into a situation where the old hosting was still defining the hostname in spite of changing the DNS settings as long as the old hosting account existed.  This is just an example of how something unexpected can occur.

Having said that, any of the reasons given in their article certainly would be a good one to prompt someone to move to a different company.  The question becomes whether or not it means moving to a VPS or another shared host.  Customer service, for example, was one reason I had moved a personal website several years ago, but I moved it to another shared host because that really was the only reason for moving.  This more recent move was prompted by needing more control for troubleshooting, so moving to another shared server did not make as much sense.

Keep in mind that a VPS might save you money, but it will require a more hands-on approach.  So, if you have to hire someone to do the work, it might not actually save anything at all, and it may even cost you.  On the plus side, you will have more control over what occurs on the server and are less likely to break someone’s policies on usage.

Email

Most shared server space also comes with email accounts.  Here is where things might get sticky.  You will either have to setup an email server, route email through a different service or do without.  If it is a WordPress site, you might not care about an actual email server, as you can still send emails through sendmail; you just won’t be able to receive email.

Fortunately, the server in question had no email accounts associated with it.  Here’s the thing: Do I really want to run my own email server?  There are lots of opinions on both sides of this question, and it might be more technical than you wish to get into.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Running an email server is hard work in spite of how long it has been around, as outlined in the Ars Technica article “How to run your own e-mail server with your own domain, part 1“.  There are a lot of moving parts, and so there is a multi-part guide.  You can also get a feel for all of the bits and pieces plus a tutorial on setting it up on FreeBSD from the Technoquarter article “OpenBSD Mail Server – Intro“. If you would rather set it up on GNU/Linux, then you might find “How to set up a mail server on a GNU / Linux system” more helpful.
  • Services like FastMail exist, and I’ve considered moving to them in any event.  Some services are pretty expensive, but the FastMail accounts seem relatively cheap when you take into account all of the features.
  • Even DigitalOcean has an article on “Why You Should Not Run Your Own Mail Server“.  If you slog through that article and still want to run your own server, there are links at the end that can help you do just that.
  • Having said all of that, there are plenty of instructions around the web on setting up an email server.  One person even set up a Raspberry Pi that hosts a web, email and ownCloud server.  It’s not like it hasn’t been done before.  The biggest problem once setup is maintenance.

All in all, it depends a lot upon your comfort level for risk.  If you get blacklisted, then you’re going to be in for a rough ride.  However, proper precautions should prevent that from occurring.

If you don’t want to take that chance, and I don’t blame you if you don’t, then there are plenty of places that can host your email for a reasonable cost.  The website firstsiteguide.com has the article “How to Create a [Custom] Email” that can help you out and list alternative email hosting companies to choose from.

Proper Backups

Regardless, you will need a reliable means of backing up and restoring your server.  Hopefully, you already have one in place!  If not, this is definitely something you should stop, drop and roll on!

If using WordPress or any other database driven platform, be sure you can backup and restore onto a local machine both the files and database to ensure nothing gets lost along the way.  I use XCloner to do the job, and you can use BitNami to create a local WordPress installation for testing and XCloner to restore your WordPress site locally.  You might want to checkout their WordPress Installers for a one-shot install if you don’t want to install the XAMPP stack and then add-on the WordPress module afterwards.

Regardless, you’ll need a good backup mechanism, and certainly do not attempt to move your site until you can successfully restore on a local test site!

Domain Name Registration

If you already have a site, then you likely have the domain name registered with your hosting company.  DigitalOcean does not handle domain name registration.  It will, however, handle domain name service (DNS) for your droplet.

This is actually a good thing.  One of the issues, I already alluded to, was the difficulty in getting the DNS to work properly, and some of that might have been mitigated had I maintained the domain name registration through a different service.

There actually is a more important reason to separate these out, however.  If your registration, DNS and hosting are all linked to the same account, then your domain can more easily be hijacked and disfigured.  If they are segregated, though, they might be able to attack via one vector but be limited in just how far they can go.  If they break into the website, the registration information can be redirected to a parked domain service.  If they break into the registration system, the website itself will be intact (and so will the DNS unless they are able to change it).  Furthermore, by locking domain transfers, you can limit further damage that might occur by granting them ownership of the domain.

In all honesty, I did not come up with this scheme, but stumbled across it.  Unfortunately, I lost the link where I had found it.

This might seem like an odd way to go about security, but think of it like locking your front door.  It won’t stop a bazooka from blowing the door away, but it might slow down someone less determined enough to cause them to give up.  Sometimes, that and the threat of getting caught is enough.

Conclusion

As I said, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.  Price, affordability, skill level of whomever will be doing the task, type of information (and associated privacy concerns), and more are issues you may have already thought of.  However, the above might steer you at least in the direction of shared server space, VPS or even dedicated hosting as appropriate.