109 Days with Webfaction
February 17, 2014
In October 2013, GoDaddy’s scandalous acquisition of Media Temple sent me on a quest to replace my common recommendation of the DV product. I’ve been giving Webfaction (affiliate link) a go and am quite pleased so far.
I experimented with RamNode (fast!), VPSCheap (yay resources!, more limited connection speed), and considered DigitalOcean. I can’t believe that hosts like RamNode and VPSCheap even exist; do they even know how much power and speed they’re giving away for so little? While they deserve separate write-ups, they offer unmanaged hosting which I’ll only consider for my own development endeavors. I’m not a server guru so I won’t force my inexperience on clients when it comes to production sites.
DigitalOcean still captured my interest, as it seems (anecdotally) popular with many a web nerd, but a shining account from mega nerd Gabe Weatherhead pulled me into Webfaction’s corner. And I like it there.
The Promise #
Supposedly, Webfaction provides speedy hosting with ample resources and good support. It’s geared for developers, whatever that means.
First Impressions #
I signed up for my trial account and logged into the control panel, flush with dopamine. At first glance, "geared for developers" simply meant "convoluted setup that requires patience." You don’t add a domain name and dump your (digital) bags in a corner via SFTP or SSH. Instead you linger in the lobby, bags in hand, trying to figure out how to check out a room.
But it’s not hard, and one might even start thinking of it as smart: you define a new application (sort of a tailored environment for your intended app), a new domain, and a new website which simply links the application and domain. Hey, kind of smart—and that orderly flexibility could be useful later!
I got my Statamic site moved over, which is painless because it’s just PHP, Yaml, and Markdown. One clone of a Git repo and I’m on to the next app.
Worth mentioning here is that I could SSH right in and interact with Git and other friendly command line utilities. I felt right at home. There’s limited root access as well, even though I’ve not done anything interesting enough to test it.
Also nice was that when choosing an environment I could select—among other things—PHP 5.3, 5.4, or 5.5. Modern presets (Ghost, Node, etc.) were available, not endless lists of junk. To be clear, Webfaction’s "application" isn’t the same thing as a cPanel-style one-click installer that gets you up and running with WordPress and a database name you wish you would have chosen yourself. Technically speaking, it’s more thoughtful than that.
Setting up a new MySQL database was child’s play. Nothing to write about there, other than a note that PHPMyAdmin is available should you need a GUI for your MySQLing.
I’ve been spoiled being able to speak on the phone with a human being at Media Temple. Someone I can understand, who can understand me and correct my mistake or fix a problem. The same goes for chat, which is typically quick and productive. Nobody ever asks if I’ve turned it off and on again.
In the event of a necessary Media Temple support ticket, there’s always thorough and expert attention within the course of a day or two.
So Webfaction had a lot to live up to.
Webfaction doesn’t offer phone support to mortals like me, so all the pressure is on its ticketing system.
My full account was established on 10/24, and the seemingly-automated "your account is ready" email allegedly came from a guy named Wayne. I cheerily thanked "Wayne" just for the fun of it, and ten minutes later he extended a personal welcome and reminded me they’re ready to answer questions when I have them1. Wayne was real!
I submitted my first real ticket with "Low" priority on 10/30, trying to figure out why PHP’s
file_get_contents() was mysteriously timing out in one app. Ryan’s response came 8 hours later, and he asked some questions that immediately led me to the issue.
My second low priority ticket got a response in six minutes, and was wrapped up within a 15-minute window.
But let’s get serious with my only "Normal" priority ticket. I got a password wrong and locked myself out of SSH. (Don’t judge, you’ve done it.) I submitted a ticket for this on 12/31 expecting an annoying delay, and was robbed of that annoyance when Björn cleared the IP block two minutes later.
My check goes in the "so far, so good" column on support, but you can interpret for yourself.
I moved an AngularJS+CodeIgniter app from Pagoda Box2 to Webfaction and the performance difference was night and day. Rendering times dropped a half second or more, and the entire app felt significantly more speedy—nearly (but not entirely) instantaneous.
Every site I’ve deployed on Webfaction (CodeIgniter, ExpressionEngine, Statamic, Craft, Bugify) has felt faster, even if I’ve not bothered to benchmark in each case. I guess it’ll be tough for you to take my word for it, but you’ll have to. Or challenge me in the comments and I’ll benchmark upon learning that non-imaginary people read my blog.
In the thirty days prior to my Webfaction migration (from Pagoda Box), Pingdom reports 99.92% uptime with 21 downtimes. The thirty days after the switch have a 99.96% uptime with 2 downtimes3.
Pingdom’s global response time averages (all European and North American nodes) in those same time periods: 954ms before the switch and 392ms after. Exact same URL and app being tested.
This is all … ahem … under very little load.
I’m always skeptical about email services that come with a hosting package. In my experience, particularly in shared environments, the accounts are like spam sponges and are often slow and intermittently unavailable. Not exactly top-notch. I use Google Apps for mail so I’m immune to these situations, but I still have to consider clients that may rely on included services.
Unfortunately all I know is that server-generated messages go out instantly, and Gabe says the email service is good.
The service and support have been great, but Webfaction isn’t perfect.
My most serious complaint is that only one set of credentials has full access to the control panel. Separate contacts can be listed as technical, support, billing, etc., but only one username and password can be used to access the control panel. Webfaction says they’re looking to improve this situation, but it’s definitely an annoyance for smoothly handing off (or sharing) client access.
The control panel generally looks nice and is straightforward to use, but it drives me bonkers that clicking on a parent navigation item simply reveals child options and another selection is required to do something. I’m sure they’re all very nice people, but come on: give me a useful landing page or a flyout menu. I’m used to this now, but I still don’t like it.
Working Conclusion #
I like Webfaction. My apps run consistently faster and have good uptime, the support is great, and the quality of services and resources and support all feel like a good value for the price.
I’ll update my review if there are any new developments, but I’m happy to stay and am confidently able to recommend Webfaction to clients.
I’ll share one last affiliate link just because I can, and you should know that I’m just another nerd with no special relationship to Webfaction or any other hosting company. But please, give me free stuff to play with and I’ll write about it!
If you’re one of the three people that reads this, let me know! I’m happy to answer questions and I like learning how others are faring with their hosting.
Other Disclosure #
I got an email from Webfaction inviting me to dust off the Twitter account and tweet about my experience, good or bad, and get a free month of service. I was already planning on writing a bit more about it, so I sort of followed through but in more than 140 characters.
Possibly an unfair comparison since this was a barebones, bottom-of-the-barrel Pagoda Box configuration. ↩
Pagoda Box was a really cool platform with good support, just awful uptime and questionable bottom-tier performance. ↩