Nothing defines unlimited like the Slashdot effect

According to Webster’s dictionary, the word unlimited means:

  • lacking any controls: unrestricted
  • boundless, infinite
  • not bounded by exceptions

Apparently to many hosting providers, the word unlimited actually means:

  • a whole lot less than you think
  • as much as it can until it becomes a problem for them
  • Sharing the resources of a three year old server between a thousand sites; incapable of handling serious load.

For most bloggers on the Internet today, these two different ways to interpret what unlimited is won’t ever become a problem. However, if you vaguely aspire of gradually building a successful blog with thousands of readers, there is when this could become a problem.

Success can take you by surprise! What if someday one of your posts ‘goes viral’?

While I would love to hang up the 9 to 5 job in favour of becoming a professional wordsmith, that’s just not in the cards right now. ‘Cheap and cheerful’ is the order of the day for everything that goes into my blog, including hosting plans, platform, domain registration, using only public domain images, and even using free software to produce the content.
Most folks would agree that you get what you pay for, but when everywhere you look talks about cheap hosting and free this, and unlimited that, it is fairly easy to convince yourself to go with a low cost provider. Most of these companies do a great job of providing affordable hosting, and they do a good enough job for most blogs, right up until the first post really hits it big.

I’m talking about making it to the front page of Slashdot, or being dug on Digg, hitting a trending topic on Twitter, or getting some national mention on the evening news. The next thing you know, your site visit counter looks like a spinning odometer, your blog’s response time starts to get erratic, then slow, then suddenly stops completely. A moment later and refreshing your browser reveals one of the following…a 500 error, or worse, an account suspended page. In both cases, what you have discovered is that your low cost provider has low costs for a reason, and you just exceeded your thresholds. Now you know why they were so cheap.

One of the blogs I work on recently had an article make it to the front page of Slashdot. While the initial surge in traffic was exciting and extremely gratifying, it quickly degenerated into a disaster. The provider, Bluehost, suspended our account. Apparently they don’t have a copy of Webster’s dictionary.

This not only impacted the blog in question, but others operating under the same shared plan. Apparently the bandwidth consumption was so high that the hosting provider could not handle the load, the surge was affecting other customers, and they opted to disable the account to ride out the storm. When contacted about the suspension, they allegedly refused to reinstate the account until the viral post fell off the front page of Slashdot, which of course killed the buzz and caused several other blogs to be down.

Don’t let this happen to you. There are several things you should consider when setting up a blog that will help you to avoid this situation, and ride out the wave of a viral hit with ease.

1. Read the Terms of Service
Unlimited means something different in marketish than it does in English. See what your plan actually offers, and what happens when your site exceeds the limits of your plan. Some hosting providers have built-in allowances for occasional surges in traffic, while others may let you roll over your account to the next billing cycle.

2. Read the SLA
Should something go awry, what is the provider’s SLA and how do they address issues? Disabling your site until it falls off the front page of Slashdot is an arbitrary reaction more in line with a child’s tantrum than a professional hosting company.

3. Determine how many sites are on a host
This site shares it’s server with 78 other domains, according to http://www.yougetsignal.com/tools/web-sites-on-web-server/. I have seen as many as 2000 sites on a single host before. Any one of those could go viral, and impact your site the same way your viral success could impact theirs.
4. Consider your images
Downloading images can consume the majority of bandwidth associated with a post. Use the smallest image size possible, saving files to the required resolution rather than simply resizing them in the HTML. Consider hosting your images with a dedicated media hosting company like ImageShack or PhotoBucket to reduce the traffic consumed by your blog.

5. Three words…caching, caching, caching
If you use WordPress, implement one of the great caching plugins like WP-cache or WP Super Cache to reduce the CPU load on your host and increase the load speed for your pages.

6. Watch your ‘extra stuff’
Plugins, analytics, and ads can all impact your site’s load time. Even if your site is wicked fast, a slow ad server or plugin that pulls content from another host could make your page painfully slow to load during peak times. In the event of a post ‘going viral’ be prepared to disable plugins and widgets to slim down your page and improve load times.

7. Mirror, mirror, on the wall
If you happen to catch a slashdotting or digg-effect happening in the early stages, consider setting up a quick mirror. NetworkMirror.com and DuggBack.com both exist to ease the effects of instant popularity on smaller sites, and may have already mirrored your post. Replacing your post with a quick redirect may be enough to stay ‘up’ without exceeding your hosts’ caps.

Basically at this point, you need to make sure you have Success Proof Hosting!

Once one of your posts has ‘gone viral’ the likelihood of another doing this increases dramatically. There are several things you may want to look into in addition to what is above.

1. Dedicated hosting
Whether that means a dedicated server per blog, or per account, one reason many hosting providers will throttle your success is because it can impact all of the other one thousand sites on the server hosting your blog. Dedicated hosting is much more expensive, but ensures that your success won’t cause issues for others.

2. Virtual Private Server hosting
VPS is a nice compromise between a dedicated host, and a free for all. With a guaranteed percentage of system resources, and with the possibility to upgrade quickly, you know you will get a share of the pie and not be left with only the crumbs.

3. Burstable bandwidth
Look for providers that offer a steady bandwidth minimum with burstable peaks. You won’t be paying a premium every month, but your blog can weather the storm of another viral post with ease.

4. Multiple hosts
While this will greatly increase your admin overhead, using several inexpensive hosts across different providers, and using DNS round robin can be cheaper, and more resilient, than one large-scale hosting plan. It also reduces the likelihood that a hosting provider issue could take your site down.

Surviving a slashdotting or digg-effect is a badge of honour on the Internet. Not surviving is a close second, since both mean you had a post ‘hit it big.’ The difference between winning the gold, and taking home the silver, can be as easy as choosing the right host, making some prudent decisions with your setup, and reacting quickly when the storm begins.

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