Distractions, reflections

David Ing, at large … Sometimes, my mind wanders

Disruptive innovation in web hosting

Although the layman may think that Internet companies are at the leading edge of business, they may be victims of rapid innovation if they don’t keep up. I’ll use my migration path for hosting web sites as an example. I can describe this in four phases.

1. My first web domain

I registered my first domain as a co-founder of the Systemic Business Community in November 2001. A small breakout group from the ISSS had been holding “salons” where would discuss research questions, in person. Minna was moving back to Finland, and my assignment to IBM Palisades was coming to an end, so I had hoped that we could keep in better touch, electronically.

After searching around — I’m pretty frugal — I decided on a five-year registration with Doteasy. My background research was that this was a mom-and-pop operation in Burnaby, BC. In the midst of dot-com mayhem, I thought that a smaller private operation was more likely to remain solvent than one with high overhead.

For a few years, this provider did everything a needed. A place to store HTML pages, with e-mail redirection. Then I got a push to offload some computing from work ….

2. Putting a data centre into my basement

People generally don’t appreciate Lotus Notes/Domino, particularly as more and more computing moves to the web. Notes client on a local workstation allows continual work without having to wait for network traffic. The ability to easily put up discussion databases — with instant to access for others — makes keeping track of documents easy.

I had created a “Sense & Respond Research” database, while at IBM Palisades . As a(n external customer) education centre, they had their own servers. However, in the rationalization of computing inside IBM, they were advising guests to start migrating off.

For Boxing Day sale 2002, the IBM PC company had a huge sale. I got a Thinkcentre with Windows XP Pro for $300. (That’s a bargain, since Microsoft charges well over half of that for the operating system). I installed Lotus Domino v6.0 and then v6.5 on that PC. The only real trick was that Sympatico has dynamic IP addresses. I solved that with a freeware dynamic DNS program called DWIP from Benjimin Chan in Singapore. (I can’t find him now, and the software is still running! I used DNS Made Easy as a dynamic DNS provider, which led me to Domains Made Easy as a domain name registrar.

In 2003, I starting getting into digital cameras. I used C. K. So’s Web Page Generator (another PC programmer lost on the Internet) to generate static web pages, but this was a lot of work. After some consultant with Flemming Funch (who has served the ISSS since the late 90’s), I installed a 200 GB drive on the Thinkcenter, and took a few days to install Apache and PHP. (This isn’t quite a WAMP machine, because I’ve continued to be able to avoid the overhead of MySQL). I’ve loaded on Alexei Shamov’s Dalbum gallery, which continues to save countless hours of effort.

I tend to keep the server in the basement locked down behind firewalls — both hardware and software — because life is too short to be spent deterring hackers. Thus, I’ve been resistent to putting on more PHP applications … until I found a need for a wiki.

3. Enabling scripting

In summer 2004, I started to write a book with Gary and DLH, and Dokuwiki is absolutely the best way to do this. Dokuwiki saves every revision ever done by anyone, and even locks up pages so that edits don’t collide. Upgrading Doteasy for scripting is relatively expensive.

I found Affordable Multimedia to have an offer similar to Doteasy, but with a LAMP infrastructure. I installed Dokuwiki by hand, which was relatively straightforward over FTP using Filezilla. In August 2005, I put up a family domain for Adam to blog while in China. Then in September, I registered another domain to work on another book with Greg and Simon. After Christmas 2005, I registered coevolving.com and started a WordPress blog using the cPanel installer. Sure, the WordPress installation is a 2-minute activity, but selecting and customizing a WordPress theme can take days!

4. Multiple hosted domains

By this point, I’ve registered a multiple domains through a multiple providers. I had started and given up on a blog on the family web site, and then casually put miscellany on a blog on WordPress.com.

I’ve been mildly annoyed that I’ve registered daviding.com, but on a Doteasy, which doesn’t include scripting. I need to start work on a dissertation, which needs to be shown as an independent work, and thus, it makes sense to do it on a web site with my own name.

In a burst of energy last week, I did some more online investigation of alternatives. I read through some reviews on Jubilee Station — the uptime in the industry is really splitting hairs, about how many 9’s come after the decimal points! — and decided on Site5. They have some interesting features such as Multi-Host (for 5 domains on a fixed IP address) and a “time machine” of regular backups. Mostly, though, I was intrigued by their active forums and user-to-user community. I have contacted their support desk — and they answer can answer within minutes! — but many times, it’s easier to read through the experiences of others, to find different approaches to solving problems.

On other thing. Site5 doesn’t register domain names. It might seem as though they’re missing a business opportunity, but the fact that they don’t have to manage those domains offloads configuration of the DNS services onto (somewhat knowledgeable) users. That’s a bit of learning curve for someone who hadn’t come up the curve (as I did in step #1, above!), but it’s a big gain for a small pain.

So, now, I’m in a burst of activity to move bring the software up to date on many of the older domains. (I’ll leave some of the newer domains until close to their expiry dates, for migration).

5. What does this all mean?

Returning to the idea of disruptive innovation, I can immediately think of two lessons:

  1. The computer hardware business has a history of going through disruptions regularly. The software industry now is facing open source. The conventional wisdom has been that the computer services may be in better shape. The above experience suggests not.
  2. The differentiator in the web hosting business may not be the service features themselves, as much as the enablement of community. I spent a lot of time surfing the web for answers to technical questions, but there’s nothing like a focused community interested in passing on their wisdom — saving lots of time for others.

All of this is good for the knowledgeable consumer, and is further impetus for the technology industry to stop focusing in improving uptime — easily well past 99.9% — and start focusing on the user community — customers.

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