When Contentville.com was launched in July 2000, Web surfers encountered a unique online bookstore that offers an eclectic selection of content, from books and magazines to speeches and dissertations.

Prior to the launch, however, Contentville’s CTO John Gomez encountered an onerous problem trying to find a Web hosting facility that could deliver services on time and under budget.

In this case study, we’ll describe the struggle Gomez faced trying to find a Web host for Contentville and how you can avoid the same problems.

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IBM Corporation is the exclusive sponsor of TechRepublic’s special series on Web Hosting. IBM’s e-business Hosting gives you the freedom to customize an array of services into a solution that is shaped by your business, not ours.

For more information, check out TechRepublic’s Web Hosting Center, or visit IBM’s e-business Hosting site

Contentville.com, a corporate cousin of the successful publication, Brill’s Content, wasn’t looking for a “mom-and-pop” outfit to host their new site. Gomez conducted a number of contract negotiations before he could find the right Web hosting company with a location in New York City, where Contentville is headquartered. Gomez said he was surprised that many of the major Web hosting operations he studied didn’t meet his requirements.

“These were all large companies. None of them were second-tier hosters,” Gomez said. “These were all level one hosting facilities.”

 Gomez learned several lessons during this experience, including:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to find a host and negotiate a contract.
  • Watch for shifting cost and pricing structures.
  • Even if you select co-hosting, use your own people to maintain your equipment if you can.

In the beginning…
When Gomez began developing Contentville from scratch in February 2000, the decision was made to colocate the site with a Web host. Gomez began his search for a Web hosting partner four months prior to the July launch date.

The first company Contentville chose to host the site claimed it could meet all the requirements.

“About three or four weeks into the process, we found out that, because of building permit issues in New York City, they wouldn’t be able to accommodate us,” Gomez said. “The best they could do was put us in Denver or one of their other facilities…but that doesn’t help us because our operations staff [needs] to get to the location in emergencies.”

A second Web hosting company also claimed there would be no problems, but then announced that it couldn’t meet the deadline without forcing a move to a new facility after the launch of the site.

“At this point we’re into the May…and we are doing a July launch. So we ended up looking at another four or five hosters,” Gomez said.

Keep your eyes on the shell with the pea
With the exception of Qwest Communications, the company Contentville ultimately chose as its Web host, Gomez said negotiations with the other Web hosts would begin with one price and end with another. He calls it “teaser pricing,” where little things would add expenses to the original proposal.

As an example, Gomez said he would tell a hosting company that he needed space for 30 Compaq servers, which are very common in e-commerce projects. The hosters would then tell him they needed to calculate the space requirements for the servers. Gomez thinks a Web host should know how much room 30 Compaq servers would require.

“Two or three weeks into it they’d come back and say ‘Oh we forgot to tell you, none of your cages can be within 15 feet of a wall because of fire rules. So you’re actually going to need to rent 400 square feet from us in order to compensate for the fire code,’” he said. “Our thought is, why didn’t you tell us this in the beginning? Weird things like that just kept happening throughout the entire process.”

Gomez said Contentville didn’t want to eat off the a la carte menu, but the hosting companies it was considering knew the online bookseller was hungry. He said many of the hosting providers frequently added services or requirements that weren’t part of the original proposal.

“There were so many people looking for space, so many people needing the service, so many people wanting it yesterday, that they could pick and choose who they worked with. It was almost pricing this service at a premium,” Gomez said. “It just seems that it’s such a fast-growing industry that I’m not sure if they even understand how to present their options for their service. Other CTOs I’ve talked to have all had similar experiences.”
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Getting the people you need
Another aspect of cohosting that bothered Gomez was questions he had about the qualifications of the people from the hosting company who would manage Contentville’s servers. The best and brightest employees of the host would be involved in the beginning of negotiations, he said. But many of the hosters he talked with would not guarantee that employees with the same skills would be available if his site crashed.

“That’s very typical in consulting environments as well, but one of the issues that we found is you can’t really expect a quality of service from the human side of the equation in a hosting center because of the amount of people they are hiring,” Gomez said.

Gomez took a proactive approach to this problem by assigning five of his own employees to work in the host center. That decision was one of the keys to success for the Contentville site.

“If we decide to deploy new code, if we decide to make a change or add new hardware…we’re not part of a queue,” Gomez said. “Our people know our stuff inside out. One of the things with a lot of the hosting facilities is they concentrate on things like Windows 2000, Linux, or the operating system but don’t understand how our specific application works and what our specific needs are.” Gomez said hosting facilities that do understand your specific applications and needs come at “a very high level of cost.”

Another benefit with having Contentville employees monitoring the servers is that customer service representatives have a direct link to technical help if a customer has a problem with the site.

What’s ahead
Gomez said Contentville will probably renew its co-location agreement with Qwest Communications when the contract expires.

“We’ve worked through the issues. We’ve created a partnership with our hoster, so that has kind of worked out well,” Gomez said.

Gomez said he is considering a plan to contract with a second Web host to provide backup and another point of access to the Internet backbone.

Hiring a Web host will be easier the second time around, Gomez said. He knows now how to find the host with the most.
Have you danced the same dance as John Gomez? What has your experience been with Web hosting companies? What benefits have you found with using a Web host? Start a discussion below or send us a note.