Drupal and CiviCRM hosting

One of the services we're offering at Blackly is "Drupal and CiviCRM Hosting". My first thing I always say is: we're not running a hosting business. The reason I started hosting sites back in 2007 was because the other hosts I tried to use sucked and I decided I could do it better myself. Better means not only better direct experience for visitors to the sites, but less hassle during development and maintenance - i.e. less wasted developer time.

So fast forward to 2013, 6 years later, and to my surprise hosting the Drupal and CiviCRM sites we build and maintain is now a key part of what we're doing and I'd like to say a big reason for our success. But it's a little non-standard, so this blog will try and describe what it is and why I think it's a good idea for most of our clients.

The only other preamble type comment: I aim to run this service like my development services - good value, no investment capital that I need to pay back later, not a cash cow. Thanks to the open source projects of Linux, PHP, Mysql, CiviCRM and Drupal, it's working so far...

The Challenge

If you are out there looking for a place to host your Drupal (maybe with CiviCRM) site, there are roughly three kinds of options:

  1. Generic shared hosting ($5-20/month): cheap, you get what you pay for (limited performance or even ability to do some stuff, like send mail)
  2. VPS or dedicated server: the most common option, and is still pretty cheap ($20-200/month), but you need to do a lot of server setup and maintenance or pay someone to do it for you
  3. Drupal enterprise hosting ($50-2000/month): what the big companies do

For a typical non-profit, the last option is either too expensive, or needs more hands-on expertise than they've got.

So what we offer here is a kind of Drupal + CiviCRM enterprise hosting for non-profits. In other words, we provide you Drupal+CiviCRM hosting as service (Saas: software-as-a-service for the buzzword inclined), but not on an industrial scale, more as a boutique service. It ends up being cheaper than VPS + server maintenance, and we've got a few nice bonuses as well. Here's the sales pitch ...

What you get

Security, maintenance, backups: the standard stuff you should always have, but many hosts don't do by default, at all, or at a price. Drupal and CiviCRM security in particular needs attention. Try looking at some older sites hosted elsewhere and you'll find most of them have not been updated, because it's a hassle. Most sites we adopt are woefully out of date. One of them even had the "updates" module turned off so that the site owner wouldn't be "bothered" by the security warnings. I think security and backups are so important that it shouldn't even be a question, but an imperative of any hosting arrangement and I get pretty irritated by services that don't share that opinion.

One of the implications (good and bad) is that as a client, you don't have direct ftp access to your server - you only access the server via your Drupal client. This turns out to be a plus for most clients, but not for real DIY types. To them, I recommend a VPS or dedicated server.

Monitoring, SEO: I use a variety of monitoring tools (google analytics, google webmaster, newrelic) to not only make sure your site is available, but also that it's being seen, spidered and promoted by search engines.

Apache Solr search: this is the fancy, better search that normally only enterprise sites have, but because we work with a shared pool of sites, we can do this by default. If you paid for this service from Acquia, it'd cost you $50/month.

Varnish: this is a high-end site add-on that you'd normally only get from an enterprise service - I like to describe it as a protective bubble around your site that vastly improves your visitors' experience of your site's speed and means you can safely go viral without going down. If you want to know more about it, see this write-up.

Basic Support: this is a difficult service to offer at any scale, mainly because it's not really a commodity (or shouldn't be, but is sold as such ...). I used to work in a call center of an ISP serving non-profits and I understand why the business and logic of user support is challenging. Which is why it sucks a lot for most services. So to be clear: I can't always reply to every request right away, and this part of the service is only about answering questions and fixing stuff that is part of your hosting. But I do guarantee not to waste your time repeating your problem to multiple people who can't solve it or even understand it. Support for the specifics of your site goes with your development contract, separately.

Freedom: as you can tell, we're not interested in trapping you into a service you don't want. In fact, we really don't want to hold you hostage, so we encourage you to get an inexpensive backup service (e.g. Amazon S3) so that we can push backups to you however often you'd like.

So short version: if you want to focus your attention and energy on the design and content of your non-profit site, then this is probably what you want, and it's a good deal.

Beyond

Aside from the Do-It-Yourselfers, the other key reason not to use our service is scale: if you have a site that has fairly extreme demands on the server, you probably want to move up to a dedicated or VPS server. For those of you in that boat, I recommend the excellent folks at Gossamer Threads Hosting.

And also a clarification: we really don't do hosting as a business in itself. So if you're only looking for Drupal hosting, we're not the right service. Specifically, as part of the ability to provide security without a huge extra investment, we need to know and trust the technical skills and intentions of everyone who works directly on the server, which means only us.