Tutorial: Hosting a successful webcomic

This webhosting tutorial does not offer a step-by-step instruction for beginners, but discusses various points which have to be considered when choosing the right hosting solution for a (somewhat) successful webcomic.

Choosing the webhost for a webcomic with 100 visitors per day is not a big deal. You can just get one of the basic webhosting plans at one of the established webhosters such as DeamHost (which seems to be particularly popular as host for webcomics) or HostGator and there is a good chance that you’ll never run into serious problems. This does not always have to be true, though. GoDaddy was the primary goal for hacking attacks against websites using WordPress earlier this year and the webcomic Life Ain’t no Pony Farm went down several times because of this.

The problem

However, choosing the webhost becomes a major issue when a webcomic attracts several thousand visitors per day or more. Here you can have a look at the amount of traffic Sandra and Woo generates:

Daily Statistics for September 2010

As you can see, our webserver had to deliver 6.6 files per second this Monday, resulting in a total traffic of almost 15 GByte. At some point no webhost will tolerate a website which constantly drains the resources of a webserver like this on a really cheap shared webhosting plan. Webhosting plans that offer “unlimited traffic” or similar things are a scam! You will never be allowed to use all the processing power or bandwidth of your webserver for $6.99 a month. The webhosting company would lose massive amounts of money otherwise. However, there are still important differences between various webhosts:

  • Some webhosts may write you a friendly mail that your website just uses too much of their resources and that you need to upgrade your account. This is the best case.
  • Some webhosts may not say anything for quite some time, but your website begins to take a loooooooong time to load and sometimes your visitors only get to see a server error message.
  • Some webhosts may start bullying you by shutting down your website without prior notice or even by tampering with your database. This is the worst case.

It’s also important when this happens:

  • My old webhost Hostloco has actually never contacted me that Sandra and Woo uses too much of their resources. The reason for switching to Host Europe earlier this month were massive problems after Hostloco carried out an upgrade of their MySQL servers. (more about this later)
  • On the other end of the spectrum, according to this news post by Steve Ogden the website of his webcomic Moon Town apparently began to load really slow after a laughable temporary increase of its daily page views (not visitors!) to around 8,000 per day if these visitor stats by Project Wonderful are roughly correct. Moon Town is hosted by GoDaddy which is why I give the advice to avoid this webhost at all costs.

Once your webcomic attracts several thousand visitors a day, you can potentially earn real money with it. In fact, if Sandra and Woo went offline for an entire workday, we would lose up to $50 in advertising revenues. Because of this, the reliability of a webhost is particularly important. In this way a successful webcomic is not much different from a webshop. Because of this I spent a lot of time to find the best possible hosting solution and webhost for Sandra and Woo.

Suggestion: Using a managed virtual server

In my opinion a managed virtual server is the best hosting solution for webcomics with visitor numbers similar to or above that of Sandra and Woo. When using virtualization software several virtual servers can run on a single machine, each running its own copy of the operating system and software. An unmanaged virtual server offers almost the same feature set as a dedicated server, so you can install executable programs like Teamspeak on it.

The advantages of a managed (virtual) server are:

  • You don’t have to care about the administration of the (virtual) server since it is managed by employees of the webhost. This is very important since a (virtual) server which is administrated by someone who has never used Linux or the Apache webserver before is an easy target for hackers. In contrast, a managed (virtual) server can be used just like the webspace of a shared webhosting plan.
  • Contrary to shared webhosting, a managed virtual server plan usually includes guarantees regarding the RAM and/or the CPU usage of the server which are well above the ones that one would get with shared webhosting.

If you want to install your own software on the server, a managed (virtual) server is not the right choice, though. In this case you need the freedom of an unmanaged (virtual) server.

There are still several things to consider when choosing the right managed virtual server:

  • If you only want to host your webcomic site on the server, you don’t need much disk space. A mere 1 GByte would probably be enough. Most entry level plans for virtual servers include at least 10 GByte, so disk space should not be a problem. Our Host Europe plan includes 25 GByte.
  • The amount of traffic which is included is very important. As you can see above, Sandra and Woo generated 65 GByte of traffic last week; that’s almost 300 GByte per month. (Update: In October 2012, Sandra and Woo and Gaia generated 1.4 TByte of traffic together) When the individual pages of your website are significantly larger than 300 KByte per page (our average page size), your website will generate even more traffic. Our Host Europe plan includes a traffic flatrate which means that the usage of the server resources will be the limiting factor.
  • The amount of guaranteed RAM usage is another important point. Everything below 512 MByte seems low to me, but I’m not really sure about the amount of RAM a WordPress powered website with various installed plugins needs. I guess the RAM usage also depends on the efficiency of the pre-installed programs like the Apache webserver. Our Host Europe plan includes 1 GByte RAM which should be plenty. Some webhosts also offer guaranteed CPU time. Our Host Europe plan does not, which is a minus.
  • It should always be easy to upgrade your account, so that your website can now use 2 GByte RAM instead of 1 GByte and generate 500 GByte of traffic instead of 250 GByte.

You have to expect to pay at least $20 a month for a managed virtual server plan, but all offers below $35 are okay for a reasonably sized entry level plan in my opinion. Especially if the webhost has a good reputation for its high reliability.

One might argue that using caching plugins like WordPress Super Cache significantly reduces the workload of the server when delivering a single web page. However, after having a look at the statistics of my advertising providers, there seems to be some sketchy evidence that disabling caching slightly increases the fill rate of the banner slots on our website. If this were indeed true, disabling caching and upgrading your account to a more expensive virtual server plan instead should be cost efficient.

Specific webhosts: Media Temple, Host Europe

I checked the webhosts of several other webcomics with visitor numbers similar to Sandra and Woo. Most of them use big webhosts like Dreamhost or 1&1, so I’m not sure which specific plan they use. However, I noticed that Edmund Finney’s Quest to Find the Meaning of Life, Bear Nuts and Calamities of Nature all use Media Temple, which offers some kind of grid/cloud hosting. After doing some research I can’t really recommend them, though. First of all, the user daecrist wrote a quite negative review about them at the ComicPress forum. Moreover, when having a look at the numbers provided by Dan Long, the webmaster of Edmund’s Quest, Media Temple’s CPU time limit of 1000 “points” per month seems to be easily reached by a website like that of Sandra and Woo (which has at least two times more page views per month than that of Edmund’s Quest).

In the end, I chose Host Europe for hosting Sandra and Woo. Their managed virtual server plan seems to be just right for a website like that of Sandra and Woo. It is also easy to upgrade and quite cheap for just €14.99 per month. Host Europe has also acquired a very good reputation in recent years. However, just like my second choice, Providerdienste, Host Europe only seems to operate in Germany and does, for example, not offer a website in English.

Other things to consider

– It is always a good idea to separate your domain from your hosting account so that you remain flexible. For example, if your regular webhost experiences prolonged outages, you could temporarily redirect your domain to a server at another webhost. One has to pay a small fee to be able to use external domains at some webhosts, including Host Europe. But I’m gladly paying €0.5 per month for this.

– It is also a good idea to prefer plans with a short(er) cancellation period if this is possible. I rather paid a setup fee of €20 so that my cancellation period is just 1 month instead of a full year. This way I’m more flexible in case of severe problems with my current host.

(see also the discussion of this article at the TWCL forum)

(see also the webhosting forum of ComicPress)

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