Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who’s The Fastest Web Host Of Them All?

Train SeriesEvery business needs a website fast website. If you’re like most small business website CEOs, you have outsourced the decision on how your website is hosted. “Ah, the tech guys at the agency I hired to build the website decide that, I don’t really spend time on stuff like that”. Oh, but you should. The infrastructure behind your website – i.e., the data center, power, computers, software, and people that make it possible for your website to run – can make your business hum online, or jitter uncontrollably.

The Web host – a company whose job it is to run your website software – provides a “hosting” service to you. Hosting is like dialtone – when you purchased phones for yourself and your employees, you probably had some say in whether it was AT&T or Verizon. You made the decision based on reliability, price and options like making conference calls. This article is about choosing a host that ensures that your website is F-A-S-T! According to Econsultancy, a market research firm that looks at digital marketing, 67% of consumers cite slow websites as the reason they abandon those sites. According to a New York Times article on website speed, “Remember when you were willing to wait a few seconds for a computer to respond to a click on a Web site or a tap on a keyboard? These days, even 400 milliseconds — literally the blink of an eye — is too long, as Google engineers have discovered. That barely perceptible delay causes people to search less.”

Keynote, a company that monitors the speed of websites using a cloud of computers and mobile phones, has tools to help you measure your website’s speed, and make the right decisions about hosting. Companies like Yottaa also provide a free service to help you keep an eye on your website, and Google engineers have built a free service called WebPageTest to help you measure your website speed. We used Keynote to test the speed of the exact same food website, hosted on two different Web hosting companies’ servers – Bluehost and Linode. Bluehost charges a paltry $6.99/mo to host your websites, and this cheap price means that your site shares the same computer as thousands of other sites. This means traffic to your site can affect other sites, or vice versa, causing frequent congestions. What this means is that your site begins to appear sluggish. To be fair to Bluehost, they have great customer service, and it is rare to have your site completely offline. Linode plans begin at $19.99/mo, and uses a more advanced technique called virtual private servers, essentially a “sandbox” that separates your websites from that of other websites running in the datacenter. We tested the exact same website – one that was written in HTML, JavaScript, PHP and uses Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (what developers call the “LAMP stack”) by hosting them on Bluehost and Linode. Early results show a dramatic increase in website speed, as the graph from Keynote below shows. The top graph line shows that the website takes between 2-4 seconds to load when hosted on Bluehost, and between 1-2 seconds when hosted on Linode.

Bluehost vs Linode website measurements
Your website is significantly faster on Linode than Bluehost (source: Keynote Systems)

This was all the proof we needed to know that Linode was a much better choice for a small business website (one where you want to spend less than $100-200/mo in hosting costs) than Bluehost. Note, however, that Bluehost takes on much of the technical configuration issues, and their customer service is superb, which means that you will spend less on having your outsourced IT staffer debug technical problems. Linode essentially gives you an empty box, and you have to, as their tech support person said to me, “configure every little thing to make it work”. And if there’s a technical problem, you will need to get an IT person involved. For instance, this website’s order cart refused to function, and it took an entire day of tinkering and then posting on Linode’s community forum, before we were able to discover and fix the problem. Time is money, so be prepared to have a top technical person on your team, or available on call, if you host with Linode.

At the end of the day, though, you should make the decision based on who is the most reliable and fast Web hosting company, because your customers who visit your website are the ones that matter. Having a fast website makes a real difference to your business, as it improves the perception of your brand, makes visitors breeze through the pages, and causes them to do business with you, online or offline.  Choose the Web hosting company with the fastest site speed characteristics – this is dialtone for the Internet age. In a later update to this post, I hope to be able to compare many different hosting companies and give you some guidance on which one is the fastest Web host of them all. That’s for another time, but for now, Linode is a winner.

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9 thoughts on “Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who’s The Fastest Web Host Of Them All?”

  1. I have wrestled with the same balancing act. Most of the blogs I have put up for my wife’s school run on a service that provides easy graphical tools for setup and management, but that same service can be quite slow and occasionally completely off-line for a few minutes. I chose “easy” over fast because there are no businesses at stake in the mix of sites I manage, but now that I know how everything is set up, I could more easily move to a fast host like Linode. Perhaps tinkering on the easy stuff for experimentation and migrating to the fast stuff for production would make good sense.

    1. Hi Dave, yes we often have made trade-offs between efficiency and experience – it’s more productive to use website building software like Wix and Squarespace, but you don’t have control over the experience your users get (if the sites become slow, etc). If you’re writing a blog, it means you want people to read it. And we all know what happens when people can’t read it (e.g. it doesn’t work on their mobile phone, or is slow to load). If you’re considering a better blogging platform AND one that allows you to move your existing blogs over, check out Google Blogger, especially in the Flipboard format (http://buzz.blogger.com/?view=flipcard). Detailed instructions on moving your blogs to Google Blogger are here: http://google.about.com/od/googleblogging/f/Blog-converter.htm.

  2. Interesting discussion on hosting architectures/environments but there other factors to consider for fast web sites such as page construction, use of persistent connections, the number and types of objects being loaded on the page, where on the page these objects are being called and whether or not CDNs are being used. These factors have just as important a role, if not more, in helping web sites load and perform faster. What are your thoughts?

  3. Vik– Just curious, when you ran your monitoring experiment comparing Linode to Bluehost, did you notice any trends in the performance details? Like significant differences in DNS lookup time, versus time to first byte, versus content components. Just wondering if the data reveals any specific “soft spots” with Bluehost?

    1. That’s a great question! Let me analyze the data I have from Keynote, and I will post it. I think anyone who’s deep into Web site performance analysis will be asking questions like yours.

  4. Linode rocks! I have used them for over 3 years now both personally and professionally. They provide both US and European nodes and load balancing to boot! The fact that I can choose my distro (Ubuntu is mine) and tune it within an inch of its life means I have complete control. I am not relying upon someone else to think what is best. Trying to get a hosting providing to enable certain Apache features can be a nightmare. The spin up time of a new VPS is amazing as well!

    I look after a UK site that runs WordPress (http://www.creative-tops.com) on Linode and according Keynote and WebPageTest it loads in under 2 seconds from UK locations …

    http://my.keynote.com:80/newmykeynote/multiIMResultDirect.aspx?cid=368192&bt=510616078&sn=www.creative-tops.com&tz=GMT&tear=Y

    Linode serves me very well indeed!

    1. Robert, you may not know this, but I chose Linode because (a) I had heard through the grapevine that you use it, and (b) I knew if I got stuck I would have an expert like you to help me out! Seriously though, I really liked Linode. Their documentation was excellent, and it took me 3 days of evening work to complete the move from Bluehost to Linode. Now I’m waiting for the weekend to switch the website’s DNS records to Linode’s server.

  5. Haroon, fast, high performing websites are made possible by both application improvements (HTML vs HTML5, number and size of images, including JavaScript files vs inline JavaScript, etc), and also by infrastructure improvements (the right Web host, or data center improvements, using dynamic failover techniques, etc). The world of application optimization is just as important as infrastructure optimization. As I used Keynote to monitor web performance, I had already optimized the web site Indian Bento I used for this test quite a bit, before I moved it from Bluehost to Linode. You’ve reminded me that I should probably do another round of code optimization – that’s fodder for another blog! BTW, I pasted your comment into Google, and the first link was http://www.rubyrobot.org/article/5-tips-for-faster-loading-web-sites.

  6. Interesting article. It highlights the importance of perceived user experience when browsing websites and how that directly correlates to potential business/revenue. The need to consider all assets that support a site is very important, and it’s not always just about who’s hosting your site, but also page construction and page weight. I personally have always stuck with the simple hosting services that provide all that you need and you just upload your HTML files, etc. It’s been fine for the sites I’ve developed because they’ve always been more informational and not where users/customers could “transact” and purchase something, but I have continued to pay attention to page construction so that the sites will “feel” fast even though I haven’t paid attention to where or how they’re hosted.

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