Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

07 Oct 2014, 14:00 p.m.

Some Tips On Domain Names And Hosting

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Here are some things I recently learned or re-learned about setting up your own website.

Domain names

There are a ton of domain name registrars out there and a lot of them are subsidiaries of Tucows. At least one acquaintance of mine uses NameCheap and finds it low-fuss with a reasonable web UI. I decided to try Hover since they have, in the past, sponsored the In Beta podcast. You will often expect to pay about USD$10 per year, though sometimes you get deals (".club" was $5 through Hover when I last checked).

As long as I was futzing with domains, I decided to transfer over an old domain name to Hover. In order to do that, I had to obtain the auth code, a.k.a. EPP (Extensible Provisioning Protocol) code from my old registrar (the "losing" registrar). Sometimes this should be visible in the web UI when you log into the losing registrar's site. Sometimes you'll have to phone in. And then you might get a shock, because registrars evidently think it's totally okay and normal to ask you for your account password in order to authenticate you, and to send the EPP code over plaintext email. Sadface. But at least some vendors, including Hover, offer two-factor auth! And the two-factor auth applications can live on my laptop or some other device, not necessarily my phone (which is good because I haven't yet checked whether there's a 2FA app for MeeGo but I doubt it).

Once you transfer a domain, it takes maybe 24 hours for the change to propagate; after that, the losing registrar has no residual effect on the domain or on DNS (Domain Name System) resolution.


I found Maciej Cegłowski's "The Five Stages of Hosting" helpful. Right now I'm interested in hosting a reasonably simple joke site, and in learning a bit about sysadmin and deployment, so I want to be able to SSH into a standard-ish Linux machine and set up Drupal or WordPress or similar, and I don't expect my site to need to scale. So I will go with a VPS (Virtual Private Server) provider, under the "dorm room" model in Cegłowski's framing. Stan, my Hacker School colleague who let me interview him to learn this stuff, is most familiar with Linode and Digital Ocean.

I am going to act as my own sysadmin for this site, so I'm going for "unmanaged" hosting. Most VPSes offer you "unmanaged" hosting by default, in which you can only ask the provider, e.g. Linode, for help if the problem is their fault (e.g., "hey, I don't seem to have an IP address anymore!"). "Managed" means you have access to a sysadmin but you pay, say, $100 per month (sometimes less). This person performs tasks such as incident response, fixes if the site goes down at 1am, and help switching you to a new database. The point is that it's cheaper than hiring a full-time sysadmin.

Unmanaged VPS services seem to run about USD$5-20 per month, if they're flat rates, as Digital Ocean provides. (Evidently Digital Ocean caused a bit of a price war when they entered the market, so prices are lower now.) If your VPS operates on a utility model, where you pay for the resources your site consumes, then you have to watch out for spikes that run up your bill. Some services will also offer a backup service, either for free or as a paid add-on.

Linode has a good reputation for very fast customer support; they have often responded to support tickets in under five minutes. Digital Ocean also seems pretty quick. And it's helpful to have a big community of other users who can help you figure stuff out. Linode and DigitalOcean have active IRC channels and web fora, and the Linode Library and Digital Ocean's text resources cover a lot. Amazon EC2 has a huge community of existing users.

Hosting providers also compete on security, or at least they should. Several providers offer two-factor auth. One good signal: having a bounty program, where the company welcomes and pays for vulnerability reports (example: GetClouder's beta program). After watching Matthew Garrett's "Freedom, Security, and the Cloud" talk at Open Source Bridge 2014, I understand that a published security policy also sends a strong positive signal. And I hear that Linode is on its way back up after a few black eyes in this area, and has shored up its security. (Also, some people are beginning to use Docker on production sites, partly for convenient environment management, and partly for additional security. But the Docker developers don't really promise you more security, I gather. And I don't quite get what Docker is, yet, and may look into it. It's not really a virtual machine; it's more like a super-intense and very guarded virtualenv; I'm told it's like a chroot jail but I won't understand that till next week or so.)

For various reasons, security being one of them, when you get an unmanaged VPS, you get a "bare bones" Linux box with, say, vi on it, but not much else. You decide what software you want on that server. And on most VPSes, there's some set of (perhaps community-written) templates, scripts, or recipes for common types of setups you might want, e.g., a simple WordPress blog. These sound a bit like Chef or Puppet to me, but usually aren't. You can activate one of those scripts to run only on the initial boot of the box; you can also write your own, and use includes to nest/point to other scripts. (Since I'm trying to learn a bit of sysadmin, I'll look at those templates, but install the software more manually.) I am not quite clear yet on whether I choose those via the web UI or something more esoteric; maybe it varies per provider.

For some actions you'll need to use the web UI. For instance, once I own my domain name and I have a VPS account and a server set up, I'll need to tell my registrar that my domain's nameservers should point to the hosting provider's nameservers, e.g., And then I'll need to log into the VPS's website and tell them what the IP address of my server is -- evidently there are "zones" and whatnot, but I haven't gotten that far. Stan confessed that he likes Linode's and Digital Ocean's web UIs a lot better than Amazon EC2's.

Speaking of Amazon: I today finally straightened out my understanding of the Amazon hosting services taxonomy!

  1. Amazon Web Services (AWS): an umbrella term for everything.
  2. S3 (Simple Storage Service): just for serving static files.
  3. EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud): the thing most people are talking about when they mention AWS. It's "elastic" in that you can use software to tell Amazon to bring some more resources online to serve your needs, and you don't need to physically haul plastic and silicon around, but you do need to explicitly manage that elasticity as needs change, as is the case for about all VPSes.

And now I understand more about "elasticity". Heroku et alia (the "Monasteries" as Cegłowski calls them) provide more insta-elasticity, as the provider senses your growing or waning needs and accords you commensurate resources. Many monasteries offer a free tier, but costs can grow rapidly (cost evidently played a part in the RapGenius/Heroku tiff).

(If you just want to run a reasonably simple WordPress/Drupal/similar web app on your site and don't need or want to SSH in, there exist hosts like Dreamhost; one Dreamhost plan offers you FTP plus a web UI. For another variation, you could do what my friend Skud does, and use Dreamhost VPS to get SSH and, say, cron, but not root or sudo. That's a decent compromise for Skud; they can use it for their personal stuff (mostly WordPress and MediaWiki), set cronjobs for backups, write scripts, and generally poke around in the file system, but they can't install stuff or configure major services, since one must set up new user accounts, mailing lists, or web hosts via a web UI config panel.)

So, next step: choosing a provider, spinning up a server, loading it up, and pointing my new domain name at it!

Thanks to Stan Schwertly, a fellow Hacker Schooler, for talking me through a bunch of the hosting stuff! All errors and oversimplifications are my own.