Three Site Monitoring Services

One of the first pieces of advice we give clients are to host their sites on WP Engine if they want to have nearly zero down time.

But if you don’t have the budget to be on WP Engine, you’ll need to make sure you’re running an external site monitor to keep checking your site and alert you via email or SMS text when it does go down. We recently looked at two of them closely and have a third one we’re going to signup for soon. Here’s a recap so far.

Pros: Easy and simple to use. Free up to three sites scanned at 30 minutes. Free plan can also check for keywords to make sure the page is (mostly) loading. $5 gets you 15 sites to monitor. RSS feed available.
Cons: Interface from the late 90s. No SMS options.
Pros: Free service level for 5+ sites. Sophisticated modern dashboard. Flexible rules for notifications to team members.

Our suggestion is use at least two different site monitoring systems to make sure you have good “coverage” from multiple access points around the world to help make sure you know if your site(s) is down.

Cons: Free only covers 2 locations (Germany and US) and 30 minute intervals. UI might be too busy.

We haven’t tried this one yet but it looks good and includes up to 10 SMS/calls for a reasonable $5/month along with DNS monitoring.

How to host your WordPress site on Amazon Web Services

One of our readers asked us a great question on Twitter, “could they host their site on a CDN (Content Delivery Network)?” Our answer: yes and no, a CDN’s main purpose is deliver static content (images, CSS, Javascript, and ZIP files) from the closest geographically based server to a particular user on your website. A traditional WordPress by definition is going to be non-static (unless you’re using WP Super Cache or W3 Total Cache).

If you really want the fastest WordPress site out there, putting your WordPress site on Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) cloud platform would probably be the way to go. Now you ask, how do you do that?

We found some good answers (and questions) on this particular WordPress Answers thread from Stack Exchange. Read more…

Our friend at Freelance CTO, John Shiple sent us three other sets of guides:

Before you run out and do this, we think setting up your WordPress site on Amazon Web Services is overkill for 98% of the WordPress users out there. We recommend starting with a fast web host with a toll-free support number, activate the WP Super Cache and Autoptimize plugins, and sign up for WP CDN. We’d be willing to bet good money that’s going to work be plenty fast enough for most WordPress sites.

Four WordPress web hosting solutions tried and tested

Here’s a quick round up of our experiences with four different web hosting providers. Two of them are more well known providers where as the other two are lesser known but we were intrigued by some of their features.

We’re also including an almost scientific performance benchmark at the end of the review. We wanted to find out at least on just one given day, who had the fastest web server. As with any review and benchmark, your “mileage” and experience may vary from ours.

We’ve been using MediaTemple’s Grid-Service (gs) plan for about two years now. Their pricing starts at $20/month is on the higher end of the spectrum. They don’t give you unlimited bandwidth or disk space but it’s plenty enough for most people. They also limit the amount of domains to 100 per Grid-Service account. MediaTemple were pioneers in the distributed server model a.k.a. cloud which usually means speed but unfortunately we’ve noticed a slow down in their speed.

On the back end, MediaTemple use a proprietary control panel instead of the ubiquitous cPanel. It’s fairly easy to use and straight forward. We like that they give you one page all you need to know about your server info page that we wish other hosts would follow. One thing that annoyed us is that after installing a new domain, in order to start the WordPress installation process you have to login via FTP and delete the “HTML” folder. When we complained about it, they said that was their standard procedure.

A big advantage of MediaTemple is their toll-free 800 tech support number where on most calls we’ve noticed they pick up by the third ring unless there’s some crisis going on.

Our biggest issue is with MediaTemple in the past six months we noticed on the first initial connection to our site, there would be a 1 plus second delay before our site would start loading. We even started a thread in Get Satisfaction website that never got fully resolved. Update: they finally did respond in the Get Satisfaction thread, but there’s no much they’re willing to do about it at this point.

And as of yesterday, they’ve had a serious outage on the “cluster” that some of our sites are on and that’s also caused hundreds of their other customer’s sites to fail. So at this point based on our experience we can’t recommend MediaTemple’s Grid Service. They do offer virtual server plans that may be more reliable and faster than their grid servers.

We’ve used both Dreamhost’s regular shared hosting and virtual private server (VPS) hosting system. The prices for shared hosting includes unlimited storage and bandwidth (transfer) at a reasonable $9/month and the virtual hosting resources starts at $15/month.

Dreamhost has their own proprietary control panel, so if you’re used to cPanel, there’s a little bit of a learning curve. The live support chat is integrated into it so it’s usually easy to get a hold of support but we’ve encountered incidents were their live chat didn’t have any operators available.

The neat thing about Dreamhost is that you can instantly “move” one of your websites to the VPS system with a few clicks. So if one of your sites starts getting a lot hits, you can move that site over to VPS quickly. On the downside, we’ve had some issues with their URL/domain mirroring working fully with the VPS, both times the mirror stopped working without a real explanation from Dreamhost tech support.

In terms of support, you’re limited to live chats and creating support tickets. If you want them to call you back it’s $10 for 3 calls per month and once you signup, they put you on a subscription rather than a one time charge.

We’ve also noticed if you’re purely on the shared hosting plan, performance can be spotty at times as we’ve noticed internal server 500 errors when processing certain WordPress admin pages.

Vexx Hosting
Vexx is a Canadian based company with offices in New York. What fascinated us about them is they claim is a cloud like platform on their shared hosting plan. We weren’t thrilled with their misleading $3.99/month pricing plastered on the home page, that’s good only if you pay for 12 months in advanced, otherwise you’ll be paying $7 per month. Vexx uses cPanel and the Fantastico script installer so some users may already be up to speed when you signup.

We’ve created a couple of WordPress web sites that went into production using cPanel on Vexx in a relatively easy and pain-free way.

The biggest glitch wasn’t related to WordPress as one of the first projects we put on their system was actually Drupal site transfer where our system administrator wanted to restore a database via remote login terminal. Even though Vexx hosting advertises SSH login as a standard feature, they didn’t want to turn it on for us and it took about 3 days for the whole thing to be resolved after one or two reminder emails to their tech support.

MDD Hosting
We wanted to try MMD Hosting because they’re using the LiteSpeed web server instead of the much more common Apache. According to LiteSpeed’s developers, their system can be up to 9x faster than Apache. The beautiful thing is the Litespeed was built on the Apache foundation so it works well with WordPress.

MDD charges $7.50/month for their basic plan which includes a relatively paltry 10 gbytes of storage and respectable 240 gbytes of bandwidth. MDD like Vexx uses cPanel as well but they use a lesser known script installer called Softaculous instead of the ubiquitous Fantastico.

We haven’t had a need to contact MDD Hosting yet so we can’t rate their support department yet.

“Semi-Scientific” Performance Testing
We used a third-party tool called Pingdom to measure WordPress sites hosted on all four providers. Pingdom’s advantage is that you’re testing sites from their data center which should make results more consistent than trying to measure it from a DSL or cable modem connection.

For the tested sites, we attempted to make all four sites virtually the same. On all four web hosts, we performed a fresh installation of WordPress. We then activated the Thematic theme and imported a copy of the WPVerse site using the standard WP importer plugin. Then we turned off all plugins. We ran three tests for each host in the morning and three more in the evening for all four hosts within a 30 minute time frame.

Click image to see a full view:
Website hosting dreamhost mediatemple2

So in this round of tests, Vexx was the winner with the fastest page load times on an overall average as well as adjusted average when the longest load time was thrown out. Next up was MDD and Dreamhost. We were slightly surprised to see MediaTemple in fourth place though.

We won’t say these test results are fully conclusive nor a 100% scientific because on any given day depending on internet congestion and amount of client load on the web host’s infrastructure, these numbers could flip easily. We’d also have to first fix the MDD test site to make sure that 1 missing object was loading and then we’d have to test the sites every day for at least one month to get really solid numbers.

So to recap, we wish both Media Temple and Dreamhost would work on the issues we’ve mentioned earlier. We’re sure some of their customers have never experienced our pain points. I have to give them some kudos for keeping the lights on and most of their customer’s happy enough to stick around. We haven’t been using Vexx or MDD long enough to give them two solid thumbs up yet but they’re worthy of trying out if you’re not happy with your current web host.

My Obsession: Speeding up WordPress

In the past few months, I’ve been obsessed almost daily with speeding up my litany of WordPress sites. Having relevant, well written content plus a fast site is a way to get readers to keep coming back and search engines now take content plus speed into account.

I’ve tried quite a few plugins and services. Some of them were easy to use and some were not so easy to use. I also wanted to distill a ton of information and experience into a practical and do-able mini tutorial.

I’ll work on a more definitive full featured article but in lieu of that, here’s the combination of tools that speed up WordPress sites in my experience. You can follow these in gradual steps to crank up the speed of your WP site. One assumption is that you’re hosting your site on a decent, tier 1 web hosting company like Media Temple. None of these plugins will speed up your WordPress site if the foundation is not solid – if your web host is slow. But that’s anther discussion.

WP Super Cache
The best plugin to start with is WP Super Cache for most people. WP Super Cache (WP SC) is relatively easy with a simple on/off switch. Most of the defaults settings will work out of the box for everyone. Just install the plugin, then activate, and click the “on” button.

What’s the downside of a cache plugin? Sometimes if you make changes to your site, it will take a few forced refreshes on your web browser to see the updates. Or you’ll need to delete the cache in WP SC settings or turn it off temporarily.

Just in case, you didn’t know these caching plugins create temporary “static” HTML versions of your web pages so the server doesn’t have to generate these pages “dynamically” like WordPress normally does. Serving up a static HTML page is usually much faster than serving up normal WordPress page.

An alternative I’ve tried is W3 Total Cache (W3 TC) plugin – it has a whole kitchen sink approach which can be really confusing for new users. Plus I can never stop complaining that the labels used for on/off/preview modes are confusing for most people.

WP Super Cache doesn’t have the whole kitchen sink like W3 TC but that’s where the next plugin (Autoptimize) supplements WP SC.

I wrote about Autoptimize a few days ago. It optimizes and compresses your HTML, CSS, and Javascript code. It works well with most plugins but it may once in awhile make your home page slightly look a little weird (images may be offset by a few pixels). But it’s easy to turn on or off. There’s only a handful of settings, so you can’t really hurt anything. Plus Autoptimize works in tandem with WP Super Cache according to the plugin developer! So this combo does the work of W3 Total Cache without the confusing UI.

Content Delivery Network
What’s a CDN (Content Delivery Network)? In simple terms, it’s a paid service that automatically downloads all your images, CSS, and javascript files into their “system.” The CDN system comprises of web servers at multiple, strategic geographical locations.

Once you signup with a CDN provider, their system will automatically copy commonly used images, CSS, and JS files onto their CDN servers. Then using a WordPress plugin like WP Super Cache, that plugin will automatically switch over the source of image, CSS, and javascript sources to the fastest CDN server closest to you.

Both WP Super Cache and Autoptimize plugins have CDN support but I recommend you use the CDN support in WP Super Cache . I noticed that Autoptimize seems to have a bug with sourcing PHP files for the CDN.

Now this is where the hard part comes. Which CDN provider do you signup with? I looked at using Amazon’s Cloudfront but the pricing and setup instructions gave me a headache. After some research, I’d found a WordPress knowledgeable/savy CDN service called WP CDN. Once you’re signed up, they’ll send you instructions on the server names you paste into either plugin.

The WP CDN people were extremely helpful and answered all my crazy questions very responsively. Plus it starts at only $6/month with no setup fees up to 5 domains, so you can’t really go wrong.

All in all, I’ve seen the combination of these three tools speed up my WordPress sites by an average of 2-3 seconds on long blog pages like or even this site.

Get it: WP Super Cache | AutoptimizeWP CDN

Related posts: WP Super Cache | Autoptimize

Keep track of all your WP sites with a dashboard

If you’re a hardcore WP proponent with a lot of WordPress sites under your control, WP Status Dashboard can help you keep an eye on them. This self installed app can display all your WP site status on single page with the following stats: search engine indexable status, WordPress version, and number of plugin updates available. You could make this dashboard page one of your default browser home pages every time you launch your web browser.

This app costs $20 at CodeCanyon. It requires a bit of technical knowledge – you’ll need to know how to setup a MySQL database file. It’s too bad that this app itself is not built with WP to make it really easy to use.

Get it: WP Status Dashboard

Web Hosting Options for WordPress

People often ask me, “where should I host my WordPress site?” Well, two web hosting providers that I use everyday for myself and my clients are DreamHost and Media Temple. DreamHost is the cheaper of the two – starting at $10/month. It’s great if you have small to medium websites to host and I really like their easy to use one click WordPress installer.

MediaTemple’s grid service is a bit more high end and double the cost at $20/month but if you’re planning on growing your site to have a decent amount of traffic or have a small to medium business website, I’d suggest MediaTemple (or affectionately known as MT)’s Grid Service. Their one click WP installer is a little quirky that you have to delete the “html” folder via FTP first before you can install WP.

On a personal note, I’ve been able to setup a brand new registered domain with WordPress running in less than one hour, using GoDaddy for domain registration and either DH or MT for hosting!

Some people have asked me about HostGator and after using them for several projects I am not a big fan of the way they organize the sub-domains or sub-accounts. It makes installation and previewing WordPress sites into a pain in the butt task.