WebFaction Web Host Review

webfaction-web-hostingA few months ago I made the decision to upgrade from my run-of-the-mill, cheap shared hosting account to something that felt a little more serious.  Initially I had planned to move to Media Temple’s Grid service but further research turned up an overwhelming number of bad reviews and seemingly legitimate complaints.

So then I decided to go the VPS route.  I narrowed down the possibilities to Slicehost and Linode.  In terms of positive reviews it was basically a toss-up, but Linode’s entry level $20/month plan offered more RAM/Bandwidth/Storage so I ended up going with them.

As you may know, with a VPS host like Linode or Slicehost, you choose your Linux distro and then the rest is up to you.  Apache, MySQL, PHP, etc all have to be installed from scratch, from the command line.  This was a new experience for me but Linode’s help documentation made it fairly painless.

After the satisfaction of setting up my own server wore off I started to question whether or not I really needed the granular level of control that a VPS offers (and that you pay for).  Could I live “sans root”?  Yeah.  Furthermore, I was worried that I’d unknowingly commit some noob sysadmin mistake that would only reveal itself when everything came crashing down.  So I decided to close my Linode account and leave the server management to the pros.

Hello WebFaction

At that point I discovered WebFaction.  I’d describe WebFaction as something in between shared hosting and a VPS.  Technically it’s shared hosting but they give you more power than you’d normally find with shared hosting, so it feels more like a VPS.  From the WebFaction site:

How does your service compare to a VPS?
We give you a full linux shell account with all the tools you need to compile anything you like, so our service is almost as flexible as a VPS. One big advantage of our shared hosting service is that we maintain the server and keep it secure for you.

That’s exactly what I was looking for.

With features like SSH, SFTP, ngnix, and support for Django and Rails, WebFaction is aimed at developers.  I haven’t had to scale things up yet, but doing so looks simple.  In addition to the usual vertical scaling, they make it easy to spread your account across different boxes with automatic syncing and load balancing.

Control Panel

webfaction-control-panelThe control panel is definitely a bit under-designed.  If you’re accustomed to the polish of a control panel like Media Temple’s, at first look you’ll find the WebFaction interface to be disappointing.  But beneath the pixels is a compact, well-functioning set of controls to manage your apps, sites, domains, and email.

Something that distinguishes WebFaction from most other hosts, and something that may feel foreign, is their “everything is an app” approach.  There is no “public_html” folder that you dump your public folders and files in.  Instead you use the control panel to create a “static app” (for static HTML or PHP sites), a Rails app, a Django app, etc.  Then you just have to associate your app with a domain or subdomain.  Initially I wasn’t a fan of this but now that I’ve gotten used to it I don’t mind it all.  I might even prefer it.

Via this Apps feature in the control panel you can achieve one-click installs of WordPress, Drupal, Django, Pylons, Joomla, Rails, etc.

Support

Most of the documentation is clear and thoroughly written.  The support forums may not be as bustling with users as those of larger hosts but I’ve always received prompt replies to my posts.  And the few times I’ve submitted support tickets I received lightning quick responses.

WebFaction started out as a Django hosting company so the Django community in the forums is significantly larger than the PHP or Rails community.

Reliability

I’ve only been using WebFaction for about 4 months but, for what it’s worth, in that time I’ve experienced no downtime or server responsiveness issues.  I’ve yet to see how the entry level plan holds up to a Digg effect, but I’ve had a few bursts of traffic that were handled with ease.  (Caching, caching, caching.)

Last Thoughts

You’ll notice that WebFaction has an application memory limit for each of its plans.  This only applies to long-running processes like Rails and Django.  Memory usage from the main Apache server, database servers, and your PHP-based apps do not count towards your limit.

A few small things to be aware of… PHP’s mail() function does not work at WebFaction so you’ll need to use a library like Swift Mailer or PEAR Mail to connect to the SMTP server.  If you’re running WordPress there’s a SMTP plugin.

WebFaction requires that your database name and database username be the same, which means there is a 16 character limit on your MySQL database names.  In addition, your database names must begin with your WebFaction username.  They’ve said they’re planning to change this requirement in the future but I haven’t seen anything said about when.  In the meantime one possible workaround would be to run your own instance of MySQL from your home directory.

Compared to VPS and other shared hosts I think their pricing is very competitive.  The entry level plan is $9.50/month if you pay monthly, and less if you pay in yearly installments ($5.50/month for the 5-year plan).

I don’t like to be too emphatic with my recommendations (if for no other reason than to preserve their legitimacy), but I really can’t think of anything bad to say about WebFaction.  If you’re thinking of trying a new host I highly recommend that you check them out.  They have a generous 60-day moneyback guarantee just in case things don’t work out between you.

OK, that’s my review.  If you’re interested, take a look at WebFaction and see what you think.

Friendly disclaimer: The WebFaction links above include my affiliate ID which means I’ll get a few dollars if you sign up.

Update (7/23/11): A quick update to this review: I’ve now been using WebFaction for almost two years. Since signing up with WebFaction I’ve experienced no extended downtime and only a few incidents of momentary unresponsiveness (I use Pingdom for server monitoring). And I didn’t get Fireballed when Gruber linked to my site (thanks mostly to WP-Cache). All in all I’m a very happy customer and I continue to recommend WebFaction to anyone looking for powerful shared hosting.

Also, in the comments Hank pointed out that sendmail and PHP mail() are now supported.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Discussion

They also started out great for me, a couple months back. But the last week or so has been like Media Temple Grid: Extreme latency, averaging up towards 10 seconds! I guess they overfill the servers, or allow some clowns to drag down the server performance. I’ve been in touch with their support, and while fast enough replies, the answers has been less than satisfying, and sometimes contradicting. Yes, several employees answered the same ticket, as if their ticketing system and internal communication was a mess.

I SO hate switching hosts, so I hope they fix this in the next few days.

@ Oliver

I’m sorry to hear that. 10 seconds average latency is certainly not acceptable. Are they willing to move your account to a different server?

Same boat as Oliver. Great for the last year or so, but the last 2 weeks have been painfully slow with 504 and 502 errors. Up and down like a yo yo all day today.

Support is responsive, but telling me you are working on it does not cut it after several hours. I feel like they overloaded my shared servers. Just the thing they say they don’t do.

I too hate to switch hosts, but if this keeps up…

@Rick

That’s too bad. If it’s only been the last 2 weeks, hopefully it’s something temporary that they’ll have fixed soon.

I just moved to webfaction from dreamhost, because I wanted nginx hosting on a shared plan (otherwise, dreamhost was good for me).

With webfaction, I haven’t seen any of the speed issues mentioned by Rick or Oliver, and so far I’m very happy.

I’m very satisfied since more than 6 month. There was a similar issue several weeks ago but that was solved by the engineers with several hours. People don’t forget it’s about shared hosting (it’s cheap), you’re not protected against some crazy users on the same server. Right now I think about to load balance my most important sites using two accounts. Currently I don’t know any provider offering those features FOR FREE!

Hi Rob,
Thanks for your thoughtful review. I was wondering, would you still recommend webfaction for someone who did not want or need root access? Someone who wanted the company to do all the server setup, patches, backups, etc? Someone who just wanted a stable web host with good customer support that could handle 70GB of bandwidth per month? Someone, in short, like me? Thanks for your thoughts!

@Audrey,
WebFaction will handle all the server set-up and management for you. In that sense they are just like a shared host. But you’re given more power and flexibility, if you want it (btw, with WebFaction you don’t get actual root, it’s sort of a pseudo root). Note that WebFaction comes with a lot of one-click installers for things like WordPress, Drupal, and Rails, but it’s not quite as simple as the cpanel Fantastico that some people are accustomed to on shared hosts (but it’s still pretty easy).

I’ve found them to be very stable, with good customer support, so I still highly recommend them. And they have a money-back guarantee, so why not give them a shot? =)

I just signed up after reading your post (I used your affiliate ID – thanks for the info!)

I have quite a few domains to move over from ReamHost, however after reading some of the comments, it might be wise to move just the one and test for a few weeks

Cheers!

Nice review indeed. Am now cautiously testing WebFaction, The CP is definitely underdesigned. I mean, I am not a fan of large colorful icons, but a little touch – even if just some padding – would not hurt it.

This definitely feels like a place in the middle between dedicated and shared hosting – its a good place to be if you have outgrew your shared host I think.

Anyways, thanks for this review and for disclosing your affiliate link – I didnt use it as I registered before reading the review, but I would have used it… :)

@Danny,
Thanks. I’m glad you liked the review. I’ve been using WebFaction for just under two years and I continue to be very happy with them. The control panel you see now is actually the result of a recent redesign. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the design is any better. It still feels clunky and dated to me.

As I mentioned in the post, there are some WebFaction conventions you have to get used to — mapping “apps” to “sites”, and stuff like that — but once you get familiar with it I think you’ll find it’s a nice way to manage multiple apps/sites on a single host.

Thanks for writing this review. I’m going to sign up with them. I have been looking around for a while. I use amazon ec2 now and really tired of the self-management. Just a note, I read on their blog, that you can use PHP Mail(); now. Here’s link to their blog post.

http://blog.webfaction.com/2010/12/sendmail-now-enabled-on-all-servers/

Hank,

I’m glad you liked the review. I just updated the post to say that after about 2 years I continue to be very happy with WebFaction. I also mentioned that PHP mail() is now supported. Thanks for letting me know!

Signed up with your affiliate link thanks to your recommendation.

Yes, thanks for the review. Very helpful. I’m considering moving a few more sites over. I set up my first account with them a few weeks back. Still in the process of building the site but Rails one-click installer is great. Now I hope they get Ruby 1.9.2 on the list of one-clickers.

radiofranky

has anyone trialed magento on webfaction servers?

Sully

I’m joining this conversation late, but radiofranky, yes, I’ve installed MagentoCommerce CE on Webfaction, and that’s definitely a case in which I appreciate shell access–just wget the installation zip from Magento’s download site and unpack, two quick lines at a prompt. On a typical shared host you’d have to download the archive, unpack it in your local environment, and then transfer it file by file by ftp. Given the size of Magento, that can take hours, you might time out, and then you’d be spending time verifying the install.

I’m another happy customer. In three years I’ve had almost no downtime. I haven’t had much interaction with support because the documentation is really very good, but when I have had it’s been quick and pleasant. I’ll echo everyone else that the control panel deserves a facelift but it’s not difficult to use.

webfaction rock..been using them for years and have a dedicated server now. Who cares if the control panel is clunky..its to manage a server and not win design awards. It does what it says on the tin, nuff said