We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895
Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895

My frequent visitors may have noticed some issues with this website over the past couple of weeks. In fact, my very frequent visitors may have even noticed this website was not available for about three days, and usually looked completely crappy.

Missing images, no themes, wrong pages loading, and “website not available” error messages, are all indications that a website is experiencing technical difficulties. And wow, did we ever experience technical issues, including all the above. But, welcome back. We’re still standing. Mostly. Warning – Tech Talk Ahead!

The Back Story

This all started innocently enough back in October. I could sense I was outgrowing my hosting service on a shared server. I started pricing out higher-end accounts and decided a different hosting company could offer more services at a better price than my existing service. The meme “you get what you pay for” never crossed my mind.

So I opened an account with a new hosting company. I’m not going to name them here just because I’m more nice than the bastards deserve. The first day’s effort at migration went ok. Then things rapidly deteriorated.

Started Bad

A big draw of this new company was their advertisement for “free migrations.” Meaning, the company techs would migrate all files for my then-twelve websites and change domain registrations. It didn’t turn out that way. The techs I contacted would never tell me when the migrations would be performed. After several days I gave up waiting and made the migrations myself.

Two days later, the host service migrated everything again and overwrote everything I’d done. Meanwhile, the process of changing domains and nameservers turned out to be a game of “wack-a-mole.” It had been about five years since I last migrated websites, and technology had changed some. The techs all acted like I performed these migrations every day. After about three weeks of back-and-forth, I seemed to have everything finished.

I waited a week to verify there no more issues. During the week I added a couple of new posts to catch up. At the end of the week I contacted my former host and had them shut down services. Immediately upon shutting down my old service, this venerable website “disappeared.”

It turned out that , when the techs came in behind me and re-did migrations, they left my database connected to the former host. I didn’t know this was even possible. The result was, when I shut down my former account I lost my database. Then I discovered the last good backup I had was over one week old and the last two posts I made were not in that backup. This became the first time in fifteen years of operating this venerable website, with several migrations, that I’d ever lost any data. This site ended up being down for over 24 hours.

Public Review

About this time my issues came to attention of the company’s “Customer Advocate” through a review I posted on “Trust Pilot.” The Customer Advocate actually called me, I had a chance to vent, and he apologized with a partial refund on services to make up for the hassle. So now I was migrated, and life should have been good.

It was not to be.

Going Downhill on a Banana Peel

I spent the next three months “optimizing” my sites. I cleared out old files, old databases, eliminated unused WordPress plugins and themes, added optimization software. My scores on rating services such as GTMetrix topped out. I was on the phone or on chat with techs every several days dealing with hosting issues. Their response was typically “you have too many files/using too much server space/putting too much demand on our servers. You need to optimize your sites.” Then they’d email me tech bulletins with helpful suggestions like “work smarter, not harder.”

By now I was seeing near-constant speed issues and downtimes I’d never previously experienced. These three months were also my final months of grad school. That final semester’s course work included two major website projects, and connectivity issues impacted my final grades.

Post-graduation, and over the holidays, I spent a lot of time trying to get my sites working right. Finally, I just gave up and started looking for a new hosting service. I knew by now I had outgrown a shared server account and needed either a virtual private server or equivalent cloud hosting. Then things fell completely apart.

Hitting A Wall

Technical issues came to a head on December 29, when I noticed my sites were not serving correctly. This site in particular was not loading any images. I contacted tech support, only to be told I needed to optimize my sites. I asked for assistance in identifying the specific issue by reason they had the server logs and I didn’t. After several days, I received an email from their escalation department informing me that it wasn’t their job to tell me how to optimize my sites – I should hire professional developers to write custom scripts.

I decided this was the time for me to move hosting services. Again.

New Headaches

After some research, I opted for a cloud hosting account with a European-based hosting service. Their price was the best for the range of services I knew I needed. They offered free migrations, so I opened an account and placed my request for migrations.

I then ran into the situation that [host name] would not provide the server space needed to create a site backup file needed to make the migration. By now, after three months of eliminating un-needed files and “optimizing” websites, my total server space usage was reduced by at least a third from what I initially migrated in with. I made the observation to one of the techs that they had no problems migrating me in with a much larger file size.

Over three days I dealt with getting a migration performed. The one reasonably smart thing I did was create WordPress backups using one of the excellent plugins available (Updraft Plus). No sooner did I finish doing internal backups, [host name] shut down my entire account in middle of the night by reason I was “using excessive server resources.”

After shutting down my account, I wasn’t even allowed access to my sites to figure out what the problem was. I contacted the help desk and explained I could not fix the problem if I couldn’t even access my sites. Their email response was that “I was violating their Terms of Service” by exceeding server allowances, and would need to eliminate files.

The Long Way Home

My only recourse for migrations was to install new instances of WordPress on my new host. I FTPed all my recent backup files from my old host, and imported them into the the new WordPress installs. While doing this, I also started the process of moving domain hosting to the new service. I made the mistake of starting domain migration prior to changing name servers. I didn’t know that once an order is placed the domain is locked until the transfer is completed. Which takes five to seven days.

So, by the time I learned this, my entire account had been down three days. Out of sheer frustration, I placed a sizzling review on “Trust Pilot.”

Response

As before, this review gained immediate attention of a Customer Service Rep at Host Gator who could actually make things happen. Not only did the Customer advocate contact me directly, they also posted a response on Trust Pilot.

Hi Ron,

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. What a horrible, ridiculous mess. There is no excuse for any of it. We’ve asked an Escalations Manager to work on getting backups created and zipped up for you and sent over. We’ll be in touch soon to close things out for you. Please accept our apologies for what a complete fiasco this was.

Erinn
Customer Advocate at [host name]

To All Future Customers:

Please know that this is not the norm. This situation is extraordinary and out of the normal scope of how things go with our customers. Please know that we did our best to make things right with this customer and were just unable to meet his needs/expectations for many reasons. Thank you.

Erinn
Customer Advocate at [host name]Reply from Customer Advocate

Outcome

As before, the Customer Advocate did what he could to make things right. He got my sites back online right away while I continued migrations. I ended up being down nearly four days, a new record for down time. The Customer Advocate also gave me a full refund of my one-year’s hosting fees.

He also explained that the reason I was using excessive server resources appeared to be a “caching problem” with one of my websites. I suspect a badly-behaved robot accessed one site and went wild. For this, I was completely shut down, no warning, and with no viable recourse for corrections. I explained to the Customer Advocate that had they shut down my websites during my final weeks of grad school, I would have failed three classes and lost an entire semester. To his credit, the Customer Advocate didn’t try to justify anything that had happened.

New Headaches

My domains finally moved over to my new host this past Sunday, January 10. This led to still more technical challenges of getting everything working properly.

By now, I was down to a mere eight websites from the twelve I originally migrated to the previous host. None of these were working correctly. This venerable blog was still not serving images correctly. Several other WordPress sites, including my grad school portfolio, were not loading themes. At all. Two others just wouldn’t load due to SSL/HTTPS issues. My genealogy site wouldn’t load images, apparently due to configuration setting issues.

Over the past several days I worked through all these issues. My new host offered wonderful support, but the images issue stumped them. I have a SiteLock account on this blog (a result of being severely hacked last year) so I contacted them for support. The SiteLock tech needed about three minutes to tell me the issue was the JetPack “Lazy Image” function misbehaving. Sure enough, I disabled this function and images suddenly appeared.

Themes not loading turned out to be a conflict with the new host’s preferred caching plugin “LiteSpeed.” Once this was disabled, themes all came back. I worked out the new configuration for my genealogy site, and images magically appeared.

I’m Back

So, I’m back. As of now all my websites are working properly, and I have solid reasons why they weren’t working before. Which is always nice to know the reason why something isn’t working.

Overall, I’m initially pleased with this cloud hosting service. My page loading speeds sizzle as compared to what they previously were. I have SSL enabled on all my sites, included with my hosting plan, for better security. Tech support appears wonderful. Best of all, I’m off a shared server which automatically improves my site security.

My future blogging life should be good.

Editor Note: This post was previously published on January 13, then re-written and re-published on January 14.

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