Last week, I ran across an article predicting the end of the web hosting industry. Since it was published on April 1st, I initially thought maybe it was a joke. However, as I began reading, I quickly figured out this was a serious prediction by Donnacha MacGloinn.
His basic thesis is that technological advancements, along with the transition into cloud-hosting by big players such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon will render WordPress hosting companies pointless. In other words, we’ll all be sending payments to those big three and clicking the ‘host WordPress’ button and live happily ever after. Traditional hosting companies, and especially specialized WordPress hosing companies, simply won’t be able to compete.
He begins by lamenting the current state of Web hosting industry. As far as it goes, I suppose I agree. There are tons of $7.99 per month hosting plans out there that over-promise and under-deliver. There are also a good number of more pricy options that might provide a bit better actual Web-hosting environment, but often miss the mark when it comes to service.
He also goes on a bit of a side-rant about the state of ‘advertorials’ (ads disguised as editorials) and affiliate programs. Caveat emptor! Again, as far as it goes, I agree. While there are honest reviews out there, it is a bit challenging to find them amidst the trash. My advice here… find PEOPLE you trust (i.e., people who have proven themselves trustworthy), and then follow their advice.
Setup vs Support
One of my first points of disagreement concerns the state of running a Website being easier today than it was in the early days of the Web. Sure, it was harder to setup a server and construct the site itself. There weren’t ‘create VPS’ buttons or ‘c-panels’ to ‘install WordPress’ (or other apps which didn’t exist yet). But once you got things installed, they generally hummed along pretty well, and ultimately, were pretty simple. They just had a higher technical bar to entry.
Today, the software is complex. Sites are dynamic, implementing layers of technology from the display code itself to backend databases. And getting the performance to handle ever increasing traffic is not trivial. We’re often talking: routers and firewalls, to caching and things like CDN (content delivery networks). But, that’s not the worst of it; today, sites have to withstand any number of attacks ranging from bots to highly-skilled humans intent on mischief or destruction.
People demand far more in terms of what a Website can do, which involves complex layers of code (in our case including WordPress plugins), which can vary greatly in terms of implementation and integration. WordPress Websites are not a one-size-fits-all.
So, while getting a site running in the early days required a bit of technical knowledge, KEEPING a site running today requires a group of people with a pretty high level of expertise. Think of at least a few six-figure ($) geek-types and you’re starting to get the picture. It is the support, not the setup, which is key!
Oversimplifying the picture
While I’m at it, I may as well address a couple of other points of contention with the article.
First, Donnacha talks about hosting companies hoodwinking customers by measuring page-views instead of bandwidth. One only needs to know a bit about the difference between types of hosting to see the problem. Hosting a large file (podcast, video, etc.) might use up a bunch of bandwidth, but hardly any computing resources. Making a ton of database queries just to return a few bytes of data requires very little bandwidth but potentially massive computing resources. Hosting companies need to find some metric to take both into account. We can argue the details, but this isn’t some scandal waiting to be broken.
Second, there are very real security/stability threats out there to a Websites; a lot of them, in fact! And stopping them is not trivial. In my pre-managed hosting days, I had sites hacked on several occasions, and for at least one of them, it was after I had spent weeks of time researching and implementing security tactics. And, that doesn’t begin to address things like DDoS.
Third, I take a bit of offense at the downplaying of technical expertise of support people involved in managed WordPress hosting. While I only have experience with one so far (WP Engine), I can say the support I’ve received has been excellent. (I’ve heard great things about others such as SiteGround too.) Even though I’m fairly technical, most of the people I’ve interacted with have been well beyond me. While arguably this could indicate my lack of expertise, I can guarantee the support is far beyond the knowledge-level of the average business user.
And, finally, I can agree with Donnacha about the aspect of over-promising. There is no way any hosting company can support an end-user without at least some technical ability when they only charge ~$30 per month. Yet, ad copy can sometimes make it seem that way.
In fact, I’m sometimes shocked at how low the pricing is for the support potential. I’ve been involved in discussions around the Web where a miffed (to put it nicely!) former customer is ranting about xyz managed WP hosting company not solving their every non-hosting-related technical issue. That’s not their job! And even so, they often try pretty hard until it becomes clear the customer really needs a Website designer. But yes, they are often at least partly at fault for the impression their marketing departments put out. Back to the thesis…
Technology never stops advancing
Terminator robots (see the original article) are notoriously frightening primarily because they are nearly impossible to stop (well, that, and those red eyes, and metal skull, I suppose). They just keep relentlessly coming after you. Fortunately, they are SciFi.
Technology, likewise, just keeps relentlessly advancing. It, however, is actually part of reality. As long as there are humans, technology will keep marching forward (because it is driven by human ingenuity to meet unceasing demand).
Some things will get replaced and jobs disappear (of course, this creates more jobs, just with different skill-sets, but that’s a different economics 101 lesson). For example, I no longer have to set jumpers on network cards, install TCP/IP stacks, and bind them to the OS to get a computer on the Internet. However, while complex systems will be simplified over time, the demands of advancing technology continue to require human support. For example, I used to hear predictions that computer technicians wouldn’t be needed in the future. Last time I checked, Geek Squad still exists.
About the time one system of complex technology is ‘panel-ized,’ another system gets added that won’t be for some time.
Managed Hosting –> IaaS, PaaS, SaaS (Infrastructure, Platform, Software as a Service)?
I agree that more advanced interfaces and good automation might enable some big players (i.e., Google, Amazon, etc.) to compete with – and replace – basic Web hosting services. I think that has already happened on the technology front, it just hasn’t had the full impact yet. Those $7.99/mo hosting plans might just be doomed, and in my opinion, the Internet would be much better off for it; they never really had support in the first place!
Managed hosting (WordPress in this case) is a different thing. Sure, if we could get everyone to agree on a feature set and freeze the WordPress code base… AND stop plugin development (which would defeat the point of WordPress for many)… AND get all the cyber-criminals in the world to take a permanent vacation, we could eventually come up with a solution stable enough for the tech giants like Google and Amazon to just serve out. (cf. WordPress.com)
That isn’t going to happen. Regardless of whether you are a tech geek or not, once you go beyond a basic blog with WordPress (and even if you don’t) the complexity only begins once you get to that, “Hello World!” post.
It’s about the on-going support!
In Chris Lema’s response to the article, his final paragraph states, “They’re a managed WordPress host which means they take care of my site so I don’t have to.” I suspect Chris has the technical chops to do it himself if he wanted to, as do I. Though, like myself, probably not the ability to do it nearly as well as a good managed hosting company. Then, there is the matter of time better spent.
My sites at WPEngine are likely run on Linode hardware and hosting. I can directly rent a Linode VPS or dedicated server for less than I pay WP Engine. I could EASILY install WordPress on a Linode VPS – it is well within my abilities. So why do I spend the extra money? When you find the answer to that question, you’ll have found the crucial flaw in the ‘managed hosting is going away’ thesis.
Google, Amazon, etc. aren’t service focused (in that way)
In response to a reader comment, Donnacha says, “No, my article is predicated on the belief that a major part of the industry’s value proposition is about to be swallowed by upstream providers.”
So, ultimately, he does recognize my point about support. But, there is also a flaw in this one possible fulfillment of his prediction. That value proposition has always been there, and always will be, for any sufficiently complex aspect of technological advancement.
Yes, Google or Amazon could – in theory – become a large WP Engine or SiteGround, but I don’t think that is their goal, nor is it how their support is structured. In other words, they wouldn’t then swallow them up, but would have to become them.
Beyond this, Donnacha’s hints toward A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) will have to account for that support gap. That would require a whole other article to address (or maybe we could take it up in the comments below). But, as I noted earlier, we’re talking reality here, not SciFi.
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