Five Low-cost UNIX/Linux Web Hosting Providers Tested

Apr/May 2004

Host Lab is an ad hoc, real-world test of web hosting providers. The web hosting world has seen a shift towards low-cost web hosting over the last few years. Even five years ago, it was almost impossible to find a provider willing to host your site for less than $10/month. But with the increased competition in the marketplace, costs have come down, benefiting the consumer.

Today's web hosting services have become commoditized, and price-points are a primary (if not THE primary) concern for consumers. All the providers we tested in this first round came in at less than $10/month, reflecting the trend towards lower-priced services. UNIX/Linux is one of the most popular platforms nowadays. We selected five companies offering low-cost UNIX or Linux hosting to see how they would stack up against each other. In this test we have aplus.net ($9.95/m), ipowerweb.com ($9.95/m), olm.net ($6.49/m), penguinhost.net ($8.95/m) and routhost.com ($2.95/m). We started with a set of initial questions, followed by a buy of the provider's basic package, uploading site contents, testing support, and canceling the services.

1) QUALITY OF ANSWERS AND RESPONSE TIMES FOR PRE-SALES QUESTIONS

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

For the initial questions, we evaluated both speed and quality of response. The fastest response came from PenguinHost.net, but quality was also weighted--all companies responded within a timeframe of 4-10 hours. First, we submitted a list of initial queries to providers, and tested their response time and the quality of their responses. Our questions were basic, for example: "Is it easy to transfer my domain name, and could you handle this for me? Do you own or lease your servers? Do you offer any free trial periods, and, what's your cancellation policy?" Some providers responded personally to our slate of questions while ROUThost.com only provided URLs to FAQs, and/or avoided questions altogether, would not guarantee uptime or provide a money-back guarantee.

PenguinHost.net sent a prompt list of personalized answers, but fudged on a couple of our queries. We asked if they offered a web template service, they promised that they'd be "adding that service in the near future." Their response to our query on DNS transfer was "We could assist in this."


2) QUALITY OF SIGN-UP PROCESS AND RESPONSE TIMES FOR ACCOUNT

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

Most sites have a "sign-up-now" box on their homepage, which is what we'd expect in order to drive sales (the exception was ROUThost.com, who buried their sign-up link near the bottom of their plan-comparison listings, forcing users to select a specific plan before beginning the ordering process, hardly the most flexible option).

Once entering their secured sign-up areas, would-be customers learn that one-time service fees are often applicable to anyone not paying an annual fee upfront. Except for ROUThost.com, all the providers we tested required a setup fee for anyone not paying an annual fee.

PenguinHost.net had the clearest and easiest sign-up procedure--we could tell at a glance that we were in the Linux area, and knew our options and costs.

For all five of the tested providers, the lowest monthly fee quoted is only available upon annual prepayment. Some providers we did not test refuse to take anything less than a quarterly fee, despite quoting rates by the month. We did not test any company that did not accept a monthly rate.


3) QUALITY OF USER MANUALS AND INSTRUCTIONS

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

aplus.net and iPowerWeb.com operate dedicated knowledge base web sites, an excellent support tool. These knowledge bases provide the capability to search for specific answers, along with FAQs. Another useful feature is an archive of questions asked by users, with clickable links leading to the answers.

PenguinHost.net highlights include online interactive how-to videos demonstrating website set-up and configuration, free Urchin Web Traffic Stats with every plan and an online control panel demo.

In keeping with their "outsource-where-possible" model, ROUThost.com provided the least amount of online instruction. They are also the only provider we tested that leases their servers rather than owning them, but it's difficult if not impossible to compete with them on price--their strongest point.

OLM.net's online support manual includes FAQs on host VDS and SE accounts, dedicated servers, their Sphera dedicated plans and tutorials on programs like Dreamweaver, Flash and Frontpage.


4) QUALITY OF ANSWERS AND RESPONSE TIMES FOR SUPPORT QUESTIONS

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

We create a list of typical support questions and check response time and the quality of responses to those. For example: "What is FTP, and how can I FTP? How can I set up my e-mail account?"

As aplus.net did not respond to our first questions, we had to re-send. Everyone else replied promptly, although quality of the answers varied: some asked specific questions about our accounts, while others referred us to FAQs.

PenguinHost.net had the fastest response and, we felt, the most thorough answers.


5) HOSTING QUALITY--SPEED AND PERFORMANCE

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

We uploaded PHP and HTML test files to test server performance. The PHP file did mathematics calculations, create/write/delete files, and looping of calculations. The PHP test was conducted multiple times to obtain an average. We used www.visualware.com to test response time from different locations around the world, and also used www.netmechanic.com to monitor the server for an eight-hour period (netmechanic provides ping testing, DNS look-up, and download times).

iPowerWeb.com was the fastest we tested, and also offered a higher level of storage allocations on their basic package than any other of the providers. On the other hand, OLM.net demonstrated the slowest performance in server and Internet connections according to our tests--their score on our test.php file was 10 seconds (as opposed to iPowerWeb's score of 4 seconds), host ping took 49.96 milliseconds, DNS look up 0.01 seconds, connect time 0.05 seconds and download time for a 10k file was 0.33 seconds.

aplus.net was faster than OLM.net, while PenguinHost.net and ROUThost.com were roughly equivalent overall.


6) USER-FRIENDLINESS

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

Signing up for an account with aplus.net includes unsolicited pitches for both their web-a-photo.com and web-a-file.com partner sites. While we appreciate learning about other services, the approach was a bit too spam-like for our tastes.

OLM.net was professional and timely in their responses. While ROUThost.com was timely, their answers usually referred us to FAQs or URLs. PenguinHost.net and iPowerWeb.com were prompt and provided answers that directly addressed our questions.


7) VALUE FOR MONEY

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

iPowerWeb.com offers raw power with their basic package: 800MB storage, 40GB transfer and 400 e-mail accounts, with the highest speed of the providers we tested.

ROUThost.com gets the highest rating here because of price, price, price. If you are comfortable doing your own web site set-up, you can site it here for a rock-bottom rate, and the speed tests actually outperformed some of the higher-priced providers.

OLM.net offers a good basic package but speed and performance was an issue. aplus.net was a bit pricey versus storage allocations and performance, as was PenguinHost.net.


8) QUALITY OF RESPONSE TIME AND CANCELLATION CONFIRMATION

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

The last step was to cancel our subscription and evaluate the process for each provider.

The process could not be simpler with OLM.net. We logged on, supplied the requested information for our account, and were cancelled almost immediately.

aplus.net insisted that we "Please allow 7-10 days for an account to be cancelled." This might possibly cause an extra monthly billing cycle to be initiated after cancellation.

ROUThost.com uses a payment center for their billing, which froze when we tried to cancel our account. Some hours later, confirmation arrived.

Cancellation for iPowerWeb.com and PenguinHost.net was relatively straightforward.


TOTAL SCORE

aplus.net
iPowerWeb.com
OLM.net
PenguinHost.net
ROUThost.com

iPowerWeb.com and PenguinHost.net were the overall winner here. iPowerWeb.com offers solid specs, traffic allocation and a knowledge base web site for support. PenguinHost.net offers decent service and performance, and seems to be the most " Linux-friendly" of the providers we tested. OLM.net scored well on support, but fared poorly on the speed and performance tests. aplus.net tries too hard to sell its auxiliary services, we felt, although their knowledge base web site is exemplary. Although ROUThost.com leases its servers and doesn't exactly hold your hand during the process, its performance versus price-point on the low-end make it an attractive option for budget-minded webmasters.


HOW WE TEST

First, we submitted a list of initial queries to providers, and tested their response time and the quality of their responses. Our questions were basic, for example: "Is it easy to transfer my domain name, and could you handle this for me? Do you own or lease your servers? Do you offer any free trial periods, and, what's your cancellation policy?" Some providers responded personally to our slate of questions while some only provided URLS to FAQs, and/or avoided questions altogether.

Next, we signed up for basic packages, then checked quality of online user manuals and instructions. We signed up during a late-night period--those signing up during business hours might experience different results. Our next test was to create a list of typical support questions and check response time and the quality of responses to those. For example: "What is FTP, and how can I FTP? How can I set up my e-mail account?"

We then uploaded PHP and HTML test files to test server performance. The PHP test was conducted multiple times to obtain an average. We used www.visualware.com to test response time from different locations around the world, and also used www.netmechanic.com to monitor the server for an eight-hour period. (netmechanic provides ping-testing, DNS look-up, and download times. We also calculated a "user-friendliness" factor and evaluated the value-for-money offered by each provider.

The last step was to cancel our subscription and evaluate the process for each provider.
The test was done solely by HostSearch.com's experienced team using our criteria and standard. We are not responsible for any uses of information on this page.

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