A Small Orange Shared Hosting

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At a first glance, A Small Orange is quite possibly the most charmingly unusual web hosting provider on the market. Just look at their site. It’s got that rustic allure of a bygone and more authentic era, like something out of Of Mice and Men — wait, I shouldn’t make that comparison. Like something out of Huckleberry Finn — wait, now I’m sort of mixing fruit images. Okay, it reminds me of old Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations and eating orange Creamsicles in the summer or something. Doesn’t it make you want to sit in a rocking chair on the porch of an old cabin, maybe with a piece of wheat hanging out of your mouth? Oh, I got it: It’s like a delightful little mom-and-pop store remaining happily independent in the face of that corporate behemoth Walmart those corporate behemoths GoDaddy, Bluehost, and HostGator.

And there’s something true about that: A Small Orange is independent of GoDaddy. But of Bluehost and HostGator? Well, it turns out that ASO is owned by the same company that owns those two. That company is called Endurance International Group, or EIG, and it doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in the web hosting industry. In essence, EIG acquires new customers by acquiring new companies and then proceeds to migrate those customers to its own infrastructure. Lots of costs are cut, lots of employees are fired, and lots of customers are unhappy.

ASO was acquired by EIG back in 2012. Customer satisfaction began to nosedive in 2015, overwhelmingly with complaints about downtime and poor customer service. But there are signs that things might be rebounding. I signed up for a shared plan to see if there really is anything special about ASO, or whether it’s just EIG wearing the costume of a provincial orange farmer. Here’s what I found.


Author’s note: I will be returning to this review in three or four months with any updates.


Signing Up

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 5.42.58 PMI purchased the Small Shared Plan, which costs only $5 per month, or $50 for a year. It comes with 5GB of storage, 50GB of bandwidth, and the ability to host unlimited domain names. As I discussed in my review of Namecheap, I appreciate that A Small Orange doesn’t try to sell potential customers on the notion of unlimited disk space, since it never really turns out to be true. As for bandwidth, while many other providers do offer it as unlimited (or unmetered), 50GB of data transfer is nothing to scoff at. I know that some will disagree with me here, but I think that anyone approaching or exceeding those storage or bandwidth limits on a basic shared plan could probably afford to pay extra.

A Small Orange also offers a 90-day money back guarantee for new shared customers and gives account credits after that.

Signing up for service was very simple. Once you select the hosting package you want, you are taken to another page where you simply enter the domain you already own or want to purchase, your payment details, and select or unselect any addons you want. Word to the wise: CodeGuard is worth it, SiteLock is not. If you are looking for a security tool, go with something like Sucuri.

One addon stood out to me, though, called Priority Support. You can view it in the screenshots below. It costs an extra $15 per month, and has the following description: “Skip to the front of the ticket queue with priority support! Our technicians will respond as quickly as possible to your tickets when they come in from your registered email address.” In other words, I can pay three times the cost of my shared plan in order to receive timely ticket support. That certainly leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

It seems to me that this “add-on” could mean several things. First, A Small Orange might have problems with high ticket queues and, as a consequence, response times could be very slow. Second, knowing that slow support tends to drive customers away, the company is effectively offering customers with larger wallets the opportunity to pay even more for timely service, that way they can both make more money and decrease the chances that the customers they lose are the higher-paying ones. And third, it just gives me the impression that ASO is not (or no longer is) a customer service-oriented company

Getting Started

After signup, A Small Orange helpfully emails your cPanel and customer portal credentials to you. Their customer portal is a very clean, straightforward, and easy-to-use interface, placing everything you might want to do with your billing account right in front of you. It is not as elegant as Namecheap’s, but it is much simpler than the confusing one used at HostGator.

Learn cPanel FastI also liked A Small Orange’s cPanel installation. It is up-to-date and running the popular Paper Lantern theme. What’s more, it is almost entirely unbranded. Some other web hosting providers force their customers to endure ads trying to get you to purchase their products. A Small Orange doesn’t do that. The only branding that they have is an amazingly helpful orange icon at the top of the page called Show Me How, which you can see to the right. If you need to know how to do something in cPanel, this handy little tool will literally point you to where you need to go and show you every step you need to take.

ASO Hosting Client's Area

Features

ASO Softaculous Scripts

Besides the really cool “Show Me How” feature in cPanel, A Small Orange offers several other great features. Here are a few of the big ones.

  • Softaculous, the script library that automates the installation of most website packages that you might want: WordPress, Joomla, Magento, WHMCS, and so on. Some other providers have similar installation scripts, but Softaculous is far and away the best.
  • R1Soft Restore Backups, a backup service that runs daily on your files, and is absolutely free. You can restore backups straight from your cPanel. I can’t stress how unusual it is for a hosting company to offer a free backup service. You do need to contact support to restore MySQL databases, but often times databases are unaffected by account data loss.
  • An SSL Installer, which means you can upload your certificate directly into cPanel without having to go through a support ticket (though you do need a dedicated IP first).
  • SiteLock, a website security service that provides scanning, a firewall, and a CDN. I generally recommend going with a better service such as Sucuri.
  • Google Apps for Work, the service that lets you route your domain’s email traffic through Google so you can use the Gmail interface.
  • CodeGuard, a very good, non-free, but cheap backup service.

Customer Support

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 7.20.36 PMMy experience with A Small Orange’s live support was mixed to poor. I spoke with chat technicians numerous times to gauge their level of support. The first thing that struck me was that a number of them did not seem to be very knowledgeable. For example, I asked one if he could confirm for me that the R1Soft backup feature was indeed free. At first, he thought that only the first restore of a given month is free, and any further restores that month would be $10 each. He linked some documentation to me that, upon my reading, did no seem to indicate that. Eventually, he confirmed that it was, in fact, free and that A Small Orange must have made it free when they introduced CodeGuard as a paid addon.

After midnight (Central Standard Time) each day, support appears to be handed off to an Indian company that outsources support services to various EIG brands. According to EIG’s IPO, which you can find on the website of the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission, that company is called Diya Systems. Diya seems to support multiple brands, as EIG states in their IPO that they “currently use India-based third-party service providers to provide certain outsourced services to support our U.S.-based operations, including email- and chat-based customer and technical support, billing support, network monitoring and engineering and development services.” Diya is also run and owned by family members of EIG’s CEO, something which financial research firm Gotham City Research made much of in their scathing report on EIG’s financial practices. According to Glassdoor, Diya’s Customer Support Engineers make about ₹16,000 – ₹18,000 per month, which presently converts to $237 – $267 per month. I will let you draw your own conclusions here.

Near as I can tell, the primary function of ASO’s Diya support is to help with only the most rudimentary issues, ticketing everything else to be handled later. My experience talking to a couple of them was uniformly bad. When I asked one if he would point me to the page that shows what hardware specs ASO uses on its shared servers (because I could not find it), the technician thought I needed help seeing how much disk space my account was using. Then he pointed me to a page showing what software comes with the shared hosting. For another technician, I had a couple questions about the server I was on. He told me that I would receive answers via email. When I asked if he could provide me with a ticket ID, it was only then that he asked for me to verify my account and actually created the ticket. It seemed that he was waiting for me to leave so that he didn’t even have to bother writing up a ticket.

Whois command resulting in a segmentation fault.With only one major exception, all technicians were generally friendly. But that one exception really stood out. I was playing around on the command line (which I like to do to see what utilities are included) and happened to notice that using the whois command consistently resulted in a segmentation fault. A segmentation fault just means that the program has crashed. Not really a big deal, since it’s only the whois command, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to see how ASO’s support would handle it.

What happened was pretty surprising. What I figured would happen is that the technician would try to reproduce the error and then create a ticket to escalate the issue to second line support, which has more access and training to handle difficult issues. Instead, the agent had no idea what the issue was, tried to get rid of me, tried to upsell me on a VPS, and then closed the chat prematurely after telling me to just use a whois website service instead. Very not cool. Obviously, the utility should be working — it comes with the service that I have paid for, and I may have wanted to use a script that required the command’s functionality. But things do break from time to time. What really bothered me is that the agent closed my chat to get rid of me, knowing that the issue was not resolved.

The whois issue was later resolved by ticket.

Another issue that I raised, and which I discuss below in the Reliability and Performance section, is that Apache was repeatedly crashing and restarting anywhere from four to nine times every day. I brought this to the attention of the support team several times, providing them with screenshots, logs, and steps for them to view the issue themselves. Each chat lasted about an hour, and each time the support technician provided me with incorrect information about what was going on, as I will explain below. The issue was ticketed so that a more senior-level technician could investigate. As of my writing, it has been three weeks since that ticket was filed, and Apache still crashes and restarts every day.

Performance

A Small Orange provides customers on shared hosting with a 99.9% uptime guarantee for “your website and services that directly affect its display to the Internet (such as HTTP or MySQL).” Curiously, no mention is made of any uptime guarantee relating to email services, so I suppose that if the Exim service (which is responsible for handling email on the server) goes down for several hours, you are not guaranteed a credit. There is also a caveat to the guarantee stating that hardware failures are not covered. I do find that odd, since if my server has a hardware failure and my site is offline for hours or days, I would consider it to be ASO’s responsibility.

intel_xeon_e5_2630v3_cpu_15A Small Orange’s shared servers are located in two data centers in Dallas, TX, and Dearborn, MI. Information about server hardware is not readily available on the company website, besides the fact that its shared servers run on “Intel Xeon E5 Dual Hex Core processors and fully solid-state-drive (SSD) driven storage in redundant (RAID 10) arrays.” From the command line, I was able to determine that my server runs on a 32 core Intel Xeon E5-2630 v3 @ 2.40GHz, with 64GB of RAM and four RAID 10 arrays. For comparison, this is nearly identical to HostGator’s shared server hardware.

A weekly backup solution is provided by ASO, and as mentioned above it’s totally free. It is important to note that these backups are not guaranteed, and only a weekly snapshot is kept at a given time. That means that if your website was compromised or deleted two weeks ago and you just noticed it today, you are out of luck. Keeping your own backups is important, and services such as CodeGuard make it incredibly easy to automate the process.

While testing A Small Orange’s services, I found them only somewhat fast and reliable. When things were fast, they were fast. But occasionally there would be noticeable slowness in cPanel, such as it taking over three minutes to add a subdomain or addon domain. There were also frequent issues with SSH, which would often hang or disconnect. And I discovered noticeable issues with command line utilities. For example, whois gave a segmentation fault, and the screen was inaccessible to non-root users, and telnet and lynx weren’t even installed. I know that most web hosting customers do not use the command line, but it speaks to a general problem of poor server configuration and management when even the most basic utilities do not work or are not installed at all.

Reliability

My server’s uptime when I first signed up was at a shockingly low 66 days. I tried searching ASO’s server status page to see if there was perhaps scheduled maintenance on my server during that time, but I could find nothing. When I reviewed Namecheap, the uptime of my server there was 113 days, and I thought that was too low for my taste. Sixty-six days is most definitely not a good sign.

Apache Uptime

Apache uptime in seconds. 11089 seconds is slightly longer than 3 hours, meaning that was the last time Apache restarted.

What’s more, I discovered that Apache — the service that serves websites to your browser — crashes and automatically restarts every 1 – 8 hours or so, reliably. A given Apache restart takes about 2 – 3 seconds, which is short enough for a website uptime monitoring program (which usually checks every 5 minutes or so) not to notice it, but which can add up to as much as 25 – 30 seconds of downtime per day.

As mentioned above, customer service did not seem knowledgeable about the seriousness of the issue, or even how to fix it. They repeatedly told me that what I was seeing in the Apache log file was a periodic gentle restart which frequently happens on all shared servers when (for example) someone adds a new domain to their cPanel. But the problem is that gentle restarts show up in the log as gentle restarts, not as crashes, signal hangups, or hard restarts. Again, this issue speaks to a general problem of bad server configuration and management.

6.6 Total Score
Verdict

A Small Orange has all the outward appearance of an independent, friendly, folksy brand. But it's only appearance. If you're just looking to host a personal site that you don't expect to do much with, they probably have the right price and ease of use to suit your needs. But if you're wanting to do anything remotely serious with your web presence, when performance, reliability, and support matter, you would do well to look elsewhere. In my view, A Small Orange is a big lemon.

Reliability
5
Performance
6
Support
5
Features
8
Pricing
9
PROS
  • Competitive pricing.
  • Easy signup process.
  • Simple and straightforward customer portal.
  • Clean, ad-free, bloatless cPanel.
  • PHP 7.
CONS
  • Less than knowledgeable, and on one occasion rude, customer support.
  • Performance is mediocre.
  • Reliability is poor.
  • Long ticket wait times.
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