A2 Hosting - Can Any Hosting Provider Be Trusted?

It's been a turbulent last few days at the house of A2 Hosting where not only all their Windows hosting, but also a number of Wordpress hosting (as of 23rd April) has come to a standstill. After much pressing by its customers, it has come to light that a malware related security breach caused an outage, not only in one service, but many across A2 Hosting infrastructure. 

It's now been 3 days in counting where the outage still persists. Luckily, I managed to move back to my old hosting provider after waiting 2 days patiently for some form of recovery and I'm glad I did! I truly feel sorry for the many others who are still waiting on some form of resolution. I think I managed to get out from under A2 Hosting relatively unscathed.

This whole outage has caused me to not only reflect on my time with A2 Hosting but also hosting providers in general.

The Lies

If I'm honest, the days were counting down after getting infuriated by their support (lack of!) and the lies by their marketing and sales to meet my relatively simple hosting needs. I like to think I'm very scrupulous when it comes to hosting and do my due diligence... In this case, A2 managed to get one over me in that department!

I run a couple of sites on Kentico CMS and it was important to find a hosting company that caters for this platform due to the hardware resources required to run.

Lo and behold...

A2 Hosting - Best Kentico Hosting

Judging by that page alone filled me with confidence at a reasonable price with a lot of extras thrown in. I confirmed this was the case by talking at length to the A2 sales team beforehand and was ensured any tier would meet my needs. So I opted for the mid-tier plan - Swift, costing around £125 for 2 years after some nice promotional offers.

Knowing what I know now, I can report that the Swift plan and potentially all the other shared plans do not fit the requirements of a reasonably small Kentico site. Hosting Kentico on A2 Hosting was the bane of my life, as every so often my site would randomly timeout, with only one explanation from their support team:

We suggest you optimize your website with help from your web developer to fix the issue.

After politely requesting more information on the issue and also entertaining the fact I may need to up my hosting, I never really did get any adequate reason. It was always the efficiency of my website to blame.

Don't Believe Them, Don't Trust Them

Lack of Transparency

In light of recent events, transparency isn't one of A2 Hostings strengths (unless when pressed upon by its many customers). When problems arise, I'd prefer to know exactly what is the root cause. Knowing this actually puts more confidence in a hosting provider. I think we all know the feeling when we're not given the full picture.

Our minds have a habit of thinking of a worst-case scenario when we do not have the full picture.

Honesty is the best policy!

A2 Hosting Tweet - Transparency
(Example of A2 Hosting Lack of Transparency)

99.9% Uptime Promise

In reality, I don't expect 99.9% uptime from hosting providers as things do happen due to unforeseen circumstances. But I still expect the 98-99% range.

A2 Hosting - 99.9%25 Uptime

Judging by my uptime monitoring, I have never been blessed with 99.9% uptime during my tenure (1 out of 2-year plan) at A2 Hosting. My site has always encountered timeouts and downtime. The last major outage was around 2 months ago -  amounting up to 24 hours downtime!

Trusting Your Hosting Provider

If your website is big or small, handing over your online presence to a third-party is a big deal. You are whole-heartedly trusting a company to house your website with tender loving care. Any downtime and slow loading times can negatively impact your client base and SEO.

I've learnt that a hosting provider could have many 5 star reviews and still lack the infrastructure and support to back it up. In fact, this is what perplexed me about A2 Hostings many positive reviews.

Finding quality and appropriately priced hosting is very difficult to find. There are so many options, but the hosting industry has the classic issue of quantity over quality.

Backups

Regardless of how good any hosting company is, I would always recommend you take suitable measures to regularly carry out offsite backups on all your sites. Yes, this can be a laborious task if you are managing many sites, but its the only way to 100% sure you can be in control.

This was the only way I was able to move swiftly back to SoftSys Hosting and not wait on A2 Hosting to restore their services. At one point, there was a question mark over the current state of A2 Hosting's backups are in.

Tweet - A2 Hosting Backup
(A2 Hosting Questionable Backups)

Moving Back To Previous Hosting

Believe or not, I can't remember the exact reason why I left Softsys Hosting. After all, I never had any issues with them throughout the 9 years I was with them. Very accommodating bunch of guys! I think what attracted me to A2 Hosting was their shiny website, the promise of faster load times and the option to have my site hosted on UK servers.

It's always an absolute pain having to move and set everything back up again. But thanks to Ruchir at Softsys Hosting who was very attentive in helping me during my predicament and answering all my queries, managed to assist in achieving a quick turnaround. So in total, my site was only down for just under 2 days.

It seems quite apt that I come back to the hosting provider I call home under the same reasons to why I started using them in the first place back in 2009 when I was failed by my first ever hosting provider (Ultima Hosts). Oh, the irony!

Conclusion

Unfortunately, there isn't an exact science to finding the most ideal hosting provider for your budget and requirements. If you ever have any qualms regarding your current hosting provider, you might have good reason to be. Hosting should be worry and hassle free, knowing that your data is in the hands of capable people. If you have the finances to move, just do it. Hardware can be replaced, data can not. Data is a commodity!

Take online reviews with a pinch of salt. Instead, take a look at the existing users responses through their main Twitter and status accounts. Some might even have status pages. This will hopefully give you a more unbiased view on their operation and approach to resolving past issues.


Update - 26/04/2019

I have asked A2 Hosting for some form of compensation, especially since I purchased 2 years up front. Awaiting their response to the exact amount. I am hoping they will add some additional compensation as a goodwill gesture for misleading on their Kentico host offering.

Update - 27/04/2019

As of 27/04/2019 8pm (GMT), I managed to log back into A2 Hosting Plesk Administration to get a more recent backup of my hosting. Noticed there were some database errors in the process.

Update - 01/05/2019

Not looking good. I think there is a very slim chance in getting any form of reimbursement from A2 Hosting as they have decided to delete my support ticket. Not "close", but actually delete. I thought this was probably a mistake and after delving into the mass of responses from many other unhappy users, it seems I am not the only one.

Tweet - A2 Hosting Deleting Tickets

One can only assume that A2 Hosting are wiping their hands of any form of user correspondence. There hasn't been any further considerable updates or timescales to when services will resume. I am still awaiting for the ability to carry out a proper backup.

Responsive Images In ASP.NET: Converting Image Tag To Picture Tag

A picture tag allows us to serve different sized images based on different viewport breakpoints or pixel-ratios, resulting in better page load performance. Google's Pagespeed Insights negatively scores your site if responsive images aren't used. Pretty much all modern browsers support this markup and on the off chance it doesn't, an image fallback can be set.

Using the picture markup inside page templates is pretty straight-forward, but when it comes to CMS related content where HTML editors only accommodate image tags, it's really difficult to get someone like a client to add this form of markup. So the only workaround is to transform any image tag into a picture tag at code-level.

Code: ConvertImageToPictureTag Extension Method

The ConvertImageToPictureTag method will perform the following tasks:

  1. Loop through all image tags.
  2. Get the URL of the image from the "src" attribute.
  3. Get other attributes such as "alt" and "style".
  4. Generate picture markup and add as many source elements based on the viewport breakpoints required, apply the URL of the image, style and alt text.
  5. Replace the original image tag with the new picture tag.

The ConvertImageToPictureTag code uses HtmlAgilityPack, making it very easy to loop through all HTML nodes and manipulate the markup. In addition, this implementation relies on a lightweight client-side JavaScript plugin - lazysizes. The lazysizes plugin will delay the loading of the higher resolution image based on the viewport rules in the picture tag until the image is scrolled into view.

To use this extension, add this to any string containing HTML markup, as so:

// The HTML markup will generate responsive images using based on the following parameters:
// - Images to be resized in 10% increments.
// - Images have to be more than 200px wide.
// - Viewport sizes to take into consideration: 1000, 768, 300.
string contentWithResponsiveImages = myHtmlContent.ConvertImageToPictureTag(10, 200, 1000, 768, 300);

Sidenote

The code I've shown doesn't carry out any image resizing, you will need to integrate that yourself. Generally, any good content management platform will have the capability to serve responsive images. In my case, I use Kentico and can resize images by adding a "width" and/or "height" query parameter to the image URL.

In addition, all image URL's used inside an image tags "src" attribute requires a width query string parameter. The value of the width parameter will be the size the image in its largest form. Depending on the type of platform used, the URL structure to render image sizes might be different. This will be the only place where the code will need to be retrofitted to adapt to your own use case.

ASP.NET Developers Who Use Eval()... Evaluate Yourself!

The title of this post might seem a tad extreme, but I just feel so strongly about it! Ever since I started learning ASP.NET those many years ago, I've never been a fan of using "Eval" in data-bound controls I primarily use, such as GridViews, Repeaters and DataList. When I see it still being used regularly in web applications I cringe a little and I feel I need to express some reasons to why it should stop being used.

I think working on an application handed down to me from an external development agency pushed me to write this post... Let's call it a form of therapy! I won't make this post a rant and will "try" to be constructive and concise. My views might come across a little one-sided, but I promise I will start with at least one good thing to say about our evil friend Eval.

Postive: Quick To Render Simple Data

If the end goal is to list out some string values as is from the database with some minor manipulation from a relatively small dataset, I almost have no problem with that, even though I still believe it can be used and abused by inexperienced developers.

Negative: Debugging

The main disadvantage of embedding code inside your design file (.aspx or .ascx) is that it's not very easy to view the output during debugging. This causes a further headache when your Eval contains some conditional statements to alter the output on a row-by-row basis.

Negative: Difficult To Carry Out Complex HTML Changes

I wouldn't recommend using Eval in scenario's where databound rows require some form of HTML change. I've seen some ugly implementations where complex conditional statements were used to list out data in a creative way. If the HTML ever had to be changed through design updates, it would be a lot more time consuming to carry when compared to moving around some form controls that are databound through a RowDataBound event.

Negative: Ugly To Look At

This point will come across very superficial. Nevertheless, what I find painful to look at is when Eval is still used to carry out more functionality by calling additional methods and potentially repeating the same functionality numerous times.

Performance/Efficiency

From my research, it's not clear if there specifically is a performance impact in using Eval alone, especially with the advances in the .NET framework over the years. A post from 2012 on StackExchange brought up a very good point:

Eval uses reflection to get the value of the relevant property/field, and using Reflection to get values from object members is very slow.

If the type of an object can be determined at runtime, you're better off explicitly declaring this. After all, it's good coding standards. In the real world, the performance impact is nominal depending on the number of records you are dealing with. Not recommended for building scalable applications. I generally notice a slow down (in milliseconds) when outputting 500 rows of data.

I have read that reflection is not as much of an issue in the most recent versions of the .NET framework when compared to say, .NET 1.1. But I am unable to find any concrete evidence of this. Regardless, I'd always prefer to use the faster approach, even if I am happening to shave off a few milliseconds in the process.

Conclusion

Just don't use Eval. Regardless of the size of the dataset I am dealing with, there would only be two approaches I'd ever use:

  1. RowDataBoundEvent: A controls RowDataBoundEvent event is triggered every time a row is databound with data. This approach enables us to modify the rows appearance and structure in a specific way depending on the type of rules we have in place.
  2. Start From Scratch: Construct the HTML markup by hand based on the datasource and render to the page.

If I were to be building a scalable application dealing with thousands of rows of data, I am generally inclined to go for option 2. As you're not relying on a .NET control, you won't be contributing to the page viewstate.

Even though I have been working on a lot more applications using MVC where I have more control on streamlining the page output, I still have to dabble with Web Forms. I feel with Web Forms, it's very easy to make a page that performs really bad, which makes it even more important to ensure you are taking all necessary steps to ensure efficiency.