123 Strikes Again

You may have noticed that some of our sites have not been responding for the last few days. This is because 123-reg.co.uk had a name server outage. They didn’t tell anybody or apologise at all, they just decided that several thousand people could do without their sites for a couple of days. People are generally pretty upset about it – just check out these damning blog entries.

123 have always been pretty useless, but to date I’ve not found anyone offering a decent professional service that also covered .co.uk domains. 123’s big feature is that they are extremely cheap, unfortunately in every sense. This low price means that many of our customers have registered domains on there that we have ended up managing, so we have inherited their choice of registrar and default DNS host.
123 have NEVER responded to my requests for support, and I’ve reported major problems with their web interface many times – despite their takeover by pipex, their web interface has not changed at all (though the shiny home page has). It’s not possible to log in to more than one account (something we need to do often) as their authentication system is totally useless – it’s also impossible to log out (yes there is a link, but it doesn’t actually do anything)! At least there are Firefox plugins to work around their ineptitude.

When transferring domains to 123, it’s not possible to set up the DNS before the transfer has completed (or for them to simply retain existing name server settings – they always reset them to theirs), so it’s impossible to transfer a domain to them without downtime and exposure of a nasty parking page on your domain.

Their “managed” hosting service is nothing of the sort. Steer well clear. I blogged about that quite a while ago.

All this adds up to something that is a lot less than professional. So from now on we’ll be hosting our domains elsewhere, and suggesting that all our customers do the same.

I’m very happy to see that one of the better registrars I’ve used has finally got .co.uk accreditation.
They have a pretty and functional web interface, full access to zone files (if you want it), and they’ve answered every support request within a couple of hours (and with a certain Gallic charm). I’ve also had good experiences with enom.com, though while they are relatively expensive for uk domains, they have a UK support line that’s not premium rate and is actually staffed by people who can do something about your request! The aforementioned blog post mentions Everydns, which looks like something to bear in mind if price is a real issue.

World’s worst “Managed” ISP: 123-reg

I recently fell for 123-reg‘s managed, dedicated server spiel. It sounds like a great deal – reasonable CPU, RAID, Ubuntu, good connectivity, quick provisioning etc for a bargain price. But it’s mostly untrue in the ways that matter. There is a distinct difference between “managed” and “dedicated” hosting. What you might expect from a managed service:

  • System installation and config
  • Frequent system updates and security patches
  • On-request package installation
  • Any custom tweaks requiring root access
  • Security audits

The whole point is to relieve the customer of the kind of sysadmin tasks that they might otherwise do themselves. Without this kind of service, it’s just a dedicated server. The managed service may or may not sit on top of a dedicated server (e.g. it’s possible to get management of a colo box), also provided by the ISP. See RackSpace for a classic managed service. A dedicated server should supply the following as a minimum:

  • Physical server
  • Hardware replacement guarantee (on a component basis)
  • Connectivity & IP address(es)
  • Config of reverse DNS entries
  • Installed OS
  • Root access over ssh

It’s common for the customer to forego root access in a managed service as it can make the ISP’s job impractical.

123’s approach is at an impossible halfway point. They set up various remote management services (some of which don’t work), provide the kind of locked-down service you might expect from a managed service (no root access), but then they completely fail to provide any of the managed services on top of this arrangement. So you’re left with a server that’s more or less unusable. For example, the only way to get additional packages installed is to request root access and do it yourself, but doing this means that you are then no longer eligible for any of their support services (such as they are).

The servers are set up with very fixed usage in mind. It’s all driven by domains being assigned to servers, them handling their own DNS, and providing absolutely minimal web hosting services for each domain. There is a control panel thing, but it’s very restricted, nowhere near what you get with even relatively clunky control panels such as Webmin. Each defined domain gets access to a single MySQL database. They provide a MySQL management interface for the administrator, but it doesn’t work, and so there is no way of getting root access to MySQL at all, and if you want to access a database for a domain, you have to log into that domain and access its database from there – there is no overview of the system as a whole. If your intended usage pattern happens to exactly match what they set up, I might concede that it might make a passable dedicated service, but there’s no way it could possibly be described as “managed” as they don’t lift a finger.

Over a couple of weeks, I sent perhaps 15 different email support requests. I received one reply apologising for the slow provisioning of the server, and another that said that I couldn’t have MySQL root access. None of my other requests were even acknowledged.

They provide a premium-rate phone number for support, and I called this a few times. Sometimes there was no answer, then I was told that I had reached the wrong department, then I was told that they’d not replied to my email because they had a huge backlog (figures), then that they had lost my email so could I resend it. It was clear that whoever I spoke to was not of the technical variety.

Eventually I had had enough. So I visited the page that features a ‘cancel my server’ button. It didn’t work (a lovely error 500 instead). So I emailed them requesting that they cancel my server and provide a refund as their product was simply not fit for purpose. Amazingly, I did receive a reply saying that they did not provide ‘that kind of management’ (curious, since they are not providing any kind of management), but that I would receive a refund. That was 6 weeks ago. In the last 2 weeks, they have been attempting (and failing) to charge my credit card every day. I’ve reported that to my card company, but it sounds like it’s not getting as far as them, i.e. it’s yet another internal system that’s broken, and despite another 5 emails describing this problem to them, they have still failed to reply. Looks like I will have to dispute my original setup payment to them.

Since then I’ve used uk2.net, who have been absolutely excellent, and a massive contrast to 123 (and they have an astonishing buy one get one free offer on during April). Other than that, Mythic Beasts’ MacMini service provides way better service than 123, while only ever describing it as a dedicated service.