Sunday, March 4, 2012

Are Virtual Servers a Scam? My conversation with customer service at

Last September we started another blog. Not here are Google but using Wordpress with a private hosting company named Dreamhost.  This company was highly recommended in two recent How-To books about WordPress.

When our WordPress blog first came online we were surprised at the positive response from the readers.  I had been blogging consistently here at TMMC for several months and our readership here was good.  Over the five years we've been a blog, we had reached 40,000 page views at Mutant Mouse and were averaging 50 views a day.    At our WordPress blog we exceeded that number within 7 weeks. We were very surprised.  But two months after our launch, our new blog went haywire.  We couldn't access the site, readers were getting the 404 page error - the entire site was a huge mess.

Then we received an email from our provider, Dreamhost.  We had exceeded our capacity and we needed to move to a virtual server (VPS) to solve memory problems.  There was an additional cost, but we could start with lower memory maximum and then manage our resources by sliding up our usage. If our site became too memory greedy, just push the slider up (click and drag) and we would have more memory instantly- albeit at a higher cost.  We agreed, paid our fee and within a short period of time we were back to normal.

A few weeks after committing an additional eighteen dollars ($18.00) a month ($216.00 per year), we received another email from Dreamhost telling us that there had been a spike in our service and our virtual server had to reboot. We could solve this problem by simply clicking through to our Resource Management Page to slide the bar up for a higher memory limit.  Of course, as we slid the bar, the cost went up.  I looked at my memory usage on the bar graph provided by Dreamhost on the same page and there was no indication that we had come within a hundred megabytes of our maximum of 300 MB (at $18.00 per month).  We were using 50-100MG of memory with one spike to 200MG.

Nevertheless,  I raised the amount to around 350MG and all was well again.  Now I was up to an additional 20 dollars a month ($240.00 per year) over our original monthly hosting cost. Suddenly we were 240 dollars over our budget for the year for a virtual server (VPS) to host our blog at um..yeah, that highly recommended Dreamhost company.

What were we posting that was causing all these memory problems?  I was writing reviews of albums, embedding YouTube videos, and posting short audio clips.   We were receiving about 800-1000 hits per day from approximately 300 unique visitors.  We were not setting the world on fire but it seemed like a lot to us.

The Dreamhost reboot server emails kept coming and I kept checking the bar graph each time and each time there was no evidence of a spike large enough to require a reboot.  I upped the slider bar a second time. Now we were paying 22.00 a month extra  ($264.00 per year).

On December 26th, I received a re-boot email immediately after I posted an embedded video. I quickly surfed like a pro to Dreamhost's webpanel and guess what? No record of a spike.   So I sent a chat request to Dreamhost customer service.  Here is the transcript of our chat:

General Info
Chat start time Dec 26, 2011 6:00:09 PM EST
Chat end time Dec 26, 2011 6:20:16 PM EST
Duration (actual chatting time) 00:20:06
Operator Jeremy T.

Chat Transcript
info: Please wait for a site operator to respond.
info: You are now chatting with 'Jeremy T.'
Jeremy T.: hi there! how can I hepl you?
richard: I have a question. Why do I keep getting emails telling me I've used up my allocated memory on the server and when I go to look at the graphs..I am not even CLOSE to uising that much memory..
Jeremy T.: The graphs can't show it when you hit the limit as they only update every few minutes.
richard: I have 374MB and I have never exceeded 200mb
richard: but I go back and check..and I have NOT ONCE exceeded 300mb and I am allocated 374mb
richard: Im concerned about this
Jeremy T.: The graph only checks once, every few minutes. It isn't capable of showing a spike that takes you over your memory limit.
richard: but wouldnt I see the spike at some point?
richard: look at my graphs..
Jeremy T.: The graphs can't show a spike. That's the entire reason why we email you when it happens.
richard: there is no spike is what Im trying to explaint to you.
richard: the spike is well under..100mb under my limit
Jeremy T.: I know it doesn't seem like there was, but as I was saying, the graph only checks the server once every few minutes. Between those intervals, your memory usage is unrecorded. That's when you would have hit your limit.
richard: if that is fact, then why wouldnt I see the spike in my history at some point?
Jeremy T.: Because it would have happened in between graph points, when your server isn't checked.
richard: so you have a graph that does not show the peak points?
Jeremy T.: Unfortunately, that's correct. THat's the reason why we send you an email when you hit your limit, so you can know when exactly this happens.
richard: therefore the graph is useless.
richard: because ti does not accurately show my peak usage
Jeremy T.: I'm afraid that it is not useful for troubleshooting memory spikes.
richard: so your email points me to a graph that does not show the peak that exceeds my limit, correct?
Jeremy T.: Correct, as that is the page where you can increase your memory allocation.
richard: This is a serious flaw and I cant but wonder if it is an intentional sales gimmick.. You provide no tangible proof that I have actually exceeded my limit. I may have to consider moving to a different host when my time expires in February unless I can get a better result, Jeremy.
Jeremy T.: I'm afraid that we can't troubleshoot your memory usage for you, but you can follow the steps in these articles to get an idea of what's going on:
Jeremy T.:
Jeremy T.:
Jeremy T.:
richard: nope..already done it. If I have exceeded my limit..SHOW ME the data
richard: I wuld like to know what my peak usage was
Jeremy T.: Your VPS is killed as soon as it hits the limit.
Jeremy T.: So your peak usage is whatever you currently have allocated.
Jeremy T.: As soon as it hits that mark, it gets restarted and you get sent that email.
richard: so you can provide a graph showing when I hit that limit?
Jeremy T.: Not currently. That is why we send you the email.
richard: ok..I am going to file a ticket/complaint over this. I want to know the exact time I hit my limit. The server records the reboot and I will need that time to compare against my posts. 
info: Your chat transcript will be sent to at the end of your chat.
richard: thank you for your time, Jeremy.
Jeremy T.: Have a good day, then!

I didn't file the ticket.  What's the use? I accepted the fact that Dreamhost was not capable or willing to help me, and that their graph misrepresented our usage. I would begin searching for a new host provider.   I began to ask friends and found another company, in case I needed to switch.   My favorite quote in the customer service chat was the amazingly clueless "I'm afraid we can't troubleshoot your memory usage for you.."    Someone high up at Dreamhost should look up the definition of SERVICE.    

Here Are My Top Ten Reasons For Leaving Dreamhost

1. Dreamhost is the one  that told us that we needed this special server.
2. Dreamhost is the one who told us the memory on the new VPS wasn't large enough 
3. Dreamhost is the one providing the virtual server to us at an additional cost per month.
4. Dreamhost is the one who kept sending us emails that we exceeded our memory allotment.
5. Dreamhost is the one who directed us to the memory usage graph page to review our history.
6. Dreamhost is the one who provides the graph that tracks memory usage.
7. Dreamhost is the one who clocks memory usage spikes that force a reboot at our max usage.
8. Dreamhost installed software that generates and sends an email at the moment the computer reboots.
9. Dreamhost installed software for a graph that conveniently does not show peak memory usage.   
10. Dreamhost's entire VPS system crashed in January putting thousands of websites in the dark

Dreamhost, I'm afraid we can't troubleshoot your VPS server failure for you. 

Here is a redacted copy of the form letter that Dreamhost sent when we allegedly exceeded the limit:

DreamHost VPS Stability Robot
Jan 23 (5 days ago)

to me
 Hi richard!

 Nobody likes to hear that they've packed on a few pounds, but we wanted you to hear it from a friend.

 Your DreamHost VPS, ps73610, has just exceeded the memory allocation that you've established.  If left unchecked that behavior could begin to negatively impact the VPS services of every other customer on your server.

 As a result we've had to reboot your VPS, effectively restarting your virtual machine.  You may experience several minutes of downtime while your services come back online.

 Based on the usage pattern that we've seen today, it's clear that you'd be best served by either working to reduce your memory footprint or simply increasing the amount of memory available to your VPS.

 We've put together some documentation that can help you troubleshoot and even reduce your current memory usage:

 Remember, you can visit to scale your memory allocation up (or down) whenever you'd like!

 Strictly speaking, you don't HAVE to take any action right now, but if your memory usage continues to routinely exceed the allocation level you've specified, you may experience more brief periods of downtime as your services are restarted.  You may also get sick of seeing this message in your inbox. Unfortunately there's not much that we can do about either, so we hope you'll consider upgrading!

 Thank you for choosing DreamHost!

 The Humble DreamHost VPS Stability Robot


3/4/12 Update

There is a happy ending.  I moved the site over to another company and there hasn't been a hint of a problem and even more interesting is this fact- when the new company analyzed our traffic and usage, they determined that we didn't even need virtual servers and set us up on a shared server- exactly where we started with Dreamhost in September of 2011.  

Was this all a ruse by Dreamhost to extract more money from our pocket?  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is either a duck or an insurance company!   But who really knows?  Perhaps Dreamhost has shoddy equipment, or haven't upgraded fast enough to keep up with the amount of traffic coming in to THEIR servers. All I know for certain is Dreamhost can't help troubleshoot my memory problem because I have no memory problem.  I vividly remember my bad Dreamhost experience.  Just like I remember every other nightmare - right after I wake up.

New Song: I Don't Want a Ray Gun