It is never an easy decision, at least for me, to change hosting providers.

Especially this one as I had several years invested in the company and the web space including a lot of files that would need to be moved. However, the recent performance of my former webhost was just spiraling down for me and with my renewal month in February it was time to take the leap.  On top of that the outages in the last week were right in the middle of a very busy tech week with CES 2012 happening.

The first major step in this type of move is to identify a hosting company.  Not as easy as you think it might be either.  There are a lot of review sites out there and you have to take those reviews with a grain of salt.  You also have to be careful because most users only go online to complain about things when it comes to services as opposed to writing a glowing commentary on web hosts they think are good.

So a great place to start is personal recommendations.  This works for just about everything in life – word of mouth and what someone thinks of something can carry a lot of weight – even more so when you know that individual from other interactions and know they have no reason to speak positively to you about it unless it was true.

It turns out that a few people came back to me when I mentioned all of the outages I was having with my old host and mentioned the same company to me for a possible option.  So I then went to their website and started digging through their forums to see what users had to say.  Although the forums contained a good collection of issues there were a lot of positive comments about the hosting companies performance. Those posts with issues showed a very engaged customer service department that seemed to work at length on issues to resolve them.  I also checked their Status Feed and Twitter account to see if they were active or if it had been some time without any updates in those two places.  Both were very active and the hosting company was proactive reporting on the issues and their resolutions.  All of these elements were very encouraging to say the least.

I took those things combined – the personal recommendations, commentary and proactiveness – and made a decision to sign up with them immediately.

That was Thursday morning.

So the first thing I did was move the smaller sites I host and got them up and running at the new host while the DNS started to propagate.  These sites were also great opportunities to learn the differences between the two different control panels offered by each hosting provider.  Mistakes in this part of the process could be easily overcome with the backups I had for each site on my local drive.

I did have the need on a handful of situations to use the new hosting providers tech support chat and knowledge base to sort a few things out.  Both were superb and had me on my way in short order.  Once DNS had updated I was able to re-create a few email addresses I needed setup to get everyone back online.

With my success in getting the small sites up and running I was ready to tackle the one that I did not want to tackle – – the main reason I had not changed providers in the past when there were issues with the hosting.  The site is huge and has been on WordPress for several years and has quite a collection of directories and files. The site’s total size on disk, not counting the database, was 6.6GB of data and somewhere around 40K files!

The fact that all of my hosted sites are on WordPress also makes a move like this very straight forward because WordPress is so modular.  As long as you move all the files and maintain the directory structure you will be up and running, for the most part, once you import your database to the new host.

Since this site was so intricate I decided to take advantage of my new hosts offer for one free site migration.  I submitted the form, with the assistance of a tech support chat agent to get it right, and within 48 hours over a holiday weekend the data was moved to the new server.  They also moved the database and set it back up running as well.  I was able to view my site through a special proxy system the new host had to make sure everything worked before I changed the DNS settings. Since everything was in order I made the DNS changes and waited for things to propagate.

While I was waiting for that to happen I took care of some housekeeping such as creating email accounts, updating my Content Delivery Network (CDN) and a few other things.  Within just a couple of hours enough of the DNS had been updated that I could start to work on the site again.

So all in all the move process that I did over the last few days has had many more ups than downs and most of the downs I caused myself!

As I wrap up this post I just want to provide a few tips that helped me out along this move and maybe they will be of benefit to someone down the road as they make a similar move.

  • Sometimes you just can not help the timing of needing to change hosts but if you can make the decision to move towards the end of your current contract that will help you avoid having to pay for hosting you’re not using.  I recommend you start at least 3-4 weeks prior to your renewal so there is plenty of time to sort things out on the new host.
  • Do not take any action to shut down your old hosts account until you have everything up and running on your new one. They can be very quick to shut down your old account with no concern for you having your data or not.
  • Make a list of your sites, directories, domain names, email accounts, databases, etc. that are on your old host so you do not forget anything during the hectic pace of changing hosts.
  • Backups. It is critical that you have a copy of your data under your control.  I chose my local hard drive and the critical folders were in my Amazon S3 storage account.
  • Stop updating the websites as they reside on your old host so that the info you move is up to date otherwise you could end up with some gaps in your websites posts and info.
  • Export your databases and store a copy on your local hard drive along with the site files.  In WordPress I use the WordPress Database Manager Plugin to backup on the server and then that gets downloaded with the rest of the site files to your local drive and then subsequently uploaded to your new hosts server.  Restoral of that site’s database is as simple as re-enabling the database manager plugin and restoring the database.  Since everything related to your WordPress site is in that database the site is returned to its previous state immediately.  Make sure you also have your new database details so you can update your wp-config.php file with it as well.
  • I recommend setting your robots.txt file or your WordPress install to not allow your site to be discoverable by search engines until you’re ready to go live on the new host.
  • During the periods of waiting dive into the new hosts Knowledge Base and check out their services to learn what is different compared to your old host.  This helped me sort out how to forward email accounts, set up redirects and some other things.  Although the services are similar hosts implement them in many different ways so this reading gets you ahead of the curve.
  • While you’re in that knowledge base make sure you look at the articles specific to your website software – for me WordPress – to see how they support it and what plugins they may recommend to enhance the service.
  • I use MaxCDN for a content delivery network and when I moved the DNS for this site it caused my CNAME data for my CDN to be out of whack.  I fought with the CDN not working for a few hours until a timely tweet from someone reminded me that the DNS needed to be taken care of.
  • Windows systems cache DNS settings for frequently visited sites and so it can be very handy to run the “ipconfig /flushdns” command in a Command Prompt to clear things on your local machine and update your local DNS cache.
  • I found that DNS propagates very quickly these days.  It used to really take 2-3 days but now most of the world can know about your new website location within just a few hours.  I used to track the DNS updates around the world – that is a very handy service.
  • Once you have tweaked everything on the new server and all of your sites are working as you expect them to then it is time to go back to your original host and have one more look through the files and info there to make sure you have 100% of what you want from those items.  Once you’re satisfied then go ahead and find your old hosts account cancellation requirements and send in your request to cancel the account.  Don’t be surprised at how fast you might get an answer – even on a holiday!
  • Enjoy your new hosting and services and if you’re like me keep tweaking things!

I do not intend for the above list to be all inclusive and I know there are some things missing. I would like to hear what would you would add to this list?

I look forward to seeing your comments below.

Note: Just to be upfront, here at the bottom of this story, I moved from Website Source to Hostgator.