WordPress-based hosting solution in final stages of Cabinet Office cost-saving contest

It’s great to see some positive coverage of the Cabinet Office’s Innovation Launchpad process at the Telegraph today; and with it, a very positive writeup for a company we’ve been building a partnership with.
CatN first came to my attention when their commercial director, Joe Gardiner blogged last year about how the Department for Transport could save more than £750,000 per year by moving its website over to WordPress, running on CatN’s vCluster platform. A man very much after my own heart, clearly. And of course, last month, Transport – quite coincidentally? – migrated their website to WordPress.
Joe worked his Transport calculations up into an entry into the Cabinet Office contest, with a tantalising promise to save government departments an average of 75% on their hosting costs – a minimum of £17.88 million per year – by moving over to WordPress. And as he tells the Telegraph in their article today, ‘one of their concerns is that we are offering to save them too much and that we can’t be a sustainable business.’
The thing is – and this won’t come as any surprise to anyone reading this blog – such savings are absolutely possible.
We’ve been working with CatN for a few months now, and we’re in no doubt that their services, costing hundreds of pounds per year, are at least a match for – and in most cases, far better than – the services departments are spending thousands on. And arguably more importantly, their heart is in it.
So we’re wholeheartedly backing Joe and CatN in their efforts next week. For all the innovation going on around WordPress in government, there isn’t yet a strategic approach to hosting. It’s an idea whose time came a good while ago.
CatN and Puffbox are both sponsors of WordCamp UK 2011, taking place this weekend in Portsmouth.

Aussie govt's shared WP platform

Courtesy of a retweet via @DirDigEng, I see the Australians have launched a shared WordPress platform for use by government agencies. The installation, known as Govspace, was apparently opened in May this year, and currently claims to be supporting 30 ‘spaces’ (ie blogs) – some of which, I think, have been imported from other installations.
At first glance, it seems to be a pretty straightforward v3.0 multisite build, running on Apache – so I’m not sure I’d agree with the suggestion that it’s its ‘own version’ of WordPress. But there’s some nice customisation in terms of themes: agencies are offered a selection of government-branded custom themes, although many appear to have brought their own; and there are some quite nice-looking (but sadly unreleased) in-house plugins – plus a set of pre-installed third-party plugins (not all of which I’d agree with, FYI). Full details on the Features page.
(They’ve helpfully included a screengrab of an options page: here, and in a few other front-end areas, you can see a continued reliance on pre-v3 workarounds, where new features such as custom menus, post types and taxonomies would probably help. And I’m not sure I’d have left sign-up so open, but there you go.)
As some of you will be all too aware (!), I’ve been lobbying for precisely this kind of setup in the UK for more than three years – see this post from 2008 as an example. Perhaps three years ago might have been too early; but now, with multisite built into ‘normal’ WordPress v3.0, and with the drive to cut costs, surely it’s an idea whose time has come.
I’m still hearing rumours of greater centralisation for government web activity, probably within an expanded Cabinet Office operation: that would be the natural home for any such initiative. And as I’ve written here before, a well-structured, well-managed multisite install could offer a perfect blend of control and flexibility.
Of course I’d be keen to discuss it. 😉

Always keep hosting, domains and email separate

A quick technical tip for my loyal and esteemed readership: when setting up a modest website, don’t buy your domains from your web host. And ideally, get your email from somewhere else too.
One of the second-order selling points for an open-source solution like WordPress is disaster recovery. In a worst-case scenario, you can simply export your content from one installation, import it into another, and change the DNS. I’ve had to help people do this twice in the last couple of months, when relations with hosting companies have soured – once due to repeated security problems, once because of a billing disagreement. The sites were live from their new homes within a couple of hours.
When things go wrong, you’ll probably want to turn tail and leave in a huff; and to be honest, for the amount you’re paying, most hosts won’t consider it worthwhile persuading you to stay. Transferring your DNS records to a different registrar is going to be a lengthy process, probably a few days at best. But if you’re already using a third party registrar, separate from your hosting supplier, they don’t ultimately care where your ‘www’ record is pointing. The change can be made in mere seconds.
The same goes for email. To be honest, with Google offering its standard-level Apps For Your Domain free of charge, there’s really no reason (excuse?) to tie yourself to your hosting provider’s bundled email service… which is probably inferior anyway.
Many hosting companies include a free domain as part of their package. Whether or not they do this deliberately, it’s a form of lock-in… and you’re probably only saving the price of a pint of beer (London prices) per year. The freedom to take your business elsewhere, at the drop of a hat, is worth a lot more.

The reality of cheap web hosting

Since I started building sites using WordPress, I’ve tended to use cheap hosting – very cheap hosting. I’ve run high-profile government websites quite comfortably on shared hosting deals costing £50 a year, or less. Some had daily page views running into the thousands; at least one was for 10 Downing Street. It seemed in keeping with the low-cost ethic, and it didn’t let me down.
But over the last few months, I’ve come to understand a bit more about how cheap hosting actually works. The reality, I’ve realised, is that all web hosting is effectively free of charge. When you pay a fee for hosting, you’re really paying for support – or perhaps more accurately, the promise of support when you need it. An insurance policy, in other words.
Looking back, I can recite instances where a cheap hosting company has suspended accounts unilaterally and without warning, because traffic or other activity hit a notional limit. Or where a global setting was changed on a shared webserver, breaking key functionality on one of my sites. For the vast majority of their clients, these wouldn’t have been problematic: most websites won’t trouble their traffic limits, or use difficult functionality. But mine did.
Cheap hosting means zero tolerance. You aren’t paying them enough to employ someone to get in touch proactively before things go wrong; or to respond to your anguish afterwards. They will employ unilateral limits, and make unilateral changes, based solely on a cold analysis of what will suit the majority of clients. Based on automated tests and calculations, not human beings. I’m not blaming them; you can’t really expect them to do anything else.
But that isn’t good enough for serious publishing efforts. They do deserve better – advance warnings, responsive support in a crisis, proactive maintenance to stop bad things ever happening. And that comes at a price.
In the context of my crowdsourced business plan, one emerging idea is long-term site support. In a WordPress context, that means updating the underlying technology; updating WordPress itself; updating themes and plugins; and at each stage, testing to make sure everything still works as intended. So I’m talking to some people about the possibility of providing a WordPress-optimised, centrally managed hosting service, aimed at government and corporate usage. We feel WordPress has reached a certain level of maturity, and it’s probably time the hosting arrangements did so too.
If we do it, it’ll be the best, slickest, smoothest, friendliest, smartest, most tailored solution we can imagine. But it won’t be cheap.

The perfect WordPress host

I’m increasingly convinced there’s a market out there for some kind of managed WordPress hosting. A provider with special expertise in WordPress, PHP and MySQL. Someone who can look after patches etc automatically for you. Who has the knowledge and tools to offer better-than-average security. But crucially, who is also happy for competent people to mess around a bit.
There’s really no argument with the power of WordPress, its simplicity, and (of course) its price. So the point for debate when I go to pitch a WP-based idea, is where it will sit, how secure it will be there, and who will look after patches and updates. Of course, there are good answers to those questions:

  • use wordpress.com, and let Automattic themselves take care of it all;
  • self-host, and self-manage;
  • some kind of rolling arrangement, where you bring Mr Consultant back in as and when;

but I’m thinking of a brilliant answer. One whereby the supplier pledges to apply additional security measures, and to install any patches / security updates to WordPress, PHP or MySQL as soon as they become available… but still gives freedom to designers / developers to make reasonable use of plugins (etc).
Of course, that doesn’t cover you for potential weaknesses in the plugins: and the perfect host would take some responsibility here too – vetting, approving, updating, whatever. I’d be looking for some kind of proactive communication, bringing things to my attention as and when. And of course, let’s not forget the inevitable hosting questions of bandwidth, 24/7 monitoring, disaster recovery, and so on.
If such a hosting provider exists, I’ve yet to find them. I know of several well-regarded services aimed at serious developers; but I haven’t yet seen any aimed at the emerging class of designers with reasonable tech skills.
And I’m steadily becoming convinced there are enough of us around, small-scale operators producing customised WordPress sites, to make it a viable business. Clients would unquestionably pay a decent premium annually for managed hosting like this, especially when the base software itself is free of charge.
It’s not something a solo operator could take on, but I’m wondering if there are people reading this who could help make it happen. Some kind of cooperative, perhaps? Somebody already in the hosting business, with PHP and MySQL skills, but no WordPress t-shirt yet?
Please, if anyone has any thoughts, suggestions or draft business plans… stick a note in the comments, or drop me an email.

Whitehall, WordPress, where?

We love WordPress round here, and our passion is infectious. I’m currently talking to a handful of new people about possible WordPress-based projects: some small, some huge. The ‘yes we can’ message goes a long way.
But the unknown in the equation is always: where to host it? You don’t have to look too hard to find ridiculously cheap hosting deals in the marketplace: £30/year will buy you enough disk space, bandwidth and support/monitoring for most modest projects, often including automated installation of WordPress and other ‘open source’ software. But in government, in the midst of ‘web rationalisation’, it’s inevitably a bit more complicated than that.
So here’s my problem. At the moment I’m producing (on average) a new WordPress site every month – that’s just me alone. And I’ve got a steady stream of people wanting to do others. These sites have to be hosted somewhere. The normal consultant thing to do would be to buy some cheap hosting in the marketplace, then apply a massive markup. Government ends up paying over the odds, and we end up with countless disparate WordPress installations. Nobody’s happy, except greedy consultants.
But we can nip this in the bud. A central server somewhere, offered free of charge to any departments who want to run a WordPress project. It would only cost a few grand a year; put two sites on the same server, and you’re probably already saving money. It’s not as if we don’t already have centralised hosting deals. And most importantly, you’ve ‘rationalised’ from day one. (Well, day two anyway.)
This would make my life easier as a supplier. It makes ‘the centre’s life easier, cos they know where everything is and can ensure it’s properly maintained (security patches etc). It’s a single migration strategy, if ‘the central solution’ ever provides equivalent functionality. In every respect, it works out cheaper overall. Everyone wins.
So here’s my plea to the Powers That Be. Stop me before I proliferate again. Make me an offer I can’t sensibly refuse. And save us all money and effort, now and later.