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PlusNet Broadband Plus 

STOP PRESS: PlusNet have today (26/1/2007) announced that they plan to withdraw their scheme whereby the "free" modem and connection have to be partially paid for if leaving before five years, and this will apply to existing customers too. Instead they will be free so long as the customer stays for a minimum contract period of 12 months. This change will bring PlusNet into line with most other ISPs, and directly resolves a recurring bone of contention on web forums.

PlusNetWhen we moved house in 2005 we agreed we would finally take the plunge and subscribe to a broadband account, having used a semi-unmetered dial-up service for some time previously. PlusNet had generally had a good reputation over the years, and their "Broadband Plus" offering successfully tempted us in, offering essentially unlimited access for the same price as many competitors offered highly restrictive services. The "catch" was that access was particularly optimised for general web and email use, with the real bandwidth hogging uses like file-sharing and binary newsgroups heavily throttled - not a problem for us. Connection was free, and a modem could also have been, but we opted for a wireless system as a modestly priced extra. Strictly the connection and modem (had we wanted it) are absorbed into the price, such that if we leave before five years are up, we pay a pro-rata proportion of their cost. More recently, in line with PlusNet's general clamp-down on heavy use across its whole range of consumer services, there are a few more limitations on what can be done efficiently, with a "soft" monthly usage limit which is still very generous, and FTP access is now drastically throttled. Nonetheless, we have found the service fast and more than adequate all along. We have experienced a few problems as they roll out BT's new MaxDSL service, theoretically allowing up to 8Mb connections, but these have not been isolated to PlusNet by any means. During 2005 PlusNet have been getting some bad press, the main reasons being the clamping down on heavy use and the loss of a large amount of customer email thanks to a "fat fingers" incident, but we are not heavy users and do not rely on them for our email anyway, so have survived unscathed and would still happily recommend their services.

Rating: 4/5

Website: www.plus.net (referral)

 
1&1 Single-Core Linux root server 

When my business demands got too great for the 1&1 Business webhosting (which I had already upgraded to Business Pro, adding improved MySQL database support and scheduled tasks using cron) I started a new contract for a 1&1 Linux root server and migrated my various domains and websites across. The root server is basically a slimline PC in a rack somewhere deep in 1&1's German data centre, not shared with anyone else (even 1&1's own technicians can only log on to it if I give them a password) and with no technical restrictions on installed software. I opted for the lowest cost hardware configuration available at the time, with twin 150GB hard disks in software RAID, a single-core Athlon 64 3500+ CPU and a gigabyte of memory. By default it was preconfigured with CentOS Linux and Plesk, although the latter proved superfluous to my needs and even at 1&1's admission rather stretched the limited hardware specification. I have since reloaded it with Debian Etch (upgraded in situ to Debian Lenny) and the XAMPP web stack, which work well. Most of the time...

To cut a long story short, I've had many intermittent problems over the first six months of operating the server, with mysterious temporary and more fatal lock-ups that would not appear to be specifically related to my websites. 1&1 have carried out two hardware rebuilds on the server, one after an apparently terminal hardware failure, a process they seem quite happy to carry out in the event of any apparent hardware-related problem. The latest work as of July 2010 involved updating the BIOS, which they seem to think may resolve the intermittent lock-ups, but watch this space; so far so good, a fortnight on! I am a little disappointed it took six months to think of this, especially when it was me who suggested it to them having read reference on a forum to another client having had similar problems - I suspect there may not be very much formal knowledge sharing on the team. I note that this server configuration is no longer available to new customers, with their offering of a similar budget now being a broadly comparable share in a virtualised environment. This makes me wonder if they were aware of wide issues with the configuration I have, and decided to drop it in favour of something over which they had a bit more dynamic and cost-effective control. I really can't believe they've made a penny of profit out of my contract with them so far, and I suspect the current dedicated and virtualised offerings would prove to be significantly less problematic.

On the bright side, when it does work (which in fairness is 99% of the time) it works very smoothly indeed. The hardware specification may be very modest but has never proven a problem in practice. Network connectivity is excellent, and bandwidth on and off the server is essentially unrestricted. A serial console facility is available which allows ssh terminal access to the server even if the networking is down (which I needed after the second hardware rebuild, when the ethernet configuration became confused), and reboots and other maintenance can be initiated from 1&1's usual admin control panel. Email for domains can be handled either on the server itself or on 1&1's standard mail-servers; I chose the latter, to reduce load on my server and to minimise the disruption to my clients when I was migrating domains and in the event of any technical issues. There is a generous 250GB back-up facility accessible via FTP, and it's quite easy to script automatic scheduled access to that.

Ultimately, and in summary, despite the problems experienced, and although I would probably go for their virtualised option if I was setting it up now, I don't regret making the move. 1&1 are not perfect but continue to offer excellent value products particularly for those not needing to make too many demands on their sometimes rather lacklustre front-line support.

Rating (when it works): 4/5

Website: www.1and1.co.uk (referral)

 
1&1 Business webhosting 

STOP PRESS: Lots more issues recently (as of March 2008). Web service had generally been flawless all along, but since they upgraded their servers, there have been no end of issues, and their front-line technical support is simply dire due to lack of communication with systems staff.

STOP PRESS: I guess it was too good to be true, and in January 2007, after about six years of flawless service, their email system collapsed for about three days, their support staff's response ranging from silence to part-truths to downright fobbing off. If only there was a realistic alternative I would consider the hassle of moving, but instead it looks like I'll be giving them a chance to redeem themselves.

1&1For several years now I have had this web and email account with 1&1, based in Germany and supposedly one of the biggest such providers in Europe. I'd had some mixed experiences with hosting services in the past, and 1&1 has generally proven to be a breath of fresh air. Their "Business" package offers a share of a good fast server with plenty of disk space, Perl/PHP scripting and MySQL database support, and allows essentially unlimited domains and email addresses to be activated - a facility of which I make good use on behalf of my clients. Recently 1&1 have started allowing multiple FTP logins per account, making it practical not only to sub-let portions of the disk space to others but let them have their own private FTP access, though this may well be frowned upon in the terms and conditions! The only significant limitation I have found is that shell (i.e. command prompt) access is not available, but that's because they include that as a facility with more expensive packages. 1&1 are sometimes a little lax about updating the system software on the server, although this has rarely been an issue in practice. It's not the cheapest service of its kind, but value for money remains excellent, and domain registrations etc are as cheap as you get and you do get a huge number of features for your money. Overall I have been very pleased and never been at all inclined to switch allegiance.

Rating: 3/5

Website: www.1and1.co.uk (referral)

 
Fast24 Anytime dial-up internet access 

Fast24We used this semi-unmetered dial-up service for a few years before we upgraded to broadband with PlusNet. It started off as about the cheapest such FRIACO (flat-rate internet access call origination) package available, and the price slowly crept up thereafter, although always remaining good value for money compared with BT, AOL etc - and becoming a more commercially viable service as it did so. For £12.98 a month you get up to 200 hours on-line at normal modem speeds, dialling in on a free 0808 or equivalent number, with unusually generous time limits per connection for such a contended service. Considering there are only about 720 hours in a month and most people need to eat, sleep and earn a living, it might as well be considered unmetered. However, when I was off work and at home, I could get surprisingly close to the usage limit! I gather that as of autumn 2006 they appear to have packed up business for good, and while we were using it there were a few glitches - but not enough to persuade us to jump ship. In the early days in particular, there were too many "busy tones" and authentication failures when trying to dial in, but over time the number of lines available was increased. In common with many smaller ISPs (witnessing the problems with Euro1Net at the time of writing) they also had a few supply issues with their upstream connectivity providers, and consequently access numbers had a tendency to change at short notice and I recall one period of being cut off altogether when their upstream provider cancelled with no notice given. Ultimately it's the price one pays, especially for a smaller company, for substantially undercutting the mainstream of the day. As they say, you pay your money and take your pick...

Rating : 3/5

Website: www.fast24.net (not functioning as of 9/11/2006)

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