As NetGate celebrates 25 years in the Hosting business I thought it might be interesting to give a brief State of Hosting address. A lot has changed in 25 years. Let’s take a look.
First a little history. Hosting in 1994. The NSCA Mosaic browser (pictured below) introduced the Web to everyone. At that time it seemed like everyone wanted a website. Whether it was to share a hobby, vacation pics or promote a business. But how? It was actually fairly simple. There were only a few Hosting Providers and just a single Domain Name Registrar. You set up an account with an ISP/Hosting Provider, no one just did Hosting, and they helped you get things up and running. Then all you needed was a basic understanding of HTML and graphics and you were ready to start publishing content. Take a look at this example (11/7/94):
This was the very first website published by Apple. Created by Tim Jeppesen and Kevin Brooks. It took about a week to build out the site, mostly at lunch and after work (since it was a “skunkworks” project). Honestly, a lot of time was spent searching the NASA site, a treasure trove at the time, for pics we could use for the page headers. The rest of the time was spent working on those sexy buttons. Fortunately we had PhotoShop and the associated PhotoShop Bible (big book) to help.
Sure, the Web was supposed to be about publishing and linking knowledge, but graphics was what set it apart from other internet technologies available at the time. The Web without graphics would have just been “Gopher”.
But building graphics wasn’t easy. Fortunately we had Photoshop, but it was never intended as a tool to build web graphics. Using it to build and modify simple graphics felt like using a rocket to go pick up some milk. It was complicated.
Then there was the 216 color web safe pallet. In the late 1990’s each operating system (MacOS or Windows) had its own fixed color palette that Web browsers used to reduce color information for 8 bit video cards. The 8 bit video card would convert the images to the palette used by the native OS shifting the colors used on your site to colors it used in its fixed palette. This often resulted in a distorted color scheme. To avoid this problem we had to use a palette that was “web safe”. Fortunately, all system palettes had 216 colors in common. All browsers on all platforms would display each of these colors as is.
Even though graphics made the Web more interesting it was still 1994. Last mile access to the Internet required using a modem over a standard analog telephone line. With blazing speeds of 9.6 to 24 kbit/s page elements and graphics needed to be kept to a minimum.
But just to get to the point of publishing you also needed to know something about something called the Domain Name System (DNS). DNS was what mapped your website name to the IP address where it was hosted. Although DNS can be complicated, a single domain name Registrar (Network Solutions) selling through accredited ISPs made it fairly simple to get set up with no technical understanding of DNS. You would simply set up an account with an ISP, choose your domain name, pay $35 per domain per year plus around $20 a month in hosting fees, and just like that you were part of the Web.
Dreamweaver and FrontPage
A couple of years later two applications made publishing a website much easier. Microsoft FrontPage and Macromedia Dreamweaver. Publishing a website became more like creating a Word document. FrontPage provided individuals and businesses a way to create and maintain their own website. It also allowed them the freedom to create a site with a lot of (bad) flashing graphic elements and slow page load times. I’m going to save you from an example but picture flashing chili peppers and strings of blinking Christmas lights (on the same page) with green, blue and white text, all on a plaid background. With the average cost of a Dreamweaver site at $5,000 FrontPage provided a good alternative.
Dreamweaver was targeted to a new professional, the Web Designer. Generally with a background in art and print publishing the work they produced was stunning, especially compared to most of the hand crafted or FrontPage based sites.
The last version of FrontPage was shipped in 2003. Dreamweaver is now part of the Adobe suite of publishing applications.
Drupal Mombo Joomla b2 and MT
A little later we saw a big shift to content management systems (CMS) such as Drupal, Mombo and Joomla. In addition we saw the integration of something called a “Blog” into may sites. The most popular blogging applications were Movable Type and b2evolution. CMS and Blog applications provided dynamic database driven content and features not available from a pure static HTML site.
And from b2 came WordPress. Take a look at the blog post from Matt Mullenweg (creator of WP) on the state of Blog software in 2003. As time progressed WordPress became the dominant blogging application.
It seemed natural for WordPress to grow into something that not only powered your blog, but also your entire site. And that it did. Many people were running a WordPress site for blogging as well as a static or Joomla site for all the rest of their content. I remember the first customer to tell us they were building their entire site in WordPress. What? The day it became possible to build an entire site in WordPress was another big day for content creators/maintainers and for the Web.
Today we see most new, or refreshed sites opt for WordPress. The latest statistics (from w3techs.com) show that WordPress is now used by 33% of all sites and is used by 60% of the websites whose content management system can be identified. Think about that for a minute.
~65 million sites are using WordPress
Why WordPress? Simple. The core application provides a solid platform on which to build. Even though your data is closely tied to WordPress your data isn’t locked in to a single CMS Hosting Provider such as SquareSpace or WIX. Don’t like your Hosting Provider? Not a problem. Your WordPress site can easily be moved from one provider to another. Try that with a SquareSpace or WIX site. In addition, the ecosystem around the core application fills in the gaps with thousands of themes, plugins and extensions that allow you to bend WordPress to meet the needs of almost any site.
Web Publishing Market Share January 2019
According to Netcraft there are currently approximately 182 million active sites on the Web. 65 million of those are using WordPress. So what are the other 124 million using? About 45 million of those are running some other CMS. That leaves 77 million remaining. Most of those are probably using static HTML or some other unidentified publishing system. Those 77 million could be modern static sites or classic (old) sites that have never been re-coded.
One of my favorite new modern static site designs is sequoiacap.com. The site was designed and built by Instrument, a Digital Agency in Portland, using an application (static site generator) called Middleman and then published to a CDN (Amazon CloudFront). Static sites may be the future. There’s no PHP, no database, no plugins, in fact there’s nothing to keep up to date. Nothing that can be hacked. There’s no single point of attack. There’s nothing to worry about. Other than maybe how to integrate “search”. But then again, that has always been a problem.
With new graphics formats, larger page weights and the need to optimize everything you need even more graphics skills and at least some general knowledge about taxonomy and information flow. And then there’s mobile. Try hand coding a responsive site. It’s complicated. Anyone coding a static site by hand today is probably using a web development tool chain that involves the use of a static site generator like Jekyll or Middleman (which read YAML or JSON), tools like Gulp or Webpack along with a team of really good (at what they do) people. What if you want to make a small change to a page? Unless your static site is fronted by a CMS (a future blog post) you would have to call your “team”. They would make the change and regenerate and publish the entire site. It still feels a little like 1996. And probably one of the reasons why WordPress is so popular.
The bad. WordPress is a PHP application. All PHP applications require updates. PHP itself requires updates. Almost all WordPress sites use third party plugins and themes. Plugins and themes need to be updated (often). WordPress core needs to be updated (often). As you upgrade compatibility needs to be maintained between your plugins, themes and the version of WordPress you’re using. PHP needs to be tuned. PHP extensions and options need to be set up and optimized to maximize performance and minimize the attack surface. As WordPress is updated the version of PHP you are using will eventually need to be updated. WordPress requires a MySQL database. MySQL requires database credentials separate from WordPress. To backup a WordPress site you also need to backup the database. Your Admin credentials and the WordPress login page is under constant attack by hackers attempting to gain access to your site. I think that sums it up fairly well.
You could host your WordPress site with wordpress.com or any of the other (many) so called “managed” WordPress Hosting Providers. These companies take care of updating WordPress, plugins and PHP for you. That might sound wonderful, especially after the previous paragraph. But it’s actually a little scary. What if your theme isn’t compatible with the next version of WordPress? They might try to check for compatibility before upgrading your site, but it’s not always easy or guaranteed. And eventually they will force you to update. A managed solution also usually lacks the ability to install plugins. If they did, they would never be able to update WordPress. In these environments the needs of the many outweigh the needs on the one.
At NetGate we provide our customers with a simple GUI based WordPress Manager allowing you to install WordPress without any knowledge of PHP or MySQL. With just a few clicks you can open your WordPress login page and start building your site. But if you want or need more we provide you with a lot of insight and control over your WordPress site. “PHP Selector” allows you to select the version of PHP that best meets the needs of your version of WordPress. A GUI based view of PHP extensions and options helps you tune PHP. We never force you to upgrade WordPress or PHP. In fact we still support (hardened) PHP versions back to 5.x. And, of course we allow you to install the plugin or theme of your dreams. We provide statistics for your website traffic as well as for low level things like process, CPU and memory use. You can easily backup your entire website, including the WordPress database. You can geek out as much, or as little, as you want.
Broadband networks provide access speeds that are many times faster than in 1994. But even with big last mile pipes Web Designers and Developers still have to worry about things like page weight, image optimization and total HTTP requests. The Web is now dominated by mobile devices. The Mobile Web is dominated by small screens that access the Internet over high latency relatively low bandwidth cellular networks. Seems a little like 1994. 5G may change the (metro) Mobile Web, but that’s the future, not the present. But even with better access, mobile will still be made up of mostly small screen devices. Your website needs to be designed to serve both mobile and fixed access devices with various screen sizes and access speeds. Using CSS responsive design patterns is the most popular current solution to build a single page that works for both mobile and desktop, but adds significant complexity to page design.
Static sites offer many advantages over dynamic sites. But building and maintaining a static site is difficult, especially a modern responsive site built for mobile. Building a WordPress site is a little easier, but it’s far from perfect.
Sadly, there are few alternatives. Maybe we need a new FrontPage, or less expensive version of Dreamweaver ($21 a month – forever). Maybe the Web will never be what is was. Maybe building your own site is a thing of the past.
Maybe the geeks have won.