Chris Lea on hosting and customer support

Paul Boag

Chris Lea works for Media Temple probably the best known hosting company within the web design world. He shares his advice on hosting and their experience of dealing with customer support.

Paul: Ok, so joining me today is Chris Lea from Media Temple. Great to have you on the show, Chris.

Chris: Glad to be here.

Paul: I kind of wanted to have a chat with you for a while, because, obviously, I host my website with Media Temple, as does pretty much everyone else I seem to come across one way or another.

Chris: We like to think so.

Marcus: The whole world is covered.

Media Temple Website

Paul: The subject of hosting is not one that you heard talked about massively unless people are complaining. “Oh, my site’s down,” and blame whomever. So I thought it would be really good to talk about it on the show, and discuss some of the issues that come up regarding hosting. So you seemed like the logical person to talk to.

Chris: Well, I’ll do my best.

Paul: So let’s start off by talking about, I’m starting up a new website, I’ve got a new idea, putting a new thing online, I need to tackle hosting. What are the questions I should be asking out of the gate?

Chris: So, understanding what you’re trying to build, obviously, is sort of a key thing. For example, if you were a Rails developer, the guys over at Engine Yard do a really fantastic job of Rails stuff, they’ve got a lot of Rails development going on internally, they employ [Corelis Comitters], they understand that space very well. If you were looking to host, say, a Django-related website, I realize it is a bit of a pimp, but we’ve got some Django-centric options at Media Temple that are specific for that sort of thing. If you’re going with a sort of traditional PHP application, there’s a whole lot of hosts that you could look for. But I guess, obviously, sort of evaluating the technologies you need and matching them up is going to be a good first step.

Engine Yard Website

Chris: A second one, sort of evaluating the size of what you’re shooting for out of the gate, I mean, if you’re really just getting something off the ground and it doesn’t need to be too big, then your costs are going to be significant, so you’re probably going to want to go with some sort of a shared plan, one that is not too expensive. Typically, check Twitter, check forums, and see who has a good reputation, and who doesn’t. A lot of people, sort of with the ecosystem, there are money-back guarantees, 30-day trials, that sort of stuff. Jump in with a couple and see what you like.

Paul: Sometimes, these guarantees of uptime, which always strike me as a little bit of a joke. It’s like, “What does that guarantee you?” Does it mean that you’re going to get, if the site is down for over a certain amount of time, you’re going to get the money of your hosting back? If you’re building an ecommerce website, and the site’s down for however long, that could have a much bigger impact on the amount of money you lose than just the money you’re paying on hosting. It feels like a marketing ploy, am I being really cynical?

Chris: No, you’re not being cynical at all. And its a significant issue that everyone deals with. At Media Temple, which is my personal experience, I have friends in other places too. One of the most annoying calls you get, I mean if things go down, and they do, sooner or later, computers break and so on, you get these guys, and they’re paying in the US $20 a month, not a whole lot, and they’re down 20 minutes or something, or maybe let’s say an hour, and the person calls, and goes “I’m losing tens of thousands of dollars,” and we’re sitting here going “Okay, we’re sorry you’re down, and we’re going to credit you for a month’s hosting,” but if you’re making tens of thousands of dollars an hour, maybe you should be thinking about spending more than $20 bucks a month on your hosting infrastructure. So I certainly think that if you are in a situation where any downtime has a material financial impact to you, I would recommend not getting onto a platform that is shared in some way. Find a VPS platform or buy dedicated hardware for yourself, because you are a lot more guarded with those technologies against other people. A lot reasons things go down, it might not be you, but somebody, somewhere does something really stupid, and it can affect other people. We work really hard to minimize that effect, but it still happens. There’s certain things about the technology that exists today that we can’t guard everything. So if downtime has such a financial impact, spend a little more for a VPS platform or…

Paul: What is a VPS?

Media Temple page on VPS

Chris: Virtual Private Server. So a virtualized server. We got tens of thousands in production at Media Temple. They work great. The idea is that you put multiple customers on one physical server, but there’s technologies that you partition it up, into what looks like a bunch of individual servers. You get into that machine, and as far as you’re concerned, you have a machine all to yourself. It’s actually a smaller piece of a really big, physical box, but it’s just you, and the way that technology works, we have better ways to guard even against the other segments on that box. So I would recommend those, because those tend to provide more stability. Amazon EC2 works that way.

Paul: So it’s like somewhere in between shared hosting and a dedicated server.

Chris: And a lot of times, we do this also, virtualization is a powerful tool, so sometimes, you can get your own box, and really what you’re getting is a VPS, just you’re the only one on the box. And you do that because you have a lot more management tools. It’s very easy for us to provision one of those. For example, a drive on your physical box going bad, we can magically move you into new hardware, you’ll never know. And the virtualization tools give you that. It’s very powerful.

Paul: That’s always a big issue I guess, to a lot of people setting up their sites. They start off with shared hosting, and let’s say that they’re site gets popular, the traffic starts to increase, I guess one of the things you need to look for when you’re picking a hosting company is the upgrade path; how easy is it to upgrade to a dedicated box I guess, ultimately.

Chris: Sure, I know at our company, within the VPS platform, there’s a small, medium and large size, and we push a button, and it changes sizes. And then there’s your own box size. But technically, it is VPS, just you’re the only one on it, so you have the whole box. So we take you from a $50 a month, a smaller server, but it’s still yours, and up through a couple levels of growth. And we’ve done a fair amount of work to make that a transparent process for customers and it certainly happens. You get people, and they start getting popular and they get on Digg or whatever. You know, they started off on $50 a month and suddenly they’re at $750 a month. For them, if they’re that size, it was very easy to transition. They didn’t have to do anything other than call us and say ‘Make it bigger please’, so you know we’re quite proud of that. It’s worked out well for a lot of customers.

Paul: So you mentioned Digg there. The thing I think a lot of people will fear is that they write some stunning blog post that just goes nuclear for a short length of time. And you know, that impacts and takes down their server. You know, is there anything when you’re picking a hosting company, is there any questions you need to ask about that kind of issue and how to avoid it or do you just presume the serving company is dealing with it?

chris lea

Chris: Well, practically people assume the hosting company is dealing with it. We obviously have tried to do that. Our grid service platform is a very large cluster system that’s made to look like a single system for people but it’s very much designed to handle the Digg effect. You can take a Digg and all of a sudden you’re going to use fifty times the resources you normally do and then when it goes away that’s fine and you sort of only pay for what you actually used up. But in terms of, and I do have to say, this is a little bit perhaps precocious of me, being a performance engineer, But, if you expect that you’re going to get those big spikes you do need to do a bit of engineering yourself. There’s nothing, we or anybody can do to save you if you’ve done something really stupid in your code base. It’s a problem, the worst thing, the hardest problem we face as a hoster is the following scenario. Somebody writes something badly. They don’t know they did it badly but they did. And it gets no traffic so it works great, if you’re not getting any visitors then it doesn’t matter how bad it is cuz it’s going to work. And then they get Dugg or slash dotted or whatever it is and they get a ton of traffic and it just all dies. As far as they’re concerned it worked great three hours ago and now that I have this spotlight on me and all this great traffic it’s dead and I haven’t changed anything.

: So therefore it must be the hosting company’s fault.

Chris: So they call us and we can go in there and look and go hey you did this incredibly silly thing with your database, you needed extra tables and of course it’s going to die and even if the customer at that point knows they did something wrong, they’re still not happy. So obviously people are pushing for that kind of traffic but if you do a little leg work it’s not too hard to find resources these days. A quick Google, and especially if you’re using known platforms like a WordPress or a Drupal and stuff there’s people who will tell you okay don’t use these plugins. Use the caching plugins, set them up and if you do that, honestly, most of the solid hosting companies that are out there, guys like us, guys like Joyent, whoever, they’re going to be able to handle that kind of traffic.


Paul: I’d like to give a personal testament to this. That I was actually, I was having a little moan that my site seemed to be running very slowly which I obviously blamed on you guys *laugh* until I then looked at my code and discovered that the WordPress super cache code that had been running quite successfully, I’d screwed it up somehow and it’d stopped working and the whole site had ground down. So it’s a perfect example of ‘it was my fault and not yours’. *laugh*

Chris: Yeah, it’s one of those things and we work very hard to try and evangelise best practices. It’s an ongoing battle and if you’re out there and you have ideas, we’ve got plenty of ways to get customer feedback and we’d love to hear them. But generally, the more knowledge we can spread the better as it certainly saves us quite a bit as well. It’s like being a Doctor, they always say that preventative medicine is much cheaper than treating things and it’s the same thing with hosting. Knowing what you’re doing at the outset and getting it right before you’re in trouble is much much easier than fixing it when you’re already in hot water.

Paul: Yeah, totally. It’s interesting there, you talk about evangelising and going out there and spreading best practice. That kind of brings us on to the area of customer service and that kind of stuff. When people are looking for hosting companies, we immediately look at 100% up time, you know, and all these kind of marketing phrases that are thrown around and scalability but I think there’s a lot more to using a hosting company than just their technical infrastructure. I think customer service is massively important and I was just interested in your perspective about dealing with customer service issues and what kind of best practice you’re seeing in the industry about dealing with customers.

Marcus: I’ve got bags on this. I’d be interested to hear what you’re going to say.

*Everyone laughs*

Chris: I’ll be very blunt. I wish there was something resembling a best practice I could point to in the industry. I don’t think that there is. At Media Temple we absolutely pride ourselves in our customer service. We’re 150 employees plus last time I looked which is crazy because I was like employee 15, you know, but the vast majority of our company is customer support agents. We’re always looking for more guys that are good. 24/7, 365 phone support, ticketing system, we do the best we can and we’re always trying to make it better.

Paul: I’m going to push you a little bit. Phone support. Where do I go to when I phone you? Who am I speaking to and where are they in the world?

Chris: You are speaking to people who are in our main offices in Culver City in Los Angeles.

Paul: See now there we go, for me that is a real killer point. So often you end up in some country somewhere, I mean okay they speak brilliant English but we seem to misunderstand one another a lot of the time and it can be quite a frustrating experience, and the phone network doesn’t seem to be that great. Okay so those people that I’m talking to in your call centres, and I know we’re becoming a bit Media Temple specific… also the level of their technical knowledge is another big thing, because I mean I’ve actually, I’m writing the Web Site Owner’s Manual at the minute, and when I’ve finished writing it it’ll come out, and one of the things I say in that is Hosting. I will actually encourage people to pick up the phone, call the hosting company, find out who you are getting to speak to and what’s their level of knowledge. Because sometimes, I’m a Web Developer, and I ring up and I know more about the hosting than they do. Do you know what I mean?

Chris: Absolutely, back when I did freelance work before I worked at Media Temple, these days I know a lot of system stuff but back then I just knew a lot of PHP and Perl and it was horribly annoying when I would call my clients’ hosting companies for them and I knew more than the guy I was talking to. I’m like, it’s your job to understand DNS, you should know it better than me. At MT we have dedicated, when we hire somebody they go through a regimented training course that’s in place. We have people whose job it is to train incoming tech support people and the curriculum’s always evolving. When people get through that they’re put into a frontline queue but we’ve got a secondary group of people that’s for more complex problems. Obviously we try to get people to graduate.. then there’s a third tier of support past that. Then if you get to them and they can’t figure it out we have a defined pipeline straight into engineering. So typically if the L3 guys can’t figure it out and they hit up one of the more senior admin guys, the admin guys know that this is probably really a problem and I probably really need to look at it right now. It’s something that’s evolved over time and it’s always in flux but it’s something that’s been working for us very well for the past, I’m not even sure when the Level 3 thing … it’s been a year and a half, 2 years and our support manager, Andrew Wong, has done a fantastic job of defining these different knowledge levels and a process for getting customers through them if they’ve got complex problems. That’s where we are today and hopefully we’ll be somewhere cooler tomorrow.

Paul: You were talking about when you were a freelancer and ringing up on behalf of your clients and their Web Hosting. Obviously a lot of the people listening to this show, there are a lot of website owners listening to the show but there are also a lot of freelancers and there’s always this issue of hosting, right. None of them want to deal with it. Hosting’s the horrible bit. Why you got involved with this stuff is quite beyond me. Why anyone would want to have anything to do with it just boggles my mind. So everyone hates hosting. One option is that they tell the client right it’s your problem, you’ve got to find the hosting company but in most cases that doesn’t work so the Web Designer then becomes responsible for dealing with the hosting side of things. One of the things that when we started out, we used Fasthost because it had this reseller package and they had this whole way of managing clients. I’m quite interested in what your thoughts are on that and whether you like dealing with the website owner directly or whether it should be going through the Web Designer. Do you know what I’m getting at here or am I rambling rubbish questions?

fasthost website

Chris: At MT we literally built the company on this idea that we target people that make sites. In the early 2000s we targeted graphic designers and then we moved to the people who were standards evangelists, you know the Jeffrey Zeldman umbrella of people. And now we’re additionally moving into people who are more pure software guys. We’re partnering with jQuery and the Django guys and that sort of stuff. We chase after the influencers, the guys that are in the ‘making’ process. I don’t think it matters too much that your’e talking to someone who is servicing their own clients or someone who’s the site owner. The point is that if we’re providing good customer support it shouldn’t matter. If people know they can call up, and I don’t care if it’s the developer or whoever owns the site, they should be able to get an understanding of what’s going on. Our internal ticketing system is very focussed on continuity. So you can call in and probably not get the same person you called last time, but the person you call is going to see all the notes and understand there’s a history of what’s going on. So our approach is focus on making support as good as we possibly can and as long as that’s true whoever calls us should get a good experience. That’s our goal.

Paul: Which is an admirable goal!

Marcus: What my bugbear with hosting companies has been, is as we were saying earlier, good hosting, you don’t notice it. It’s there in the background and works beautifully. You only ever notice it when there’s a problem. Fortunately there usually aren’t that many problems so what tends to happen with me, and it’s just a personal thing but I’m sure it might ring some bells with other people. Certain companies who I’ve worked with in the past insist that I quote my pin code back at them, this long, great membership number kind of thing, and I can’t find it. And the site’s down – Arrgh – this kind of thing. I guess this is my chance to rant ‘don’t do that!’ You’ll have my name on record, I come from the company just look up the company name, my name, the Domain Name. I don’t need to have to have a pin code because I only ring up every two years. It’ll be somewhere but I don’t need it when I’m panicking today.

Chris: Certainly that is a tricky problem. There are legal issues that we just can’t start talking to anybody. So we do have to have some sort of authentication process. We try to be as easy as possible, you know if you can give us the last 4 of your credit card number you’re probably going be able to talk to us.

Marcus: We can always do that one.

Chris: Typically we say what’s your Domain Name, who are you, are you listed as the contact, what’s your password? Then of course people don’t always have their password but there’s a very fast button that we can send an email that goes out instantly to whatever that email is so if you don’t already know, it’s a 30 second process ‘oh you don’t know, okay I’m going to email that to you right now.’

Marcus: That’s fine. In the example I was giving you, it was ‘we can’t talk to you then, sorry goodbye.’

Chris: Oh that’s ridiculous. I don’t know who it was but…

Paul: It does raise, what we’re getting into, we’re kind of going off the subject of hosting and into the whole realm of online customer service which is so massively important I think. Things like providing as many different mechanisms to contact people. You talked about your great ticketing service but you know, if you’re panicking because something’s gone down you want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to a real human being. So getting that mix right and dealing with that is so crucial to any organisation that offers any kind of service online.

Chris: Yeah, well transparency is one of the huge buzz words going around, right? And we’re trying to eat our own dog food on that one as much as we can. We have 24/7 365 phone support. We have an online ticketing system so if you don’t want to call in you can just write us and it comes up with the ticket and we try and answer.

Paul: And you answer your tickets so quickly is what impresses me. You say that you’re not going to, on the site, it says we’re going to get back to you, I can’t remember what it says but you always get back much quicker than that in my experience anyway.

Chris: We certainly try to. One thing I think has really helped is we’re as active on Twitter as we can be, if there are problems …

Paul: I’ve got a problem with this. I don’t like you guys on Twitter because I can’t have a good moan about you on Twitter without one of you lot getting back to me saying ‘Is there a problem? Can we help’


Media Temple on Twitter

Chris: More than that because typically MT is no longer a small group, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of Domains hosted so if something goes wrong chances are it’s going to affect more than one person. And if that happens we Twitter about it, we try and let people know ‘Yes, we know there’s a problem. Yes we’re working on it’ We also have, and if you’re a new MT customer please check this out, on our blog there’s an incident tracking system that there’s an RSS feed for, so if there’s what we consider to be an incident going on, something that affects more than a very small number of people, it goes up there. You can get it in your RSS feed because a lot of the time that’s just what it is. ‘Hey, my email’s not working’ and people just want to know yes, we know, we’re on it. The alarms are going off, whatever, and we’re able to flush a lot of tickets out that way. In our ticketing system if there’s an incident up, and we’re getting these tickets in we can say that’s part of the incident, that’s part of the incident and when we resolve it kind of all gets done at once. But if you are an MT customer please definately, of course things sometimes go wrong but we try and let people know before if we can.

Paul: It’s that customer service level I think is so important and if you look at the really successful companies out there, I think it’s as much about customer service, how you deal with problems, respond to problems and respond to questions, than anything else. That’s why I select companies, is on the quality of there customer service which is what differentiates you I guess. There are a lot of hosting companies out there with boxes that you are putting stuff on to get it out there on the web (massively over simplifying it)… *laugh* It’s the customer service and how you deal with that that makes one hosting company stand out from another.

Chris: If I were advising anyone to look for a hosting company that’s the first thing I would look for – see what their reputation is, for customer service. For us, and for any hosting company, I’ve seen a lot look under the tyres [and see things] that’s not their fault. It is human nature to complain more than to laud praise, but that said, do the best you can to see who’s going to be able to support the kinds of problems… like I said, we’ve got some great Rails options at MT but I know the Engine Yard guys are fantastic at it from what I can tell. If I was going to do a serious Rails app I would probably want to use them. I’m not even going to lie. *laughs* I’m going to give them those props because they really do a fantastic job. The first thing I would look at would be what is their reputation for customer support. the second things I would ask would be ‘who do you buy your hardware from?’…

Paul: Oh okay, that’s interesting I wouldn’t have asked that question.

Chris: Yeah and a lot of people don’t right? It’s very easy to buy really cheap hardware. Honestly all hardware breaks. The difference is our hardware is essentially all from HP, some from Microsystems and when their bits break we have replacement parts in 24 hours – always. I’ve dealt with people when things break and they’re like ‘yeah… *pause yeah… *pause’.

*everyone laughs*

Chris: And then qualify if they are providing whatever technologies I need to get my job done.

Marcus: I’ve got one more point. Do they do a really good party at SXSW? *everyone laughs*

Paul: We should be wrapping this up but from a marketing point of view you guys are very smart. You often target speaker’s dinners and parties at SXSW. You really know how to reach a community and how to reach the influencers within that community.

Media Temple SXSW closing party

Chris: Yeah, it’s exactly what I was saying earlier with the target audience that we kind of go after. But those parties we do at SXSW, or speaker dinners or whatever those things are, that’s our marketing budget. It doesn’t come from some kind of hospitality… I don’t know how other companies do it but we don’t do traditional marketing. We don’t spend a lot of money on Google Adwords, you don’t see us in magazines. We try and get out there and talk to people that are making websites, that are making websites better, the influencers, the thought leaders in the space. We’ve been doing it since before I worked there. If that ever stops working for us we’ll figure out a better strategy but I’ve been at MT for 6 1/2 years now and it’s working as well or better today than when I started so we’re going to keep on it.

Paul: Good, I need to keep having good Swag!

*everyone laughs*

Paul: Thank you so much for coming on the show, that was really interesting.

Chris: Thanks.

Thanks goes to Wendy Phillips for transcribing this interview.