This week we finally made some good progress at wrestling our domain name, CoffeeRatings.com, out from the clutches of our incompetent Web hosting provider, Burton Hosting. And not a moment too soon: we’ve noticed frequent database outage problems with Burton Hosting (as we are sure many of you have).

We expect to start the process of migrating over to CoffeeRatings.com’s new home this coming weekend. Today we just purchased a Web hosting package from another provider, and the process will likely be a bit funky for the next few days — as we figure out how to get all the software and services configured up at CoffeeRatings.com’s new home. Furthermore, the process of pointing the domain name over from Burton Hosting to our new host may take a couple of days to propagate throughout the Internet.

As frustrating as this whole process has been, it has also been quite an educational experience: namely, for how Web hosting businesses can construct layers and layers of disincentives for customers to switch providers. We’ve had to overcome many hurdles:

  • proving that we were the owners of the CoffeeRatings.com domain with just our name listed as the administrative contact (Burton Hosting registers all customers with an administrative contact using their UK address and their [now defunct] UK phone number, making it very difficult to prove with a photo ID that your name is connected to that administrative address and phone number)
  • getting our domain name associated with an administrative e-mail address we could access (Burton Hosting registers all customers behind a common support e-mail address of theirs which, lo and behold, is providing no response nor support — so we were stuck)
  • getting Burton Hosting to mail the CoffeeRatings.com authorization code to the domain name’s administrative e-mail address: to unlock the domain for transfer (again, Burton Hosting has already proven that they let emergency support tickets and e-mails go unanswered and untouched for weeks…and counting)

At each step, Burton Hosting used their inertia and lack of support to their advantage to thwart our attempts to take our business elsewhere.

Burton Hosting is a licensed reseller of domain names issued by Tucows; they resell these domain name services to customers like us. So in order to get any movement at each of these roadblocks, we had to pester Tucows’ compliance officer to go after Burton Hosting with a stick. Some steps Tucows was able to handle themselves and bypass Burton Hosting’s unresponsiveness. But for others, the Tucows compliance officer had to threaten whatever clandestine operations Burton Hosting had left in order to get them to do anything on our behalf.

Our lessons for dealing with Web hosting providers

So to summarize, our lessons for any customer of a Web hosting provider are as follows:

  • Ensure your domain name’s administrative e-mail address is something you can access. Better still, get your domain’s authorization (EPP) code. It is the key to your escape hatch when you have to switch providers under duress. And things can go south quickly.
  • When paying for Web hosting, make a mental note of how the level and quality of their customer service is part of the price you are paying. By removing telephone lines, online forums, chat support, by not answering e-mails, and by ignoring all of our support tickets, Burton Hosting essentially pulled a bait-and-switch by changing the terms for what exactly we were paying them for.
  • A Web hoster will pull the plug on their support to save costs, etc., and do so without telling you. So you have to be vigilant.
  • If you notice the level of support declining with your Web hosting provider, start backing up everything. If tickets take longer for responses, if phone lines no longer work, if online support forums are no longer moderated (worse still: they disappear): man the lifeboats. These are all signs that you must prepare to jump ship at a moment’s notice.

Since we don’t trust our old home one bit in the hands of our current Web hosting service, and since we don’t want to encourage people to post comments there given the chance they could be lost forever, we’ll be posting here during our Web hosting transition. (Apologies for the inconvenience, but it’s safer that way.)

Today Condé Nast posted an general consumer article on what to look for in good coffee: Coffee Drinking Guide – Portfolio.com. However, it reads more as a quick guide to following what’s “trendy” today — rather than as a guide to seeking good quality coffee experiences. (Not to mention that the article’s title, “Eat Sheet: Coffee,” takes on a whole other meaning with a Middle Eastern coffee grower’s accent.)

For example, the pro-”light roast” movement is really just the flavor du jour. And after so many years of over-roasted and darkly roasted coffee, who can blame anyone? But as much as we tire of the ubiquitous wine analogy for coffee, the recent focus on light roasts isn’t far off from all the people who are now drinking rosé wines again.

Once people get it out of their system, they’ll be interested in darker roasts again. Just as when they get off single origin and single estate coffees, they’ll come to appreciate well-crafted coffee blends again — and the merits of high quality robusta beans again. And just as we explore enough with Clover machines and vacuum pots, something like espresso becomes interesting again. Each has their merits, and there never has been one way to appreciate good coffee.

For example, it’s true that lighter roasts exhibit better characteristics of certain beans. But for other bean varietals — such as those from Indonesian estates in Java and Sulawesi — a lighter roast is no better than darkly roasting a delicate island coffee: instead of the great body and lower acidity inherent to these beans, they come out tasting thin, bland, and even a little grassy at times.

Coffee is often best roasted to maximize the best, most unique qualities in the bean — and no bean is the same, really. And there is no one way to appreciate it all.

As for progress thus far, we’ve identified a suitable new home for CoffeeRatings.com. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have to wrest control of the CoffeeRatings.com domain from our current hosting provider, who manages it as a reseller of a domain name registrar.

Now we use the word “manages” loosely here — as it is more of a title rather than as an actual role where someone actually does anything. Yes, it’s been well over a week since Burton Hosting‘s automated Web hosting renewal took CoffeeRatings.com offline, and it’s been just as long as various trouble tickets and e-mails have gone ignored. So we’ve had to make an appeal to the domain name registrar that Burton Hosting resells from, since Burton pretty much disconnected all forms of inbound communication save for credit card payments.

Meanwhile, the site has oddly come back up over this past weekend — with no communication to us. Someone fixed their DNS, but the urgent need to move out is unchanged. The site has flaked on and off with database connection errors, etc., and has been up and down again throughout the day. Totally unacceptable.

In other news, it was a running joke that CoffeeRatings.com has almost negative design. It didn’t even have navigation, for crying out loud. Coming back up on another hosting provider, we may want to raise the standard a bit… at least to “Web 0.4″. Through some personal connections, we’re speaking with a Web design student who is interested in taking CoffeeRatings.com into the mid 1990s.

Of course, when your Web site is about as no-frills as the Myanmar-inspired cafés that have become the norm among San Francisco openings lately, some loyalists will cry “sell out!” To which we say: it’s not like we’re Amish.

UPDATE:
The “Compliance Officer” (or so we learned what they are called) for our domain name registrar just informed us that she hopes to have the lock removed from CoffeeRatings.com in the next couple of days. Then we can begin the process of packing up and moving the lot to greener pastures. Stay tuned…

UPDATE: June 27, 2008
It’s amazing how much Web hosters enmesh themselves so that you cannot extricate your domain from their clutches. It has been Burton Hosting’s policy, as it is for most Web hosters, to list one of their e-mail addresses and phone numbers, along with your name, as the administrative contact for the domain name.

Everything works fine until you need to get your password to unlock your domain name to transfer it to another Web hosting provider. And to whom does the domain registrar send the password when you request it? Why, to the e-mail address or phone number of record for the administrative contact, of course. Which is just perfect when the Web hoster never picks up their phone or responds to e-mail.

To correct this, we’ve had to fax in a form with a photocopy of a drivers license, a signature, etc., to change the e-mail address associated with our domain name’s administrative contact (namely, me). We hope to receive confirmation by Tuesday, July 1. At which point, we can then ask for, and receive, the password for the domain — which will then allow us to change hosts and transfer the domain to another service.

Have we mentioned how much they screwed us royally?

UPDATE: June 30, 2008
So the good news is that the compliance officers at the CoffeeRatings.com domain registrar received my fax with my photo ID, signature, etc., to switch the administrative contact to something that actually responds to external communications (and something we have access to).

The bad news is that the address in my photo ID does not match the address in my administrative record for the domain owner, which happens to be the UK mailing address of our non-responsive Web hosting provider. So the registrar told me I have to prove I lived there, at the hosting provider’s UK address, in order to proceed.

Have we mentioned how much they screwed us royally?

Say, whatever happened to CoffeeRatings.com?

Did Nick Cho list the site as one of the assets of Murky Coffee that had to be reclaimed for unpaid back taxes? Hardly.

Did Equator Estate Coffees get tired of the continual “underachiever” label we gave them, making them hire some clandestine Web saboteurs? Nope. Though we wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Did someone forget to pay the bills? Nope. Worse, really.

When it doesn’t pay to pay your bill

The trouble started because we did pay our bills. Our hosting provider of five years (Burton Hosting: avoid like the plague) has pretty much gutted their organization gradually over the past year as if they were having a slow-moving fire sale. Support telephone numbers were disconnected. Trouble tickets took longer and longer to answer (days became weeks). Of course, we only discovered this in full detail after the fact.

So earlier this month we paid for our annual site renewal fee. As an unplanned part of the automated renewal process, they completely botched up the DNS records for the site — causing the errors and failures you all see today. So as of Saturday, June 14, 2008, the Burton Hosting renewal system caused CoffeeRatings.com to go belly-up to the outside world. And dozens of emergency support tickets, e-mails, calls to Georgia and the UK, have merely confirmed just how bad things can get when a hosting provider picks its own carcass apart without telling you. It’s only a matter of time before the lights go out on all their servers.

This put us in a huge bind. While the CoffeeRatings.com actual coffee ratings data is safe and sound (curiously enough, it’s all generated from a database on a mobile phone), even we couldn’t access the 685 blog posts we’ve written over the past three years. Plus all the resized photo art, all member comments, etc. The network configuration was so botched, it took us until today — after 5 days of trying — to finally find the right server to “hack” to get us into the site and extract all the data and code. Our data and code.

Have we mentioned how much they screwed us royally?

Looking ahead

So the good news is that, now that we are able to “hack” into our own site, we are extracting some 200Mb of posts, reviews, databases, images and other data as we type. The bad news is that we’re going to have to be nomadic for a while — until we find a new home for it all, get things switched over from this unresponsive shell of a Web hosting company that is holding the CoffeeRatings.com domain hostage, and have everything configured and set up again in a new home. So stay tuned.

If any of you have suggestions for a reasonably inexpensive provider who hosts MySQL databases and PHP applications, please drop us a line.

How to access CoffeeRatings.com in the meantime (oh, you’ll love this)

In the meantime, there is a back door to get around Burton Hosting’s buffoonery — for the adventurous. You have to change the “hosts” file on your personal computer to do this. For Windows XP users, for example:

  1. Find the file called “hosts”, likely located in the directory “C:\WINDOWS\system32\drivers\etc”. (It’s similar for other versions.)
  2. Append the following lines to the file as follows:

  3. 65.254.38.194 http://www.coffeeratings.com
    65.254.38.194 theshot.coffeeratings.com

  4. Save the edited file in place (or make a copy of the old version and replace it with this new one) and relaunch your browser. You should be able to hit CoffeeRatings.com just as fine as before this mess.
  5. …That is, until we finally move to another provider. In which case you’d need to remove the above lines from your hosts file again.

But a word of warning: don’t bother posting any comments there. They won’t make the database copy to be loaded into the new Web hosting service.

Have we mentioned how much they screwed us royally?

UPDATE: June 23, 2008
The DNS seems to have been correctly routed after a week of downtime. There has been no update to any of our support tickets — indicating that Burton Hosting probably only stumbled on the problem when all our e-mail started bouncing off their servers for the past week. So the DNS steps above can now be ignored.

Even so, the service today has been erratic — with database connection failures and other outages. We’re as committed as ever to getting off of this sinking ship.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.