NearlyFreeSpeech.NET Logo NearlyFreeSpeech.net is not your typical vastly oversold shared hosting companies that give you gigabytes of space and terabytes of data transfer for $10/month. Instead of charging you a fixed monthly fee, it went the way of micro-payment — you are only paying for the resources that you are using. It is in the same spirit as Amazon S3, except you get a proper web hosting with PHP, CGI and MySQL support.

FuCoder.com hosted on NearlyFreeSpeech Recently I have moved one of my WordPress site onto NearlyFreeSpeech to test out its service. Just to give you some statistics — it is a PR5 website with Alexa traffic rank at around 100,000. 400-600 unique visitors a day, uses around 30Mb of disk space, and pushes out less than 1Gb of data transfer each month (because it is mostly text). It is a programming related blog serving some of my WordPress plugin projects.

2 weeks passed, and how much have I paid NearlyFreeSpeech? $20 — $1 goes to payment gateway fee, $18.30 still sitting there in my account, and the service has cost me only 70 cents so far. How much cost do I estimate for a month? Maybe $1.50, and I am getting fast and top-quality service, unlike many other dollar-hostings out there.

Signing Up

Nearly Free Speech homepage Signing up NearlyFreeSpeech.NET is simple and account approval is instantaneous. Basically it goes like this:

  1. Create a profile at NFSN. You need a login name, your real name, and an existing email address.
  2. After confirming the sign up email, you need to create an “account” under your profile. They also give you $0.02 to let you “play around”.
  3. Top up your account with either credit card or PayPal. Note that they will charge you gateway fee so $20 you put in will be only $19 in your account.
  4. Create sites against your account, activate MySQL, etc…

You also get unique SSH accounts with each site you have created. It did not take long for me to get my WordPress blog up and running, as most things are automated.

Cost

Storage $0.01 / Mb-month
Data Transfer $1.00 / Gb
MySQL process $0.01 / Day
Domain rego $7.50 / Year
Domain privacy $0.01 / Day
Email forwarding $0.02 / Domain-day
Extended support $1.00 / Month

So, is NearlyFreeSpeech.NET cheap? Yes and no.

  • Yes! It is cheap! Especially when you run a small website that might only get occasional traffic surge. If you are only running one personal blog with 500 daily unique visitors, and the content is not heavy on graphics, NearlyFreeSpeech.NET provides a very decent web hosting for under $3/month.

  • No! When every single byte counts, it is going to cost a lot when you use a lot. It does not compare well to my DreamHost account, where $9.95/month gets me 200Gb of storage and 2Tb of data transfer. Even if I only use 1/10 the resource (20Gb storage + 200Gb data transfer), it would still cost me $400/month on NFSN!!

The pricing model of NearlyFreeSpeech.NET is simple — you pay what you have used, in the combination of storage space + data transfer + MySQL processes. There are also cost for other features if you want them, like extra MySQL processes, email forwarding for a specific domain, or extended support.

You can also buy pre-paid “bandwidth buckets” so you can get cheaper transfer rate, up to $0.25/Gb, if you can use up 5,120Gb on a single day. Good way to save money on planned Slashdotting or Digging, but might not be that useful if your site gets slashdotted in the middle of the night, and wake up with all fund in account exhausted.

Features

You almost cannot put “features” and “NearlyFreeSpeech.NET” on the same sentence, but that is exactly why I like them :) I think it might be easier to talk about what NFSN does not have, where you expect to be standard in other web hosts.

  • No email hosting. NFSN is a “web hosting company”, and true to the spirit of unix shell applications, NFSN does one thing and does it well, but that is about it. You do not get shared SMTP server, no mailbox, no POP3, no IMAP, no mailing list, no spam filters — nothing. The only email-related service it offers is email forwarding, and it costs extra at $0.02 per domain per day.

  • No pre-installed scripts. You do not get a control panel listing out all the open source CMS under the sun, and let you install them at will. Everything is done via either FTP or SSH (SCP/SFTP).

  • No cron scheduler. Currently there is no way to run scheduled job, as NFSN does not provide you a way to edit crontabs. It is however the most-voted new feature at the moment, so it might get implemented some day.

  • No SSL site hosting. Because of NFSN’s load balancer structure, and their belief in being “green” and conserve IP addresses, you cannot have SSL site hosting, which usually require an unique IP address. That also means you can forget about running an ecommerce site on NFSN.

  • Limited Apache modules. That means, no mod_perl, no mod_python, no mod_fcgid, etc. Only PHP4/PHP5 and plain vanilla CGI are supported. I guess it is pretty much the same with other shared hosts as well except FastCGI, which is never a good idea on shared hosting anyway.

There are a few others, but I guess it is enough to describe what NearlyFreeSpeech is like — a no-frills web host. However, it turns out none of them are show-stopper to me. Email? No thanks, I run my own email server with grey listing, Bayesian-classifier, SpamAssassin, ClamAV and procmail for special deliveries. Pre-installed scripts? Never use them. I might want to have cron support, but I can always trigger scheduled events from my other servers. FastCGI and mod_python? That’s what my VPSs are for. I am after a robust web hosting for my PHP applications, and NearlyFreeSpeech.NET does it well.

NFSN also has some very interesting features that are uncommon to other shared hosts.

  • Full DNS control not required. What I dislike about most shared hosting companies is, that you are required to delegate the entire domain to them. What if I just want them to host subdomain.mydomain.com? I still need to delegate the name servers of mydomain.com to the shared hosting company. This is dumb, and would not work if I want to host different sub-domains in different places.

    With NearlyFreeSpeech.NET, you would –

    1. Create a site, which becomes http://unique-id.nfshost.com.
    2. Add an alias subdomain.mydomain.com for that site.
    3. Set up DNS so that subdomain.mydomain.com CNAME unique-id.nfshost.com.
    4. There is no step 4, and http://subdomain.mydomain.com would start serving!

    Very useful, and I would love to see more shared hosts implementing it.

  • Your own MySQL process. No, you are not just a user of some shared MySQL process, but you get your own MySQL process where you have full capability — including access the MySQL internal tables. That means you can create unlimited user, create unlimited database, check runtime variables and statistics, etc.

    You do however need to pay for the privilege of using MySQL in your applications. $0.01 a day, or $3.65 a year. Double that if you require InnoDB.

  • FreeBSD load balancer/cluster. NearlyFreeSpeech runs on FreeBSD, and has one of the best jail shell I have seen (can be accessed via SSH). It only gives you what you need to work on your site and pretty much nothing else. C compiler is surprisingly available though. Personally I am not a big fan of FreeBSD due to my own ignorance :) However the shell has proved to be quite easy to work with.

    NearlyFreeSpeech.NET also put a few Squid proxy servers in front of its cluster of FreeBSD servers to improve performance. Static contents are cached aggressively, and overall it feels quite fast comparing to other shared hosts that I have used. More about it later.

  • Language/runtime supports. NFSN supports many languages and runtime environments for its CGI programs. GCC3.4/GCC4.1, Haskell, Java2, LISP, Lua, Perl, Python 2.4/2.5, Ruby, Scheme and Tcl. Maybe support for OCaml would be good, but I am pretty sure that it can be easily added.

Overall I am quite satisfied with NearlyFreeSpeech.NET’s features. It is not a full blown hosting, but has some unique features. Good if you know exactly what you want and exactly what it offers.

Performance & Stability

As I have mentioned that NFSN runs on cluster of FreeBSD servers with Squid proxy as load balancer. Overall performance is quite good, compare favourably against many shared hosts I have used before. I was going to say “about as good” as my VPS here at SliceHost, but you do feel short period of slowness every now and then, which reminds you that it is still just shared hosting.

The servers I am on is at Phoenix, AZ, running on Limelight Network’s transit. Average 158ms from Sydney Australia via Singtel — not bad.

Overall I am pretty happy about the performance. My blog used to be hosted on DreamHost, and the pages used to take 1 second to render is now taking only 0.3 second.

FuCoder.com stability at NearlyFreeSpeech.NET While performance is great, stability is “not bad”, but falls short of industrial standard of at least 3-4 nine’s.

The graph is generated by Site24x7 over the last 7 days on my WordPress blog, and 2 hours of downtime result availability only 98.81%. Of course my sample size is a bit too small, and it could have been only 2 hours down time for the next 12 months. According to this forum post (NFSN member-only forum), it is a FreeBSD filer hiccup, which has been rare. Maybe I will report back on the stability department 12 months down the track.

Support

NFSN has quite a comprehensive support infrastructure to help users self-diagnose the issues. There are a huge list of FAQs, member-only discussion forum, site trouble shooting wizard, offsite network status page, company blog, etc, together with their support ticket system.

There is no phone number to call, as I believe most support personals are contractors working from home. You can also buy extended support for $1/month to get extra priority.

I have only used the support once, one day after sign up. Two things I have requested — (1) install unison file synchroniser and (2) install two SSH keys. The ticket was issued at 5:38pm PST, and was completed at 7:18pm PST. That is pretty good in my book for a budget web hosting.

Conclusion

Overall I am quite happy with NearlyFreeSpeech.NET as low-cost shared hosting that provides SSH, load balancer + cluster and good performance for PHP-based applications. I particularly like the way virtual hosting is done, and how I can host only sub-domains on their servers/load-balancers. It might not be the most cost effective solution to host large media files, but I can see how you can combine NearlyFreeSpeech.NET and Amazon S3 to save money on media file hosting.

Another “feature” that I did not mention is that NearlyFreeSpeech.NET, as its name has suggested, supports free speech on the Internet. That means you might be sharing the same servers as the group you would not like to be associated with. That also means NFSN is not likely to bow down to complains and shut down your site, in case you are hosting something controversial.

Maybe it would be the host to use if I decide to start a web hosting industry rumour/gossip site :)