Are You Being Served?

Some people have skeletons in their closets, others have servers.

When D.C. residents Bethany Robertson and Peter Murray founded the I Do Foundation in 2002, a small Washington nonprofit, they enlisted the help of a technology expert to manage their server. The only inconvenience? He lived in Philadelphia. And so that's where the firm's server was kept -- on the floor of a closet in Larry's house.

Larry sometimes liked to go on vacation or even just to the store. If the server went down and Larry was out and about, the Web site of the I Do Foundation went offline until he returned to reboot the server.

Soon enough the foundation, which helps link engaged couples to a range of charitable giving options for their weddings, realized it needed to improve its server set-up.

The founders moved the server to D.C. and added another tech employee, but he was not located in the main office. "Sometimes the firm would get a contractor to come in and fix things," but "because they weren't necessarily familiar with how everything worked, it became complicated and for an organization that was relying on customer traffic to drive its business model, going offline for even a short time" was a huge problem, said Executive Director Grant La Rouche.

The foundation was grappling with the same problem many small Web-based businesses face: Where to find reliable server hosting at a reasonable price? I Do began searching for an outside data hosting firm that could relieve it of the headache of maintaining its servers and data storage.

Cost was of major importance and after some research the least expensive solution appeared to be an outfit in New Zealand that had servers in a U.S. facility. "However, when the servers went down, we couldn't get in touch with them," said La Rouche, and because the tech firm didn't appear to be staffed around the clock, the time zone difference became frustrating when problems arose.

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The firm finally settled on using the services of web hosting company The Planet about two years ago and has since then been able to focus more on growth. The Houston-based company has nearly 600 employees and 155,000 square-feet of data space in its server warehouses. The I Do Foundation pays a flat monthly fee for The Planet to host its servers and to store data with 24-hour monitoring. If there's a problem, it's usually fixed in about 15 minutes, said La Rouche.

"The Internet being on 24/7 is almost like the stakes to get into a poker game. If [a business] doesn't have something up 24/7 you can't compete today," said Doug Erwin, the Planet's CEO and chairman since 2006 who has spent decades in the tech industry. Many small- and medium-sized businesses can't afford to maintain their own online infrastructures, data storage and security and "that's largely how the hosting business was brought into being."


The Planet CEO and Chairman Doug Erwin. (Photo courtesy of The Planet)

Erwin said business owners should ask themselves if their business could be ruined forever by losing certain data. If the answer is yes, then that business should be backing up their data "in a place that is not in the same location as the company's main business."

He said that a lot of firms use outside data storage facilities and Web hosters in case they ever face a natural disaster at home base. Forty percent of the Planet's customers are international. Some of its customers are small, sole proprietors like doctors or plumbers while others run large social networking sites and have hundreds of employees.

If a business does decide to outsource its data storage and Web hosting, Erwin said it should always ask its potential vendor who controls the data center. "There are a lot of people out there who are selling those services and you come to find out that the data center is not under their control. Find out who's doing the maintenance and who is taking care of the facility. It should be an important factor in decision-making."

The move out of Larry's closet and into the facilities of a professional Web hosting company has paid off for the I Do Foundation, which has grown significantly in the last year. It has assisted in the donation of a total of $3.3 million to charities since 2002, and about a third of that amount was donated in the last year alone. Strong interest in green weddings has inspired many brides and grooms -- who want to minimize their carbon footprints while walking down the aisle -- to seek out ways for their guests to contribute to charities in lieu of gifts.

The foundation now has a staff of about five and an annual budget of about $300,000, which is partly funded by grants. Its partnership with the popular wedding planning Web site Weddingchannel.com gives it access to a large audience, generating a lot of Web traffic. It also has relationships with retailers like Target and JCPenney that donate a percentage of wedding guests' registry purchases to a favorite cause.

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By Sharon McLoone |  August 5, 2008; 9:31 AM ET Tools and Tips
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