Earlier this year the folks at A2 Hosting reached out and wanted to start a conversation about a no-holds-barred A2 hosting review. They were proud of their new platform and wanted to know if SiteCare would take an independent look at the work they’ve been doing, and how it stacked up against some of the other web hosts that we’ve worked with and evaluated over the years.
A2 Hosting Review
While web hosting benchmarks are important, we’ve adjusted our review process to take a more holistic approach to the way we evaluate a web host. Here are our main criteria:
- Uptime and reliability
- Overall customer service
There are certainly other peripherals and features that web hosting companies love to tout, but we’ve determined these three core metrics to be at the epicenter of what most customers need and want.
Backups, free domain names, SSL Certificates, and free migrations are certainly nice to have, but performance, reliability, and customer service are the true customer needs. That’s why we stick to those when we’re looking into a web host for the first time.
Who is behind A2 Hosting?
One of the other factors that I personally like to look at is who is running the service that I’m about to sign up for. This is typically true of any service that I sign up for, but it seems particularly important for a company I’m about to entrust my website and other important files.
Before I started writing, I looked into A2 Hosting’s backstory and they’ve been around for over a decade. That’s a good sign?
They’re based in Ann Arbor (hence the A2), Michigan which has been their home base since their inception. They’ve since branched out a bit regionally and their team is now distributed all over the world.
They’re frequently involved in WordCamps, and while I haven’t had the opportunity to meet any of them in person yet, they’ve been great to work with through this entire A2 hosting review process. They’re also a privately held company which is a breath of fresh air in this EIG-dominated landscape.
The team at A2 Hosting seems to be in this for the long haul and based on the way they do business and their track record, they’re genuinely invested in creating the best product possible for their customers.
Author note: I’ve been really slow to publish this A2 Hosting review and they haven’t pushed too much. Just enough to keep me honest which I’ve appreciated?
Getting Started with A2 Hosting
When you first set up a Turbo WordPress install at A2 it comes with several plugins pre-installed. As a power-user I’m not totally sure how I feel about that, but I can definitely see what A2 is trying to accomplish here, and it’s probably a good scenario for most users on their platform.
Pre-installed WordPress plugins
- A2 Optimized WP – This is A2’s own plugin that not only allows you to control certain modules within WordPress and other plugins, it also creates a checklist for new users to follow to ensure the best security and performance for their website. It has other things built in like notices for poorly-configured caching and ways to improve their overall site security.
- Clef – two-factor authentication for WordPress.
- EWWW Image Optimizer – Image compression plugin to reduce file sizes on servers and optimize disk storage
- Rename wp-login.php – This allows you to use a unique URL to login to your WordPress website. This has the potential of protecting you against brute force attacks.
- W3 Total Cache – A robust caching plugin for WordPress with a somewhat checkered past.
As I mentioned before, this much direction in how I’m supposed to use WordPress wouldn’t be my ideal setup, but I always try and imagine myself in a room where I don’t matter.
Also, A2 will let you choose vanilla WordPress during checkout if that’s your preference. Even though Turbo isn’t exactly what I would be after personally, I have the ability to purchase a standard hosting plan and fine-tune things myself. Customer choice FTW!
Moving around in an A2 world
Below is a gallery of the A2 customer dashboard, as well as some screenshots from their A2 Optimized plugin. One thing I definitely liked from a user perspective about the A2 optimized plugin is that you can control the dependent plugins right from A2 optimized screen. In other words, if A2 suggests I minify my JS files, I can enable or disable that right from the A2 optimized screen. I don’t have to dig through W3 Total Cache settings (which is where that change actually occurs).
A2 Hosting Performance Benchmarks
Speed is the name of the game for A2. It’s also one of the most important things to us, so we really focused in on it for our A2 hosting review. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy to create what they’re calling Turbo Hosting, with claims of 20x Faster page load times than their other shared hosting products.
Note: I won’t delve too much into any products beyond their shared hosting, but just so you’re aware, they do offer Managed VPS, Dedicated, and Cloud hosting solutions as well.
The environment I used for testing included the following:
- A2 Hosting Turbo Account (shared hosting)
- WordPress 4.6 (the latest WordPress version at the time of testing)
- The TwentySixteen theme activated
You can see the site I used for testing here.
I did a couple of tests, each having a different configuration in order to see how the platform performed with Turbo disabled completely. More than anything I wanted to verify the special sauce wasn’t giving a false impression of performance (ie, generating static pages on crappy servers to make it seem like things were super fast when in reality a highly dynamic site would have all sorts of problems if that were the case).
Initial Test with Turbo Caching Enabled
This test was performed exactly the way the folks at A2 intended their platform to be used. I didn’t alter any settings or make any adjustments to the default configuration of their auto-installer. I simply activated the TwentySixteen theme and set up my first test.
These tests are performed using a service called Load Impact. Load Impact spins up servers using AWS in real-time to simulate site visitors. Each of these tests started with zero site visitors and scaled to 50 concurrent site visitors over the course of ten minutes. 50 concurrent visitors is equivalent to roughly 450,000 unique monthly visitors (assuming the average visit length is 1 minute and assuming this traffic level is sustained throughout the month). This would likely be considered a high traffic site for most of the people reading this, so we definitely put A2 to the test.
Date test performed: September 11, 2016, at 8:46 am
Virtual visitor physical location: Ashburn, Virginia
Testing server physical location: Springfield, Michigan
Max response time (slowest page load): 257ms
Minimum response time (fastest page load): 233ms
These page load times are incredibly fast. In fact, they’re at least twice as fast as the hosts we measured in our WordPress hosting performance comparison a few years ago.
It’s important to watch the trend as the green line (users) grows. The A2 performance doesn’t seem to be impacted at all by the increase in traffic. The last load time is roughly 13ms slower than the initial load time, which, in terms of how humans interpret that, isn’t noticeable at all.
Another important thing to highlight is that the server didn’t drop any packets throughout the course of the test. So it wasn’t just fast, it was reliable too.
So what happens when we turn the Turbo off?
Test with Turbo Caching Disabled
Not only did I disable the modules for caching in this test, I completely deactivated the A2 optimization and W3 Total Cache plugins and dumped the respective caches. This test essentially is probing the server itself without any of the magic the A2 team adds on top. This will show us how the hardware and server stack performs on its own.
Date test performed: September 12, 2016 at 4:07pm
Virtual visitor physical location: Ashburn, Virginia
Testing server physical location: Springfield, Michigan
Max response time (slowest page load): 475ms
Minimum response time (fastest page load): 242ms
While things were a bit more unstable with caching disabled, the overall results were still very impressive. Even a benchmark of their bare-bones servers without the Turbo caching resulted in speeds among the best we’ve ever seen with shared hosting. They make bold claims with their hosting performance, and everything we saw in our testing backs up those claims entirely.
I don’t have any criticism to deliver in terms of their hosting performance. It’s incredible.
A2 Hosting Reliability and Uptime
We set up Pingdom monitoring on our A2 Hosting review site in September and have just let it do its thing. Pingdom is testing the uptime of the site in 1-minute intervals. Any outage longer than sixty seconds would be recorded.
I pulled the report at the time of publishing this article, and it looks like in the last four months we’ve had 17 minutes of downtime on our website with three separate outages.
- September 21st for 7 minutes
- September 26th for 2 minutes
- October 31st for 8 minutes
That’s 99.999% uptime which is about as good as you can possibly expect, especially for a service that’s less than $10 per month. “Five nines” is pretty much the definition of a highly available web service.
A few of the hiccups were so short, that I honestly can’t be certain if it was truly downtime of the website itself, or a glitch with Pingdom, our DNS provider, or some other environmental issue.
Based on our last four months of use I definitely wouldn’t hesitate in calling A2 a very reliable host with extremely solid uptime.
A2 Hosting Customer Service
Customer service is admittedly pretty difficult to track accurately and can vary greatly based on lots of different factors (specific issue encountered, the mood of customer service agent, and the position of the moon ?).
Results for one specific A2 hosting analysis account can be pretty anecdotal. All of our interactions with the A2 hosting team have been absolutely fantastic, and they should definitely get credit for that. Mileage may vary a bit for you on the customer service side since the A2 team did know it was us submitting requests, but you should also know that based on everything we’re seeing from A2 both publicly and behind the scenes, they care a whole bunch about their customers and are constantly working to deliver the best product they possibly can.
If you do have a struggle with the customer service at A2, be sure to ask for a supervisor as I know the company as a whole has your best interest at the core of everything they do.
Who is A2 Hosting for?
Every time I evaluate a web host I try to think about who the product is for. There’s no one-size-fits-all web host, and after completing my A2 Hosting review, I feel like they have a strong offering for people in the following groups or situations:
- Small businesses
- Individual publishers (bloggers) with few-400,000 monthly visitors
- Customers who want a guided WordPress hosting experience
- Customers, who want to be protected from their own lack of technical skills?
In this scenario, I’m specifically talking about their Turbo shared hosting product which is the one I tested in this review. Some of their other products may fit other types of customers, but I can’t really speak to any of that.
All of our testings were done in their US datacenter in Michigan. For international customers, they have datacenters in the Netherlands and Singapore as well.
If you meet any of the criteria above, and you’re unhappy with your current provider (or are gonna start that next project), A2 Hosting is about as rock-solid as you can hope for in the shared hosting space. Especially starting at a pricing point below $10 per month. Definitely check out A2 Hosting and talk to their sales team about the product that’s right for you. You’ll be happy you did?
Disclaimer: A2 Hosting did provide the account we used for testing but had no outside influence on the contents of this hosting review. All testing was performed independently and they had no knowledge of when or how we were testing their platform.