Twenty years in business – a timeline of our story to date

You’ll forgive me in advance if this post ends up being more than a little indulgent – after all it’s not every day you turn twenty; which is exactly what we’re celebrating today.

With such a big milestone, I thought it’d be interesting to look back over the years, all that’s changed – and crucially what’s remained the same since day one.

Founded 2000

Life began mid-September in 2000. Web hosting wasn’t the first foray onto the web for myself and my co-founder Daniel. We’d had a number of other random business ideas, none of which progressed much further than a few hastily thrown together webpages and a handful of hopeful visits to First Tuesday events; hands up who’s old enough to remember those!

34SP.com sprang from our own experiences while studying at UMIST in Manchester, now part of Manchester University. During our final year of studying computer science the university was surprisingly mean spirited on giving us access to usable webspace on their servers.

Given our thesis work depended on web server access, we ended up running ad hoc web hosting systems on our desktop PCs then lugging them into the university to give our final presentations. Random side note: this was the first and last time we set up and ran a ColdFusion server – another blast from the past for those of you old enough to remember 😉

The state of the Internet two decades ago was very much a Wild West version of today. No smartphones, no TikTok, no memes, weird protocols like WAP. What hosting companies did exist were on the whole hyper-spammy, misleading, or at best mediocre. We decided we’d be none of those things, and 34SP.com was born.

We’re often asked about the name. In truth, we just needed something simple and short. One of our founding ideas was to give simple domain names away for free with our hosting. With this in mind, the smaller the domain the better. For a moment we were almost called XGo, but were quoted a five-figure sum for the domain. As penniless recent students with dizzying credit card debt, we laughed more than we haggled and carried on searching.

The unexciting truth in our domain is that struggling to come up with anything remotely sensible, Daniel proclaimed, “what about 34SP?!” as I confusingly stared back at him. Those are the numbers and letters that started our address at the time…and well…here we are twenty years later. Following on mere minutes later, with some suitable hamfisted prodding of paint by yours truly, our first logo was born:

First 34SP logoi

A glance at the wayback machine in November of 2000 shows our very first hosting plan kitted out with some mighty features:

  • 25MB storage as standard
  • Full CGI-BIN
  • Perl, PHP, WAP, Python, C/C++, Java support
  • Database support (MySQL)
  • Comprehensive traffic anlaysis tools
  • SSI support
  • 10 POP3 Email Addresses
  • FrontPage 2000 Extensions
  • .htaccess, FTP, Telnet, raw log files

This first (personal hosting) plan was priced at the rock bottom price of £1 per month. Our sophisticated advertising campaign consisted of plastering various university bulletin boards with hastily printed A4 sheets, bearing not much more than a top to bottom “£1” in black and white, then web hosting written really small at the bottom. Meetings with potential clients often happened in the university campus pub; we probably spent more on introductory get to know you pints than we made in hosting money.

The 34SP story in pictures
The 34SP story in pictures

Our first accounts were hosted on Cobalt RaQ servers running in a facility in the US Midwest. The RaQ server appliances were all the rage back in the day; systems that integrated hardware and software for a turnkey solution. Install a RaQ, switch it on, and hey presto – a fully functional hosting setup complete with control panel.

During our first year in business, we had our introduction to hardware failure. A disk failed on one of the RaQs meaning clients lost access to their sites and data. Our server provider offered us little in the way of help, “would you like a new disk and a fresh install?” This was our first disaster in webhosting. Faced with the prospect of irreparably losing all the client data (and early goodwill!) we paid for the disk to be shipped to the UK as fast as possible where we worked on salvaging the data by hand. Thankfully, I believe we recovered pretty much everything in just a few short days.

The incident immediately taught us we’d struggle to deliver the services we aspired to, should we continue to rely on other providers, especially ones so far away. We began looking into how we could operate a completely UK based service, with as much of it built and maintained by ourselves as possible; this is something that we’ve redoubled our efforts on time and time again.

The ultimate plan we created seemed like a no brainer to us both. By moving to our UK based kit we’d generate cost savings that would pay back the investment in a little more than 18 months. I still remember the day we walked proudly into the bank with our clearly awesome business proposal – only to be promptly laughed out of the door minutes later. You could see the incredulity as our bank manager read down the page and spotted the deadly words – “A DOT COM!”; remember this was the days of the dot com bubble popping pretty loudly and making a mess everywhere. Suffice to say, they gave our proposal very short shrift.

The 34SP story in pictures - two
The 34SP story in pictures – two

We went cap in hand to family and friends – we needed roughly £12,000 to get things going over in the UK. We cobbled together just enough in return for a 10% interest rate. This blog post from June 2001 goes over the details. Well I say blog post but WordPress didn’t exist yet, this was a handcrafted .shtml page, yes you read that right – hands up who remembers SSI!

The UK migration plan saw us rent space in the London Interxion datacentre. We’d ditch the RaQs and build our own bare metal servers using FreeBSD as the OS. The Uber-powerful servers we built were as follows:

Dual Pentium III 1GHZ processors
1GB PC133 RAM
SCSI Hard Disks in a RAID 5 configuration 

Nice, huh? We’d also source our own transit provider (many facilities weren’t carrier-neutral back then, but Interxion let you choose your own transit mix) and decided on Level(3) – a relative newcomer at the time. We settled on a whopping 2mbps connection. Yes, you read that right. We had the option to burst up to 100mbps, but if I recall correctly the overage charges would have killed us dead. Bandwidth management was a huge deal back then. The overage penalty on our account was in the region of £150-£250 per mbit.

Another fun little footnote: A cursory glance at the server names to be migrated over back then includes names like redlion, harrys, tudor, oldgarrett, and ritz – all Manchester pubs and clubs we used to frequent. I should note that we didn’t stop that naming scheme out of some newfound professionalism, we just ran out of names of pubs we liked. More on that later…

Starting to grow

The move to our own systems proved very successful. Our homebrew servers were vastly more powerful than the older RaQs, not least being a short train ride away in London for any maintenance work. This meant we could manage pretty high densities of accounts on our servers without sacrificing performance.

Whilst we’d always strived to give really great support from day one, the client referrals in our earliest days really hit home the importance of the support aspect of our business. Time and again we’d be surprised to hear about experiences new clients had elsewhere, and how our hands-on approach was light years better.

We’ve worked tirelessly ever since to constantly improve. I don’t think we’ll ever stop searching for better and smarter ways of working. As a case in point, here’s a secret glance into a team training video (by me) earlier this year where we launched our formal support charter promise to clients.

New faces and places

While we’ve had a lot of different faces come and go on the 34SP.com team over the years, our current longest-serving employee started with us just after the move to our UK setup. Ian started as a helper on our long-forgotten forums and in September 2002 he started to help us administer and build our platforms.

One of Ian’s first major projects was the 34SP.com game server products. No, that’s not a typo. Way back when in 2002, we offered a range of game servers; most notably Team Fortress 2. We even had a 34SP.com TF2 ‘clan’ and competed badly online. Oh. So. Badly.

Around this time we also moved into our very first office space proper; serviced offices in Manchester’s Portland Tower (now known as Manchester One). Now that we had fancy phone systems to hand, we also started to offer phone support; something most hosting companies didn’t offer at all. Being able to speak to a real person, based in the UK, not reading from scripts – it resonated from day one. Clients tell us they love our phone support to this day.

The 34SP story in pictures
The 34SP story in pictures – three

Quickly developing and changing

Our earliest years probably saw our fastest and most frequent changes. We tried a variety of services as we discovered who we were, everything from ASP hosting through to colocated servers. As the years wore on we realised it was better to focus more effort on fewer services.

By 2003 we decided we needed a newer, smarter look. Something more appropriate for a cool web company than my fabulous design skills. I can’t remember which freelancer created the original logo now, but this is the very first version. Futuristic, right?

34SP early logo
34SP early logo

In 2004 we started a detour down the path of web design. The web wasn’t always the easy point and click place it is today. Website creation was out of the reach of most newcomers to the web for the longest of time; sure you could sit down and learn html, shtml and when it came along, CSS – but who had the time? We grappled with web design and website building for years.

Our first real adventure in design was working with UMIST students (circa 2001) to build a point and click web builder tool but that never panned out as we’d hoped. The next adventure in design involved sourcing a library of template designs from third party designers. We planned to then drop potential clients content into said designs. We’d split the profit 50/50 with the designers and hey presto – easy websites, simple profit. At least that was the theory, it too didn’t quite work out.

In 2004, we began looking at additional connectivity via Packet Exchange. In September 2004, this also saw us become a LIR – a Local Internet Registry. This is ultimately a step up the Internet ladder allowing you to control your own IP space and begin peering with multiple networks. Once we’d moved over to our own IP addresses – a hassle in itself – we no longer relied on any individual transit provider and had the option to add alternatives for redundancy and close accounts if they stopped being the best option.

In around 2006 we’d made the transition to a brand new naming scheme for servers. Pubs gave way to famous sci-fi computers and AI. Some of our older clients might remember a few of these server names; queeg, mother, deepthought, robbie, hal, holly, wintermute. Bonus points if you know the books, movies and TV shows they come from…

Sadly as the years wore on and the need for more and more and more servers grew – we eventually went with the rather plain and pragmatic naming scheme. E.g. prohost1.34sp.com, wordpressvps3.34sp.com.

2006 - staff party caricatures of Dan and Olly
2006 – staff party caricatures of Dan and Olly

A third chapter in offering web design was the hiring of two talented web designers and offering a bespoke design service for clients. In hindsight this probably wasn’t our smartest idea; competing with our own clients, who are often designers themselves. Our design service was eventually shuttered as we could never bridge the disparity between offering budget hosting, but needing to charge premium web design prices; clients understandably couldn’t marry the logic of £17.95 per year web hosting, but £2,500 for a custom web site design.

By 2007 we were celebrating seven years in business with “7 great deals available for the next 777 hours.” By this time our personal hosting had been boosted to a whopping 200MB of storage and 2GB of transfer per month.

This was the year that we also made the move to the top of Portland Tower – literally taking up the very top floor (one higher than the lift went to…) in massively bigger offices to accommodate our ever-growing team. The following years saw a lot of staffing growth in many areas. We dabbled with smaller and larger marketing teams, sales, varying hardware/software development setups.

A change in direction

By 2009 we had decided to radically change our direction. Until now we’d been heavily focused around being a ‘budget’ provider. This had undoubtedly helped us to grow, but the financial reality was that it was no longer supporting the investment in infrastructure or staff that we wanted to make so we could provide hosting we were proud of.

We ditched our budget hosting proposition and the a la carte model of billing (add SSL for price X, backups for price Y). Our personal hosting plan was retired in favour of our Professional plan, including all those optional extras in the base package.

This move was perhaps one of the most contentious decisions we made. Our pricing went up considerably, and we shed half of our user base over the following years. It was a tough call to make, but the right one.

The update allowed us to really double down on our promise of service and support. I still believe now what we decided then – people will pay a fair price for a great UK based service. As part of the update we wanted to offer everything a typical website needed out of the box and not have those moments of telling the client they had no backups as they hadn’t paid for the upgrade.

People still ask why we don’t offer an a la carte model; “I don’t need all this space, I don’t need emails or backups.” For us, the reality is that a la carte billing just doesn’t pay the bills, and ultimately doesn’t deliver the service that either us or the client enjoys.

The changes, they keep on coming

2010 was a big year for us, ever more change in more and more areas. Perhaps the largest move saw us decamp from London, and migrate our entire server infrastructure to Manchester. When we began the business, Manchester simply didn’t have the facilities or transit, though we did check out a very cool datacenter in a former MOD bunker in the city.

Thankfully the intervening decade saw massive improvement and investment in the North West’s Internet infrastructure. In 2010 we moved our whole network to UKGrid on the Manchester Science Park. Ultimately this facility was acquired by Telecity, and later in turn by Equinix. We maintained our presence there throughout the ownership changes.

The 34SP story in pictures - four
The 34SP story in pictures – four

January 2010 saw our first domain name sale, a tradition we’ve brought back every January since. We typically offer our most popular domain names like .com and .uk at prices 50% off all month long, to help with those post-holiday wallet woes.

2010 also saw us move from FreeBSD to CentOS as well as finally drop the much-maligned FrontPage extension support from hosting plans. Interestingly, ten years on from that leap – we’re about to make a jump again – this time from CentOS to Kubernetes (more on that below).

Continuing with the theme of taking services in house, 2010 also saw us sign up to become a Nominet accredited registrar and move our .uk domain name registrations away from an intermediary, taking care of them ourselves. Today we have tens of thousands of .uk domains under our control.

Similarly, over the years our own in house control panel has taken more and more prominence. This custom software (both internal and client-facing) has allowed us to make significant cost savings through the years, not least retaining as much control as possible, making for more reliable and powerful services. In 2021 we expect this long term project to finally be complete, as we start to extend the panel to our resellers, too!

The modern web beckons

In 2011 we started to roll out and beta test our IPv6 implementation. Most of our hosting services had some form of IPv6 support quickly thereafter. Mind you, some nine years later, wide adoption of IPv6 is still a struggle; IPv4 space is all but gone and we can’t yet make the leap to a purely IPv6 based world.

Echoing our thoughts of a decade ago, we continued to believe strongly in the value of having maximum control over the systems and software we used. This extended to our office space and in 2010 we bought our very own home – our current offices in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

We really lucked out, small office space to own in Manchester is exceptionally rare, and we managed to sneak into the new Margolis building (created specifically for smaller businesses like us looking to buy) before the NQ’s trendy renaissance really kicked in.

WordPress WordPress WordPress

As the years wore on the complexities of grappling with website creation became easier and easier. New services and tools evolved that allowed even the most novice of users to deploy a web presence.

For years we’d seen many of these options, the likes of free website building tools (Wix/Weebly) or social media eked away at our shared hosting business. Why commit to a monthly hosting subscription, with all the risk of being hacked and the complexity of keeping things updated, when a Facebook page for your business is ultimately simple and free? It’s a fair question, and for some businesses, it’s undoubtedly a sensible option. I often recommend people that way too – a fully hosted website isn’t for everyone.

We’d seen the rise of WordPress on our servers for years, in some cases being present on as many as 60% of accounts on our systems – our customers were already telling us the best modern way to build a site. In 2016 we launched our WordPress Hosting platform, our first major update since the Professional Hosting launch of 2009. The platform was our most managed to date, with some pretty strict restrictions on security and operation.

The platform went through several quick iterations until we found the right mix of software. Our aim was to offer the fastest WordPress hosting in the UK and I like to think we succeeded; this very year we received an honorable mention over at Review Signal for our stellar results in their performance testing.

WordPress remains our number one focus as a business to this day, but the software still isn’t right for everyone. Around the same time we launched our WordPress platform, we also partnered up with Weebly to offer their fabulous point and click website builder to our clients. Professional users get the tool for free, domain name holders get a one-page site builder for free too. Much more recently launched a pared-down site builder tool as well; no hosting worries, no email, just a simple point and click unlimited site builder for £2.95 per month.

Wapuu lives!
Wapuu lives!

As I say though, WordPress is what we do best, and where we’ve focused most of our energy for the past four or five years. After the launch of the WordPress platform we started to get more involved in the overall WordPress community. We attended and sponsored every single WordCamp in the UK for three years and had a lot of fun along the way, not least creating a life-sized Wapuu.

Seriously, this business has taken us in a lot of different directions but I’m not sure even I predicted we’d be building massive orange furry mascots when we started all of this!

Eureka!

Apparently by 2017 we’d apparently finally figured out how all of this stuff actually works. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof with Daniel giving a presentation to our local WordPress usergroup (MWUG) on how the Internet works.

Daniel says, “It was really hard to work out where to pitch this talk. The audience spanned levels of experience from people who were new to the web and WordPress, right up to super-technical users who would have been able to give this talk themselves. Trying to include enough detail to satisfy the geeks while making things clear enough to those inexperienced people was a real challenge.”

Hosting with a conscience

We’ve offered free hosting for charities for a long time. I can’t quite remember when exactly, nor find trace of when we started, but it’s always been something close to my own heart.

Here’s a little story I love to tell anyone who cares to listen. In my final year of university, I took a module that was in essence: “How to replace people in the workplace with computers.” I’m sure it had a friendlier name, something like, “Managing change and disruption.” The course really messed with my head. Coming from a working-class background, I immediately recognized my own parents in what I was being taught – “Here’s how you’re gonna make your own family redundant once you hit the working world.”

It was at that time I’d decided to go and jump on a Greenpeace boat (probably unwise as I can’t swim) or maybe try to start my own business, one that actually did something more beyond lining its own pockets. And that’s where our charity hosting program came from. I strongly believe in ethical businesses that benefit the communities around them.

So our charity hosting was born. At the time of writing, we host over 600 charities, completely free. It means a huge amount to me that we’re able to give back and support a variety of communities. It’s not the sexiest of things, but it is something. If we all did something, I’m sure the world would be better for it.

And it’s not just me – our whole team share the same ethos. For example 2016 saw our very first gameathon event. A 24-hour Twitch livestream gaming session that our team organized and orchestrated themselves with zero direction. The gameathon usually runs every year and has so far raised thousands of pounds for local charities. It’s humbling to work with people who care!

Sustainable hosting

34SP.com Woodland Carbon Certificate 2019
34SP.com Woodland Trust carbon certificate 2019

In 2019 we merged all of our efforts into a singular sustainable hosting policy. This sums up our core beliefs that business doesn’t have to just be about profits, it can be about people too. As we look to the future we’re looking at more ways we can help improve the communities we participate in, both big and small. And the biggest of those, well, that’s the environment.

As part of our brand new policy, we teamed up with the Woodland Trust to start offsetting carbon through the planting of trees. In 2019 we pledged cash to support the planting of 7500 square meters of new woodland; as I write we’re renewing this for 2020 too.

I should note that both our offices and datacenter are already 100% powered by certified renewable energy, so we’re actually carbon negative, not just neutral! This is admittedly based off some back of the envelope calculations and not a formal audit.

At any rate, we’re now a partner of The Green Web Foundation. Host your site with 34SP.com and you can proudly display your green hosting credentials too!

34sp.com green web

Yet another DC move

Through the second half of 2019, we migrated our entire network and setup for the third time in our history. This time around we stayed in the Manchester area, but split our network and servers across two different datacenter spaces. We saved a little cash in the move but more importantly added some much need geographic redundancy to our setup. As we move forward this duo of sites will work handsomely with something else we have up our sleeves…

The 34SP story in pictures
The 34SP story in pictures – five

The next chapter?

Arguably our largest update in a decade should start to appear in early 2021. After years of work, we hope to be finally ready to start letting clients loose on our new Kubernetes-based platform.

Kubernetes is a server orchestration platform initially developed by Google that allows for automated provisioning and scaling of micro web services. For us this means the ability to seamlessly scale, migrate, and grow servers; for our clients, this should mean improved reliability, performance, and security. We’re really excited about what we can do with Kubernetes. We have plans to revamp our reseller platform, improve WordPress Hosting and make Professional Hosting even better using Kubernetes. The specifics are a little involved for this post, but watch this space, as they say!

Also in the balance right now is the nature of how we will work for the decade ahead. We don’t have any plans to sell or leave our offices, but we certainly aren’t rushing back to the office in the current C19 scenario. Indeed as I recently touched on, our support scores are at a decade long high (as rated by our customers on case closure) and our development work on the Kubernetes platform is progressing far faster than we’d hoped.

We’ll likely always have an office for a central meeting place, or for those staff who don’t want to, or can’t work safely from home – but for the most part, we’re increasingly seeing remote work as the way forward for us as a company.

Thank you

It goes without saying, myself and Daniel would like to thank everyone who’s worked with 34SP.com over the years. Our clients, staff past and present, the pub across the road, you name it. When it comes down to it all the technical stuff is just window dressing, what’s struck me most about the past twenty years are the people. The people is what makes it all tick.

Without the goodwill and support of our clients who believe in our sustainable approach, or our simple and fair billing – we wouldn’t be here. Without the talented team we’ve been privileged to work with over the years (too many to mention, but all pictured throughout here) we wouldn’t be here.

Thank you everyone. Here’s to twenty more.

Comments

There are 2 comments on “Twenty years in business – a timeline of our story to date

  1. Avatar
    Paul October 4, 2020

    Fantastic! It’s great working with you, very excited to see the next chapter unfold 🙂

    Reply

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