Having a website is an obvious must for any business these days, but for small companies, even basic shared hosting can seem expensive for a basic site. Of course you can sign up for an EC2 account and host your website there for free if your bandwidth and storage requirements are low, but one has to deal with a myriad of configurations to even get started. When all you were looking to do was host a simple site online, the initial learning curve of just hosting your site can be maddening.
Enter Dropbox. Wait, Dropbox? Yup, you heard that right. Allow me to demonstrate how to turn your Dropbox account into a static web host, using Site44.
What is Site44?
Almost everyone has a Dropbox account these days. It’s a breeze to set up, keeps your files synced with the cloud, and best of all is free (for a couple gigabytes, at least). All you have to do is to place your data into the Dropbox’s magic folder and your data follows you wherever you go like that famous Hutch dog, quite literally. The smart people behind Site44 took this idea a level further and tuned your Dropbox account into a web host. Now, in theory, all that is left is to put your web pages in this folder and Bingo!
Is it that simple in reality? Let’s find out.
The basic plan is free for 5 websites and you get a combined bandwidth of 100MB/month. You can upgrade it up to 10 gigs a month for $5/month and 50 websites with a 50 GB bandwidth limit for $10/month.
Setting up your website with Site44 is absurdly simple, as their tagline states. Just login using your Dropbox creds and authorize them to use the content within the Site44 folder they create. Now choose your domain name (using a free yourname.site44.com address, or your own custom domain name) and watch Site44 configure your website for you. All that is left is edit the html file and replace it with yours. Charming, isn’t it.
You won’t get as much control over your site as you would in a proper production environment. To rectify this Site44 does offer a slew of basic features. For instance, every website should have a 404 page, period. This is 2012 and you would look very unprofessional if you still let your browser handle these error messages. Normally we’ll make some complex configuration changes on your server to serve these pages. Since you don’t have access to server Site44 internally uses you cannot do this by yourself. The folks at Site44 are a step ahead as always, and offer a very simple way to achieve this. Just create a file called 404.html inside your domain folder, and Site44 treats this as the 404 page for any missing object in that domain.
One interesting feature in Site44 is its ability to host private pages. Just login to the dashboard and set a password for your site, and let site44 take care of the rest for you. This is a very primitive way of doing things and you’ll have to share the same password with all your users, which may strike some as insecure. Though this is unsafe, it’s not that bad, depending on how much sensitive data are you going to have in a static website. It’s great, perhaps, to share private family pictures or lightly protect press material, but you might not want to hide, say, your company secrets on a Site44 private site.
With static pages you don’t get any level of flexibility. Your website might grow over time and you might need to move your content around. But if someone had you bookmarked, they’ll never be able to reach you. Site44 internally allows you to do 301 redirects based on some patterns. For instance if I’ve moved my portfolio.html to a new domain all I’ve to do is to edit the redirects.site44.txt file in your domain folder and include the following code.
Henceforth, all the requests made to this file will be redirected to Appstorm network automatically. Though it might sound confusing, especially for newbies, this is really simple once you get used to this style.
How it works?
Everything sounds good, but how does it work internally? Once you authorize Site44 to use your Dropbox folder, they sync out your data to their AWS account and your pages are served from there. Since all your requests are handled by Amazon, the performance is arguably better (not that you need anything special for a small website) and uptime is almost guaranteed.
It is really easy to set up your website and is a great way to host small websites like an online resume site, but it lacks several quintessential features. It does not support any server side code like Java or PHP. It is called a static host for a reason, but if someone does have some server side content within the site44 area it displays the code as plain text rather than showing an error message.
Also, if you delete the index.html page it should ideally redirect you to a static page instructing the user that there should be an index file in the path. Instead it just throws a normal 404 error. This is more of a personal opinion than a bug.
Nevertheless, the decisive factor in my opinion would be the lack of mail support on your page. Any website irrespective of their size needs a contact page to be in touch with the users. But sadly with Site44, there’s not even a way to make a contact form on your site. I understand that as a static host, they don’t have a mail server setup, but it’d be great if they have tie-in with a third party API to incorporate this feature.
Site44 is really a great product. It does what it promises to do, out of the box, pretty neatly. It’s their pricing model that I don’t get. Sure it makes my life a lot simpler, but why pay $10 a month that too for a limited plan when many shared hosts offer unlimited hosting with far more features for $5 or less per month. Even if you sign up for EC2 or Heroku, you’ll get things done for far lesser price. However this is the first iteration and hopefully they’ll streamline things in near future.
It is a simple way to make a site and update it via Dropbox, and it does work good. That’s at least a great first step in the right direction.