Why I'll Never Trust a Human With My Data Again (Updated)

On Valentine's Day, I may have an unexpected present: My websites might all go dark, and a decade's worth of data may vanish. My host's domain registration is set to expire tomorrow, and the man behind it has disappeared. (Update: He's back! See below.)

Like a lot of other people, I came across Cornerhost when it was an early advertiser on Metafilter, a decade or so ago, when sites like MeFi and Google were pioneering the text ads that are now a de-facto standard. It courted bloggers and small businesses with reasonably priced plans that supported scripting and great tech support, from a real live human being.

Cornerhost bills itself as web hosting with a human touch, and that's just what it has been. In all that time, if I've ever had a problem, I've emailed the company's owner, founder, chief technician and self-proclaimed janitor. These are, of course, all the same guy. And that's the problem.

Because today the site's founder has, basically, vanished. At least from electronic communications. His voicemail box is full. He isn't answering emails. He hasn't updated his Twitter or Facebook pages since November. His blogs are dormant. He is gone. Or sick. Or dead.

Meanwhile, the domain registration for his servers is set to expire tomorrow. If that happens, none of his customers will be able to log in via FTP or SSH to get their data. Some, on certain servers of his, already cannot. An expired security certificate is another problem, thwarting some people from a control panel.

There is no way for his users to simply renew his domain registration for him. And there's a very real chance that his customers' data could vanish into a black hole. There's a wiki that some customers have set up to help people recover data, but that only helps those who are aware there's a problem.

My guess is that very many—perhaps even most—of his customers are unaware that this is coming. I only discovered it yesterday, quite randomly, on Twitter. Some of his other customers have made a valiant effort to reach out to people who will be affected, but certainly everybody doesn't know about it. (Like my friend and colleague Roberto Baldwin, who is also a Cornerhost customer, and had no idea this was coming until we spoke today.) Many customers are just going to lose data. In some cases, years and years worth of data. Blog posts. Photos. Documents. Emails will bounce. Things will fall apart. Given that there are a few small businesses hosted there, some people are even going to be put out of business, at least temporarily.

All of this isn't to go after Cornerhost. I cannot imagine what kind of problems led up to this, but whether the owner has had a major health problem, or was simply overwhelmed by the day-to-day fatigue of running a small business, it illustrates a major problem: If you trust an individual or small company with your important data, your data is only as secure as that person.

Look, I love small businesses. And I prefer to do business with them. But the sad fact is that when it comes to data, your information is likely more secure in the hands of a giant MegaCorp than with an individual. Because, after all, what happens if that individual goes away? Who will protect your data?

The internet is simply a way to connect people. But what happens when a person, who forms a vital link in that chain, disconnects? I'm about to find out.

I'm hoping my host will pop back up. That he's simply going to pay to renew his registration, and that all of this will go away. But in the meantime, I'm backing up all my data and shopping for a new host.

One with a staff. And robots. Lots of robots. Because human beings tend to fail.

Update: Just a point to clarify. In the comments, some people have pointed out that the Cornerhost domain registration isn't set to expire tomorrow. However, the Cornerhost servers, which live at Sabren.com, are. Cornerhost is the front end, Sabren.com servers store all the data. It's the same company, however, run by the same individual.

Update 2: The host just said he's "not going anywhere." Apparently my data is safe. No word on why he hasn't been replying to emails, tweets, and Facebook wall posts, but at least this is good to know.

A user here has been tracking down and emailing other cornerhost customers, warning them about the expiring dns records for sabren.com.

There is no reason to panic. The DNS records renew automatically every year, and this would have happened at midnight tonight, but I went ahead and renewed manually just now.

Cornerhost isn't going anywhere, and neither am I. Things have been pretty bad for me personally, but they're starting to turn around.

It's true that the control panel seems to be down. I am investigating and should have that fixed today.

It is also true that I've been doing a really poor job of replying to emails lately. For that, I apologize. I feel terrible about it, and it is going to change. In fact, I expect to come out of this with a much stronger, effective, and reliable business system that isn't dependent on just me holding everything together.

I will write more soon, but I wanted to at least get this post out the door.

Original Image: Ulza/Shutterstock