OVH may not be as well-known as some of its more consumer-oriented competitors, but don't be fooled. It's one of the largest web hosting companies in the world, with more than a million customers and 20 data centres – this outfit even builds and maintains its own servers and network.
The company feels different from the moment you hit the website. What you see first isn't the latest low-cost deal, or a stock photo of a happy smiling customer – it's a picture of a Xeon E6 processor and a caption explaining how this Intel beast will speed up your server. There's so little marketing that it took us a moment to scan the site and find the hosting plans.
This quiet approach is surprising, because OVH has some real value to boast about. The bottom-of-the-range Personal plan is priced from £1.69 ($2.10) a month excluding VAT, and with no billing catches. You don't have to sign up for three years, and the price doesn't triple after that – it's just the standard cost of a one-year plan.
Unsurprisingly, the product has some limits. Notably, you get just one SQL database, with a 200MB size limit and a maximum of 30 simultaneous connections. Email is limited to 10 accounts. You ‘only’ get 100GB of disk space, and there's no comprehensive one-click installer. The best OVH can do is preinstall WordPress or Drupal for you.
Still, there's more than enough power here to run a simple personal site, and OVH doesn't cut corners in other areas. You still get a free domain name for your first year. Although you only have 10 email accounts, each one allows up to 5GB of storage (other hosts have limits as low as 200MB). There's shared SSL included and you can even host up to five websites from the same account – other hosts might charge in the order of five to 10 times more for this functionality
Moving up the OVH range relaxes some of these restrictions, though at a notably higher price. The Professional plan gives you 250GB disk space, 100 email accounts, 4 databases and 10 websites, for instance, but costs £4.69 ($5.85) a month. If you're not sure you need to host multiple sites, HostGator gives you unlimited disk space, email and databases, and a full-featured one-click installer for around the same price.
OVH doesn't just offer good value on its consumer packages. VPS plans start at £2.49 ($3.10) a month for 100Mbps bandwidth and unlimited traffic, while dedicated servers start at £59 ($74) a month for a guaranteed 250Mbps bandwidth, and are hugely customisable if you need more.
The OVH website has none of the hard-sell marketing overload you'll often see with other hosts. That seems great, but over time we realised the simple truth is that the company just isn't very good at presenting its products clearly, which is something of a problem when you're looking to buy.
The range of hosting plans isn't fully visible from the website's home page, for instance. The site menu doesn't clearly show you how many plans there are. The Hosting section lists three, but it takes a lot of clicks to view all the low-level details, and we couldn't find any comparison-style view which listed the features of all the plans side-by-side.
Once you finally figure out what you want to buy, the website prompts you for the domain you'd like to use with the hosting. You can register a free domain right away or use one you own already, either leaving it with the existing Registrar or transferring it to OVH.
The next step saw a ‘preview’ page display our order details. This could be described more clearly – for example, emails were listed as ‘included in the plan: 10 pops, x mailing lists’, our subscription was described as ‘Personal Hosting Offer 2014 – 12 months’, and bizarrely, after quoting the monthly price on the main page, the preview only lists the yearly total.
We accepted the price and created an account by entering our contact details: name, email, physical address and phone number. There's also a small plus in the form of an option to enter a second email address, just in case the first is inaccessible.
OVH went on to ask for contact emails for the site owner, administrator, along with technical or billing contacts, a neat way to assign tasks to different people in a business or group. All these are set to your main email by default, so if you'll be managing everything you can click on continue to ignore this step.
The Payment page gave us more options than we expected. Two are less than useful (cheque, postal order), but bank transfer might be handy, and there's also support for PayPal and credit cards.
We parted with our cash and OVH completed the process with a disappointing payment validated page and zero mention of what happens next. There was no login link to a control panel provided, no ‘your account will be activated in 5 minutes’ type of message, or a reassurance that a welcome email has been sent. All we were told was this: "After you have completed your order, the invoice will be sent to the billing contact for this service."
These aren't fatal issues and we weren't too concerned, but it doesn't give a good impression of the company. It feels like OVH has just thrown the pages together with no real thought to what real-world users might expect or need.
Creating a site
Logging on to the OVH control panel displayed a surprising alert, warning that we had no stored payment methods. We checked, and sure enough our PayPal account details hadn't been saved. That's very different to most hosts, but overall we approve: it means you can be sure OVH won't be able to renew the account without your approval, and it allows you to pay by one method but renew with another.
Finding your way around the rest of the panel could be a challenge, particularly if you're a hosting novice. There are no cPanel-like collections of friendly icons, no easy way to review all your options at a glance. The interface is clearly optimised for the experienced user, and it's going to be seriously intimidating for everyone else.
If you know what you're doing this could be an advantage. Selecting Domains > [Our_Domain.com] displayed and enabled editing all our DNS records, managed our redirections, plus it even had built-in DynHost support.
We headed off to the Emails section and found tools to create an email account, edit MX records, customise antispam, manage redirections, auto-responders and more. There's no attempt to simplify language or terms for beginners, but experts might appreciate having all this functionality available in one place.
OVH doesn't include any form of WYSIWYG drag-and-drop site builder. Normally we'd count that as a disadvantage, but as the service clearly isn't for hosting novices it's probably not important.
The closest you get to automation is a ‘1-click modules’ tool. This only supports WordPress, PrestaShop, Joomla and Drupal, considerably less than the 50 or more apps from the Softaculous-type installers you get elsewhere. And unlike those, which install in the background while you watch, the OVH version just tells you "an email will be sent to your after completion." This only took a few minutes for us, though, and correctly installed WordPress without any hassles.
A separate FTP-SSH module is on hand if you're aiming to upload your website manually. There's also a web-based FTP client (net2ftp) which acts as a basic file manager. It works, but it's not as comfortable to use as the cPanel equivalent or the managers you'll find elsewhere.
Based on the experts-only approach we'd seen so far, we guessed the OVH web support system would be poor. But we were surprised, because the reality was even worse.
We started with the search box top-left. If we typed a keyword there – perhaps WordPress or DNS – maybe it would find something on the topic, or tell us more? Nope, we didn't get it to do anything at all.
An Assistance menu contained a link to the OVH help site. This opened in French, forcing us to choose English again from the language box top-right. Then we realised the entire page was just a long list of other articles, mostly with unhelpful titles and descriptions, and no search box to find hits in this sprawl of content.
Perhaps the articles would be worth reading, we thought, optimistically. ‘Introduction to web hosting services’ sounded like it might be a beginner's guide to everything OVH had to offer, until we opened it and found a document which tells you what the seb is, and how to choose a web host.
Maybe that was a bad choice? No, not really. We tried a few others and found some extremely basic tutorials, several of which only appeared to be available in French.
This isn't quite the full picture. If you ignore the guides offered from the OVH help site and head off to the main site instead, you will find a more helpful Hosting FAQ. It's not searchable, doesn't have many articles and is hopelessly disorganised, but there's a faint chance you might find some of it useful.
There's another set of web hosting guides in a different area of the site. Here we found the statement that ‘OVH support is not authorised to respond to any question concerning WordPress configuration’, potentially a big issue for beginners. It's unfair to expect a web host to spend ages trying to fix a problem in a product which is nothing to do with them, but we've never seen a hosting company say they won't even try, and many offer detailed WordPress and other web tutorials to cover basic issues.
If you've given up on the web you can try creating a support ticket, although this isn't made easier by some of the interface being in French. Email is another option.
There is phone support, too. Our UK number was only available from 9:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday, but it's charged at local rates, our calls were answered within four rings, and the agent handled our simple questions without difficulty.
We completed our checks by running the usual Bitcatcha and other server performance tests. Speeds were a little below average, although as our allocated server was in Western Europe we still saw reasonable response times from London and US connections, and overall performance wasn't a significant issue.
OVH offers exceptionally good value for experts who know what they're doing and can diagnose any problem, but if you've the faintest interest in ease of use or support you'll be better off somewhere else.