TL; DR: HelioHost stands out in a sea of hosting providers for its commitment to providing free services to users for more than a decade. The nonprofit, which operates out of a datacenter in Silicon Valley, is supported by an active community of volunteers looking to make a difference. Users should keep an eye out for HelioHost’s newest donation-based server, which will help accommodate an ever-growing user base.
The prefix helio- comes from the Greek word hḗlios, which roughly translates to light, sunlight, or sun. Recently, as COVID-19 cast a financial shadow over small businesses worldwide, the nonprofit HelioHost proved to be aptly named.
The vibrant community of volunteers that powers the organization has provided free high-performance hosting to cash-strapped website owners (including a hefty student population) for more than a decade. During the pandemic, the community stepped up to provide those services to a growing number of small businesses desperate to have their voices heard online.
“Our mission is to provide free hosting for people who can’t afford it,” said Ben Frede, CEO at HelioHost. “It was really nice to see our community grow and make the world a better place in a small way.”
But free does not mean bare bones at HelioHost. The nonprofit, which operates out of an enterprise-grade datacenter located in Silicon Valley, owns its own high-performance hardware and offers perks like unlimited bandwidth and email accounts, among many others. And HelioHost accounts are compatible with several scripting languages, including ASP.NET, Java, Node.js, PHP, Python, and Ruby on Rails.
HelioHost pays for these resources through donations, which can be made via PayPal or Skrill or sent directly to cryptocurrency wallets. The nonprofit stands out from other free hosts by avoiding advertising campaigns and sales gimmicks. HelioHost instead achieves growth through its transparent approach to donations and word-of-mouth marketing.
“Not everyone can donate, and that’s OK,” Ben told us. “The people who do make it work for everybody else who aren’t able to right now.”
Nimble Adaptation to Industry Change
When we last caught up with HelioHost in 2018, Ben told us that most of the nonprofit’s 100,000 users were students looking to polish up on HTML or PHP skills. However, with the recent influx of small business customers, the audience demographic has expanded and evolved.
“When COVID came along, in-person sales dropped, so a lot of these businesses had to shift and find a way to reach customers online,” he said. “It’s pretty cool that we’re able to help them out.”
At the same time, HelioHost received a significant boost in donations — the highest numbers seen since 2013. These funds made it possible to support the growing community.
HelioHost is also successfully navigating industry pricing changes. The nonprofit previously offered free access to cPanel with all hosting packages. But cPanel recently announced that the company is switching from a server-based pricing model to an account-based one, hiking up pricing. With cPanel unilaterally revoking licenses, HelioHost quickly pivoted, negotiating a deal with Plesk.
“It’s going to be a lot of work to rebuild everything with Plesk, but in the long run, it will be a good thing to get rid of cPanel,” in a July 15, 2021, Facebook post. “Plesk is excited to be given the opportunity to supply the control panel that we use to provide much-needed assistance to thousands of students, the underprivileged, and small businesses around the world that cannot afford to pay for hosting.”
Customers who wish to upgrade to paid hosting during this transition have the option to check out HelioHost’s affordable VPS options, which start at just $4 a month.
Meet Morty — HelioHost’s New Donation-Based Scaling Server
HelioHost has affectionately named its servers Johnny, Ricky, and Tommy. As with humans, each individual has its unique pros and cons.
“There are so many people looking for free hosting that we have to limit the number of people that can sign up each day to keep our servers online,” Ben said. “We try to get as many people as possible started with Johnny, and if they decide they like what they’re doing or experiment for a while, then they can switch to a better server with better uptime and faster speeds.”
Enter Ricky, HelioHost’s stripped-down production server.
“It’s fast and has good uptime, but it doesn’t have a lot of services, like Java and ASP.NET,” Ben told us. “Tommy is the fastest and offers the most services; it’s where most people end up moving to if they stay with us for a few years. The problem that we’re having at this point, though, is that Tommy has existed since 2016. And since it’s always been our best server, people create accounts, and then they never leave.”
With Tommy starting to get crowded, HelioHost set up a September 2020 fundraiser on GoFundMe Charity. Through the event, the nonprofit raised the money to set up a new server named Morty — a nod to the popular animated science fiction sitcom “Rick and Morty.”
Users who need free accounts can still access Johnny, Ricky, and Tommy. But HelioHost will charge users at least $1 per month to cover Morty’s scaling capabilities.
“The way our existing servers work is, if you cause too much load and you’re basically causing the server to have downtime, we just suspend the account that’s causing the most problems to get everything back online,” Ben said. “And with Morty, our hope is to never suspend a single person for high load.”
Users who consume significant memory and CPU will go from paying about three cents a day to 62 cents a day at the VPS level. “People who choose this option will have confidence that their website is going to be online at the best of our abilities,” Ben said.
A Nonprofit Supported Entirely by Volunteers and Donations
HelioHost has kept in close communication with its user community over the years. For example, the nonprofit recently polled users to gauge interest in Morty.
“I emailed a survey explaining how it’s going to work and asked whether respondents would be interested in paying $1 a month,” Ben said. “We needed 100 people interested to make it work financially. But we got 2,000 people.”
HelioHost maintains a strong relationship with users, who, based on forum interactions and testimonials, seem quite supportive of the nonprofit.
“This site is really great,” said one anonymous reviewer. “It supplies more than enough bandwidth for any needs, and more than enough space for forums, blogs, and the like. The server is really fast (except when someone abuses the service) and is reliable. While no host is 100% reliable, HelioHost really comes through, and all for free! I highly recommend giving HelioHost a try!”
Many users are so impressed with HelioHost that they become inspired to help out as volunteers. That’s what happened with Ben himself, who rose through the ranks after giving back. Now, with Morty, everyday users will have another opportunity to help fund this worthy project.