Free image hosting: lessons learned (Part 1)

This is probably going to be a series of posts, hence the “Part 1” in the title. I have now ran the same free image hosting site ( twice: the first time was in the fall/winter of 2004 (only a few months indeed) and the second time was while a lot longer: from fall 2007 to early 2011. During those times I have encountered numerous problems, which I’d like to share.

First like any venture, think before you begin. Do at least some planning ahead about what level of service you want to provide and how you might go about solving certain problems. For example while there are undoubtedly some standard scripts you could use, you probably want to be able to write your own scripts in order to create a unique experience and also to be able to fix problems as they arise, rather than having to ask/pay someone else to fix them for you.

One such technical problem is scaling. While you can probably start with your image hosting service on a VPS or entry-level server with limited resources, eventually you will reach a point when the daily amount of new uploads and image requests may be to much for a single server to handle. So plan how you are going to scale beyond a single server from the start.

Also think about how you are going to pay for hosting. Free image image hosts consume a lot of resources: both in terms of hard drive space and bandwidth. In order to prevent your server’s HDDs from melting you might also want to invest in loads of RAM (for file caching) as well. Those kind of servers don’t come to cheaply. I can’t say I’m an expert in this area as lack of profitability was one of the reasons I closed the site earlier this year.

But I can give some advice: try to find some way to discourage hotlinking to images (rather than viewing the images on your site where they’ll be accompanied by ads) and if necessary don’t hesitate to ban users or (referring) sites that do excessive hotlinking if they don’t otherwise contribute to your service in other ways.  While hotlinking is a key feature of a free image host it is also something that is only a money drain as no ads are displayed when an user hotlinks to an image. The square box type ads work best by the way, so find a way to put them beside an image (as above or below they’ll probably won’t get noticed).

Also expect your service to be abused. Not always on a daily basis, but some abuse can be severe. For example, what if a spammer uses an automated script to uploads thousands of images and uses it in an spam campaign? Expect to receive some nasty e-mails, and if you don’t respond soon enough your servers might even be turned off (even if they were not the source of the actual spam e-mails). Furthermore no matter how well you try to educate users about your service’s rules, expect there to be always those that upload adult content (including the disturbing/illegal kind), gore/extreme content or copyrighted material. If you never want to be exposed to images like that, you’d better quit.

This is it for this edition; expect future posts to go a bit more in dept regarding certain (technical) issues.