The Mysteries of Web Hosting – Part 1

In this article, I have decided to touch on a subject that may be confusing for many non-Web professionals: Web Hosting. While it is easy to understand what a Web Host does on a basic level, it can be much harder to sift through all the different options and decide which hosting service provider is right for your needs.

In this first part, I will start by giving a quick explanation of the main services that Web Hosts offer as well as the two main types of Web hosting packages you can choose. That will give you a clear idea of the concepts I will talk about in part 2 and what features you should be comparing when choosing a Web host.

What is Web Hosting

At the most basic level, a Web Host is a company that manages the server(s) where your Web sites files reside so that they can be available to visitors every time their browser requests a page on your site. If you are using email addresses based on your site’s domain name (info@yoursitename.com for example), the email servers that handle your email also reside at your Web hosting provider. Finally, if your site’s content or any data your site relies upon resides in a database, your hosting provider also hosts the database server and may be responsible for doing daily backups of your site and/or customer data.

Web Hosting is a very competitive market these days and, as with most things in life, you often get what you pay for. Comparing Web Hosts on price alone will not be advantageous to you or your business. Many variables affect the quality of a provider’s services. This will in turn affect your site’s performance and ultimately, how your site’s audience perceives your organization.

If your site is slow or is down often, visitors will notice, complain or just go elsewhere. Things like a slow database server can degrade your site’s performance significantly and worse, it can cause unsightly error messages and user-supplied data may be corrupted or lost as a result. Finally, if the host’s email server is slow or unreliable, it can compromise one of the primary ways organizations use to communicate with customers or suppliers.

Beyond any technological considerations, the main differentiator between a good and a bad host is the quality of their technical support. Is phone support available 24 hours a day so you can get answers to your questions or get someone to intervene quickly in case of technical difficulties? If not, can you get answers quickly through email when you need to contact them outside the times when phone support is available? Are their support technicians competent and capable of speaking to you in a language you can understand? Can they take responsibility for their own mistakes when they make them?

All these considerations are key when you choose to entrust your Web site to a hosting provider because your online presence is a very important part of your brand image and the quality of their services can have a huge impact on your online brand perception.

The Two Main Types of Web Hosting

Before we start looking at the different features that comprise a hosting package in part 2 of this article, I have to make the distinction between the two main types of Web hosting packages you can sign up for: shared hosting and dedicated hosting.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting is the most common hosting type that people use. It is a lot less costly than dedicated hosting and it is much easier to switch host if your current provider’s level of services degrades for any reason. Believe me, the level of service and support from a hosting provider can turn for the worse over time and force you to look elsewhere.

The main drawback of shared hosting is that, as the name implies, your site shares the resources of the server machine it is on with a varying number of other sites. Hosting providers need to balance the number of customer sites they put on each server computer and the fees they charge for each account against their hard costs to make a profit. You can then easily understand that, with hosts that charge very little, your site will share a finite amount of hardware resources with a much larger number of other sites, which may and probably will affect its performance for your visitors.

If your Web site is a very simple one with no server-side scripting or programming and no database driven content then the above may not be as important. But if your site is more complex and relies on a database, has a lot of traffic or you need to have a lot of separate email addresses, then you should avoid the cheapest options for the above reasons (and others).

The other possible drawback you may need to consider is the restrictions some hosts put on the advanced features of server middleware software like ColdFusion, PHP, ASP and others, which modern dynamic Web sites heavily rely upon. These restrictions can vary greatly between hosts and are not as common as they used to be. Most good hosts place few restrictions on how you or your site developer uses theses technologies as they now have means to control the behaviour of each site so it does not affect others on the same machine.

Dedicated Hosting

Dedicated hosting on the other hand is comparable to having your own home. It is a lot more costly than shared hosting but the main benefit is that you “own” a dedicated server machine and do not share resources on it with other clients of your hosting provider. This means that email will probably work faster and your site will not go down if another client site misbehaves and crashes the server software.

On the other hand, you may be responsible for purchasing licences for any special software that might be used on your dedicated machine such as database management systems (DBMS) like Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle or Web server middleware like ColdFusion, JSP or others. These purchases can be costly so you have to consider your real needs carefully.

Finally, the level of maintenance that your host will do on a dedicated machine varies greatly between providers and these services will affect cost. Some will even put the entire responsibility of backing up your site files or databases (which should be done daily) entirely on their clients’ shoulders. Many will also charge hefty hourly fees to install or update software for you, as you won’t have access to the actual physical computer yourself and will rely on them to do so.

Unless you have a heavily trafficked site or very specific technological needs that are hard to meet in a shared hosting environment, you should probably choose a shared option. If you do choose dedicated hosting, carefully shop around as prices vary greatly along with the level of service and features you get.

Next in Part 2: Comparing Plans

In the second part of this article, I will give you an understanding of the specific features that should be part of a typical hosting plan. With this knowledge you will be able to adequately compare hosting plans and pick the one that is best suited to your needs and budget. See you next time and thanks for reading!

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